Being a student of religious freedom at the intersection of Islam, it was a great opportunity to listen Mr. David Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large at the U.S. State Department’s office of International Religious Freedom, on 10th November 2016 at Loeb Institute of George Washington University, in Washington D.C., United States. It helped to build my knowledge and understanding about different aspects of religious freedom, both in the United States and abroad in addition to the role of United States to ensuring it globally, particularly in the countries with incidents of violence based on religion. The office of International Religious Freedom was established in 1998 at the U.S. State Department but religious freedom has history of constitutional foundations in U.S. which has three clauses dealing directly with religion; i.e. i) ban on any religious stress for office, ii) promise of free exercise in religion, and iii) the ban on government establishment of religion. These three clauses in the U.S. constitution serves as a guarantee of protection for the followers of different faiths and beliefs in the U.S. to live and practice their faiths freely and no one from other faiths can cause any violence or hatred, and for the one’s right to be a citizen of the U.S., he or she is not dependent on their religious identity, beliefs and practices. These clauses also allow different religions and beliefs to flourish and grow within the United States.
In global perspective, there is Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is also reflecting the U.S. ideology of assuring freedom to practice one’s religion and belief around the world, as United States believes that protecting religious freedom is vital not only for the individuals to exercise their religious beliefs and practices but to protect the establishment and stability of peace and security around the world. It also helps in economic growths and nation building of religiously diverse societies through countering violent extremism approaches and practices in society. There are difference research findings that the countries who are/were fail to provide human rights, including the right to practice one’s belief and religion freely, and to counter the extremist groups, they are/ were more porn to the ideologies and violent actions of the extremists and other groups which contribute in the nation’s fragility in all respects including economic, social, and political. There, the minority communities, including religious one, use to be oppressed and excluded from the nation-building and, ultimately, whole nation becomes frustrated in different type of issues but alienated from the growth pacing with rest of world.
Ironically, most religious democracies, i.e. the people with religious beliefs, in the world are India, Indonesia and United States; but when we measure religiosity of people, United States is most tolerant among these three towards minorities and followers of different faiths and beliefs living in and treating with equal citizenship. It is not the case even in some countries of Europe like Germany and France, while in rest of the world, situation is even world, e.g. India, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Iran. In this way, 24% countries and 75% population of the world have serious violations of religious freedom even by governments.
The International Religious Freedom Report, 2015, by the International Religious Freedom office at the U.S. State Department is mainly stating issues related to the blasphemy and apostasy laws by the governments around the world. In the Muslim countries whose laws and legislations are based on Shariah, i.e. Islamic teachings and values, the punishment for a blasphemous and apostates is death, only, which use to cause serious violations against the religious minorities there, mainly due to the misuse of such laws for personal and political objectives by influentials in their social disputes. Pakistan has serious issue where around 40 people are on death row, majority of those are Muslims. There are also issues at the government levels as well, e.g. non-Muslim cannot be a citizen of Saudi Arabia, prisons and persecutions against Sunni, Wahhabi, Bhai sects in Iran, death sentence incidents of Christians for blasphemy in Nigeria, getting permission of every single religious activity by the government in Vietnam, religious-lessness in North Korea, you cannot be a citizen of Maldives other than a Sunni Muslim, and bans on veil (naqaab) in France. On the other side, things are also improving in different countries like Pakistan, where the government working vigorously to crack down of false accusations resulting in people’s death. The same hopes are emerging at public level; e.g. Muslim passengers refused to differentiate Christians when Al-Shabaab, an extremist Muslim militant group in Somalia, kidnap a bus to kill Christian passengers after identification, and Muslim religious leaders come forward to cool down the mobs of violence against Christians in Pakistan. There is also significant improvement in Vietnam as well.
The office of International Religious Freedom at the U.S. State Department was established in 1998 as a result of international religious freedom act passed by the congress. Ambassador-at-Large was appointed at the office but with global responsibility to represent the President of U.S. all over the world in matters of religious freedom. The International Religious Freedom office at U.S. State Department has around 25 staff members assist Ambassador -at-Large to monitor the situation of religious freedom all over the world, document them in its annual report, and mediate them by engaging governments, supporting civil society organizations and like-minded religious leaders via the Embassy of U.S. in that particular country. The office also organizes different training programs specific to the religious freedom in religiously tough countries at local level in order to impact local behaviors and attitudes and it has $ 3.2 million annual budget for all of its operations but that is resulting in impacts at significant level.