Tue | Aug 14, 2018

Martin Henry | Advancing religious freedom

Published:Sunday | August 12, 2018 | 12:54 AM
Martin Henry

One of the greatest blessings we enjoy in this land of ours over the 56 years of Independence, and even before, is the extent of our civil liberties and equality before the law, although many exceptions can be cited.

At the height of the American civil-rights movement in which Martin Luther King Jr played such a prominent role and would be assassinated within a year, Norman Manley, addressing the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1967 on 'The Rule of Law', told his American legal peers, "I think I can claim ... that this understanding of the rule of law as a living force made a major contribution to the fact that Jamaica is second to few, if any, countries that are seeking to solve the problems of racial integration and harmony."

We have also had a good go at religious harmony and the freedom of religion. The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms encapsulates, at Section 17, that "every person shall have the right to freedom of religion, including the freedom to change his religion and the right ... , both in public and private, to manifest and propagate his religion in worship, teaching, practice and observance."

The constitution of religious bodies is protected from outside interference. Every religious body has the right, under the law, to provide religious instruction to its people in its own institutions, even if those educational institutions receive state funding. And students cannot be forced to receive religious instruction or to take part in any religious ceremony or observance of another religious body other than their own.

Between July 24 and 26, the State Department of the United States hosted what it called a 'Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom', the first of its kind. The US State Department releases an annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world, which usually exempts America itself from critical examination.

The ministerial brought together government officials from some 80 nations, along with an internationally diverse group of religious leaders and non-governmental organisations. Together, attendees spent three days listening to first-hand accounts of religious persecution and exploring ways to promote religious freedom as a basic human right.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, who hosted the event, advised participants that "millions of people of all faiths are suffering every day" because of religious persecution, even though religious freedom - expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - is enshrined in international law.

Vice President Mike Pence, who also addressed the gathering, pointed out that "Tragically, a stunning 83 percent of the world's population live in nations where religious freedom is either threatened or even banned".

Vice President Pence's United States is not exactly exempt from the count. Immediate past President Barack Obama has done more than any other US president before him to persecute Christians for conscientious objections to aspects of federal law legislated in defence of the LGBT religion. His administration has accelerated the curtailment of free religious speech, which others might find offensive, never mind the daily and uncurtailed outpouring of venom against Christianity and Christians, the majority religion of the United States.

President Trump is moving in the opposite direction, with attendant risks to religious freedom, by giving special privileges to religious groups that wish to be politically active. He has sought to repeal the 1954 Johnson Amendment by executive order.

The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the US tax code, since 1954, that prohibits all non-profit organisations, ranging from charitable foundations to universities and churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The amendment is named for then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who introduced it in a preliminary draft of the law in July 1954.

Speakers at the ministerial highlighted hot spots of persecution around the world, from the deadly targeting of Christians in Nigeria, to the harsh treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, to the violence against Yazidis in Iraq. Nobody could honestly mention Jamaica.

 

MOVING TESTIMONIES

 

Other speakers gave personal testimonies of the devastating impact of religious persecution on their own lives and families. Jacqueline Furnari, daughter of the Christian pastor Andrew Brunson currently jailed in Turkey, spoke movingly of her father's plight and his unwavering faith. Brunson has been in custody since October 2016 on charges of aiding a political coup, an accusation he denies.

While 30 per cent of the world's population identifies as Christian, 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination around the world are directed at Christians. It has been estimated that 90 per cent of all people killed on the basis of their religious beliefs are Christians.

Sam Brownback, US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, spoke on the opening day of the ministerial and explained why the United States is prioritising this issue. "The lack of religious freedom anywhere is a threat to peace, prosperity, and stability everywhere," he said. "The right to freedom of religion, and the ability to live according to the dictates of your own soul, is under attack in the world. This must change."

I am happy to report that Jamaica, although its record of religious freedom and tolerance is not without spot or blemish, is well ahead on the ministerial's plan of action that has germinated. I found one item of the plan particularly interesting, considering our general lack of awareness and insularity from religious persecution. That point asks states to "recommit annually to promoting religious freedom for all by establishing August 3, the first day of ISIS's Sinjar massacre targeting Yazidis, as a nationally or internationally recognised day of remembrance of survivors of religious persecution." This is right in the middle of our Emancipendence when we celebrate our own freedoms.

We have stood up against racism and apartheid. We have stood up for the freedom of African colonies against the recalcitrance of their colonial masters. We gave the world International Human Rights Year, 1968. We should do more for religious freedom while we enjoy and preserve our own.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.