If you want to know the state of religious freedom at the start of this new year, I got a revealing and sobering glimpse yesterday at the United Nations.
I took part in a panel discussion to observe Religious Freedom Day. It coincided with a Pew Report released earlier this week: “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High.” The panel consisted of the V. Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church of America; Dr. Brian Grim of Pew Research Center; Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis; the Rev. Chloe Breyer, an Episcopal priest and director of the Interfaith Center of New York; Imam Khalid Latif, director of the Islam Center at NYU; and me, representing CNEWA.
The Pew Report employs two important ways of measuring religious freedom or lack thereof around the world: government restrictions and societal hostilities. Over the past several years each of the Pew Reports has shown increasing government restrictions and societal hostilities against (usually minority) religions. The most recent report shows an alarming increase in societal hostilities, including incidences where people have been killed for their faith.
In my paper, I offered several observations.
First, it seems to me that the notion of religion is not necessarily clear. When many people speak of religion they have an image of a Christian church with a clear organizational structure, with official spokespersons, etc. That is not the case with other — indeed, most — religions. Religions and faith traditions such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, to say nothing of indigenous religions, are far less centrally organized than the average western, Christian church or denomination. Therefore, it is not always clear what a religion is or what its “borders” are. In its language about freedom of religion, the U.N. reflects this ambiguity by referring routinely to “freedom of religion or belief” without indicating what, if anything, the distinction might be.
Secondly, I noted that the majority of countries experiencing increased governmental restrictions and society hostilities were those that use some type of religious marker in their self-identification. In almost no country were these restrictions and hostilities directed at all religions; it is usually the religious freedom of only some religions that is compromised or threatened. The government isn’t always the only antagonist, either. In many, if not most, cases there are clear elements of religion vs. religion involved.
The problem is often one of conflicting rights. When the legitimate rights of one group or one individual conflict with the legitimate rights of another, there are few if any mechanisms to solve the conflict while at the same time respecting the rights and religious freedom of those involved. Further, the dichotomy of government/religion is too facile; governments and religion very often overlap.
These problems are both complicated and urgent. Even though the international community has spoken about freedom of religion since the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Pew Studies indicate that the situation is in fact deteriorating.
Perhaps the time is right for research into how competing rights claims can be settled for the sake of the common good without compromising people’s fundamental rights.