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Religious Freedom Faces 'Serious And Sustained Assault' Around The World


When we hear about religious freedom in the U.S. today, we may think about a baker who doesn't want to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. But in other countries, religious freedom can be a matter of life or death. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom underscored that today.

It highlighted what it called a serious and sustained assault on religious people across the globe from attacks on Muslims in Myanmar, also known as Burma, to the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Religious intolerance and violent conflict over religious differences are age-old phenomena, but the commission says the global situation deteriorated in 2015. Professor Robert George of Princeton is the commission chairman.

ROBERT GEORGE: At best, in most of the countries we cover, religious freedom conditions have failed to improve. At worst, they've spiraled downward.

GJELTEN: The examples are sadly abundant - not only Boko Haram and ISIS attacking all groups that don't buy their extreme version of Islam. Tajikistan is suppressing all religious activity not under the government's direct control. In Burma, George says non-Buddhist groups, particularly the Rohingya Muslims, face brutal discrimination - likewise, Christians in Saudi Arabia.

GEORGE: Pilipino guest workers, for example, many of whom are Catholic - they would like to have churches to worship in. And yet the Saudi regime doesn't permit the building of churches. It won't even permit the public presence of Bibles.

GJELTEN: Saudi society for decades has been intolerant of non-Muslims. In some countries, governments have been too weak or cowardly to enforce their own laws against religious persecution. In those cases, it's less a problem of deep religious differences than of weak institutions. In some countries, religious freedom may depend on which party is in power. The Commission's very hard on India, now governed by Hindu nationalists known as the BJP. George says the Indian government has failed to protect Muslims and Christian minorities.

GEORGE: Christians of various traditions within Christianity have reported numerous increased incidents of harassment and attack in the last year. And they, too, attribute these to Hindu nationalist groups sometimes with the BJP's tacit support.

GJELTEN: Religious persecution is primarily a human rights issue, but Secretary of State John Kerry speaking last week in Texas also made the point that it may lead the terrorist violence.


JOHN KERRY: It tends to force legitimate religious and political activities underground, and it fills many within an anger that makes them far more susceptible to terrorist recruiters.

GJELTEN: The Commission on International Religious Freedom is prohibited from commenting on the United States, but its report does have implications for American readers. The Commission makes clear it does not see Islam itself as a problem. That challenges some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has surfaced in the current political debate.

And the examples of brutal religious persecution in other countries put into perspective some of the religious liberty complaints in this country - for example, about the right to oppose same-sex marriages or, for that matter, in France, where they may center on what Muslims can wear. Again, Robert George...

GEORGE: We don't pretend that forbidding someone from wearing the religious headscarf in a public school is on a par with ISIL cutting off people's heads in Syria or Iraq (laughter) - of course not.

GJELTEN: And yet, he says, it is important to stand up for religious freedom wherever it is threatened. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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