Monday, September 28, 2009

Bald Eagle Case Sparks Debate

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. - On Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, Winslow Friday is preparing to surrender in his long fight with the federal government.

The seeds of the conflict were planted four years ago, when Friday shot a bald eagle from a tree. His cousin needed a tail fan for an upcoming Sun Dance, the Northern Arapaho tribe’s most important religious ceremony, and Friday wanted to help.

So when he spotted the bird, he seized his chance.
Charged with killing an eagle in violation of federal law, Friday argued that the law hinders the practice of his religion - a battle closely watched on the reservation.

Friday is giving up, though. Having exhausted his legal options, he’s hoping for a plea agreement that would avoid a trial. “The attorneys say that [a trial] would be a losing battle,’’ said Friday, 25.
Friday’s case represents the latest and most high-profile fight in a string of battles over how to balance conservation with religious liberty.

Once endangered, the bald eagle has rebounded in recent decades but remains - along with the golden eagle - under the protection of the federal Eagle Protection Act.

The law provides an exception for American Indians who want eagles for ceremonies: They can acquire birds from the repository or may apply for a permit to “take,’’ or kill, an eagle. Many tribes eschew both options, saying the former can take years and yield unsuitable specimens.

In Wyoming, Friday didn’t pursue either option before he killed the eagle, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

In 2006, a federal judge dismissed the case. Prosecutors appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which ruled in favor of the government and ordered Friday to stand trial. This year, the US Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal. Federal prosecutors declined to comment on Friday’s case.

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sentence Not Political Says Kazakhstan FM

ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan, responding to fierce criticism by international rights groups, has denied that the conviction of human rights activist and government critic Yevgeny Zhovtis was politically motivated.
A court this month sentenced Zhovtis to four years in prison for violation of traffic regulations following a July accident in which his car struck and killed a pedestrian.

Zhovtis, 54, said the harshness of the sentence handed down to him in a brief trial was linked to his professional activities and called the verdict politically charged.

He was accused of failing to make an emergency stop. He said he was blinded by the lights of oncoming cars and could not have prevented the accident.

In a statement issued late on Monday, Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev said the verdict was in line with Kazakh law.

"The rule of law principle means the law is equal for everyone," Ashykbayev said. "According to available statistics, there have been 176 such tragic cases in Kazakhstan in January-July and in 136 cases (76 percent) defendants were sentenced to prison terms.

"This proves that the Zhovtis case is not 'exclusive' at all."

Monday, September 21, 2009

U.S. Faith-Based Hiring Policy Challenged

Nearly 60 groups are pressing the Obama administration to put an end to a Bush-era policy that allowed federally-funded faith-based groups to hire only fellow believers.

In a letter sent September 17, the 58 groups – which include the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Human Rights Campaign – asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., to direct the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to review and ultimately withdraw a 2007 memorandum that they say "threatens crucial religious freedom protections."

“The OLC Memo's interpretation that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 ("RFRA") provides for a blanket override of statutory nondiscrimination provisions is erroneous and threatens core civil rights and religious freedom protections,” wrote the groups, many of which are also members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD).

“We accordingly request that the Obama Administration publicly announce its intention to review the OLC Memo, and that at the end of that review, withdraw the OLC Memo and expressly disavow its erroneous interpretation of RFRA, the most significant free exercise protection of the post-Smith era,” they concluded.
The hiring policy of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has been a source of controversy since Bush established the office in 2001 and Obama had vowed on the presidential campaign trail to reverse the hiring policy so that groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to discriminate based on religion.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Symposium of the Americas on Liberty

There is a very strong link between religious liberty and the preservation of a democratic state, according to the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard University, affirmed this link when she discussed an international symposium to be held Sept. 25-26 in Mexico City.

"Voices: The Secular State and Religious Liberty" will consider the state of religious freedom on the whole American continent.

The event will cover "a variety of topics, from the application of religious liberty in an international context, to specific issues in several countries of the American continent," organizers explained.

Experts from Canada to Chile will focus on philosophical principles, historical antecedents and challenges that religious liberty faces in American countries, particularly Mexico.

IRLA Forming in Mongolia

Religious freedom supporters in Mongolia this month moved to form a national chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), a step they hope will encourage the government to implement greater principles of freedom of belief.

If officially approved, the new Mongolian Religious Liberty Association -- comprised of religious, government and academia members -- will encourage a more literal interpretation of the nation's constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.

While the government has increasingly adopted democratic principles, some experts say strict control of churches still exists in wake of the country's recent communist past.

"We hope Mongolia will follow the United Nations recommendations for religious freedom and that every religion and believer will live at peace and be respected," said John Graz, IRLA secretary-general.

The possible Mongolia IRLA was suggested at this month's symposium on religious freedom in Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar, on September 9. Among the 50 participants were representatives from academic and government institutions and religious faiths, including Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics, Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists.

"This is an important step in the development of religious liberty in Mongolia," said Paul Kotanko, director of the Adventist Church's Mongolia Mission and local IRLA representative.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bhutan Dissident: RF Remains Uncertain

Delhi (AsiaNews) – Bhutan’s democratisation is all for show; it exists only “on paper” and is of little relevance to the population, this according to Karma Duptho, secretary of the Druk National Congress (DNC), a Bhutanese political movement operating in exile. He has harsh words for the Bhutan government on a number of issues, from Nepali refugees to the free press, from an independent judiciary to respect for human rights and religious freedom, issues that have not yet found a solution in the small mountain kingdom in the Himalayas, caught between China and India. 

On the issue of religious freedom, the DNC secretary said that it “was absent until the promulgation of the constitution last year, but” even now “ we can never be certain whether the constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of religion will be upheld.”

“There are reports of Buddhist culture and religion being imposed on ordinary people,” he said. Members of “other faiths are at risk of attacks, arrests and other forms of persecution including arbitrary detention and arrests from officials,”

Pakistan Minister to Revise Blasphemy Law

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Pakistan's minister for minority affairs promised Thursday to work to amend blasphemy laws used to target non-Muslims and said he was ready to die fighting.

Shahbaz Bhatti visited Washington at the invitation of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which awarded him a first-of-a-kind medallion for championing the rights of minorities in the Islamic state.

"The stand of the Pakistani government is to review, revisit and amend blasphemy laws so it will not remain a tool in the hands of extremists," Bhatti told commissioners from the bipartisan US government agency.
"They are using this law to victimize minorities as well as Muslims of Pakistan. This law is creating disharmony and intolerance in our society."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Congressmen Call for RF in China

Two U.S. Congressmen expressed deep concern in a letter sent to the U.S. Ambassador to China after China allegedly issued a secret directive calling for the dismantling of six house churches in Beijing.

Critics believe the secret directive is made to strengthen the Communist Party ahead of the 60th anniversary of its foundation on October 1, 2009.

Congressmen Frank Wolf from Virginia and Chris Smith from New Jersey, both Republicans who have visited one of the Churches prior to 2008 Olympics, in a letter sent on September 8th to the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, congratulated him on his new position, while also calling the issue of religious freedom in China to his attention.

“We are deeply concerned over a recent report that a secret directive has been issued by the Chinese government to dismantle six leading house churches in Beijing,” they wrote.

“We urge you to affirm the U.S. position prioritizing religious freedom, and to publicly state the vital importance of religious freedom to a modern nation.”

Moderate Baptist Receives RF Award

RICHMOND, Va. (ABP) -- Cecil Sherman, a pivotal figure in moderate Baptist life for the past half century, was formally recognized Sept. 10 for his fierce commitment to religious freedom as Associated Baptist Press presented him one of its top awards before a room filled with his family, friends and colleagues.

The recognition is “truly a celebration of life -- A life devoted to truth and truth-telling; to integrity, honesty and courage; in defense of the bedrock Baptist principles we hold dear, for which our forebears sacrificed immensely; and in service to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the freedom it offers,” said ABP Executive Director David Wilkinson in presenting the news service’s Religious Freedom Award. The presentation came at a banquet in Richmond, Va.

A Vow on Religious Freedom in S. Sudan

The Sudan Tribune reports recently, that the First Vice President of Sudan and president of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit [have] stressed the importance of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence in the semi-autonomous region.

Kiir addressing the advisory council of Muslims in South Sudan reiterated the respect of Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) “respects all religions and treating them without discrimination.”

He added that there is no turning back from spreading the religious freedoms as well as tolerance and brotherhood in the South.

The SPLM chief condemned “individual acts” that caused harm to Islamic institutions in the South and said that the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) will support the convention morally and financially.
The South Sudan Muslims’ advisory council agreed on holding conferences in South Sudan for the states during the ongoing holy month of Ramadan and endorsed the charter so that it can be presented to the members next month for final approval.
Copyright © 2003-2008 SudanTribune - All rights reserved.

Malaysian Stand on Religious Freedom Criticized

Be bold and push harder.

That’s the message NGOs have for Suhakam, whose powers are limited.

There were lofty expectations when Suhakam was formed on Sept 9, 1999. A decade on, many human rights advocates feel the commission has not lived up to them.

Last year’s notice by the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC) to Suhakam over its failure to comply with the Paris Principles (which set international standards for independent national human rights institutions) and the threat of a possible “downgrading” in its rating bring various concerns into focus.

If downgraded, Suhakam will, among other things, lose its right to speak at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Edmund Bon, chairperson of the Bar Council’s Constitutional Law Committee, says: “Suhakam’s numerous fact-finding reports on issues such as police brutality, freedom of assembly, education, children, women, the indigenous community and poverty have very progressive recommendations that are in line with international human rights norms.

Religious freedom group in Israel launched

LOS ANGELES (JTA) -- An organization calling for full religious freedom and diversity in Israel was launched September 15th in Tel Aviv.

Hiddush, a Hebrew word for innovation and renewal,  is headed by President and CEO Rabbi Uri Regev, a native Israeli and until recently president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and Chairman Stanley Gold , a Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist.

A statement released by the organization blames the lack of freedom of religion in Israel on “a chief rabbinate and an ultra-Orthodox ideology” that controls the lives of Israeli Jews “from birth to death and almost everything in between.”

A survey of 1,200 Israelis conducted on behalf of the organization showed that 92 percent of Israel’s secular Jews favored abolishing the Orthodox monopoly on marriage. Among all respondents, 84 percent opposed the exemption of military duty for yeshiva students, and 83 percent supported freedom of religion and conscience.

Bashing Islam - Dangerous Sign of Times


The school year started off with an unpleasant bang in Gainesville, Fla., when a fifth-grader showed up on the first day wearing a T-shirt with "Islam is of the Devil" inscribed on the back.

Administrators sent the 10-year-old home to change clothes. But the next day several other students at two high schools and a middle school arrived wearing the same message. All were told to cover it up or go home. The local church responsible for the T-shirt, Dove World Outreach Center, is unapologetic about the school campaign. 

Church members had already erected a sign on church property proclaiming "Islam is of the Devil" to passersby.
According to the pastor, the church has a Christian duty to expose Islam as a "violent and oppressive religion."
Under the First Amendment, Dove World has the right to proclaim its beliefs about Islam, no matter how much it offends others. But the kids in the congregation may have to wait until after school to put on the T-shirts. Students do have some free-speech rights in schools. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the authority of school officials to draw the line at student speech that they can reasonably forecast will cause a substantial disruption. It's very likely that the Dove World T-shirt crosses that line, especially since Muslim students attend Gainesville schools.

Beyond the constitutional issues, however, the controversy points to the larger, more difficult question of how we engage one another in a public square that is increasingly poisoned by hatred and division. Dove World's anti-Islam initiative is not unique. Post-9/11, a growing number of churches inspired by some evangelical leaders such as Ron Paisley and Pat Robertson have condemned Islam in harsh terms. As Robertson puts it, terrorists don't distort Islam, they are "carrying out Islam."

Apart from the fact that these ugly generalizations are distortions of Islamic teachings and wildly misrepresent the views of the vast majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims, Islam-bashing on this scale threatens American Muslims and undermines the common good. It's impossible to measure the effect of anti-Islam rhetoric on those who take it to the next level and commit acts of violence. But we do know that attacks targeting Muslim Americans are a significant problem across the country.

Last month, for example, a Philadelphia business owned by Muslim Palestinian-Americans was ransacked and covered with angry graffiti telling the owners to "go home." And in Smithtown, N.Y., a man was arrested for threatening to kill a Muslim mother and her daughter and trying to run them down with his car. Both incidents are being investigated as hate crimes.

Most Americans recognize the problem. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly six in 10 adults say U.S. Muslims are subject to more discrimination than any other major religious group. Back in Gainesville, some local residents living near Dove World are countering the anti-Islam message by speaking up for their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens.