As Americans, it’s almost impossible to imagine the idea that the government would possess and register information about our religious beliefs, much less that the government would print such information on our ID cards. Or, it seems absurd that the government would use that information to regulate the kind of education our kids would receive, who we could marry or what kind of burial service we would be given.
But as the U.S. State Department’s 2015 International Religious Freedom Report, released this week, makes clear, religious registration requirements are on the rise around the world. Today, nearly 90 percent of all countries require their citizens to register their religion with the government in some way. As can be seen across the Middle East and North Africa, once the government possesses that information, it can be used to regulate behavior and control populations in a variety of ways.
The IRF report is a crucial tool for the nongovernmental community and other governments in that the report has a strong reputation and is widely respected across the international religious freedom community.
This year’s report makes plain that three-quarters of the world’s population lives in countries that lack basic protections for religious freedom. The State Department and the President have been given a broad mandate by Congress to advance religious freedom around the world, as this freedom is one of the most central, core freedoms recognized by government.
What are the trends for 2015?
Last year’s report highlighted, for the first time, the rise of non-state actors as a threat to religious freedom, citing specifically the so-called Islamic State and the terrorist organization formerly known as Boko Haram operating in and around Nigeria. This trend continues today and indeed has worsened. Last year, President Obama formally declared that the Islamic State had committed genocide against religious minorities in the Levant, including Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.
In introducing the report, Ambassador Saperstein highlighted the “chilling and sometimes deadly” scourge of apostasy and blasphemy laws. According to the Ambassador, “roughly a quarter of the world’s countries have blasphemy laws, and one in ten have laws that penalize apostasy.” The spread and further justification of these laws presents one of the most pressing threats to religious expression and belief in the world today.
And it seems that apostasy laws are only becoming more entrenched, legally and theologically, at least within the Islamic world. In June of this year, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam—one of the foremost authorities of mainstream Sunni Islam in the world—declared that to leave Islam is “treason” and must be punished by death.
Many of the world’s top Islamic leaders and scholars are trained at Al-Azhar, and the institution wields enormous influence in the Islamic world. That this institution is promoting the death penalty for one’s beliefs ought to shock the conscience.
What happens next?
After preparing the IRF Report, the State Department is required by law to designate a list of “countries of particular concern.” Once a country has been so designated, the President is authorized to take a number of actions, from diplomatic steps to formal economic sanctions.
We will have to wait to see whether any new countries are designated—and whether any additional action is taken—based on the contents of this year’s report. But in the meantime, the ERLC continues to advocate for Congress to strengthen the State Department’s toolbox for promoting religious freedom. According to Matthew Hawkins, Coalitions Director for ERLC, “Amb. Saperstein’s report underscores the need for the Senate to pass what the House already unanimously approved with bipartisan support: modernize The International Religious Freedom Act. The bill rests in the hands of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and they have plenty of time to get to the President’s desk for signature before the end of this session.”
What about religious freedom in the United States?
The legitimacy of this IRF report—and all advocacy by the American government on religious liberty issues—is directly related to the extent to which religious liberty is protected within the United States. For example, if we seek to advance religious freedom for Christians abroad while repressing Muslims at home, we lose legitimacy and open ourselves to the argument that these policies are just cultural imperialism. The extent to which we fight for religious freedom at home is the extent to which we have the legitimacy to fight for religious freedom for Christians internationally.