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Alarming Religious Freedom Trends in Democracies Demand Attention

March 10, 2024

We’re not surprised by news of religious persecution in China, where Uyghurs and other religious minorities are disappearing into a vast and growing system of gulags and “reeducation” camps from which many may never return. We’re not surprised by news that pro-Russian separatists and Russian military forces have been targeting and killing evangelicals and other religious minorities in Ukraine. After all, China and Russia are dictatorships, unaccountable to their citizens, uninterested in their commitments, unanswerable for their actions, and unconcerned with the truth.

As Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and Bishop David J. Malloy have lamented, “Sadly, 80% of the world’s inhabitants live in countries where there are high levels of governmental or societal restrictions on religion.”

But totalitarian countries aren’t the only places where religious freedom is under attack. Increasingly, freedom of religion is under direct governmental attack in democracies despite the fact that they recognize it as an inalienable right.

For instance, in the United States, it took the intervention of the Supreme Court after years of contentious and costly legal battles to uphold the right to pray publicly, wear religious dress, gain equal access to public buildings for religious clubs, and be granted reasonable accommodations for religious observances.

Shamefully, in Japan, in what one religious freedom authority has called “the worst religious liberty crisis in the democratic world,” the government is aggressively pursuing the revocation of the legal status of an influential minority church, a move with disturbing implications for other minority religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical Christians. If the Japanese government succeeds, it will be a gift to the communists who aim to destroy Japan.

In Nigeria, which accounts for almost 90% of all Christians martyred worldwide each year – over 52,000 since 2009 – the targeting of Christians “is being carried out with the complicity of the government.”

In France, the “Upholding Republican Values” law, enacted in 2021, provides authorities with broad powers to monitor and dissolve religious organizations and groups they determine to be promoting ideas contrary to French values. The French constitution includes the concept of secularism, and the law prohibits wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public spaces such as schools.

In India, the most religiously diverse country in history, too little is being done to address rogue mobs of vigilantes who routinely defame Christian and Muslim communities in defiance of India’s pristine constitutional protections for religious communities.

All of the democracies above enshrine the freedom of religion in their constitutions but then again, so do the constitutions of China, Russia, North Korea, and Cuba. The words in a constitution or statute are not automatically and frictionlessly translated into the everyday lives and realities of the individuals to whom those freedoms belong. As one religious freedom advocate has written

Constitutional guarantees of liberty are essential, but not sufficient. Religious freedom as a legal right means little unless people of all religions are safe to practice their faith, wear their religious garb, speak their truth and in other ways follow their conscience without fear of discrimination, persecution or violence.

Freedom of religion may not seem all that important to you, but it should. Religious freedom is crucial for promoting and protecting all human rights, as it is interdependent and interrelated with other human rights. The scholar and jurist Gerhard Robbers put it this way

Freedom of religion is a key freedom for human rights. Where there is no freedom of religion all other freedoms suffer, and when there is freedom of religion flourishing, other freedoms are flourishing as well. … He who forgets religion, forfeits life.

Indeed, freedom of religion directly correlates with the stability and prosperity of a society. As the current U.S. International Religious Freedom ambassador Rashad Hussain observed: “Countries and societies that protect their religious freedom are more likely to be safe and prosperous, and countries that do not protect religious freedom are less likely to be stable.” 

We must not overlook the freedom-of-religion violations happening in democracies. A failure to adequately focus on violations that occur in democracies is not only a disservice to those being targeted. It also diminishes the moral authority of democracies that is so desperately needed in order to apply pressure on behalf of those languishing under authoritarian regimes.

The day before his assassination, in his last speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.

King was surely correct then, and his words continue to ring true today – we must be vigilant and demand that our governments’ practices conform to our governments’ principles. If our advocacy for religious freedom is to have any impact on people living under authoritarian regimes, we must not overlook the violations happening in democracies that have pledged themselves to better. We should take a lesson from the good book. They will know us by our fruits. 


This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

Rev. Johnnie Moore was twice appointed to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, serving under Presidents Trump and Biden. He is president of The Congress of Christian Leaders.

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