Rabbi David Saperstein, former Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and current Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, delivered his first International Religious Freedom report this week. The 2014 report marks the 17th year of the congressionally-mandated International Religious Freedom Report, showing U.S. commitment to promoting religious freedom worldwide. This report consists of 200 distinct reports of countries and territories throughout the globe, giving a voice to oppressed populations who otherwise go unheard.
This year’s report highlighted the impacts of many non-state actors on suppressing religious practices and observances, and that the number of people who live in countries with restrictions on religious freedom increased in 2014.
Troubling developments highlighted in the report include: In Iraq and Syria, ISIL has displaced hundreds of thousands and committed mass execution of people who do not commit to their violent interpretation of Islam. In a similar vein, Boko Haram killed more people for their religious beliefs in 2014 than in the previous five years combined. Also in 2014, Europe saw an increase in Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic rhetoric and attacks. Religious minorities in China have faced repression, including the arrest of Christian lawyer Zhang Kai prior to his meeting with Ambassador Saperstein. Furthermore, blasphemy and apostasy laws worldwide have cause harassment, restrictions, and arrests of many religious minorities.
The report also highlights improvements on religious freedom and solidarity between different faiths throughout the world. For example, following terror attacks in Denmark, people of different faiths formed a ring around the synagogue in Copenhagen to show support for the Jewish community. Kyrgyzstan ruled part of their religious law unconstitutional, allowing more freedom for religious minorities to practice their beliefs. With respect to China, Ambassador Saperstein said, “In areas of the country where the government's hand was lighter, faith-based social service and welfare agencies operate homeless shelters, orphanages, soup kitchens, and made highly positive contributions to the well-being of their society,” showing faith groups were flourishing in some regions.
As we head toward our weekly Shabbat celebration, I am thankful for the freedom to light candles, say Kiddush and celebrate Shabbat with my family. The Jewish tradition teaches us “you shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17) and that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. As a Jewish community who lives where we can freely practice our religion in North America, we must work to create a world where all people have the same freedom.
Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department