Southwestern Indiana's Catholic Community Newspaper

Religious Liberty For Me But Not For Thee: How Laws Affect Freedom


WASHINGTON (CNS) -- It may come as no surprise that, when nations confer official status to a certain religion, Islam is the faith that more nations choose to designate as such.
    But it may be a surprise that, when nations don't enshrine a particular religion in their constitution but opt to give preferential status to a religion in its laws and policies, Christianity gets the nod.
    It also may surprise that there are only 10 nations that are hostile to religious expression of virtually any kind -- and that, despite the intermittent headlines that religious liberty issues make, more than half of the world's nations endeavor to treat all religions equally.
    These are the findings of a Pew Research Center study issued Oct. 3 with the self-explanatory title "Many Countries Favor Specific Religions, Officially or Unofficially."
    The Pew study lumps together every branch of Islam as well as each strain of Christianity when it comes to declaring a religion as official or unofficial. But if you are a Shiite Muslim in Sunni Muslim-controlled Iraq, you have little access to the levers of power; if you are a Jehovah's Witness in Russian Orthodox-favored Russia, then God help you, because your religion has been declared illegal.
    "In some ways, states that have an official or preferred religion tend to behave differently from states that do not," the study says. "Not only are they more likely to provide financial or legal benefits to a single religion, but they also are more likely to place a high level of government restrictions on other religious groups."
    To that end, Pew applied a Global Restrictions Index to measure the level of hostility toward religions not given some kind of imprimatur from the state.
    On a scale of 0 to 10 with 10 being the worst, "in countries with an official state religion, the median GRI score was 4.8 in 2015, compared with 2.8 in countries with preferred or favored religions and 1.8 in countries with no official or preferred religion," the study said.
    "On a conceptual basis, it shouldn't have much impact," said Rabbi David Saperstein, a senior adviser with the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism -- and its head until he was named ambassador at large for religious freedom, a post he held from 2014 to 2017.
    "The ultimate question of religious freedom issues for nonofficial religions in a particular state is whether or not each person enjoys the same rights as a citizen regardless of his or her religious identity, practices or beliefs," Rabbi Saperstein told Catholic News Service in an Oct. 5 telephone interview.
    "And that can happen in countries that have recognized religions, official, preferred religions. There are a number of democracies and other democratic countries that have official religions but everyone has equal rights for citizens under law."
    "We don't have data (on) what this was prior to 2015" -- the Pew study is believed to be the first of its kind -- "but what we saw in 2015, it breaks out to about a fifth of nations having a state religion, close to a fifth having a preferred religion, and a little over half having no preference," said Katayoun Kishi, the lead researcher on the Pew study, in an Oct. 2 interview with CNS.
    For those keeping score, 43 nations have an official state religion. Three-fourths of nations in the Middle East and North Africa have an official religion, according to the Pew study.
    Those who have adopted some form of Islam as a state religion are Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Western Sahara and Yemen.
    Those for whom some strain of Christianity is the official religion are Armenia, Costa Rica, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Norway, Tuvalu, the United Kingdom and Zambia. (The Vatican City-State was not part of the study.) Bhutan and Cambodia embrace Buddhism as the state religion, and Israel adopted Judaism as its official religion.
    Forty nations give a "preferred or favored" status to one or more religions, with more giving preference to some form of Christianity. Those are Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Finland, Georgia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Italy, Liberia, Moldova, Nicaragua, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Romania, Russia, Samoa, Spain, Swaziland and Tonga.
    Laos, Mongolia and Sri Lanka give preferred status to Buddhism, while Sudan, Syria and Turkey do so with Islam. Meanwhile, multiple religions are given preferred status by Eritrea, Indonesia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Serbia and Togo.
    Another 10 nations in the report are listed as "hostile to religion." Save for Cuba, they stretch contiguously across Asia from Kazakhstan to Vietnam and North Korea, with China in the middle. They also include Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
    Kishi said Pew did not look at how new the nation was when it compiled its findings, although "we looked at the level of democracy and its population size and we controlled for those factors and the amount of government restrictions that they have." Eastern European nations that had been part of the U.S.S.R. tended to confer official or preferred status to a religion, but the Asian republics once part of the U.S.S.R. more often adopted a hostile stance to religious practice.
    The other 109 nation-states are, for lack of a better word, agnostic toward religion, endeavoring to give equal treatment or protection to each faith.
    The United States is one of those 109, but Rabbi Saperstein said the nation's words and deeds did not always match.
    "Rights are guaranteed against a background of three constitutional prongs: the ban on any religious test to hold office, the free exercise of religion for all, and the bar of any government establishment of religion -- created for the first time in human history, created a land where citizens could exercise their religious identity," he said. "It took us many generations to fulfill that.
    "In the 1940s and '50s, the courts increasingly moved to give significant weight to those promises, and that was a period where we saw Catholics and others move from the peripheries of American society to the very center of political, academic and economic life," the rabbi said. "And since that time, I think that has been the norm -- not just in theory but in practice."