Friday, August 1, 2014

Wall Street Journal: U.S. state Department report on international religious freedom....depressing and dangerous?

There are some appalling figures that pop out from the pages of the U.S. State department's report on international religious freedom, from the perspective of the plight to individual and family lives, and also to the social institutions that have played a significant part in fostering and sustaining social stability and the absence of violence.
A colleague let slip a phrase in our conversation yesterday, by calling the church part of the "correctional system" a name I had not heard used before in that context. Having worked with prisons and referred adolescents from the legal system, I had somewhat naively locked my definition of the "correctional system" around the institutions of the prisons in all their many and varied forms, the courts and their respective officers, the legal system and the criminal code and other assorted provincial and federal pieces of legislation that outlined both acts deemed punishable by the state and the nature of those punishments.
I had not included the "church" as an integral part of that "system."
Of course, my first reaction upon hearing the phrase was to break into laughter, given the wide berth the phrase incorporated into the concept. But immediately, I reflected on how important sin, miscreant, evil and both judgement and punishment are to both the church and the traditional correctional systems, I had to concur with my colleague's expression.
Now, it seems, in many quarters of the world, as all institutions are under attack, and a public armed with instant megaphones for their protest against whomever and whatever they deem appropriate targets flexes its political, ideological and even violent muscle against those targets, the concept of the freedom of religion is also under attack, and with it one of the long-standing cornerstones of social order.
Having worked both inside and outside the ecclesial establishment, I can see why some unsettled and perhaps unstable people, especially when collected into angry expressions of discontent, would target the ecclesial institutions of their community. First, there is the perception of "holier than thou" that attaches to those inside religious communities permanently installed on those communities by people who would never consider crossing the threshold of a religious building or institution. Then there is the deep and profound, and seemingly unbridgeable gap between belief systems, and their legitimacy including their history, that finds zealous newcomers to a faith "brand" seeking and finding revenge on those who are not believing and practicing the faith the "right" way.
Underlying much of the current discontent in all of its many forms, including religious persecution, terrorism and civil strife, of course are social and domestic conditions that are in a word unsustainable. Poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of education and access to health care, political instability and downright failed states in many cases...all of these contribute to the many forms of persecution that dot the world map like a bad case of red measles, everywhere. And included in these acts of violence and persecution are acts of religious persecution, as religion becomes both a recruiting force for those committed to the violent achievement of their ideological and "moral" goals for the world, and an army in that pursuit, with sacred texts read with untrained and insensitive eyes and imaginations operating out of their own desperate scarcity of human compassion and experience.
As you read the piece from The Wall Street Journal below, you might consider asking yourself how religion became the antithesis of the ideal. Was it because in our instant world, in which we can all see how things might be better, right here and right now, we are unwilling or unable to pursue legitimate goals for our lives and families, as well as for our respective cultures in a collegial and co-operative manner? Or perhaps, now that all regions of the world have been connected to instant information, mostly of the negative and violent kind, that we believe we are merely acting like everyone else in our anger, frustration and hopelessness.
Have we reduced human life to the acquisition of material wealth, thereby eliminating all other pursuits, and also reducing humans to allies or enemies, agents merely of human transactions?
Or perhaps, in a world in which power has seemed to flow to the powerful, leaving more and more behind, we have seen religion as another of the dividing canyons that separate the have's from the have not's, as the church too struggles to bridge the divide between the insiders and the outsiders, one that seems to have become a bridge too far?
  The U.S. State Department's annual report on international religious freedom released this week makes for bleak reading. Violent repression of religious believers the world over, whether at the hands of governments or of unchecked thugs, is creating personal tragedies for millions of faithful. This oppression also threatens social institutions that play such an important role in fostering peace and stability.
The Middle East is the most pressing hot spot at the moment. Iran and Saudi Arabia again make State's list of countries of particular concern for violations of religious liberty for their legalized intolerance of minority religions. In Syria, the report says, Bashar Assad's regime increasingly casts the ongoing civil war in religious terms, and it is ramping up persecution of religious groups it views as political threats. The number of Christians in Homs has fallen to 1,000 from 160,000 before the civil war began.
Increasing disorder is paving the way for violent non-state groups to harass religious believers. Although State's report covers 2013, the world saw a graphic illustration of this phenomenon last month, as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham drove thousands of Christians out of areas it has seized from state control. Thugs in Egypt and Pakistan spent 2013 harassing Christian and minority Muslim groups with varying degrees of government acquiescence.
In Asia, North Korea and China again rank as the most serious offenders as their governments persecute religious groups that might challenge single-party rule. Pyongyang regularly consigns believers to its gulag simply for being found in possession of religious literature. Beijing has accelerated its clampdown on Muslims in restive Xinjiang, in addition to its restrictions on religious practice among Tibetan Buddhists and its suppression of unsanctioned Christian groups.
And then there's Europe. The recent conflict in Gaza has brought to the fore a disturbing strain of anti-Semitism, but State's report shows this is nothing new. Anti-Semitic attacks already were on the rise in 2013 in France, and in a November survey 68% of Jews in Germany said they believed anti-Semitism had worsened over the past five years. In Britain the number was 66%.
Part of the problem is the decline in European governments' capacity to enforce basic public order, which also leaves Muslims exposed to growing religious violence and all citizens vulnerable to crime. But secular European elites increasingly appear contemptuous of religion and indifferent to its protection, and they are allowing their hostility toward Israel to bleed into disdain for Judaism.
That leaves America. Thanks to its history as a refuge for religious nonconformists, Americans more than many others understand the importance of religious toleration for social order—and the importance of religion itself for social flourishing. That is precisely why the Obama Administration's trespass against religious freedom in health care, which was mild in comparison to the troubles in the rest of the world, was so controversial and overturned by the Supreme Court.
Peaceful religious practice forms a bulwark against political tyranny and social disorder, and that bulwark is under attack. The State Department's report highlights a crisis that is undermining global peace and stability, and deserves far more public attention.
From Wall Street Journal,  Opinion July 31, 2014)

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