Tuesday, October 27, 2009

U.S. Hits Effort on Religious Speech

The United States opposes an effort by Muslim nations at the United Nations to ban religious "defamation," because the proposal would conflict with freedom of speech.

"Based on our own experience, we are convinced that the best antidote to intolerance is not the defamation of religions' approach of banning and punishing offensive speech, but rather a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, proactive government outreach to minority religious groups and the vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said to reporters.

She made her comments while unveiling the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom.

A pending resolution before the U.N. General Assembly sponsored by the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is to be voted on in mid-November.
The effort has gained momentum since the 2005 publication by a Danish newspaper of editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Mrs. Clinton said: "Religion provides a cornerstone for every healthy society. It empowers faith-based service. It fosters tolerance and respect among different communities, and allows nations that uphold it to become more stable, secure and prosperous."

The United States and many European nations fear the anti-defamation resolution will protect religion at the expense of freedom of speech and worship, which are guaranteed by the U.N. Charter.

Christian groups fear the resolution could endanger the lives of worshippers living abroad. Israel says it rejects the resolution, as do many human rights organizations.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Military RFF Nominated for Peace Prize

Albuquerque-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a civil rights charitable organization that has worked both fearlessly and tirelessly to stop religious discrimination and oppression in the United States armed forces, has been nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Since its founding in 2005, the MRFF has become the undisputed national and international leader in the civil rights movement to restore the severely fractured wall between church and state in the United States military and to stop the ill effects of noxious religious discrimination both domestically and abroad. The growing organization currently has over 15,000 constituent clients from today’s American active duty military, amazingly most of them practicing Christians. MRFF has also fought aggressively for the Constitutional rights of United States service members who are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, agnostics and other religious minorities, and to stop the unbridled proselytizing of Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and other foreign nationals by the U.S. military.

While the Nobel committee does not officially release the names of nominees for 50 years, the letter nominating the MRFF was authorized for release by the Foundation, though redacted so as not to reveal the identity of the nominating source at his request. The nominator of MRFF for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize is identified as a Senator from a foreign nation, which is an ally of the United States, and the only Christian legislator in the upper chamber of that country’s national parliament.
The nomination letter states, “The past accomplishments and ongoing critical work of the MRFF have gained this civil rights organization the profound respect of officers and officials in the highest ranks of the United States military...”.

The MRFF has tenaciously taken on the U.S. military with a bold, brave approach to stopping the systemic and embedded discrimination against those who are not fundamentalist Christians in today’s armed forces, as well as against the citizens of the Islamic countries where our military is presently engaged in combat operations. Such egregious acts of bigotry and prejudice include violence and threats against U.S. sailors, soldiers, marines, airmen, cadets and midshipmen who will no longer accept the unconstitutional abuse of forced religious oppression from their military chains of command.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Suppression of Buddhists in Vietnam

The violent forced expulsion of more than 300 followers of the world-renowned Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh from Bat Nha monastery in late September highlights the Vietnamese government's suppression of religious freedom, according to Human Rights Watch.

In 2005, the Vietnamese government welcomed Thich Nhat Hanh during his first return to his homeland after 39 years in exile abroad. Government and religious officials subsequently invited him to open a Buddhist meditation center at Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province, which soon began to draw large numbers of followers.

But on September 27, 2009, police officers cordoned off the monastery as more than 100 thugs and undercover police officers armed with sticks and hammers broke down the doors and forcefully evicted 150 monks - all followers of Thich Nhat Hanh - beating some of the monks in the process. Police reportedly arrested two senior monks, Phap Hoi and Phap Sy, whose whereabouts remain unknown. The next day, in response to threats and coercion, more than 200 Buddhist nuns, also adherents of Thich Nhat Hanh, fled the monastery, seeking temporary refuge with the monks at a nearby pagoda.

"Once again Vietnam has clamped down on a peaceful religious group - even one that was initially welcomed by the government," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government views many religious groups, particularly popular ones that it fears it can't control, as a challenge to the Communist Party's authority."

The crackdown is thought to be linked in part to proposals Thich Nhat Hanh made during a private meeting with President Nguyen Minh Triet in 2007 - and later made public - urging the government to ease its restrictions on religion.

All religious groups must be authorized by the government and overseen by government-appointed management committees. For Buddhists - the majority of the population - the management entity is the government-sanctioned Vietnamese Buddhist Church (VBC), sometimes referred to as the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha.

The VBC, which is designated to preside over all Buddhist organizations and "sects" in Vietnam, oversees pagodas and educational institutes. Its approval is required for Buddhist ordinations and ceremonies, donations to pagodas, and temple expansions. It also vets the content of Buddhist publications and religious studies curricula offered at pagoda schools. In 2007, it authorized the establishment of Thich Nhat Hanh's Buddhist training and meditation center at Bat Nha monastery.

Other Buddhist organizations - such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and some Hoa Hao and ethnic Khmer Buddhist congregations - are banned by the government because they choose to operate independently of government-appointed management committees.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pakistan Pressed on Religious Tolerance

U.S. lawmakers want Pakistan to do more to fight religious intolerance, saying the issue should play a bigger role in U.S. assistance to and engagement with Pakistan in coming years. Witnesses at a congressional hearing testified that Pakistan's blasphemy laws encourage extremism.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which carry a potential death penalty for derogatory remarks or actions against Islam, the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad, have long been controversial within and outside the country.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations say the laws have been used to squelch dissent and oppress Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities, and have often led to violence.
Anti-Christian violence in the Pakistani city of Gojra this past August resulted in the deaths of at least seven Christians, with 50 homes burned.

Nina Shea, of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says additional events since Gojra have underscored that religious tensions continue. "Since Gojra several reports have been made of Muslims tearing out pages of [a] Koran and leaving them on church property, including [at] the Associated Reform Presbyterian Church in another Punjab village on September. This was an apparent attempt to ignite more religious violence," she said.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

India Urged to Protect Christians

A group of U.S. lawmakers have written to the Chief Minister of India's eastern state of Orissa, calling for action against those who have carried out attacks against Christians.

"Such attacks on the fundamental freedom of religion threaten not only India's reputation for religious diversity, but also the very stability of India's secular democracy," the 21 lawmakers, led by Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), state in the letter addressed to Naveen Patnaik.

Just over a dozen people have been convicted so far for the anti-Christian violence that erupted last year and many remain at large.

In August 2008, Hindu extremists carried out the worst religious persecution in India’s 60 years of democracy. At least 120 people were murdered, 250 churches destroyed and over 50,000 individuals displaced. Thousands remain in refugee camps, fearing more attacks if they return home.

"Given the recent experience with religiously inspired terrorism, we are concerned that if Hindu extremists can act with impunity toward religious minorities in India, these extremists and their ideologies will begin to affect international security as well," states the letter, released Friday, according to Agence France-Presse.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

JW's Condemned for “Extremism”

A city court in the city of Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, found the Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty of religious extremism. The sentence follows a similar decision handed down against the religious group in mid-September by a court in Rostov, which ruled that the group’s publications contain “extremist material” (see “Court in Rostov bans Jehovah’s Witnesses for being religious extremists,” AsiaNews, 17 September 2009). 

Altogether the court in the Siberian Republic banned 18 publications by the Jehovah’s Witnesses after they were submitted to expert analysis, which concluded they included incitement to religious confrontation. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Centre in Moscow, which is recognised by Russian authorities, has already appealed the decision by the court in Gorno-Altaisk. However, the situation for the religious group is very delicate. The latest ruling comes in the wake of that in Rostov and before others expected in other regions of the Russian Federation, where legal proceedings are currently underway. The charge is the same: incitement of religious extremism. 

The material in question is the same as those the group publishes and distributes across Europe and in about 200 countries around the world, in 176 different languages.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Outrage Over Tomb Raids in Turkey

The American Hellenic Institute (AHI) expresses its deep concern over the recent incident of the desecration of 90 tombs at the Baloukli historical Orthodox Christian cemetery. In its recent statement on September 9, 2009 AHI commemorated the memory of the victims of the Turkish government's atrocities against the Christian minority in 1955. The statement also calls for the full compensation of victims and their heirs from the Turkish government.

In light of the recent 54th anniversary of Turkey's destruction of the 110,000 Greek Orthodox Christian community of Istanbul, this latest incident is reminiscent of the tragic pogrom that took place back in September of 1955. More than half a century later, Turkey still fails to pay respect to the sacred memory of these victims and continues to suppress religious freedom and basic human rights of the Greek Orthodox Christian minority.

As reported on the website of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (archons.org), the vandalism took place in the morning hours of September 2, 2009 when the vandals, who have not yet been identified, entered the cemetery from the stone fence facing the road. While violating the sacred ground, they destroyed the parts of the tombstones that carried the cross and damaged the signs that displayed the names, the dates of birth and death of the deceased. The Turkish authorities have started investigating this case as this incident has spurred great concern among the Greek minority in Istanbul. It should be noted that similar acts of vandalism into Orthodox Christian cemeteries have occurred in the past; however, this vandalism was especially destructive.

Throughout the years, the Turkish government has tolerated assaults against its Greek Orthodox Christian religious minority and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Furthermore, the Greek Orthodox Halki Patriarchal School of Theology remains closed. Turkey imposes restrictions on religious groups and on religious expression. Turkey violates fundamental principles and law on freedom of religion and has created an atmosphere in which hostile actions can occur, as in the aforementioned case. These illustrations suggest that Turkey has no intention of significantly changing its attitudes towards religious minorities living within its boundaries. The extent of religious oppression and lack of respect that Turkey has chosen to display against the Greek Orthodox Christian minority encourages the recurrence of violent and disrespectful acts from extreme elements within Turkey.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Scientology Wins Landmark Case in Russia

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled unanimously in favor of two Scientology religious groups in Russia, finding that they have the right to be registered as religious organizations under Russian law. The decision determined that these groups, the Church of Scientology of Surgut and the Church of Scientology of Niznekamsk, have the right to religious freedom and the right of freedom of association under articles 9 and 11 of the European Human Rights Convention.

In reaching this decision, the Court "established that the applicants were unable to obtain recognition and effective enjoyment of their rights to freedom of religion and association in any organizational form. The first applicant could not obtain registration of the Scientology group as a non-religious legal entity because it was considered to be a religious community by the Russian authorities.

The applications for registration as a religious organization submitted by the first and second applicants as founders of their respective groups and also on behalf of the third applicant were denied by reference to the insufficient period of the groups' existence. Finally, the restricted status of a religious group for which they qualified and in which the third applicant existed conveyed no practical or effective benefits to them as such a group was deprived of legal personality, property rights and the legal capacity to protect the interests of its members and was also severely hampered in the fundamental aspects of its religious functions. Accordingly, the Court finds that there has been an interference with the applicants' rights under Article 9 interpreted in the light of Article 11."

Along with the 2007 decision of the Court in favor of the right of the Moscow Church of Scientology to be registered as a religious organization under the Religion law, these cases represent precedent-setting rulings that guarantee the freedom of religion and right of association for Scientologists
and people of all faiths throughout the forty-seven nations that comprise the Council of Europe.

The Court concluded that "In the light of the foregoing considerations, the Court finds that the interference with the applicants' rights to freedom of religion and association cannot be said to have been "necessary in a democratic society". There has therefore been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention, interpreted in the light of Article 11".

Nina de Kastro, spokesperson of the Church of Scientology of Russia, praised
the Court's ruling saying, "This decision not only confirms the rights of Churches of Scientology in Russia, but sets another important precedent to protect the rights of all other religious communities in Europe."

The Russian Scientology Church in St. Petersburg also has cases pending in the European Court of Human Rights for similar discriminatory harassment concerning their registration.

The Scientology religion was founded by L. Ron Hubbard. The first Church was established in the United States in 1954. It has grown to more than 8,000 Churches, Missions and groups and ten million members in 165 nations. The Russian Federation has more than 73 Scientology Churches and Missions from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.