Religious Freedom Under Threat

This week, I attended a meeting at the US State Department with a coalition of religious and nontheistic advocacy groups that are concerned about the current state of international religious freedom. The coalition met with David Saperstein,  US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, as well as with several staffers working toward religious freedom in the Middle East and Russia.

In recent years, the Russian federal government and the state Russian Orthodox Church have been doing almost everything in their power to limit religious freedom and persecute atheists and religious minorities. One Russian citizen, Viktor Krasnov, is currently facing a potential jail sentence for writing “there is no God” in a webchat, and Sergei Zhuravlyov, a member of the Ukrainian Reformed Orthodox Church of Christ the Savior, was arrested recently for proselytizing his faith in public.

These restrictions on religious freedom can be traced back to new Russian legislation, such as the Federal Anti-Terrorism Law, meant in theory to counter terrorism and ensure public safety. However, these laws also contain language that seriously threatens religious freedom and compromises the human rights of Russian citizens.

As noted in a coalition letter sent by the American Humanist Association through the International Religious Freedom Roundtable:

The Federal Anti-Terrorism Law further restricts religious freedom. We are particularly concerned about the amendments that introduce an entire new section to the Religion Law, imposing strict limits on sharing beliefs, including where and who may share them, and increase extremism punishments. Further, the Federal Anti-Terrorism Law poses threats to the fundamental human rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by Russia’s Constitution and its international human rights obligations, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) human dimension commitments, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

The new anti-terrorism law restricts the dissemination of materials about beliefs in public “to registered groups and organizations and bars even informal sharing of beliefs by individuals acting on their own behalf.” Perhaps the worst aspect of the law is the fact that it “restricts the beliefs that can be shared, limits the places where sharing beliefs can happen, and explicitly bans sharing beliefs in residential buildings.”

Governments should never be the arbiter of which beliefs deserve to be shared and which beliefs should be suppressed, especially concerning religion. This restriction of thought and belief is seen around the world, from Russia to Saudi Arabia and even to places like Canada, which maintains an anti-blasphemy law of its own. In all of these cases, the harm done by these laws far outweighs any potential benefits of ensuring public safety or protecting mainstream religious sensibilities.

While recent legislative developments on the international stage might be disheartening, the coalition of organizations opposing these efforts is equally inspiring. To have Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, nontheists, and countless other religious traditions work together on this issue regardless of our differing theological or political positions is a good sign that in the end, we will defend religious freedom and defeat those who seek to threaten human rights.