Religious Freedom

“In Defense of Christians” Seeks to Protect Brethren from Egypt to Iraq

Bishop Angaleos speaks at the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians. Photo via Lauren Markoe/RNS.

Watching ancient Christian communities stand nearly defenseless as Islamic militants roll across swaths of the Middle East, coalitions of Christians are banding together to sound the alarm and demand government action.

The most recent effort is a three-day conference (Sept. 9-11) in Washington, D.C., which gathered Orthodox Christians, evangelicals, Roman Catholics and others for prayer, speeches and a lobbying push on Capitol Hill.

“If Christian voices are able to ring out as one from Egypt to Syria to Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, then we really do believe it will be possible for Middle Eastern Christians to survive,” said Andrew Doran, executive director of In Defense of Christians, which organized the conference.

Doran, who describes himself as a Catholic with a great affinity for Orthodox Christianity, said the gathering has shown how Middle Eastern Christians can put aside their sometimes 1,500-year-old disagreements and take up the cause of their beleaguered brethren.

Sayeeda Warsi, First Muslim in British Cabinet, Resigns Over 'Indefensible' Gaza Policy

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim member of a British Cabinet. Photo by Kaveh Sardari/Council on Foreign Relations.

The first Muslim to serve in a British Cabinet resigned Tuesday over her government’s “morally indefensible” policies in Gaza and its role in the Middle East peace process.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who served as senior Foreign Office minister for faith and communities, announced her decision on Twitter, saying: “With deep regret I have this morning written to the Prime Minister & tendered my resignation. I can no longer support Govt policy on #Gaza.”

In her resignation letter, Warsi wrote: “I believe our approach in relation to the current conflict is neither consistent with our values, specifically our commitment to the rule of law and our long history of support for International Justice.”

Labour leaders and human rights groups have criticized Britain’s Conservative government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, in recent weeks for not unequivocally condemning Israel’s handling of the Gaza crisis.

Conservative leaders expressed disappointment over Warsi’s “unnecessary” resignation on Tuesday, while Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband said Warsi had acted with “principle and integrity” in deciding to step down.

Rabbi David Saperstein Nominated To Be US Ambassador For Religious Freedom

Saperstein's nomination has been praised by Russell Moore, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and by Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourners, who will himself be lecturing in Huntsville in November 2014 as a guest of the Interfaith Mission Service.

State Dept. Should Act on Pakistan's Religious Freedom Violations, Watchdog Group Says

U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 as an independent, bipartisan body. Public domain image.

An independent religious freedom watchdog panel has welcomed the State Department’s annual religious freedom report and its list of the world’s worst offenders, which had laid dormant for three years.

The list of “countries of particular concern” had remained unchanged since 2006 — and hasn’t been formally issued by the State Department since 2011 — when Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan were cited.

In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the list be doubled to include Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Vietnam, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Egypt. Turkmenistan was the only new addition to this year’s CPC list, bringing the total to nine countries.

The State Department and the independent USCIRF have often been at odds on who makes the list of worst offenders, and in a statement, USCIRF noted the “disappointing omission” of Pakistan in particular.

“Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as CPCs,” said USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett.

China's Grim Religious Freedom Problem

A man waves a flag in May 1989 at China’s Tiananmen Square. Creative Commons image by Robert Croma

While last month marked the 25th anniversary of China’s silencing freedom in Tiananmen Square, this month China has been cementing this grim legacy — particularly regarding religious freedom.

From repressing Muslims to bulldozing churches and tearing down crosses, Chinese officials have been denying the internationally guaranteed right to believe or not believe. The simple proposition that individuals have the right to live out their beliefs openly and peacefully, without fear or intimidation, clearly frightens Chinese authorities, as evidenced by their repressive persecution of numerous faith communities.

During the just-concluded month of Ramadan, China denied Uighur Muslim students, teachers, professors, and government employees the freedom to fast and fulfill related duties. With Ramadan coinciding this year with the commemoration of the Communist Party’s founding, Chinese authorities used the occasion to identify fasting Muslims, particularly in Xinjiang province. Those defying the ban have been subject to threats, detention, and arrests.

In recent years, officials have shut down religious sites; conducted raids on independent schools, leading to multiple injuries and even deaths; confiscated religious literature; restricted private study of the Quran; monitored the sermons of imams and forced them to undergo political training; restricted Muslim dress and religious expression; banned children from being brought to mosques; and arbitrarily deemed religious gatherings and activities “illegal.”

Rabbi David Saperstein Tapped as First Non-Christian to Serve as U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in Washington, D.C. in 2002.

President Obama on Monday said he plans to tap Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, the first non-Christian to hold the job, which was created in 1998.

As ambassador, the man named as the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine in 2009, will head the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, and will be tasked with monitoring religious freedom abuses around the world.

“When it comes to the work of protecting religious freedom, it is safe to say that David Saperstein represents the gold standard,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, announcing the nomination at the State Department.

A Reform rabbi and lawyer, Saperstein, 66, has led the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for 40 years, and has spent his career in Washington, focusing on social justice and religious freedom issues. He was instrumental in the 1993 passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to show a compelling reason for any action that impinges upon the exercise of religion.

Did Obama Finally Thread the Needle on Gay Rights and Religious Freedom?

President Obama signing an executive order on July 21 against hiring discrimination by federal contractors. Public domain image

One of the toughest political calculations in Washington is balancing competing claims of gay rights with the traditional prerogatives of religious freedom. After a number of setbacks on that front, President Obama may have finally found a small patch of middle ground with Monday’s move to bar federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Obama’s executive order shields gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees from discrimination by companies that do work for the federal government by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to long-standing protections from bias based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Yet Monday’s action also leaves in place a 2002 order signed by President George W. Bush that gives religious groups with federal contracts some leeway by allowing them to use religious beliefs as a criterion in making hiring and firing decisions; as a candidate in 2008 Obama pledged to overturn that exemption.

At the same time, Obama did not expand the exemption to explicitly allow religious groups that receive federal funds to use sexual orientation as grounds for hiring and firing, as some demanded.

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