Religious freedom as a core human right: A three-sided, global debate

Published: Saturday, March 24 2012 12:00 p.m. MDT

Onlookers and security staff gather around a car destroyed in a blast next to St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, Nigeria, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011. An explosion ripped through a Catholic church during Christmas Mass near Nigeria's capital Sunday, killing scores of people, officials said. A radical Muslim sect claimed the attack.

Associated Press

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This is the first of two articles on escalating threats to religious freedom abroad and U.S. efforts to control those threats.

Today: The current problems and competing values at home and abroad that make effective action difficult.

Part 2: U.S. policy responses since 1998 include a contentious governmental structure and strategic divisions among religious religious liberty advocates.

The images are so ghastly that Al Jazeera froze the video, allowing only voices to tell the tale. An Indonesian mob shouting "Allah Akbar" surrounded three men at the doorway of their mosque, stripped them naked and beat them to death with stones, sticks and machetes. Police officers stood by, helpless or indifferent.

The victims of the February 2011 killings were members of Ahmadiyya, a tiny Muslim sect considered blasphemers by many Muslims because they believe their 19th-century founder was a prophet. In strict Islamic tradition, blasphemy is punishable by death.

Indonesia is a single wave in a rising tide of religious intolerance worldwide. Trouble spots span the globe, with hundreds of incidents in scores of countries each year. In some, the suppression of religious freedom is dehumanizing but not life-threatening; in others, the risk of genocide or "religious cleansing" is real, immediate and growing.

In response, the United States has tried to appeal to universal values and international agreements as it seeks to shame, badger or entice problem nations to reform. But the universality of those values has frayed in recent years, and the elite consensus at home to shore them up is shaky.

Muddled model

Indonesia is justly viewed as a hopeful model of Islamic tolerance and democracy. But in 2005 the Indonesian Ulama Council issued a decree declaring the Ahmadiyya "outside Islam" and "deviant" and urged the government to bar Ahmadis from proselytizing or public worship. Two key government officials soon signed a decree ordering the Ahmadiyya to stop teachings that "deviate from the principal teachings of Islam" and to stop teaching "that there is another prophet with his own teachings after Prophet Mohammed." Against the tide, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization opposed these moves, arguing that it "violates freedom of religion which is guaranteed by the constitution."

In July 2010, large mobs repeatedly tried to vandalize an Ahmadiyya mosque in West Java, while local police made minimal efforts to control the crowd. "When the Indonesian authorities sacrifice the rights of religious minorities to appease hard-line Islamist groups, this simply causes more violence," said Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch in a press release. "While the police rightly stopped mobs from entering the mosque, their failure to arrest a single person will only embolden these groups to use violence again."

The subsequent killings proved Pearson right. Within weeks of that event, extremists sent four book bombs to Indonesian public figures. All were prominent voices for tolerance. There were no fatalities, but the message was clear.

Cultures of impunity

Indonesia's failure to make arrests in the mosque riot is known in human rights circles as "impunity" — the gap where a state lets perpetrators walk and cannot protect their victims. Impunity is a vicious circle, experts say, as violence escalates.

The springboard of impunity is often official discrimination. In Pakistan, four million Ahmadiyya are literally treated as noncitizens. To get a passport, Pakistanis must sign an oath that they consider the Ahmadi founder an "impostor prophet" and his followers "non-Muslims." Being a marked heretic can be tantamount to a death sentence. Pakistan's 2.8 million Christians are also at risk, and in March 2011 Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian minister of minority affairs, was assassinated after he opposed blasphemy laws. The killer was never arrested.

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