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Why we keep track of violators of religious liberty

Religious freedom is guaranteed in our U.S. Constitution, but in a perfect world it wouldn't need to be. That's because it should be seen as a fundamental human right. It should be seen as that because it is precisely that.

Religious libertyWhich is one reason our government pays attention to freedom of religion not just in the U.S. but around the world. Each year the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issue reports about which countries are violating this foundational right. Here's a link to the State Department's reports. And here's a link to the USCIRF reports.

Read them and weep.

It's good that State and USCIRF do this, even if most Americans don't know about these reports. What we do know is that the countries that are violating the right to religious freedom know when one or both of those annual reports names them as perpetrators. And often they hate it much more than they put energy into trying to fix things. 

Kelsey Dallas, a religion reporter for the Deseret News in Utah, has written this helpful article about how the U.S. tries to track and publicize countries that violate religious freedom. 

In it she quotes Sam Brownback, the former Kansas governor and senator who later became the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom under former President Donald Trump. Brownback was a miserable governor and a mediocre senator, but he did quite a credible job as religious freedom ambassador. And he was willing to tell Dallas the truth about the pressure writers of these reports are under not to criticize other countries for religious liberty violations.

She writes this: "Although significant, the State Department’s formal tracking and sanctioning process does not tell the whole story of what’s happening around the world when it comes to religious freedom, said Sam Brownback. . .Officials often face pressure to leave certain nations off the list of countries of particular concern due to other policy priorities. And the list also sometimes fails to capture what’s happening in real time.

“'The desk that represents a country … rarely wants it on a sanctions list. They’ll say, "Look, we’re working with them. You’re going to make it harder to work with them,”' Brownback said."

What's important to remember about all of this is that although it's couched in broad language of violations by various countries, it's real people who are being injured when those countries put policies and practices in place that crush religious liberty. Just ask the Uyghur Muslims in China, which, as the BBC has reported, "has detained more than one million Uyghurs against their will over the past few years in a large network of what the state calls 're-education camps', and sentenced hundreds of thousands to prison terms."

That's substantially different from complaints by Americans that they feel persecuted because of the "war on Christmas" or some such.

From now on, I hope you will communicate with your legislators about their responsibilities to advocate for religious freedom everywhere. Loss of that freedom simply dehumanizes people.

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Let's give some applause this weekend to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for creating what this RNS story calls ELCA's "own Truth and Healing Movement to help its 3 million members better understand the 'colonizing impacts' the church has had on Indigenous people, both past and present." As we know from the scandal of Indigenous children dying in government-sponsored but church-run boarding schools, lots of branches of Christianity have blood on their hands and explaining to do for what Native American children suffered. And as we have been reminded recently, the "Doctrine of Discovery," which the Vatican finally just repudiated, led to cultural and ethnic genocide against Native Americans, as I wrote about here a few days ago. My own congregation over the last few years has been doing anti-racism work and one of our focuses has been on Indigenous history and our Indigenous neighbors. In fact, on our church website we have a list of resources -- books, films, podcasts and more -- for both Indigenous and Black/Brown matters. Take a look. Perhaps it will be helpful to you and/or your congregation, if you have one.

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P.S.: My friend Kite Singleton, an architect and a member of my congregation, recently shared with me a pdf of a program he put together several decades ago about Akbar the Great, the Mughal emperor who was Muslim but also was interested in learning about other faith traditions. If you've never learned much about this fascinating man, here, with Kite's permission, is a link to that pdf: Download Akbar-Kite-Singleton


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