In our opinion: Americans should encourage spreading religious freedom across the globe

Published: Sunday, May 5 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Deacons sing during a liturgy in Baltimore, Thursday, June 21, 2012, to kick off the "Fortnight For Freedom," a two-week, national campaign to draw attention to religious freedom. Roman Catholic bishops organized the education effort to fight what they consider government attacks on religious liberty.

Associated Press

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Last year, Hamza Kashgari was a young Saudi Arabian columnist and blogger struggling with a crisis of faith. He imagined having a conversation with the Prophet Mohammad and spoke to the founder of Islam on the occasion of his birthday. "I find you wherever I turn," he said." "I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more."

He posted this, along with another two similar messages, on Twitter, and, almost immediately, he was inundated with death threats. Fearing for his life, he caught a flight to New Zealand to find asylum, only to be extradited back to Saudi Arabia when he tried to change planes. Today, he remains behind bars for violating Saudi Arabia's strict blasphemy laws, which, legally, could result in his execution.

Unfortunately, he's not alone.

Saudi Arabia is just one of many Middle Eastern and North African countries that execute blasphemers. Many countries in that region also have strict "conversion laws," which prohibit leaving Islam under penalty of death. Yet this is not a problem limited to one religion or one region of the world. Burma imprisons a number of monks solely because of their efforts to serve as clergy to their fellow Buddhists. In Indonesia, it's against the law to have no religion. When one man declared on a website that he was an atheist, an angry mob gathered to take retribution. When the police showed up, they didn't disperse the mob, but instead took the atheist into custody.

All individuals of faith, and even those with no faith at all, ought to stand against the growing worldwide challenge to religious freedom.

The Pew Research Center has conducted a study to measure levels of religious freedom across the world. Their findings are not encouraging. They have determined that three-quarters of the world's population live in nations that exercise high or very high restriction on religious liberty, either through direct government sanction, or through intense societal pressures that are accompanied by violence. Sometimes, as was the case with the atheist in Indonesia, the problem is a rancid mixture of both.

This past week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) confirmed those findings in its annual report, citing instances where "[e]xtremists target religious minorities and dissenters from majority religious communities for violence" and "governments… repress religious freedom through intricate webs of discriminatory rules, arbitrary requirements and draconian edicts." USCIRF called on the Obama administration to take action to tailor its foreign policy to encourage spreading religious freedom across the globe.

It's essential that the administration support those efforts. At the same time, Americans should also recognize that this is a problem here at home, too.

Even in supposedly "enlightened" nations that ostensibly protect freedom of worship, overt religiosity can still cause problems. Consider the case of the woman in Great Britain who regularly wore a pendant with a cross to work and was subsequently fired as a result. While this pales in comparison to the threat of state execution or mob justice, it demonstrates a creeping intolerance for the exercise of faith, even in places where such freedom is supposed to be inviolate.

Recent Pew research suggests that hostility to religion in the United States has risen in the wake of the Boston bombings. So far, America is a long way from locking up clergy or passing anti-conversion blasphemy laws, but Americans still should be vigilant in decrying religious intolerance in any form. The freedom to worship according to the demands of conscience is one of the pillars of our civilization. Any attempt, large or small, to erode that fundamental right diminishes us all.

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