Stepping up against religious intolerance

A State Department report says governments are tightening laws on religious observance. But it also notes encouraging cases where members of one religion have protected those of another.

Carlos Jasso/Reuters
A group of Christians chant and pray near the National Electoral Council headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, in July.

A new US State Department report on religious freedom cites numerous troubling examples of countries that restrict the free exercise of religion through laws that punish blasphemy or apostasy against the predominant faith.

“Around the world, governments continued to tighten their regulatory grip on religious groups, and particularly on minority religious groups and religions which are viewed as not traditional to that specific country,” concludes the report, released Aug. 10.

In Angola, for example, a religious group must register to receive legal recognition from the government. But the application requires the group to collect 100,000 member signatures from 12 of the 18 provinces. As a result, Angola has not recognized any new religious groups since 2004, when the requirement went into effect.

Much of the actual violence against religious denominations has been undertaken by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, al-Qaida, and the Islamic State, according to an annual study on global restrictions on religion from the Pew Research Center. In 2014 (the most recent year data was available), 24 percent of the 198 countries studied had “high or very high levels of government restrictions” on religions. But that was down from 28 percent in 2013.

The State Department report also notes how even the most horrendous acts of violence can sometimes lead to hopeful steps of progress.

In Afghanistan, for example, Farkhunda Malikzada was falsely accused by the caretaker of a Muslim shrine of burning a copy of the Quran. The young woman was soon surrounded by a hostile crowd who tortured and killed her.

This tragic and senseless murder, however, evoked a strong response from the government.

President Ashraf Ghani condemned the mob action and ordered an investigation.

“Afghan women carried Farkhunda’s body to her grave-site in a culturally unprecedented funeral procession that doubled as a widely publicized protest against her killing,” the report says. “Government officials and members of parliament participated in the funeral, and the head of the Ministry of Interior’s criminal investigation department told the crowd that Farkhunda was innocent.”

Several people involved were tried and convicted, including police who had failed to stop the mob.

“The fact that individuals have been held accountable for this horrific crime represents a significant step forward for Afghanistan’s justice system, and sends an important message to those who might see allegations of blasphemy as a means to act with impunity against others,” the report says.

While detailing numerous incidents of violence based on religious intolerance, the State Department report also notes cases where members of one religious group have stepped forward to protect those of another.  

Last December, members of the militant group al-Shabab, based in Somali, ambushed a bus in neighboring Kenya. The militants ordered the passengers out of the bus so that they could single out the Christians for execution. But the Muslims on the bus refused to comply. Instead they helped hide the Christian passengers and told the attackers that they would have to either kill everyone on the bus or leave. The militants left.

Kenya’s interior minister, Joseph Nkaissery, praised the actions of the Muslims on the bus. “We are all Kenyans, we are not separated by religion,” he said. “We are one people as a nation. And this is a very good message from my brothers and sisters from the Muslim community.”

Acts of cruelty based on religious intolerance must always be strongly opposed and condemned. But courageous acts of kindness need to be acknowledged, too. They are models of how religious groups can show care, respect, and, yes, love toward one another.

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