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Religious freedom under increasing pressure around the world, latest Pew report finds

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 14 2014 9:25 p.m. MST

“A large majority of people there are going to want an Islamic regime,” Scharffs said. “They will not embrace separation of powers, individual rights or the independent judiciary.”

To understand the severity of the attitude some Muslims have toward heresy, conversion and blasphemy, Scharffs said, you really have to think of it like Westerners would think of treason in time of war. This is the reality facing Asia Bibi in Pakistan.

“We understand the idea of treason, of betrayal,” he said. “To understand the Islamic attitude toward conversion you have to think of it as a type of treason. Islamic rules against conversion were made during times of religious wars. If you converted, you switched sides.

“We in the West view religion as a matter of individual choice and conscience,” Scharffs said, “but in much of the world, you are born with a religion and that is part of who you are. More like ethnicity.”

Hot and cold spots

Separating social hostility from legal restrictions, said Brian Grim, a senior researcher at Pew and the driving force behind the report, allows important distinctions to be made. “India, for example, is moderate in terms of official restrictions but very high on social hostility,” Grim said, “while China is the reverse.” And, of course, Pakistan continues to reign on both sides.

While Pakistan is the hottest country, the hottest zone continues to be the Middle East-North Africa region. In this report, four countries there jumped at least two points on Pew’s 10-point social hostility scale: Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon, all apparently reflecting political chaos from the Arab Spring. Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Iraq remained on the list from 2011.

The only region of the world to remain largely untouched, Grim said, is the Americas. Even Europe has some extreme tension in Russia and other Eastern Orthodox countries, and France is struggling with its own secular identity — a legacy going back to the French revolution — where what it means to be French involves a rejection of public religious displays.

“The French revolution was against religion in a way the American revolution never was,” Scharffs agrees. “It was against Catholic establishment, for freedom from religion, American revolution never was. That is not part of our mythology.”

“The French know what they think it means to be who they think they are,” Grim said, but now immigrant groups “are saying this is what we think.” The French have responded by banning obvious displays of religious belief in French schools, including the crucifix, the Jewish kippah and the Muslim head scarf. Even nuns can’t wear a habit in a French school.

And now, Grim said, the burqa, the shapeless black garb worn by some ultra-orthodox Muslim women, is banned in public spaces.

Not an indictment

“In our study we don’t take a position on the burqa,” Grim said, “we just list it as a restriction on religion. People make passionate arguments on both sides. Some would consider it a good restriction.”

“When I talk to French intellectuals,” Scharffs said, “I find a very strong social consensus that freedom demands a ban on the head scarf. We look at it as religious expression. In France, it’s viewed as evidence of patriarchy, of men forcing wives and daughters, and they see freedom as facilitated by prohibiting it.”

Grim recognizes that some restrictions on religious practice, like bans on human sacrifice or even requirements that parents allow blood transfusions for children, are simply going to happen.

“Our study doesn’t say that anything is right or wrong,” Grim said. “Underneath, there are many historical, economic, cultural, religious reasons why one country would take certain policies toward religion.

“When I present findings to academics from Saudi Arabia,” Grim said, “they say, ‘yep, that’s right. We do that.’ They don’t view it as an indictment.”

Letter to the pope

Still in a Pakistani prison, last week Asia Bibi wrote a plaintive letter to Pope Francis, Catholic Online reported. "I hope that every Christian has been able to celebrate the Christmas just past with joy," Bibi wrote. "Like many other prisoners, I also celebrated the birth of the Lord in prison in Multan, here in Pakistan."

"I am facing many problems this winter,” Bibi added, “my cell has no heating and no door for shelter from the bitter cold, the security measures are not adequate, and I do not have enough money for daily needs and am very far from Lahore so my family cannot help me.

“I do not know how long I can go on and on. If I am still alive, it is thanks to the strength that your prayers give me. I have met many people who speak and fight for me. Unfortunately, still to no avail.”

It is, Grim notes, very hard for Americans to comprehend what people in other parts of the world go through simply to practice their faith.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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