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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Freedom of Religion Under Attack Around the World

Thomas Reese visiting scholar

Thomas Reese visiting scholar

What Exactly Does Religious Freedom Entail?

Father Tom Reese, S.J.

After three years on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—one as chair—Tom Reese, S.J., begins his talk on this work with the question, What is freedom of religion? The answer, he says, is not obvious.

A senior analyst at National Catholic Reporter, Reese gave his talk as part of his annual visiting fellowship at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  He argued that freedom of religion includes freedom of belief (including the freedom not to believe), but also freedom of worship.  In addition, the definition includes the freedom to change one’s religion and to persuade another to change his or her religious beliefs voluntarily. 

These freedoms were further defined in USCIRF’s 2014 annual report as:

  • the rights of worship, observance, practice, expression, and teaching, broadly construed,
  • wearing religious dress or symbols;
  • observing dietary restrictions;
  • participating in rituals associated with certain stages of life;
  • possessing property rights regarding meeting places; and maintaining the freedom to manage religious institutions,
  • possess, publish, and distribute liturgical and educational materials, and raise one's children in the religious teachings and practice of one's choice.

The Commission’s job is to monitor freedom of religion around the world and to identify “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), which Reese describes as “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing and egregious.”  Last year, USCIRF designated six CPS, in addition to 10 so-designated by the U.S. State Department.  USCIRF’s list included Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

As an illustration, Reese discussed religious conflicts in Nigeria, which has a mostly Muslim northern region and a mostly Christian south.  Nigeria was designated a CPC because its government has not been able to protect its citizens from violent, religiously-based conflicts.

In fact, a lack of protection against private groups, such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram, is among the problem areas the commission finds most frequently.  Others include laws against conversion, blasphemy, or insulting religion; and laws requiring registration and control of religion.

Aug 8, 2017

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