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Opinion Why Religious Freedom Matters?

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Why religious freedom matters

The Star, Toronto ( Ontario )- February 23, 2012

Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn and Aaron Myers

Earlier this year in Indonesia, a civil servant was attacked by a mob at his government office then handed over to the police after posting “God doesn’t exist” to Facebook. He is currently facing a five-year jail term for blasphemy. While the country accords constitutional recognition to six official religions, atheism remains effectively illegal.

Meanwhile in Iran, six Baha’i educators serving four- to five-year prison terms recently lost their appeal. They were convicted for providing higher education to Baha’i youth, a right denied by the state on the basis of their religious belief. Two other educators at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education were charged with promoting prostitution and teaching with illegal credentials despite holding graduate degrees from the University of Ottawa.

These episodes show how religion has resurged in political influence across the globe, in many instances buttressed by the very forces — globalization, democracy and technology — that were supposed to weaken its grip. The democratic transitions that accompanied the Arab Spring saw Islamist parties win significant margins in both Egypt and Tunisia. The advent of social media technologies such as Twitter and Facebook have meant that mullahs, monks and priests now have a global pulpit from which to broadcast and disseminate their message, whether it be of hatred or harmony. The Canadian government’s plan to create a new Office of Religious Freedom could not be timelier.

Canadians enjoy one of the world’s freest societies with a robust tradition of religious freedom and strong protections for ethnic and religious minorities. If done right, this new initiative could also enable Canada to showcase its own model of pluralism and tolerance to a world audience.

Much of the rest of the world, however, does not share Canada’s commitment to religious freedom, and the global trend is disheartening. In 2010, Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs Shabaz Bhatti and Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer were murdered because they dared to speak out against Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law, which makes “insulting” religion punishable by death.

In many countries, people of faith and people who proclaim no faith encounter serious obstacles to the full enjoyment of their fundamental rights. China has ratcheted up its persecution of religious minorities including the Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong and Christian groups that don’t subscribe to the state-sanctioned church. Vietnam continues to harass its minority faith communities. In Nigeria, the pseudo-Islamic militant group Boko Haram, a self-proclaimed “Salafist jihadist” sect, seeks to abolish the secular system of government and establish a theocratic state. It is believed to be behind a spate of sectarian violence in the country.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, roughly 70 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where there are significant restrictions on religion or intense religious hostilities in society. Eruptions of sectarian violence in Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan are now routine and even countries with historically strong traditions of respect for civil liberties such as France and Switzerland have imposed severe restrictions on their religious minorities.

Canada’s promotion of human rights can be strengthened with an Office of Religious Freedom that could better inform and advise policy-makers on these highly sensitive and nuanced issues. For this office to be effective, however, it would need to garner support from across a broad religious and political spectrum and champion the religious liberty of all, not just a chosen few.

The U.S. experience indicates that “mainstream” human rights organizations tend to shy away from religious liberty issues, which have largely been relegated to faith-based groups. As a result, religious freedom advocacy often focuses on protecting adherents of particular faiths, such as minority Christian faith communities. This advocacy can be bolstered by bringing diverse groups together to defend the rights of individuals to practise their religion and follow their conscience unimpeded.

Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights upholds “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This is a basic right that goes along with other fundamental freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly. By promoting religious freedom, Canada has an important contribution to make in protecting the persecuted around the world and promoting fundamental rights.

Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn and Aaron Myers are Director and Program Officer, respectively, for International Religious Freedom at Freedom House.

source: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1136027--why-religious-freedom-matters



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