PROVO — People across the world are suffering from persecution. "And why are they suffering?" John Graz said. "Are they dangerous for their country? Are they bad people? No, most of the time they are good people. But they are suffering, they are discriminated against, they are excluded only because of their religion."
Graz is the public affairs and religious liberty director for the Seventh-day Adventist world church and is secretary general for the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA). He carries the message of religious freedom across the world — speaking in conferences and with politicians, religious leaders and scholars. He spoke recently at BYU at the 22nd annual conference of the LDS International Society about the global challenges and trends affecting religious freedom.
Religious intolerance does not spare any group — Muslims, Christians and other religious groups, Graz said. Even people who belong to majority religions in their countries experience problems.
A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that 70 percent of the world's population live in countries where they have no religious freedom or a lot of restrictions. The same study found that religious freedom is protected in a majority of countries. "This is good news," Graz said. "But we can lose it. We need to send a strong message that we love religious freedom. We want to keep it."
But religious freedom is being more frequently challenged across the world. "This is not good news," Graz said.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes freedom of religion as a basic human right. In Article 18 it says, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."
But even though such a statement puts advocates of religious freedom in a strong moral position, Graz is seeing a shift. "It would be impossible today at the United Nations to have such an article accepted by the majority."
The "freedom to change his religion" would not be allowed. "You would have, at once, 55 to 60 countries say, 'No! We cannot accept that,'" Graz said.
There are three trends that challenge religious freedom, according to Graz.
1. Governments want to control religion more.
This is the direct approach. Governments are passing more laws that discriminate. For example, Graz referred to the Pakistan blasphemy laws. On the face of them, laws like this are promoted to protect religion, but they end up, Graz said, being used most often by strong and secure religious majorities to persecute religious minorities.
2. Governments are partnering with religion against minority religions.
The outward goal looks like governments and religion working in unity to build up the nation — but the quid pro quo for the religion is a little help from the government to stop religious dissenters and pesky competition from religious minorities. And if minority religions are left out of the partnership, they are seen as with more suspicion.
3. Religions see proselytism as an attack.
Proselytism is seen as dangerous for religious peace. Graz said Christian leaders see religious freedom as a cover for proselytism. But those very same churches will also proselytize. "They want to marginalize part of Christianity because they feel threatened," Graz said.
There is an increased sensitivity about what people are saying about their religions. The different religions all feel like they are being attacked. Islam feels it is under attack, Graz said, so it proposed a U.N. resolution on defamation of religion. Western Christianity feels under attack, so, for example, the Swiss vote to ban Muslim minarets.
Graz told the gathering of religious liberty experts at BYU there were things that can be done to reverse the trends. "Be responsible in our writing and speaking," Graz said: Think before we do something. Ask what will be the outcome.
He recommended entering interreligious dialog. "You need to meet people from other religions, including Muslims, Jews and Hindus. We need to be proactive. We can't promote religious freedom if we have no contact with religious leaders."
Around the world he said religious people should get involved in the community — particularly if they are members of a minority religion. "The way they will look at you will be different than if you are isolated in your corner," Graz said.
"People are afraid about religion. When they see people who are dedicated to their religion, they are afraid they may become fanatics which will lead to religious war again," Graz said.
But history shows that religious freedom is the antidote to these conflicts, not the cause. "It took centuries of misunderstanding, tensions and war to have religious freedom," Graz said.
"From time to time, courageous people — heroes of freedom — stood for religious freedom and sometime they gave their life," Graz said. "And we should never, never forget them."