“Religion pours $1.2 trillion into the US economy every year,” said social scientist and director of International Religious Resources at Pew Forum Brian J. Grim. “That is 50 per cent more than America’s six largest oil companies.” Grim’s startling fact-sharing was part of an introduction to an updated report on the state of religious freedom around the world, on the opening day of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA)’s 8th World Congress in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, United States, on August 22.
Grim’s presentation came on the heels of the official opening of the event, which has brought together around 600 religious freedom advocates, government officers, and church leaders from 65 countries. During the three-day event, they will listen to thought-provoking seminars, enjoy breakout sessions in four different languages, and network with like-minded supporters of religious freedom.
“Religious freedom [is] a principle of dignity for humanity,” explained Ganoune Diop, IRLA’s secretary-general and director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “IRLA is committed to the task…of making this world a better place for millions, [a place where] people can experience freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, and freedom of expression.”
As he briefly listed some of the organization’s accomplishments over the last five years, Diop reminded attendees that IRLA has been participating in public discourses and debate, engaging in international forums on religious freedom and peace, holding meetings of experts from top universities, and helping people to better understand what religious liberty means.
“Every year we engage the academic world to help develop a religious culture of religious liberty, a culture of human rights,” said Diop of the non-governmental, non-sectarian, not-for-profit organization chartered in 1893 with current associations in 80 countries and correspondents in 172 nations around the world.
Current State of Affairs
Grim, on the other hand, opened his slideshow about the current state of religious freedom around the world by sharing that 40 percent of world countries suffer high restrictions to religious freedom or freedom of belief. Since many of them are populous nations, however, this adds up to 5.9 billion of the world population, said Grim, based on a recent Pew Research Study of 198 countries and territories.
“It means that, compared with 2007, by 2015 1.1 billion more people were suffering a curtailment of their religious freedom,” he said.
Grim explained that restrictions usually come from two sources—governments, on the one hand, and society, or what experts call “social hostilities.” Both are often connected, he said.
For example, some states in India have passed laws to prevent anyone from killing cows, which are considered sacred animals, said Grim. “While this is a government restriction, it often leads to social hostilities, as some people are ready to kill anyone who decides to raise cows.”
Other startling facts derived from the Pew Research Study show that the number of governments harassing or intimidating their citizens on religious grounds has gone up from 118 to 157 in the same period, government use of physical force from 61 to 106, and government interference with worship from 112 to 146.
“In 54 countries, the government had regulations on religious symbols in 2015—up from just 21 in 2007,” said Grim.
In the area of social restrictions, Grim revealed that 27 percent of countries suffer high social restrictions, which amounts to 4.1 billion people, or 54 percent of the world population. Assaults on people accused of offending the country's majority faith went up from being present in 48 countries in 2007 to 89 in 2015. On the other hand, coercive enforcement of religious norms was present in 73 nations (compared to 35 countries eight years before), and women were harassed over religious dress in 49 countries (compared to just 14 in 2007.)
“Countries where mob violence related to religion was documented went from 23 to 53, and religion-related terror—such as the one promoted by ISIS—went from 60 to 78,” said Grim.
A Silver Lining
Despite a rather bleak picture of the state of religious freedom around the world, Grim said there are reasons to hope.
“Currently, 83 percent of countries have initiatives to reduce religious restrictions, and 56 percent have interfaith initiatives,” he said. “Moreover, 38 percent of countries have initiatives to combat religious discrimination, and 20 percent have educational and training initiatives.”
Grim also highlighted a dozen of private persons’ initiatives around the world that contribute to healthy social environments where religious freedom can thrive. Among them, he featured Abdo Ibrahim El Tassi, a Lebanese Canadian entrepreneur who sponsors and provides microloans to Muslim refugees; Y. W. Junardy, an Indonesian businessman and philanthropist who sponsors mass weddings for low-income couples of multiple faiths who cannot afford the fees required for a legal marriage; and H. Bruce McEver, a rare combination of Harvard theologian and venture capitalist who launched the Foundation for Religious Literacy, an organization that offers seminars which bring together business leaders with religious thinkers, to promote religious understanding as a global good business practice.
Part of a Whole
Religious freedom is not an isolated right, but part of a wider network of human rights, said Grim, who shared how it aligns with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG.)
Retired Harvard Divinity School Professor David Little, who presented after Grim, echoed Grim’s words.
Discussing the intersections of religious freedom and peace, Little said both are closely related. “There is empirical evidence of the strong connection between the two,” he said. “And religious freedom thrives when other rights are also protected, [especially] in the context of constitutional democracies.”
It is in this context of religious freedom as a road to peace that Little said that we must redouble our efforts to support this fundamental human right.
“The most important lesson [we can learn] is the importance of a commitment to religious freedom because promoting peace by ensuring religious freedom has power in itself,” he said.