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Religious freedom in worldwide decline as U.S. intervention wavers

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 3:40 a.m. MDT

Saint Istvan statue in Budapest, Hungary, where religious freedom is under attack. () Saint Istvan statue in Budapest, Hungary, where religious freedom is under attack. ()

On Wednesday, a Washington Times editorial recounted the self-immolation of two 18-year-old Tibetan monks who, as they set themselves on fire, reportedly said, "Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama; we need religious freedom immediately."

As the editorial noted, this sobering incident occurred on Sept. 26th — the same day Congress temporarily averted a government shutdown and the subsequent disassemblage of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) by passing a continuing resolution that maintains funding for federal operations until Nov. 18th.

USCIRF was originally created by Congress in 1998 to observe religious freedom issues across the globe and lend advice about, among other things, how the State Department can solve religious oppression around the world.

As the date of Nov. 18th nears, USCIRF could once again be facing its potential demise — an event that would be a devastating blow to religious freedom fighters, especially during a time when religious liberty is on the decline around the world, even in Westernized nations like Hungary.

"It is hard to tell at this point exactly what will happen as the political process unfolds," said Cole Durham, the director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University. "It would be unfortunate to lose the commission's role — the commission has been an important part of the overall system with the International Religious Freedom Act."

In September, the House of Representatives felt similarly when it voted 391-21 to continue funding the commission for another two years.

Despite passing the House, the bill is currently blocked in the Senate by an anonymous hold.

"It is true that there is a hold on the bill and it is from an anonymous Democrat," said Leonard A. Leo, chairman of USCIRF and executive vice president of the Federalist Society. "There was a Republican hold on it but that has been lifted. I can't imagine that the Democrats want to be responsible for killing a commission that preserves religious freedom around the world, especially before an election year."

Leo went on to say that the commission is increasingly important during a time when religious freedom is so vital to U.S. foreign relations.

"The irony," he said, "is that when the rest of the world is worried about religious freedom issues; when Canada, Germany and the Netherlands are all trying to mimic what the U.S. is doing, we might lose our commission because of a Democratic hold."

With the fate of USCIRF hanging in the balance, the people of the world face what Durham calls a global erosion of religious freedom.

"It is not a frontal attack, it is erosion by exception." Durham said. "Countries aren't saying we shouldn't have religious freedom altogether. They are saying, 'Well, of course we should have religious freedom, but …,' and then they list exceptions."

Among the most problematic cases according to Durham is last week's legislation passed in Kazakhstan that will reportedly impose a requirement of 5,000 members in order for religious groups to be officially recognized by the state. The law also stipulates that all religious literature be reviewed by the government in addition to stiff registration on missionaries.

Similarly troubling is recent legislation passed in Hungary.

"The Hungary legislation is problematic because it is really surprising." Durham said. "Hungary has become a really European country. So the new law has been very surprising."

In July, Hungary's parliment passed the "Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion" in a landslide 254 to 43 vote. Despite its benign title, various religious and human rights advocates have called the new Hungarian law an assault on religious freedom and human rights. Along with the new law in Kazakhstan, it is another straw-in-the-wind indicating the decline of religious freedom worldwide.

Reports issued by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy state that Hungary's "Religion Law" designates 14 official state religions out of the 358 previously registered in the country. Many minority faiths must reapply for legal recognition, a process that involves a lengthy review from a government minister, gathering 1,000 certified signatures, and then receiving approval by a two-thirds vote from parliament — not to mention a required minimum 20-year presence in the country.

Dr. Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, Freedom House's senior program manager of international religious freedom, was one of 23 scholars, religious leaders and human rights advocates who protested Hungary's law in an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"There is no question that the proposed Hungarian law relegates 'de-registered' religious communities to an inferior status," the letter states in part. "Religious organizations that have been 'de-registered' may not use the name 'Church' and will also lose their status as a religious organization if they are not 're-registered' ... These requirements represent a transparent attempt to suppress minority religious freedom in complete contravention of ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) decisions and U.N. and OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) standards."

A group of politicians, journalists, writers and philosophers from Budapest, Hungary, concurred in a similar letter voicing their dissatisfaction with the law to Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, and Viviane Reding, commissioner for Justice for Fundamental Rights and Citizenship.

"In blatant disregard of Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, only 14 denominations were allowed to retain their recognition as churches and the rights that come with it," the letter reads in part. "In breach of democratic standards separating church from state, the law declared that, in the future, the authority to recognize churches will be a vote by the political parties sitting in Parliament."

According to Brian J. Grim, a senior researcher with the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, Hungary's religion law is not dissimilar to existing religion laws around the world.

"It is certainly common to many countries to limit who is officially recognized," said Grim. "Maybe one religion is given special status or there is a tiered system of recognition. For example, in China you have five officially recognized religions and that's it. And then in Indonesia, by constitution, you can't be a non-religious person and then there are just five recognized religions. So, it's a common thing for governments to say here are the ones we approve of and then there are sometimes other religions that may have some lesser status."

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, religiously motivated hostility in the world went up markedly between 2006 and 2009, as well as government restrictions on religion.

Nearly one third of the world's population lives in a country in which restrictions on religion or hostilities regarding faith have risen, according to the Pew study.

Leo sees these trends as further reason why the U.S. needs the commission in at least some form.

"I've urged the Senate to move as quickly as possible to remove the hold and approve the commission," said Leo. "But, in all honesty I don't know if it will pass."

While the international protection of religious freedom is still a matter of legislation and subject to politcal wrangling as far as the USCIRF is concerned, for the two 18-year-old Tibetan monks who died last month it was clearly matter of life and death.

EMAIL: hboyd@desnews.com

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