Report reveals the importance, rarity of religious freedom

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Despite the frequently peddled proposition that America is a “Christian nation” it is, in fact, a country where no one religion is officially sanctioned or approved. People are allowed to believe what they want or believe nothing at all.


Adopting this principle was a demonstration of wisdom on the part of the Founding Fathers, who were mindful of the religious wars that had torn Europe apart in the centuries before our republic was born.


Some observers have postulated that this actually helps explain why the United States has such a varied and vigorous religious life. If you want to be a Scientologist, a Wiccan, a Presbyterian, a Unitarian, a Zoroastrian or a Rastafarian, the choice is yours. Go for it.


Our religious freedom is something many in the world understandably envy.


A report released last week by the U.S. State Department underscores just how precious the right to follow the dictates of one’s conscience is, and how rare it is in many other parts of the globe.


The International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 finds that intolerance for the religious beliefs of other individuals and communities remains the foundation for an infinite variety of inhumanity. The report opens with the following dispiriting summation: “In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory ... millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents.”


In areas torn apart by war, this has become what the report characterized as “a pernicious norm.” Some of the most high-profile examples are in Nigeria, where the Boko Haram cadre has been targeting Christians and Muslims who don’t cotton to their brand of militant Islam, killing more than 1,000 of them. In the nearby Central African Republic, Christians and Muslims have been destroying villages and engaging in torture in ceaseless rounds of sectarian violence. Due to anti-Muslim animus in Burma, thousands have been expelled from their homes and at least 100 people were killed last year. The report states that some of the country’s leaders have been pitting Buddhists and Muslims against one another for their own gain.


Then there are countries where religious discrimination has been a constant in everyday life. North Korea forbids any kind of religious expression, and states like Cuba, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan allow it only after official permission is granted. On the other hand, religious belief is allowed in places like Saudi Arabia and Sudan, but only if it is the religion that has the state’s stamp of approval.


Vladimir Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, has been a little more wily, giving a pass to the Russian Orthodox Church and sects rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but going after smaller faiths like the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the name of combating “extremism.”


Though the West has generally become more secular and laissez-faire when it comes to religious faith, with many turning away from organized religion and embracing a more vaguely defined spiritualism, it hardly gets off the hook in the State Department report.


Muslims have been the objects of harassment in some parts of Britain and, in an example of interfaith unity, some Jewish neighborhood watch teams there have assisted in protecting mosques. And here in the United States, Muslims are frequently on the receiving end of bigotry, particularly by those attempting to sell distorted ideas about Islam and its tenets.


Just last week, the treasurer of Virginia’s Republican Party generated headlines when he posted an online rant wondering “Exactly what part of our nation’s fabric was woven by Muslims? What about Sikhs, Animists and Jainists? Should we be thanking them too?”


Outbursts like these demonstrate the need for constant vigilance so the religious freedom we cherish here in this country doesn’t become as endangered as it is elsewhere.


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