Freedom to worship freely is something Americans take for granted. But scores of nations persecute religious minorities. Some penalize most every faith, while others promote the dominant or establishment religions. A few aid favored groups while leaving people largely free to practice their own.
In its latest annual report on religious liberty, the State Department highlights 30 nations as particularly egregious offenders. There are a number of reasons countries persecute. But most nations fall into two categories.
The first are Muslim nations that seek to reinforce the Muslim faith -- often the particular branch, Shia or Sunni, that controls the state. The second are authoritarian states that either are still communist or have only recently escaped communism. Their authoritarian impulses typically cover civil and political liberties as well as religious freedom.
Then there are the handful of miscellaneous others. Just five of the 30 fall outside the two main categories. But they remain important nonetheless, including the world's second most populous nation as well as a couple of the most repressive states.
The brutal military junta ruling this nation is one of the leading contenders for "worst regime on earth." The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom notes that the regime "has one of the world's worst human rights records." In general, the generals do not interfere with religious worship per se, but they do promote Theravada Buddhism, making adherence a prerequisite for serious career advancement.
Moreover, the junta's fear of opposition leads to harsh restrictions on most people of faith. USCIRF notes that "In the past year, religious freedom conditions deteriorated, particularly following the violent suppression of peacefully demonstrating Buddhist monks in September 2007."
State reports the same vicious abuses: "Religious activities and organizations were subject to restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The government continued to monitor meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious organizations. The government continued to systematically restrict efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom."
The lengthy and brutal war against groups seeking self-determination has fallen particularly heavily on the largely Christian Karen and Karenni. Tens of thousands of refugees have been forced over the border into neighboring countries, including Thailand and China, and millions of Burmese have been displaced within their own country. State calls Burma a Country of Particular Concern, a designation backed by the USCIRF.
This small nation recently won its independence from Ethiopia after a lengthy struggle. Divided roughly equally between Muslim and Christian, Ethiopia hosts a repressive government whose "record on religious freedom remained poor," explains State. The State Department designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern for its flagrant violations; the USCIRF agreed. Similarly, International Christian Concern (ICC) rates Eritrea as a member of its Hall of Shame.
The Commission reports: "The government of Eritrea continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom." ICC figures that "Currently over 2,000 Christians are imprisoned in metal shipping containers, military barracks and prison cells." Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals suffer the most, but persecution is more widespread.
Notes the State Department: "The government continued to harass and detain thousands of members of unapproved religious groups and retained substantial control over the four approved religious groups. The government failed to approve religious groups that fulfilled the registration requirements and arrested persons during religious gatherings. The government held religious prisoners in harsh conditions for long periods and without due process. There continued to be reports of forced recantations of faith and torture of religious detainees." The USCIRF even warns of "the deaths of certain religious prisoners due to ill treatment, denial of medical care, or torture."
The world's second most populous nation contains a mix of religious faiths, though with a large Hindu majority. Although the national government generally respects religious freedom, "some state and local governments imposed limits on this freedom," says State. In particular, "Some state governments enacted and amended 'anticonversion' laws, and police and enforcement agencies often did not act swiftly to counter communal attacks effectively, including attacks against religious minorities."
ICC also made India a member of its annual Hall of Shame, reporting that "A growing Hindu nationalist movement…is threatening this nation-wide policy of tolerance and making deep inroads in several state governments." Last year was particularly bad, notes ICC, with "wave after wave of highly coordinated Hindu raids" that resulted in "the worst outbreak of anti-Christian violence in its recent history." Adds ICC: "In all, more than 100 Christians are confirmed dead, 4,000 homes have burned down, and over 50,000 Christians have fled their homes."
The government's response at all levels was inadequate, which encouraged further assaults. Explains State, "Some extremists continued to view ineffective investigation and prosecution of attacks as a signal that they could commit such violence with impunity." Still, the democratic and open nature of Indian society generates pressure for more effective public action. And the new national government gives some reason for hope. Notes ICC: "With a Hindu president, a Muslim vice president, a Sikh prime minister, and a Christian heading the most powerful political party, the Indian government is committed to a policy of tolerance and diversity on a national level."
In a very different category but still of concern to the State Department is this small South Pacific island. The majority Christian nation has lost its freedom to a coup, under which the constitution has been abrogated. Religious liberty continues to be generally respected, but State points to "a decline in the status of respect for religious freedom by the government," which mandated that all police officers, even Hindus and Muslims, attend rallies organized by a Methodist organization. The Police Commissioner rejected criticism of this practice and said that the policy would continue.
The Jewish state suffers from the virulent hatred of many Muslims, but itself is less than welcoming to minority faiths, in part due to the outsize political influence of Orthodox parties in government. Like Fiji, Israel avoids the virulent oppression characteristic of Burma, Eritrea, and India, but does not live up to its potential for protecting full religious liberty.
State points to "governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism." Moreover, "Some individuals and groups committed abusive and discriminatory practices against Israel-Arab Muslims, evangelical Christians, and Messianic Jews." Israeli occupation policies also "had the effect of severely restricting the ability of Palestinian Muslims and Christians to reach places of worship and to practice their religious rites." Although Christians suffered some discrimination and harassment in the occupied territories, the Palestinian Authority, in contrast to so many other Muslim entities, generally respected religious freedom. (There have been occasional unofficial abuses, such as the destruction of several churches in 2006 after Pope Benedict's remarks on Islam, and the Authority has been unable or unwilling to respond effectively.) The relative official tolerance makes Israel's practices appear even more unnatural.
The U.S. government's chief responsibility is protecting the liberty of Americans, not of peoples in other lands. Nevertheless, the president does enjoy the world's biggest bully pulpit, which he should put to use promoting individual liberty, including the right to worship God freely. And that means engaging governments which fail to fully fulfill their responsibility to respect the most basic freedom of conscience of their peoples.