A scorecard of religious freedom around the world

By

Religious Freedom in the World

Edited by Paul Marshall Broadman & Holman Publishers 331 pp., $14.99

Since 1978, Freedom House has published an annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties in 191 countries. In 1986, it began to also report on religious persecution and to advocate religious freedom for those who are currently denied it.

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Now, Freedom House is offering "Religious Freedom in the World" to complement its more established political publication. Among other things, the new survey finds that only about a fourth of the world lives under conditions of "broad religious freedom," while about a third live where religious freedoms are "fundamentally violated."

The editors point out that religious freedom is not an exclusively Western phenomenon: "There are relatively free countries in every continent." But it is true that countries in the "Western Atlantic area all show a high level of religious freedom," while "the area from northern Africa through the eastern Mediterranean to West Asia tends to have low scores."

The Western Atlantic countries are not, however, without problems. "In the wide variety of financing systems in force in Western Europe, taxpayers may not be allowed to finance their own religion.... This also leads to a very heterogeneous subcategory of unpopular religious groups, often called cults."

The center's greatest concern in Europe is with France. A governmental Mission to Fight Sects, together with negative media images, has "spawned a widespread climate of suspicion and fear, leading to acts of intolerance and discrimination unheard of before the French government's anti-sect policy."

According to the editors, "In the fight against non-conventional groups, European governments can often count not only on the support of the established churches and secular humanism in all its forms, but also the Medical Doctor's Associations, and professionals involved in the market for traditional psychology."

Much of this information on Europe is summarized in one of six essays that precede the detailed country reports.

Equally interesting are essays on the state of religious freedom in the former Soviet Union and South America. Editor Paul Marshall discusses the strange invisibility of religious freedom issues to Western governments and scholars. He might have added, the strange invisibility of religious freedom issues in Western Europe generally.

Not all readers will want to take in all 75 country reports that follow these six essays. But those who do will be rewarded with a perception-changing tour of the world we live in.

There is much to celebrate in the descriptions of highly rated countries like the US and Estonia. But there is also much here to challenge the most dedicated optimist. Readers may disagree with center director Nina Shea about the practicality of putting political and economic pressure on the worst offenders. But few who believe in the power of prayer will want to ignore the information this book provides.

David Nartonis is a writer and researcher living in Boston.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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