October 22, 2008

30CN: Adventists Report Headway on Religious Liberty, but Challenges Remain

Adventists Report Headway on Religious Liberty, but Challenges Remain
Church’s experience cited as good indicator of country's freedom

Adventist News Network
capWhile religious liberty remains tenuous in many countries and nonexistent in others, religious liberty proponents worldwide continue to protect religious minorities and secure increased freedom of belief, a Seventh-day Adventist report indicates.
Compiled jointly by the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department (PARL) and the International Religious Liberty Institute of Andrews University, the Religious Freedom World Report 2006-07 places countries in one of five categories on the basis of religious freedom.
Categories 1 through 3 represent countries whose constitutions guarantee religious freedom, to varying degrees. Members of religious communities in 'Category 4' countries routinely face restrictive laws and attitudes that curtail the practice of their faith. A 'Category 5' rating indicates a "total negation" of religious freedom, the report indicated.

GIFTED HANDS: Dr. Ben Carson is one of the world's most respected neurosurgeons and a devout Seventh-day Adventist. Carson, 56, said he prays for guidance before every surgery. [Photo courtesy Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly/RNS]

ENCOURAGING FREEDOM: Church freedom of belief advocate John Graz at a religious liberty meeting in Mongolia earlier this year. In a religious freedom report released by the Adventist Church last week, the country receives a Category 3 status -- its constitution allows for broad freedoms, but religious extremists and some government authorities make full practice of faith difficult. [photo: NSD]

Of the 217 countries listed in the report, 38 rank as a Category 4 or 5.

The report includes a summary of each country's legal, political and social climate, as well as details of the Adventist experience.
"The treatment of Adventists can signal the general state of religious freedom in a country," says Nicholas P. Miller, director of the Andrews University International Religious Freedom Institute and the report’s managing editor.
In September, the government of Turkmenistan granted an Adventist Church leader a work visa after an eight-year wait, a move religious liberty officials say signals the country's progress toward increased religious freedom. Both Turkmenistan and Vietnam are making "significant improvements" in the area of religious liberty, says John Graz, PARL director for the world church.
Promoting religious freedom, however, remains "challenging," something Graz attributes in part to emerging countries' attitudes toward human rights.
"Some think the concept of human rights is being used by Western countries as propaganda, to push forward [an] agenda," he explains. "So we have a backlash against human rights, and religious liberty is often one of the first to go." 
Two major factors typically determine the level of religious freedom a country enjoys: its majority religion and political system, Graz says. Countries with large Catholic and Protestant population--typically safeguard religious liberty, whereas countries with Orthodox leadership are more restrictive. In most Islamic countries, Graz says, "the concept of religious freedom is not even understood."
While democracies and near-democracies encourage religious freedom, they by no means "guarantee" full practice of faith, he says, citing Protestant villagers who were expelled in Mexico and a recent outbreak of anti-Christian violence in India. Violations of workplace religious freedom caused the ranking for the United States to drop to Category 2 status.
In many cases, a government is "slow to react" to the ingrained attitudes of its citizens toward religious minorities, sometimes even ignoring the persecution and violence that can ensue, Graz says. In other situations, legal loopholes make laws allowing religious liberty difficult to enforce, he adds.
Graz is also concerned that in countries with marginal restrictions to religious liberty, both government leaders and citizens will feel less compelled to defend freedom of belief on an international level.
"People in the U.S, or Brazil, or Australia may say, 'Oh, we have religious freedom, we don't need to worry about this,' but one day they may have to if we stop pushing for universal freedom of belief," Graz says.
He also worries that many violations of religious liberty not only go unreported, but unnoticed. "Say you have a religious minority that represents 1 percent of the population. If they are persecuted, that hardly registers. People will either not care or not notice," he says, adding that those who live in countries where freedom of belief is protected must be unswerving proponents of religious liberty worldwide.
That doesn't mean religious minorities should wholly depend on outside support, Graz says. "They have a responsibility -- as much as the state -- in how they treat other religious minorities." Graz said church members must be "prudent" and "avoid saying anything that can be interpreted as an attack, or labeled as hate speech."
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is the only denomination that compiles an annual report on religious liberty, Graz says. The report has been sent to the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, as well as government leaders, international organizations and religious liberty advocates worldwide since 2000.
The full report is available on the PARL website.