Religious Freedom in the third Millenium

John Graz September/October 2006

During the night of March 27, 2005, large graffiti was written on the walls of the Adventist Theological College in Belgrade, Serbia, with these words: "Death to Adventists" and "Death to Sabbatarians." In 2004, 26 Adventist churches and institutions were attacked. In all, more than 100 incidents targeting religious minorities were recorded that year.

Similar attacks have been recorded in Euro-Asia, in Georgia, and in Russia, where religious minorities have been targeted by religious nationalists, with the support of the media and the passivity of the police. In March 2005, in the city of Eisk, Krasnodar Region, Adventists were accused by the media and religious authorities of undermining the morality of the society because they do not believe in the immortality of the soul. A contact in the area reported that "a local TV channel stated that Adventists made a sacrifice of children."

In some states in India, Christians are regularly attacked. A report from Compass Direct (New Delhi, June 21, 2005) says that "eleven Christian families who were physically attacked in Jamanya village, Jalgaon district, Maharashta state, on May 16, now face social ostracism after they accused Hindu villagers of sexual assault."

How are religions interacting in the world today?
In his controversial book The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order , Samuel P. Huntington writes: "In the modern world, religion is a central, perhaps the central, force that motivates and mobilizes people." About 40 years ago religion did not play a major role in world affairs. That is not the case today. Religion affects politics and international relations. Religious forces can destabilize a country and create a major problem for peace. Religious leaders are playing a growing role in society at large. The riots in England a few years ago, and later in France, led to civil authorities asking religious leaders for help in calming the violence.

Yes, religion and religious leaders are playing a growing role today. Having stated that, we should be particularly concerned because all religions feel threatened in one way or another, and there are growing tensions between religions.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been seen by many in the Muslim world as an attack by Christians. We have the same reactions in India with the fundamentalist Hindus and in Sri Lanka with the nationalist Buddhists.

Inside the "Christian world" the same feeling of invasion is shared by the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe and Russia and by some Catholics in Latin America. Traditional religion feels under attack from Protestants or new religious movements. The Christian family also feels under attack when it comes to immigration in traditional Christian countries. An article entitled "Relations With Islam," by Daniel Williams and Alan Cooperman, says: "Many people in the Vatican view Christianity as under siege in parts of the world. They say that Christian populations are shrinking in countries in the Middle East in part because of long-term discrimination and repression by Muslim majorities." It is very clear that there are more and more mosques in traditional Christian countries and fewer and fewer churches in Muslim countries. It is impossible to build a church in the territory of Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia has financed construction of mosques and schools in Europe, including in Rome.

Paradoxically, the Western concept of church-state separation, which gives such strength to religious practice in the United States, and which has become the creed of secular countries, is making Christianity the least-defended religion in the world on a geopolitical level.

Islam is the religion of the majority in 44 countries. In 22 countries, Islam is the official religion, and 10 countries are Islamic states according to their constitution. At least 4 countries have Buddhism as the state religion. Most of the traditional Christian countries are now secular. Christianity does not have a geopolitical visibility. As an example, the United Nations adopted without any question the idea that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are a violation of human rights and should be sanctioned. It was far more difficult for the nations represented to accept that Christian phobia is also a violation of human rights.

Anthony Browne, in an article "Church of Martyrs," writes that "rising nationalism and fundamentalism around the world have meant that Christianity is going back to its roots as the religion of the persecuted."

Just think about the thousands of Christians who have been killed in the Moluccas, Eastern Indonesia, the 5 million Christians who live as an underclass in Pakistan, and the Christians under the oppression of the Sharia law in 12 states of Nigeria. In Sri Lanka, according to Christian leaders I met on a recent visit, about 150 Christian churches were attacked in 2004. Pending anti-conversion legislation in that country has as its real aim a restriction of Christian activity.

In some states of India anti-conversion legislation has been passed, and some pastors have been beaten and others killed with the purpose of terrorizing the Christian community.

The blasphemy law in Pakistan aimed essentially at Christians, establishes systematic religious discrimination, and promotes a culture of intolerance. Christians are seen as pro-American and promoting pro-Western culture, indeed as potential spies, in many parts of the world where they are a minority.

According to Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Centre for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., 200 million Christians face violence because of their faith and 350 million face legally sanctioned discrimination in terms of access to jobs and housing. Today, all religions may feel threatened, but we can say that Christianity, even though it is not without resources, is probably the least-defended religion on a geopolitical level.

Where are we going?
The concept of "clash of civilizations" is a little simplistic when it comes to reality, but it stimulates our understanding of the current situation. A religious war on a planetwide level is very difficult to imagine, but extremists already have enough power and influence in several countries to change politics and increase the level of discrimination for religious minorities.

Religious cleansing is the not-so-hidden goal of all religious extremists. We seem headed for more tensions between religions. And persecution is the by-product of that tension. We may also have religious wars in parts of the world such as India and Nigeria. In cases of deep crisis, we can imagine that the scapegoat of every society will have a religious dimension.

Christians are becoming the scapegoats in the Middle East and Asia. They are a minority, and they have links with the West and especially with the powerful America that is seen as a Christian nation.

Muslims can be the scapegoats in America and Europe because of their links, real or imagined, with terrorism. We have many examples of innocent Muslims being harassed, arrested, and detained.

What can we do?
The global trends are not in favor of religious freedom in the world today. It seems there is a great battle to come, and we must be ready to play our historical role in defending religious freedom for all. I believe we should champion the principle of church-state separation. We must build a strong international network to defend religious liberty—the International Religious Liberty Association is one such network. We should work in partnership with others on specific issues or cases and encourage interreligious dialogue. More and more we have to explain to governments, through such means as our interventions at the United Nations and in meetings with officials, that religious discrimination is not good politics. Involvement is healthy. In his article "The Politics of Persecuted Religious Minorities," Philip Jenkins writes: "The more they (minorities) are excluded, the more they will devote their loyalties and efforts to the religious subculture, and the more they will be seen as clannish, separatists, or subversive.

If you believe in religious freedom, don't give up; we need you.
If you believe that religious freedom is far more than freedom of worship or religious tolerance, don't give up; we need you.

The world needs you.
Don't give up. Be proactive. Be the voice of the voiceless—the millions persecuted for their faith. We need your commitment. We need to promote, defend, and protect religious freedom for all peoples. Freedom is truly a gift from God.

Dr. John Graz is Executive Director of the International Religious Liberty Association and Secretary General of the Christian World Communion. He writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.

1 Forum 18 News Service, by Branko Bjelajoc: "Serbia: Increased Attacks on Religious Minorities", June 10, 2005, p 2.
2 A Touchstone book, Published by Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997, p 66.
3 Washington Post Foreign Service, April 12, 2005.
4 See Tad Stahnke and Robert C Blitt, The Religion-State Relationship and the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Comparative Textual Analysis of the Constitutions of Predominantly Muslim Countries, USCIRF,, March 2005.
5 Europe Correspondent of The Times, 2005 copyright, The Spectator, 56 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LL, 26.03, 2005.
6 See Anthony Browne, op cit.
7 In Religion & Security, The Nexus of International Relations, Edited by Robert A Seiple, Dennis R Hoover. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, Lanham, Maryland, 2004, p 33.

Article Author: John Graz

John Graz is secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association.