Religious persecution – an equal opportunity endeavor


In some corners of the world, Christian persecution is apparently on the rise, fueled, as The Guardian recently put it, “by Islamic extremism and repressive governments,” notes Jonathan Fox, a Professor of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University, a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. The report (and others like it) notes that extremists persecute Christians and non-Christians alike, but it leaves the impression that this trend is recent and primarily concerns Christians living in the Muslim world, notes Fox, the author of The Unfree Exercise of Religion: A Worldwide Survey of Discrimination against Religious Minorities and Political Secularism, Religion, and the State: A Time Series Analysis of Worldwide Data.

That is incorrect: religious discrimination is an equal opportunity endeavor, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

There is little doubt that religious freedom is under serious threat in many Muslim-majority countries. Some of the world’s most repressed religious minorities include Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority; the Baha’i in Iran; the Ahmadis in Pakistan; and Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia. In these places, religious repression has been a ubiquitous fact of life for years, irrespective of a person’s creed. Yet religious repression is not limited to the autocratic Muslim-majority governments.

The Religion and State Project (which I head) tracks religious freedom across the globe and has established a number of clear patterns of pan-religious persecution dating as far back as 1990­—the year when the project began tracking religious freedom. Of the 30 specific types of limitations tracked by the Religion and State Project, 28 are now more common than in 1990. Proselytizing, for example, is now restricted by 99 countries around the world, compared with 79 in 1990.  Meanwhile, 82 countries, including Austria, Belarus, China, and Russia, require people from minority religions to register with the state, compared with 60 in 1990. Further, 73 countries limit places of worship from being erected, and 65 restrict public observance of religion. In 1990, those numbers were 53 and 36, respectively.

International Religious Freedom: An Embattled Right

Tuesday, September 15, 2015
12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Join Freedom House for a conversation about worsening global conditions for freedom of religion or belief with Dr. Robert George, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Freedom House President Mark P. Lagon will moderate this conversation.

Dr. Robert George currently serves as the Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent U.S. government advisory body that monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress. USCIRF’s 2015 Annual Report documented religious freedom violations in 33 countries and made country-specific recommendations for U.S. policy.

Chairman George will discuss how individuals in a number of countries suffer from government repression of their religious freedoms or are targeted by religious extremists with violence. Numerous states and non-state actors not only seek to deny people their freedoms of conscience and worship, but subject them to violent retribution for trying to exercise them. This situation speaks volumes about how religious freedom holds a central place among human rights, affecting the safety, security, and survival of the persecuted and vulnerable.

Lunch will be served at noon. The program will begin at 12:30 p.m.


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Ecuador’s authoritarian drift shakes civil society

ecuador mediaThe Correa government’s multipronged campaign against dissent has by no means put an end to public criticism of its environmental policies, either in the media or in the streets, notes Daniel Wilkinson, Managing Director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. But it has deeply shaken Ecuador’s civil society, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

Local activists, community leaders, and journalists find themselves constantly weighing the risk of retaliation by a government that has proven willing and able to punish them for expressing their views. During a broadcast on state television in December, for instance, Vice President Jorge Glas awarded a prominent environmental activist, Esperanza Martínez, a “prize” for spreading the “worst lie of the year.” Martínez had merely cited, during a televised interview, a piece of research by an Italian geographer who claimed that a road the government was building in Yasuní had a potentially negative environmental impact. In light of the new media law, Glas’ condemnation of Martínez most likely served as a warning to news outlets that they could face sanction if they reported information with which the government disagreed. Several members of civil society told Human Rights Watch, where I work, that they now avoid protests or tone down what they say about the president’s policies in public.


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Ukraine’s fatalistic predicament

ukraine euIf Ukraine is so important for the European Union, then why does the EU do so little to assist it? asks Jan Zielonka, Professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford and author of Is the EU Doomed? (Polity Press, 2014).

EU leaders seem not to believe that Ukraine can achieve what Poland has achieved over the past two decades. Why invest time, money and careers in a lost cause? This fatalistic thinking explains or even “justifies” the EU restraint to a large extent, he writes for Open Democracy:

  • The first type of fatalism regards geo-politics. At its centre are the imperial ambitions of Russia. Russia will never let Ukraine leave its sphere of influence, the argument goes. To start with, Russia is much weaker than the Soviet Union was, and the all-powerful soviet empire is now in tatters. Even if Russia has imperial ambitions, it is far from certain that she can realize them. There is little evidence suggesting that Putin believes that all of Ukraine can be pacified by his soldiers. …
  • Hardly anybody believes that Ukraine will manage to complete economic and democratic reforms while engaged in a hybrid war with Russia. However, cases such as Israel or Georgia question this kind of fatalism. Hardly anybody believes that democracy and a truly free market can be constructed in a poor and corrupted country such as Ukraine. However, cases such as India or Romania question this kind of fatalism. National conflict does not need to be an obstacle to democracy or a free market. How did Canada or Belgium become affluent and democratic? In other words, history knows many cases of successful transition to democracy and free market despite mounting economic, social or cultural problems.
  • This leads to the third type of fatalism: failure is Ukraine’s historical fate. Ukraine has not succeeded in becoming an independent, prosperous and democratic state in 1918, 1991 and 2004. What makes us think that this time will be different? This type of historical fatalism is also easy to question. Poland failed to enter the club of independent, prosperous and democratic states many times in its history and now it represents a model country within the entire EU. How many times has Germany found herself on a wrong historical path? Or think about Croatia, which only a few years ago was in the midst of a bloody conflict. Sometimes countries draw correct lessons from their historical failures. At other times they skilfully utilize geo-political or economic openings. In any case, it is not true that certain states or nations are condemned to war, poverty and tyranny.

That said, there is one type of fatalism that is hard to contest: Ukraine would not be able to resist Russia, construct democracy and develop a healthy market without external help, argues Zielonka, a member of the research council of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies:

The EU invested in small Greece ten times more than in huge Ukraine. The EU engaged an enormous crowd of bureaucrats to run Greece, while the EU “support group” for Ukraine has only thirty full time officials. The government in Kiev does not need lessons from Brussels on how to cope with Russia; in this area Ukrainians have more experience. But the government in Kiev needs meaningful help from Brussels to restructure its debts, to prevent oligarchs from washing money in Western banks, to protect poor citizens from the harsh implications of reforms, and to enhance the rule of law and institutions of civil society. A few legal advisers and Erasmus fellowships are not sufficient.


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Beijing’s revealing obsession: ‘peaceful evolution’ = ‘color revolution’

china hk march july 2014On December 15 2014, police cleared Occupy Hong Kong’s last remaining protest sites, putting an end to nearly three months of pro-democracy protests, notes John S. Van Oudenaren, a research assistant at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. One day later, Global Times, a popular Chinese newspaper known for its nationalist bent, ran an editorial titled “To guard against color revolution, first oppose peaceful evolution,” he writes for The Diplomat:

It warns that “Hong Kong’s chaos” (xiāng luàn) signals that the threat of Western-orchestrated “color revolutions” (yánsè gémìng) has now reached China. It cautions that China must never permit “Occupy Central” (“Zhàn zhōng”) to morph into “Occupy China” (Zhàn “zhōng”), a clever play on words as the characters for “central” and “China” are the same (– zhōng). The editorial blames the West, particularly the U.S., for stoking unrest in Hong Kong to further its own interests, and ensure obedience to a US-led cabal composed of “vassal regimes” (fùyōng xìng zhèngquán).

china hric_umbrellaAs Hong Kong protests raged in October 2014, state-run media alleged that a high level official at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) “had met key people from ‘Occupy Central,’ ” months before the Umbrella Revolution got underway. People’s Daily sums up China’s official attitude to the actives of NGOs such as NED, and US democracy and human rights promotion in general. It states that “the U.S. purports to be promoting the ‘universal values’ of ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights,’ but in reality the U.S. is simply defending its own strategic interests and undermining governments it considers to be ‘insubordinate.’ ”

china VOA_Yang_Jianli1The changed situation in Hong Kong now requires more creative, flexible, and deeper approaches, according to Alex Chow and Yang Jianli (left), a student leader of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, and president of Initiatives for China, respectively, who emphasize four important facts concerning the Umbrella Movement and its future:

  • First: The movement, although relatively youthful, is all inclusive, participated in by people from all ages and walks of life and not only students from local campuses. Thus it has great potential to expand. We need to make efforts to reach out to regional civil societies and bring people together by building a consensus, through a deep-rooted democracy movement,  about what is fundamentally needed to make Hong Kong a better city for its inhabitants regardless of social strata. A number of new civic and professional organizations have sprung up since the Umbrella Movement, focusing on civic education and community development. They even have the potential to get the established Hong Kong interests to realize that democratic reform is necessary and does not need to threaten their vital interests…
  • Second: Many observers of the Umbrella Movement have attributed the movement to widespread discontent among young people over a lack of upward mobility. What had gong wrong, they said, was not the political system, but the economy. They are wrong. Rising housing prices and a growing wealth gap have indeed exacerbated discontent among many Hong Kongers. But a survey conducted during the movement last October revealed that 96 % of respondents ranked fighting for “genuine universal suffrage” as their number one motivation.  In other words, the priority of the movement is for democracy. …
  • Third: china initiativesLike it or not, the democratization in Hong Kong and that in mainland China are mutually supportive. Despite Beijing’s desperate efforts to curtail it, the valiant pursuit of civil liberty and democratic values in Hong Kong is well known by Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, peaceful dissidents and human rights defenders in China, as well as in Taiwan and Macau. It encourages them and gives them hope. At the same time, Hong Kong draws inspiration from the courageous determination and resilience of their brothers and sisters on the mainland. …
  • Fourth: We note the role of the international community, especially the United States, Great Britain, and the U.N.  Great Britain turned the citizens of Hong Kong over to the “tender mercies” of the dictators in Beijing on the explicit conditions of the “One Country Two Systems” principles laid out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and the “Basic Law,” Hong Kong’s constitution. It’s silence now in the face of China’s reneging on those solemn commitments and guarantees of autonomy and justice dishonors the country that gave birth to the Common Law and the Magna Carta. Since China sits on the U.N. Human Rights Council, China’s repression of Hong Kong citizens, like its repression of mainland Chinese, is a gross embarrassment that U.N. leaders should publicly address. RTWT

“Beijing’s obsession with the threat of a color revolution not only reveals suspicion of the West and its values, it also speaks to the fundamental insecurity with which China’s political leadership perceive both their legitimacy to govern and the resiliency of the wobbly political-economic system over which they preside,” Van Oudenaren contends:

This has ramifications far beyond China’s domestic politics. As long as these fears animate Beijing’s nightmares, China will remain a cautious participant in Western-led institutions, and deeper cooperation between the West and China on critical international issues such as the global economy and climate change will remain elusive. RTWT


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Tajikistan: another blow to freedom of expression

TAJIKISTAN Amindzhon GulmurodzodTajik authorities should set aside the verdict against and free independent journalist Amindzhon Gulmurodzoda, convicted of forgery, Human Rights Watch said today:

Gulmurodzoda, editor of the news site, was sentenced to two years imprisonment on August 18, 2015, and taken into custody. Tajikistan’s security services alleged that Gulmurodzoda had submitted a falsified birth certificate with an incorrect birthdate in order to apply for a passport when he was a child.

Gulmurodzoda’s conviction comes amid increasing pressure on independent journalists and media in Tajikistan. On July 20, authorities announced a new rule barring media outlets from reporting “official news” without citing Khovar, the state-run news agency. The Tajik presidential press service said all government agencies must send their reports and press releases to the Khovar agency, while other media outlets working in Tajikistan can now use official information only by citing Khovar. The authorities’ move was condemned by Nuriddin Karshiboev, head of Tajikistan’s National Association of Independent Media, who said in July that the new regulation violates the constitution’s guarantee to equal access to official information….

Gulmurodzoda’s sentencing also follows the imprisonment of Maksud Ibragimov, a peaceful opposition activist forcibly returned from Russia and sentenced to 17 years in July 2015 on politically motivated charges of extremism. In January, authorities jailed human rights lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov for nine years on spurious charges. Sobir Valiev, an opposition activist in Moldova, is facing possible extradition back to Tajikistan and is at risk of imprisonment and torture.

“The verdict is sending a chill throughout Tajikistan’s journalistic community as yet another example of the crackdown on free speech and independent voices,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Bringing dubious charges against a critical journalist for actions allegedly carried out as a child is a thin smokescreen for a blatant and politically motivated assault on free speech.”


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