During this holiday season, which highlights the diversity of religious traditions that are celebrated in communities throughout the world, we are moved to think about those who do not the same freedom to celebrate as we do in the United States. Earlier this month, the Jewish community celebrated Hanukkah, a holiday that commemorates an ancient battle for religious freedom, which the Jews fought and won. While this is a celebration of our victory of the past, it is a current fight for many communities throughout the world.
A recent Pew Research study found that in 2013, 77% of the global population was living where there are high levels of restrictions on religious practice. These restrictions were found to be the strictest in the Middle East, with high levels of both government restrictions and social hostilities. The rise in extremist militant groups have created a major obstacle for religious freedom throughout the world, and even in the United States. In a recent interview during his trip to the Vatican, former Director of the Religious Action Center and U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, said that “extremist groups who are willing to use violence to destroy other religious groups… or to impose their religious views on others” are the “greatest emerging threat.”
Although there are many ongoing issues with religious freedom that draw our attention, there have also been some positive, community-level changes. Just recently, during an attack on a bus in Kenya, where attackers asked Muslims to separate themselves from Christians, in order the target the Christians, Muslims did not separate themselves, demonstrating that they are all Kenyans, and a difference of faith does not make them a different group of people. Instances such as this one in Kenya give hope that communities around the world will be able to unite as one community, and not be harshly divided along lines of faith.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that “there shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you” (Exodus 12:49). Therefore, while we live in a community where that is true, we must stand up to support communities that are not able to freely practice their religion. We can uphold this value by advocating for robust religious freedom rights around the world to ensure that no one is persecuted for their beliefs and practices, or for having no faith.
As we move into the New Year, let us reflect on the religious freedom we have here in America and work to ensure that it is a fundamental right for those living throughout the world. Let us also celebrate the religious diversity of our country by engaging in dialogue with our neighbors of all faiths. Additionally, you can help refugees fleeing religious persecution abroad, by asking the U.S. government to continue to welcome refugees of all religious backgrounds and increase the number of refugees we welcome in the coming years.