This week’s recap comes from Rome, where I attended a conference exploring Christianity’s contributions to freedom around the world and the state of Christian persecution today.
The topic couldn’t have been more timely. Last week two churches were closed in Indonesia as Christian and government officials scuffled over building permits. Human Rights Watch issued a report saying Nigerian authorities are largely ignoring sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims. And police officers in India used water cannons on Christian and Muslim Dalit leaders who were rallying for equal protection under the law.
Although significant, these cases seem minor compared to the situation in North Korea. BBC investigative journalist and author of a new book on North Korea John Sweeney told me in an interview:
“[North Korea] is a totalitarian state, a three-generation tyranny, in which no one is allowed to profess their love of God in any way they wish, and that is evil. It sounds like you’re assuming there is some sort of impediment to freedom of religion specifically, when actually there is just no freedom whatsoever.”
Christians are by no means the only group persecuted around the world for their faith identities or lack thereof. A new report from the International Humanist and Ethical Union says that in 13 countries, all of them predominantly Muslim, atheists can face execution for rejecting religion.
Pakistan is one of those countries, where blasphemy is increasingly punished by death. But it’s not just state-sanctioned executions we need to worry about. In Syria, Al Qaeda-linked militants executed an oil vendor they accused of blasphemy after he flippantly asked, “What am I, the God of fuel?”
In its latest report on human rights, the European Parliament made clear that it “opposes laws that penalise expressions deemed blasphemous, defamatory or insulting to religion or religious symbols, figures or feelings.” Several countries in the European Union still have such laws on the books. Hmm…
In other European news, Belgium’s senate voted to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children, and Luxembourg’s first openly gay prime minister is expected to replace religious instruction with ethics classes in schools.
Luxembourg looks set to approve same-sex marriage next year. Don’t expect the same from India, where homosexual acts were just recriminalized after being legal for four years. Australia can’t make up its mind on the gay front either. Same-sex marriage was legal for five days in the capital city of Canberra, only to be struck down by the country’s highest court.
The U.K.’s supreme court said a couple can get married in a Church of Scientology chapel, reversing a lower court decision that said Scientologist services were not acts of worship. This means the U.K. now considers Scientology a religion, whereas France and other countries consider it a cult.
Polygamous Saudis are annoyed that Turkey, where polygamy is illegal, will only issue residency permits for one of their up-to-four wives. Maybe they’ll have better luck in Utah, where a federal judge ruled that a state law criminalizing polygamy is unconstitutional in its broadness, which includes cohabitation.
Blogger Jana Riess chimed in on the decision:
“it’s also a potential victory for religious freedom in America. As long as their plural unions are not violating other laws (all parties are consenting legal adults, etc.), polygamists in Utah will join the ranks of other kinds of non-nuclear, nontraditional families that deserve equal treatment under the law.”
Reiss also commented on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ recent statement addressing a ban that prohibited black men from holding priesthood in the church until 1978. Riess said the church leaders’ unequivocal condemnation of racism was a big step, but wonders if and when an apology might follow.
In California, a judge ruled that the giant cross atop federally owned Mount Soledad is unconstitutional and ordered its removal. Mark Silk addressed the controversy:
“What’s going on here is a fight over Christian claims on the country’s civic spaces. As those claims are contested, in court and elsewhere, there’s push back, most evident in the annual railing against the supposed war on Christmas.”
Holiday examples of this push back include the 6-foot Festivus pole made from beer cans in Florida’s State Capitol, the atheist display between Jesus and an menorah in a Chicago park, and all the atheist billboards and alternative Nativity scenes I mentioned last week.
State Representatives in Oklahoma are pushing for a Merry Christmas bill to protect how the holiday is celebrated in public schools. A new Pew study shows that 46 percent of Americans don’t really care if you greet them with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Just try to be cheerful.
Ohio and Michigan are both trying to push through religious freedom bills, which currently exist in 17 states. Michigan lawmakers also passed a bill banning insurance coverage for abortion in private health plans unless women purchase a separate rider. Opponents are calling it the “rape insurance” bill.
A Judge ruled that a Christian baker in Denver illegally discriminated against a gay couple when he refused, on religious grounds, to bake a cake for their wedding. Maybe Christian conservatives haven’t quite “perfected playing the victim card,” as this Salon article asserts.
A U.S. charity shelled out $530,000 at a Paris auction for Native American artifacts and plans to return them to Hopi tribe officials after the U.S. government failed to intervene on the tribe’s behalf. Several Native American inmates in Alabama are invoking religious freedom to appeal a court decision that upheld a rule requiring them to cut their hair.
Edmonton, Canada revealed a new official headscarf for the city’s Muslim police officers. Cities in Ontario could follow suit, but don’t expect the same from Quebec. It’s still mulling over a “Charter of Values” that would prevent public employees from wearing religious symbols to work.
Saturday’s my birthday and (womp, womp) the shortest day of the year. Maybe I’ll head over to Stonehenge and pretend the revelers are celebrating little old me. If you want to make my day without shelling out for a gift, just sign up to receive the weekly recap by email below. Much appreciated.