The universal problem of religious freedom

Christian Pilgrimmage In Egypt

We've looked at a bit of the coverage of the Swiss ban on the construction of minarets -- the spires on mosques that are sometimes used for the call to prayer. Earlier this month, I noted a single story that looked at how religious freedom is handled in some Muslim countries. Many stories didn't bother to mention the issue even while they covered the outrage toward the Swiss ban from various leaders in these Muslim countries. Reader Mike Hickerson asked:

Could this be a variation on the "hypocrisy is the only sin" meme that pops up whenever there's a political sex scandal? Western countries say they value religious freedom, so they are held accountable when they fail to live up to their own standards. Meanwhile, countries that explicitly deny religious freedom are given a free pass because they're only being consistent.

Well, the New York Times has a story by Daniel Williams -- two weeks later -- about how religious freedom is handled in Egypt:

On a side street in the far northeast Cairo suburb of Ain Shams, the door of a five-story former underwear factory is padlocked.

This is, or was supposed to be, the St. Mary and Anba Abraam Coptic Christian Church. The police closed it Nov. 24, 2008, when Muslims rioted against its consecration. Since then local Copts have had to commute to distant churches or worship in hiding at one another's homes.

While Muslim leaders criticized the Nov. 29 vote in Switzerland that banned construction of minarets, the distinctive spires on mosques that are used for the call to prayer, they don't support Christians who want to build churches in some Islamic countries. Restrictions in Egypt have exacerbated sectarian violence and discrimination, say Copts, a 2,000-year-old denomination that comprises about 10 percent of the population.

The story discusses what top Muslim clerics in Egypt said about the Swiss vote and how Copts felt about such outrage in light of their own situation. It discusses how non-Muslims are arrested for worshiping in Saudi Arabia, how citizenship in the Maldives is reservedfor Muslims and how Libya punishes conversion from Islam by death and limits churches to one per denomination in cities.

As if to speak directly to Mike Hickerson's comment above, this story includes a quote from Harbi Muhammed Ali, a cafe owner who thinks that Copts don't need more than one church. He adds:

As for Switzerland, "the West is always preaching human rights," he said. "It's their problem."

I wonder, though, if this story isn't just a continuation of the hypocrisy meme -- the idea that the only sin a journalist can recognize is the sin of hypocrisy. The reason why this excellent story is written is because these Egyptians were hypocritical in their criticism (and that 2-week-old news hook). It's hard to get a critical look at religious freedom in Muslim countries on the merits of the issue alone. And the kicker to the story is a quote from a Copt denouncing the Swiss ban on the grounds that all religious adherents should have the freedom to build.

Still, this story is very interesting. It looks at data from the U.S. State Department's report on religious freedom -- a fascinating, if sober, document released annually that is woefully under-covered. I do wish we'd gotten more perspective from those who deny religious freedom to the Copts. We get a lot of information about the situation on the ground but very little understanding as to how the government justifies -- officially and unofficially -- the repression.

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