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15 Countries Improving Religious Freedom

May 30, 2013

“Religious Freedom Under Attack” headed a recent L.A. Times editorial. With tunnel vision squarely focusing on the status of turbulent nations, the column exposed merely the harshest facts in a new government report which also shines a little light on world interfaith development. Of course, it would be neglectful of the media to ignore the current religious climate. One ongoing crisis in this camp is the  Bahai’s worldwide protest efforts amping up against Iranian courts for jailing seven leaders for more than five years now, simply for being Baha’i and not sharing the faith sponsored by the state.  Therefore, headlining any story about religion and governments because of cases like the Baha’is sets the stage for most reports to seem like totally bad news. The U.S. Department of State report breaking down the state of religious freedom around the world in 2012 does describe a world beleaguered with turmoil. However, it also clues religious-government watchdogs in on how the American government applies its 15-year-old International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, even when not promising to diffuse some of the worst trouble spots. It also points to some yet-to-be-really-covered-by-the-media good news: Mentioning some positive action by governments where promoting religious liberty has proved tricky, 2012 demonstrates some indication that interfaith action by governments on the rise.
15 Countries Improving Religious Freedom
Source: U.S. Department of State International Religious Freedom Report 2012  Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Citations: Section II: Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom. Consult report for more national information, religious demography, identifications and definitions.
1. Tanzania
In October President Kikwete visited several churches in the Mbagala suburb of Dar es Salaam which were burned or damaged following religious unrest. He urged self-restraint and emphasized that citizens should not take the law into their own hands.In November the prime minister publicly pledged to initiate a national dialogue between religious leaders to promote religious tolerance; this had not occurred by year’s end. Also in November, the Interfaith Council asked to meet with the president to discuss intolerance among factions within the Muslim community and Christian groups. This meeting did not take place by year’s end.In November the prime minister took a strong stand against the October religious violence, calling for political and religious tolerance.On December 31, President Kikwete stated that the country faced, for the first time in its history, the possibility of civil strife and division along religious lines. He encouraged religious and political leaders to take seriously their responsibility to ensure that citizens continue to live peacefully regardless of their religion, ethnicity, color, or place of origin.
2. Laos
Some positive steps were taken during the year to address specific religious freedom concerns. The LFNC, joined during the year by the Ministry of Home Affairs, instructed local officials on religious tolerance and in some situations intervened in cases where members of minority religious groups, particularly Christians, had been harassed or mistreated.
In an effort to promote consultation among all stakeholders concerning revisions to Decree 92, the LFNC and Ministry of Home Affairs organized meetings for religious group representatives in Vientiane, Champasak, Bokeo, and Bolikhamxay Provinces, and the city of Vientiane. The meetings allowed for open discussion about the government’s plan to amend the decree, and provided an opportunity for religious groups to offer suggestions for its improvement.
In collaboration with the LFNC, the Institute for Global Engagement, a U.S.-based religious freedom organization, conducted training for provincial and district officials and local religious leaders to help both sides better understand each other and the scope of Decree 92.
The government eased its control over the Catholic community in the north. At year’s end, a Catholic bishop in Luang Prabang was in the process of establishing residency and identifying land for the construction of a church building with the support of local authorities. A Vientiane church delegation, accompanied by LFNC officials, traveled to Bokeo Province to visit Catholic communities in Houayxay, Meuang, and Tonpheung. The church was able to expand charitable activities and provided assistance to a school for the deaf in Luang Prabang.
3. Malaysia
On February 21, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin participated in World Interfaith Harmony Week. Activities held during the week included community activities and religious forums.
On December 26, church leaders announced the government had rescinded quotas, age limits and other travel restrictions previously imposed on Christian Malaysians who wished to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
On November 3, the Perlis Al Islah Association in collaboration with the Islamic Council of Perlis, a government entity, and the Perlis Malay Customs Council (an NGO) organized an interfaith forum “Gateway to Interfaith Goodwill (Gema) 2012.” The crown prince of Perlis chaired the forum, which was designed as a platform for interaction among different religions with the hope of creating a better understanding between them. Seventeen religious groups, including representatives of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism, attended the forum.
In a statement to Christian leaders in January, the prime minister promised full consultation when assigning mission school heads. He also agreed to after-school Bible classes, as well as implementation of a regulation that allowed non-Muslim places of worship to apply for tax exempt status for donations received from individuals. This was the first time the prime minister had addressed these issues in a public statement. The tax regulation went into effect shortly thereafter.
4. Taiwan
On June 8, in a change of visa policy, the government started granting missionary visas to other orders of religious workers besides priests and nuns. This change granted all male religious orders (priests, brothers, monks) and female religious orders (sisters and nuns) eligibility for visas to conduct religious work. Religious organizations previously complained that only priests and nuns could obtain missionary visas. The immigration law does not have a formal provision for missionary visas for individuals who do not have the rank of priest or nun within their respective religious orders, which includes Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist workers. In the past, the government regularly granted visas to religious workers of some religious groups who were not priests or nuns and uniformly applied the eligibility to all religious groups by year’s end.
5. Vietnam
In May the government for the first time granted 20 members of the Baha’i Faith permission to participate in an annual religious pilgrimage to the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel. The nine-day pilgrimage allowed Bahais to visit religious shrines and meet with fellow believers. In August the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of Hanoi celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its establishment in Hanoi. The day-long public celebration was attended by nearly 100 followers from the northern area of the country, 20 foreign Bahais representing countries in the region, and government officials.
In July and August the CRA registered 20 new churches in the Northwest Highlands. These included both Protestant and Catholic congregations.
During his appointment that began in January 2011, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, the non-resident papal representative to Vietnam, made eight visits to the country. The government and the Vatican continued discussions toward normalizing relations. In September Archbishop Girelli made his first visit to the Northwest Highlands to meet with fellow believers. During his visit, the archbishop led mass for congregants of newly recognized churches.
In June the government restored five acres of land to St. Peter’s Catholic chapel in Hanoi. Congregants had formally petitioned the government ten years earlier.
According to contacts from multiple faiths, the government facilitated the construction of new places of worship, including Christian churches, Buddhist temples, monasteries and pagodas. The government’s assistance included transferring land to religious groups, granting building permits, or granting small construction grants through the CRA.
6. Belarus
Authorities allowed Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a three-day convention in Minsk in July. Over 7,500 members from across the country reportedly attended the convention without official interference.
7. Georgia
On March 27, the parliament amended the criminal code to make religious motives an aggravating factor for all crimes. Although authorities prosecuted no crimes under the new amendment during the year, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association stated that passage of the amendment could discourage such crimes.
8. Kosovo
In April parliament passed legislation establishing SPZs in the historic center of Prizren and the village of Velika Hoca/Hoce e Madhe, both of which contained numerous religious and cultural sites dating to the thirteenth century. In July the Constitutional Court upheld the legislation and rejected appeals claiming the law would unconstitutionally give special rights to Serbs over the rights of other citizens.
9. Norway
In a January Holocaust Memorial Day speech, the prime minister apologized for the participation of the country’s officials in the expulsion of Jews during World War II when the country was under Nazi occupation. The speech was the first formal direct apology from the government and was commended by religious figures. In November the head of the police department also apologized for police participation in expelling Jews during the war years. Some social commentators and religious leaders stated this was even more significant than the prime minister’s Holocaust Memorial Day speech.
The government made a number of monetary grants to increase security for the Jewish community and to combat anti-Semitism in schools. The government allocated 7.2 million kroner ($1.25 million) for security at the Jewish Religious Community’s (DMT) facility and synagogue in Oslo. In addition to the funding, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security announced it would maintain a dialogue with the DMT, the Police Security Services, and the Police Directorate to ensure that the DMT’s facilities were properly safeguarded. The Ministry of Education granted 6 million kroner ($1.05 million) for programs that included training about anti-Semitism in schools throughout the next three years. The Ministry of Government Administration and Church Affairs will finance the DMT’s new online anti-Semitism reporting mechanism.
10. Turkey
In a February session held behind closed doors, the Ecumenical Patriarch addressed the parliament’s Constitutional Reconciliation Sub-Committee, which was responsible for drafting a new constitution. This was the first time in the history of the republic that a leader of a religious minority group addressed the parliament. Subsequently, representatives of the Syrian Orthodox community also testified before the sub-committee.
The government continued to implement a 2011 decree allowing a one-year period for religious minority foundations to apply for the return of, or compensation for, properties seized by the government in previous decades. Between 1936 and 2011, the government seized thousands of properties belonging to Christian and Jewish religious foundations. A 1936 law required that religious foundations compile and officially register lists of all properties owned. Although it was widely recognized at the time that these lists were not comprehensive, the government then began seizing unlisted properties from religious foundations. A 1974 High Court of Appeals ruling interpreting the 1936 law stated it had been illegal for religious foundations to acquire any new property after 1936, enabling the government to seize without compensation religious foundation properties acquired between 1936 and 1974.
By August, the GDF had received approximately 1,560 applications for the return of seized properties from the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities. By year’s end, the GDF had reviewed approximately 200 of the applications and returned 71 properties to religious community foundations, made offers of compensation for 15 properties, declined 19 applications for lack of evidence, and returned the remaining applications for the correction of technical problems. The government established an arbitration system for foundations that believed the amount of compensation received for a property was inadequate. If the arbitration process is unsuccessful, foundations will have access to the courts for redress.
The decree did not alter the law that made it possible to seize property acquired after 1936, nor did it change the complicated procedure for administering foundation properties that contributed to the seizure of many properties. Additionally, the decree did not cover properties taken from religious institutions or communities that do not have legally recognized foundations, including the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
The 2011 decree also permitted the formation of new religious community foundations as well as the reopening of foundations that had previously been closed and whose assets the GDF had confiscated. The GDF approved new or reactivated foundations for the Jewish community in Izmir, the Armenian Orthodox community in Istanbul, and the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul. Prior to the 2011 decree, the government had approved only one new religious community foundation since the founding of the republic—the Istanbul Protestant Church Foundation in 2003.
11. Iraq
In September the Basrah Provincial Council Committee for Religious Minorities called on the central government to provide support for Iraqi Christians who wanted to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, equating these trips with the Muslim Hajj.
Throughout the year, Iraqi Security Forces deployed police and army personnel to protect religious pilgrimage routes and sites, as well as places of worship during religious holidays. In late September, the Iraqi Security Forces deployed 20,000 police and army personnel to Karbala to protect land routes pilgrims take to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj; and in late October, the Iraqi Security forces deployed 12,000 police and army personnel to the holy city of Karbala to protect hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims to the city for Eid al-Adha.
The Ministry of Human Rights reported that it took several steps to protect members of minority religious groups and address their concerns. They conducted an investigation into the phenomenon of suicides of Yezidi young people; provided humanitarian assistance to internally displaced minority groups, including Christians; and held over 200 workshops throughout the country on minority rights.
The Ministry of Human Rights reported that during the year Iraqi Security Forces escorted 1,300 Christian students from al-Hamdaniya to Mosul to attend school each day, and increased the number of night patrols in Christian neighborhoods in Mosul.
The KRG continued to welcome Christians from outside the IKR who moved to the region due to perceived discrimination and threats to their safety elsewhere. Armenian Church of America archbishop Vicken Aykazian said in December that the IKR “has become a safehaven for Christians, [and] the [regional] government is building churches, schools, and community centers for them,” adding that “Christians today feel very comfortable [in the the IKR].”
12. Israel and The Occupied Territories
There were no violent attacks against Messianic Jews and notably fewer physical assaults against Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year. The police investigated all known instances of religiously motivated attacks and made arrests when possible, including in August when the police arrested seven suspects for assault, harassment, and arson in connection with Haredi protests against the opening of an Orthodox all-girls school in Beit Shemesh.
The state formally recognized non-Orthodox rabbis for the first time on May 30 and agreed to fund Reform and Conservative rabbis appointed by rural communities.
The MOI did not arrest, detain, require bail for entry or a written pledge to abstain from missionary activity, or refuse entry to anyone due to their religious beliefs. There was no indication that the MOI collected data on alleged missionaries from antimissionary groups and used it to deny entry to the country to foreign individuals. There was no official statement that the policy had changed, but no incidents were reported since the July 2011 action of a Jerusalem district court judge who reprimanded the MOI for the illegal procedure.
On August 2, the Knesset amended legislation from 2010 to apply tax exemptions to all places of religious instruction equally.
13. Israel and The Occupied Territories – Israel and The Occupied Territories – The Occupied Territories
PA-Israeli security cooperation at Joseph’s Tomb improved during the year following an agreement reached in 2011 between the PA, the IDF, and the Ministry of Defense’s civil administration to station 10 permanent PA police officers at the tomb. On February 9, PA forces accompanied 15 rabbis from the West Bank’s Huwwara checkpoint to the tomb in the first such security coordination with Israeli forces. The PA coordinated all visits with Israel.
Israel issued slightly more than 100,000 permits to allow Palestinian West Bank residents to enter Jerusalem during the month of Ramadan, representing a seven-fold increase from the 16,700 permits it granted in 2011. It expanded the categories of people exempted from the permit requirement for men and women above age 40 and allowed persons between the ages of 35 and 40 to receive permits.
14. Morocco
In March the government permitted the funeral of Shia cleric Abdallah Dadou, killed in a fire in Belgium, to take place in Tangier. The funeral was the first public Shia ceremony in the country in many years.
15. Cuba
Religious groups reported improved ability to attract new members without government interference. The majority of religious groups reported reduced interference from the government in conducting their services, and improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, and travel abroad to attend conferences and religious events. Many religious groups found it easier to bring in foreign religious workers and visitors and restore houses of worship.
The government requested Pope Benedict XVI’s visit and provided extensive logistical support during his March 26-29 trip, including allowing the Pope to say mass in the central squares of the two largest cities, and declaring the three days of the visit a national holiday to facilitate citizen participation in the open-air religious ceremonies. Footage of the visit was broadcast on state-run television stations, and the visit was reported in print and radio. A few Protestant churches reported that they were also permitted to hold religious ceremonies in public spaces.