Welcome to the first installment of Religious Freedom Roundup, our weekly recap of top stories and developments on freedom of religion around the world. If you just can’t wait until Monday, follow my Twitter stream @brianpellot for updates throughout the week.
Let’s start in Pakistan, where a school principal was arrested on blasphemy charges in Lahore after reportedly claiming to be a prophet of Islam. A Christian woman who received the death sentence in 2009 for allegedly slandering the faith recounted her tale — from a Punjab prison. And female students at a medical university in northwest Peshawar protested a new dress code that forces them to wear a veil.
In other blasphemy news, four Bangladeshi bloggers were the first to be charged for making blasphemous comments on social media under the country’s new cyber laws. They face up to 14 years in prison for allegedly defaming Islam.
Poland’s top court was asked to rule on whether a countrywide ban prohibiting halal and kosher slaughter rituals violates Muslims’ and Jews’ constitutional right to religious freedom. The new law requires that animals be stunned before slaughter, but kosher and halal rituals dictate they be killed with a slit of the throat. Pope Francis is reportedly getting involved in the conflict.
The American heavy metal band Lamb of God and its flock of fans were no doubt disappointed when Malaysian officials canceled their upcoming performance for allegedly offending Islam when they sang about the Quran several years ago. Groupies can still catch them in New Zealand, Australia and Thailand later this month.
Protesters in majority-Muslim Indonesia called for the cancellation of this year’s Miss World pageant, claiming the competition violates Islamic teachings. Banners in Jakarta read “Reject Miss World that exploits women” and “Miss World is whore contest,” according to the Huffington Post.
The Associated Press reported on the persecution of Coptic Christians by Islamists in southern Egypt, and Cairo-based journalist Monique El- Faizy provided some historical analysis on their situation for RNS.
In Nepal, protests resumed over a 17-foot statue of Buddha. The monument was erected in May, then taken down for allegedly violating local forestry policies. A group claiming to represent different religions and ethnicities argues that the statue will disrupt communal harmony.
In Greece, some Jews expressed fear that the far-right Golden Dawn Party’s political rise could spell trouble for their community. Golden Dawn has been using Nazi songs and symbolism in its rallies and blaming Jewish bankers for the country’s financial woes.
On a more positive note for Jews, the president of Iran, head of a government not know for its religious tolerance, took to Twitter to wish them “a blessed Rosh Hashanah.”
Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “unimpressed” by the Iranian president’s greeting.
In the final run-up to this weekend’s elections in Australia, incumbent Prime Minister (and Roman Catholic churchgoer) Kevin Rudd defended his support for gay marriage. Meanwhile, his right-wing political opponent (and opponent of gay marriage) Tony Abbott pledged (paywall) to defend religious freedom and to roll back related laws put in place by Rudd’s Labor party. Abbott won the election, in case you missed it.
The school in London where Tony Blair sent his kids was forced to change its admission criteria, which until now favored parents who participated in church activity.
A columnist in The Guardian wrote:
This case was specific to the London Oratory, but the issue is much wider, for such breaches are endemic to the way faith schools operate. Unlike any other state-funded institution in society, they are allowed to base admission on belief. Spending time in church to gain a place has become the religious equivalent of paying cash for honours.
Also in London, an estimated 500 members of the far-right English Defence League marched through Tower Hamlets, an area known for its large Muslim community, to protest what they see as the spread of Islamic extremism in Britain. More than 160 protesters and counterprotesters were arrested.
In the U.S., the Pledge of Allegiance’s place in public schools was under fire once more, this time in Massachusetts’ Supreme Court where humanists and atheists argued that its reference to one nation “under God” violates the state’s constitutional guarantee to equal rights protection.
In Connecticut, an animal rights group sent a letter to prison officials outlining why feeding fish to a Buddhist vegetarian inmate and telling him it wasn’t meat violated his religious freedom.
In Kansas, Fort Hood killer Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan had his beard forcibly shaved. Hasan reportedly said his Muslim faith required facial hair, but the Army said the beard breached grooming rules.
And in Texas, San Antonio’s City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The Christian Post reported that some religious residents who oppose “the homosexual lifestyle” worry the new policy will infringe on their religious freedom rights.
On the international conference circuit, representatives from religious groups, human rights organizations and the media discussed freedom of religion at the two-day Council of Europe Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue in Armenia.
And in case you missed it (and don’t mind a bit of shameless self-promotion), check out my new blog On Freedom. There’s an intro post that highlights some of the most pressing international religious freedom issues and an interview with Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
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