Struggles in the World of Religion
By Geoffrey P. Johnston
Nov. 8, -2008
Later this year the United Nations will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But is that milestone worth celebrating when so many people in the world are persecuted because of their religious beliefs?
You can be sure that when the UN General Assembly meets on December 10th, many hollow speeches about human rights will be made by indecisive leaders who are too timid to confront tyranny or halt ethnic cleansing.
In a better world, one in which leaders back up their high-minded talk with action, the community of nations would stage a massive anniversary gala, replete with fireworks, to celebrate the global triumph of human rights over religious intolerance and organized barbarity.
Sadly, having failed to live up to the promise of the Universal Declaration, humanity has not earned such a celebration.
To be sure, Canadians and Americans have reasons to rejoice --we live in the freest societies in the world and enjoy unrivalled religious liberties--but we should temper our celebrations with the knowledge that religious bigotry runs rampant elsewhere.
Indeed, for indigenous Christians and other persecuted religious minorities struggling to survive the harsh reality of today's Muslim world, there is little reason to celebrate. Nevertheless, there is still hope for the future.
Although the international community is notoriously slow in responding to crimes against humanity, history tells us that widespread human rights abuses can spur advancements in international justice.
When the Second World War ended, for example, and the scope of Nazis Germany's systematic slaughter of at least six million Jews was revealed, the civilized world recoiled in horror. And the newborn human rights movement cried out, "Never Again!"
The impact of the Holocaust on international law has been profound, according to former Ivy League scholar and current federal Liberal politician Michael Ignatieff. During his tenure at Harvard University, he wrote that the establishment of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 "was in large measure a response to the torment of the Jewish people."
When the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration, it affirmed the inalienable human rights of people around the globe and placed limits on the sovereignty of the nation-state. Unfortunately, that has not stopped certain nations from flouting the international human rights regime.
Freedom of Religion
Often overlooked, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration guarantees the individual the right "either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." Without that fundamental right, despotism rules in place of democracy.
Critics of human rights doctrine tend to dismiss the Universal Declaration as a set of Western principles that don't apply to Islamic or Asian societies.
But Jack Layton, leader of the federal New Democrats, dismisses the notion that human rights are merely a Western concept. "Human rights are universal," he told me via email, adding: "We defend them in order to protect the security and dignity of human beings."
While Layton cautions human rights activists to be "mindful of cultural differences" between the West and the Muslim world, he is quick to say that "culture must not become an excuse held up to get immunity from criticism." Of course, that road runs in both directions.
The Muslim world isn't shy about criticizing the West for its supposed lack of religious tolerance. For example, the Conference of Islamic States, a broad coalition of Muslim-majority countries, alleges that the West persecutes Muslims.
So, let us set aside politically correct diatribes in favour of straight talk.
Religious pluralism is under attack in many Muslim-majority countries, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. That independent human rights body -- created by an act of Congress in 1998 to advise the U.S. government on issues of religious freedom around the globe -- reports that Christians, Jews, and Baha'is are among a number of religious communities persecuted in the Muslim world.
The commission also reports that in many Islamic societies, minority-sect Muslims are "suppressed" by the "dominant Islamic group."
Resistance is futile
Resistance within the Muslim world to human rights doctrine has deep roots. "The challenge from Islam," writes Michael Ignatieff in his book Human Rights, "has been there from the beginning."
For instance, when the international community came together to draft the Universal Declaration, the delegation from Saudi Arabia opposed the inclusion of the right to freedom of religion. (The desert kingdom ultimately refused to ratify the Universal Declaration.)
Opposition within the Muslim world to human rights stiffened in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, where there is no separation of mosque and state. According to Ignatieff's book, "the freedoms articulated in the Universal Declaration make no sense within the theocratic bias of Islamic political thought." Does that mean that Muslim-majority countries are incapable of practising democratic pluralism?
Not necessarily, says Nina Shea, who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. On the contrary, the international human rights lawyer assures us that Islam can be "compatible" with democratic pluralism.
Notwithstanding its spotty human rights record, secular Turkey is an example of a Muslim-majority country lurching toward democracy.
However, Nina Shea--who is also a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Centre for Religious Freedom--told me that she takes a dim view of theocratic states such as Iran. "I don't think Islamism, that is rule by Islam by government authorities, is compatible with pluralism."
The Islamic Republic's shoddy human rights record seems to prove her point. According to World Report 2008, a global record of human rights abuses compiled by Human Rights Watch, "Iran's ethnic and religious minorities are subject to discrimination and, in some cases, persecution."
Despite the passage last year of a Canadian-sponsored UN resolution condemning Iran's human rights violations, the Islamic regime shows no signs of yielding to international pressure. In May of this year, 12 Evangelical Christians were arrested in the southern city of Shiraz as part of the regime's ongoing campaign to stamp out Iran's burgeoning "house Church movement."
Curiously, the persecution of religious minorities by the Iranian regime, which hosted a repugnant Holocaust denial conference in 2006 and has threatened to "wipe Israel off the map," doesn't seem to interest Amnesty International Canada. According to Amnesty spokesperson Beth Berton-Hunter, her organization pays little attention to the issue of religious freedom "because we focus so much on political and civil rights."
Yet the links between religious freedom and civil liberties and political rights are mutually reinforcing. Restrict one freedom, and the others are diminished.
It is important to remember that the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s began in African-American churches, and was led by a pastor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Not only did those churches lend spiritual authority to the movement, they also helped to mobilize African-Americans in their struggle for greater freedom.
The seeds of reform sown in the tumultuous civil rights era are now being reaped in the historic U.S. presidential race of 2008.
That Senator Barak Obama, an African-American and the Democratic presidential nominee, is a serious contender for the White House proves that the once racially segregated U.S. has benefited enormously from America's fusion of progressive politics and unparalleled religious freedom.
According to Freedom in the World--an international survey of religious freedom, political rights and civil liberties published last year by Freedom House, the oldest human rights advocacy organization in the US--the United States was the freest country in the world in 2006, receiving top marks in all three categories.
Canada also received an outstanding review, ranking just below the US in the global survey, which explains why so many religious minorities--including Ahmadi Muslims, a small peace-loving sect that is persecuted across Central and South Asia--seek a better life in Canada.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Freedom House survey painted a bleak picture of much of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran were among the worst offenders; each country received the lowest possible rating for religious freedom, while ranking at or near the bottom in the categories of political freedom and civil liberties.
Pakistan, a hotbed of extremism, fared only marginally better in the Freedom House survey. Similarly, Human Rights Watch reports that Pakistan persists in persecuting religious minorities, noting that the Ahmadis are a favourite target of the authorities.
Unlike Amnesty International Canada, the Rev. Jesse Jackson--a key player in the U.S. civil rights movement and a former two-time contender for the Democratic presidential nomination--has long appreciated the link between democracy and religious freedom.
"Freedom of worship becomes a great measurement of a society," Rev. Jackson preached to Communist party officials during his 1989 mission to the Soviet Union. According to "Jesse", Marshal Frady's compelling biography of the globe-trotting African-American activist, Jackson warned the Soviets that the US would take its "signal from the church here [in the USSR]" when evaluating the Communist regime's commitment to political reform.
Similarly, the international community should take its "signal" from religious minorities when measuring the degree of freedom in today's Muslim world.
As long as non-Muslims are oppressed, Muslims themselves will never be truly free. After all, Rev. King taught us that liberating the oppressed makes for a more democratic society.
"There is a great danger," Pope Benedict XVI told a Vatican publication in 2006, "that these places where Christianity had its origins will be left without Christians." And it could happen sooner than we think.
Within two decades, reports the Catholic Near East Welfare Association of Canada, a papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support, Christians in the Middle East "will number just six million...a nearly 50% decline from the 11 million Christians in the region today." What is driving the Christian exodus?
"The pressures on the Christian community [in the Middle East] are driven by the conflict that engulfs the wider community," Stephen Colecchi, director of the office of international justice and peace for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained from his office in Washington, DC.
Colecchi believes that promoting peace in the Middle East "is the single greatest thing that we [in the West] can contribute to the stability of Christian communities within the region." But is ending the perpetual conflict in the Middle East a realistic objective?
Considering the seemingly intractable nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as the rise of radical Islam, there appears to be little hope of stabilizing that historically volatile region. And that's bad news for Christians--and for Muslims, too.
While serving as chairman of a US congressional subcommittee on international affairs in 2006, Congressman Christopher H. Smith testified that Christians in Muslim-majority countries "usually contribute a disproportionate share of business leaders, teachers, and engineers of their respective countries." (Human rights expert Nina Shea agrees that Christians play pivotal roles in many Muslim societies.)
Smith warns that the demise of religious pluralism will have dire long-term consequences for Muslim societies. And the empirical evidence seems to support his theory.
"Increasing restrictions on religious freedom correlate with fewer physicians, higher infant mortality, higher percentage of underweight children and higher fertility," according to a study published by Brian J. Grim, the Senior Research Fellow in Religion and World Affairs at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The Grim study concludes that the "restriction of religious freedom correlates with diminished well being and violent social conflict."
To avoid sinking further into a morass of misery, moderate Muslims must push back against fundamentalists, who seek to ethnically cleanse their societies of "infidels" or non-Muslims.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), the Nazis-incited anti-Jewish riots of November 9 and 10, 1938, that destroyed 200 synagogues in Austria, Germany, and the Sudenlenland (Nazi occupied western Czechoslovakia).
According to the Simon Wisenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, the Kristallnacht foreshadowed the Holocaust and underscored for Jews "the terrifying realization that political anti-Semitism can lead to violence."
That terrifying lesson should resonate with religious minority communities in some Muslim-majority countries, including nominally pro-Western Egypt, where state persecution of non-Muslims fosters an atmosphere of intolerance and hate, which contributes to communal violence against Christians.
Although Christian minorities have yet to face an onslaught on the scale of the Kristallnacht, frequent attacks--bombings, arson and extreme vandalism--against churches in the Muslim world ought to set off alarm bells in the international community.
For example, nine churches were destroyed by Muslim mobs in northern Nigeria on September 28, 2007, reports Open Doors, an international Christian outreach organization.
Even once tolerant Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, is not immune to radicalism. According to Open Doors, at least 25 churches in the province of West Java were attacked or forced to close in 2007.
The situation is even more dire for religious minorities in Iraq, especially for its diverse Christian population. In a scathing 2007 report by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Most Rev. Thomas Wenski, chairman of the committee on international policy, demanded "an immediate halt to the deliberate violence against our Christian sisters and brothers and other religious minorities in Iraq."
Despite the supposed success of the US troop surge in Iraq, the Christian community there is being pummelled by Islamists and criminal gangs. In a clear cut example of ethnic cleansing, hundreds of Christian families have been driven out of the Dora district of Baghdad.
Iraq's besieged Assyrian community, the ancient Christian nation indigenous to northern Iraq, is also the target of a violent jihadist campaign of ethnic cleansing, says Assyrian-American activist Rosie Malek-Yonan, whose compelling historical novel, The Crimson Field, recounts the Assyrian Genocide of 1914-20.
Mirza Shmoil, chairman and executive director of the Welfare Committee for the Assyrian Community in Canada, an organization that helps settle Assyrian refugees and immigrants, agrees that Iraq's Assyrians are being targeted by extremists simply because they are Christian.
"Because the [radical] Muslims believe that we are pro-Western," Shmoil told me in late 2007, "because we are Christians--like Americans or English or Canadians--they say, 'you cooperate, you collaborate with the West.'"
According to the multi-talented Malek-Yonan, who is also a Hollywood actor and a documentary filmmaker, simultaneous assaults are battering the Assyrian nation. In an email, she told me that "thirty-three [Assyrian] Churches have been attacked, bombed, burned and destroyed" by militants since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Moreover, the brazen assassinations of priests and church deacons-- including the high-profile killing of a Chaldean Catholic archbishop earlier this year--are sounding the death knell for religious pluralism in Iraq.
The Right to Convert
The prohibition against religious conversion in some Muslim societies violates Article 18 of the Universal Declaration, which plainly states that the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion "includes freedom to change his religion or belief."
In some countries, Muslim converts to Christianity--sometimes referred to as "Muslim-Background Believers"--can face imprisonment or judicial execution. For example, Abdul Rahman was convicted of apostasy by the Afghan judiciary and sentenced to death in 2006. But thanks to the diplomatic efforts of several Western countries, including Canada, Rahman was eventually set free and granted asylum in Europe.
Notwithstanding the claims of Canada and its NATO allies that Afghanistan is moving toward democracy, that war-torn country ranked near the bottom of Freedom House's global survey of religious freedom.
"What we are doing is creating illiberal democracies," says Nina Shea of the West's nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The outspoken human rights advocate chides the Bush administration for not insisting on "basic freedoms" for all religious groups in those countries. (The same should also be said of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.)
However, bigotry can't be eradicated by merely drafting a perfect bill of rights that promises religious freedom for all. Intolerant societies must overcome their fear of other faiths and accept the reality of religious diversity.
Getting the Message Out
It is the moral duty of Canadians to defend the Universal Declaration. We must speak openly about religious repression on behalf of those who are being silenced by the sword.
Getting the message out, however, can be challenging.
"There is an anti-Christian bias in the [mainstream news] media," says Nina Shea in response to a question about the sparse news coverage of religious persecution in the Muslim world.
Whatever the reason for that purported media bias, ordinary citizens concerned about religious freedom can push the issue into the spotlight by writing letters-to-editor and contributing to the web forums of mainstream media.
And when political meetings are convened during the upcoming federal election campaign, citizens should flock to the microphones to ask their local candidates about religious freedom abroad.
Arab Human Rights Charter
The recent establishment of a pan-Arab charter on human rights--Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, and the Palestinian Authority are signatories--seems, at least on the surface, to herald a new era of respect for human rights in the Muslim world. But dig deeper and you'll find that the controversial Arab charter, which came into effect in March, is actually a shocking repudiation of the current international human rights regime.
Calling for the elimination of Zionism--just a fancy way of proposing the annihilation of Israel--the Arab charter is the very antithesis of the Universal Declaration.
Responsibility to Protect
As one of the architects of the United Nations human security agenda, Canada has a special duty to ensure that the UN Security Council invokes the Responsibility-to-Protect Doctrine (commonly known as R2P) when a persecuted community faces annihilation.
Endorsed by 150 countries at the World Summit in 2005, R2P commands the UN to protect "populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity." This means that the UN has the authority to intervene in the internal affairs of a nation, using any means necessary--diplomatic, humanitarian and military--to rescue civilians from mass atrocities.
However, given the failure of the UN to stop the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan--a conflict driven, in part, by Islamism--persecuted minorities in other countries have little reason to believe that the Security Council will deliver them from genocidal thugs.
In a better world, "Never Again" would mean just that. We must work harder to make it so.
Not only should Canada use the current crisis to rally the world in defence of the Universal Declaration, we must now move beyond the UN on this particular issue.
This is the time for Canada, the most multicultural society in the world, to initiate a new global forum, modelled on the G-20 group of nations, to foster tolerance and religious freedom.
Perhaps then we would have reason to celebrate.
By Geoffrey P. Johnston