Muslim countries cited on religious freedom

January 19, 2011

WASHINGTON (RNS) The New Year's Day massacre at a Coptic church in
Egypt. Christian converts facing the death penalty in Afghanistan.
Swastikas painted on a Jewish synagogue in Venezuela.


As the headlines deliver fresh stories of the persecution of the
faithful, two recent reports by watchdog groups and a new book take a
fresh look at the persistence of religious intolerance worldwide, with
Muslim-majority nations facing particular criticism.


"Religious persecution is not only more prevalent among
Muslim-majority countries, but it also generally occurs at more severe
levels," Roger Finke and Brian J. Grim write in their new book "The
Price of Freedom Denied," published by Cambridge University Press.


Finke and Grim drew on annual reports by the U.S. State Department
to conclude that religious persecution plagues all regions of the globe.
Studying 143 countries, they found that:


-- 86 percent of countries in recent years had cases of people
physically abused or removed from their homes based on their religion


-- High levels of government restrictions on religion were found in
78 percent of Muslim-majority nations, as opposed to 10 percent of
Christian-majority nations and 43 percent of other nations.


But there is nothing inherent in Islam that makes Muslim-majority
countries poor guardians of religious freedom, Finke said, and Muslims
themselves are also often the victims of religious intolerance.


"As Westerners, we view Muslims as targeting us or other Christians.
But when you look within these countries, much of the persecution is
Muslim on Muslim," said Finke, a sociologist of religion at Penn State.
"It's a battle over what type of Shariah law should be enacted, or who
holds the reigns of power in government."


Open Doors, a California-based evangelical group that defends
Christian rights globally, also finds Muslim-majority nations
particularly hostile in its recently list of the most dangerous
countries in which to practice Christianity.


While North Korea tops the list for the ninth consecutive year in
the Open Doors report, eight of the top 10 offenders are Muslim-majority
nations. North Korea is followed by Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia,
Somalia, Maldives, Yemen, Iraq, Uzbekistan and Laos.


Open Doors President Carl Moeller said he is particularly concerned
about increasing violence against Christians in Iraq and Afghanistan;
Iraq broke into the top 10 for the first time, up from No. 17, and
showed the most dramatic deterioration for Christians.


"These are countries we sought to bring freedom to, and they don't
enjoy the most basic freedom we have in our country -- religious
freedom," said Moeller, whose group devised a 50-question survey to rank
countries.


A new report focusing on the most vulnerable religious communities
in the world was released by the non-denominational First Freedom
Center. In "Minority Religious Communities At Risk," the Richmond,
Va.-based group identifies groups threatened with extinction within a
decade.


They are, according to First Freedom: Orthodox Christians in Turkey,
Jehovah's Witnesses in Eritrea, Jews in Arab lands, Jews in Venezuela,
Nazarene Christians in Somalia, Masalit Muslims in Sudan, and Sabian
Mandeans (a Christian sect) in Iraq.


Relying on the State Department's religious freedom reports and
other sources, First Freedom, like Open Doors, calls attention to the
growing violence against religious minorities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The group's president, former Ambassador Randolph Bell, said the report
bolsters his view that protecting religious freedom must be integral to
U.S. peacekeeping operations.


"Whenever we try to stabilize situations in countries like
Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Nigeria, if we do not take into account
the rights of religious minorities, peace will not last," said Bell.