Discrimination

For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

Political power has as much to do with religious group fortunes as do the appeal of their message and the commitment of their followers. It's no wonder that the histories of each of the three major monotheistic religions emphasize, and even celebrate, stories of persecution at the hands of repressive political leaders.

Frankly, not much has changed over the centuries, despite any assumptions that modernity has birthed generally more enlightened attitudes toward politically weak minority faiths. Lip service means little when believers face immediate threats.

Here are two examples of politically linked religious persecution that produced international headlines last week.

The first is the dire situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. They’re persecuted by the government, in part because they’ve been deemed insufficiently loyal to the state, because they’re a relatively new sect with no historical ties to the Slavs and because they're a small and politically powerless faith with few international friends.

The second example is, arguably, the even worse situation of China’s Uighur Muslims. Not only does Beijing fear their potential political power, but until now they’ve also been largely abandoned by their powerful global coreligionists, again because of blatantly self-serving political considerations.

The good news here, if that’s not an overstatement, is they've received a modicum of  international lip service of late, even if only — no surprise here — out of political self-interest.

But let’s start with the Jehovah's Witnesses. I’ve previous chronicled their situation here, focusing on how the elite international media has -- or has not -- covered them. Click here and then click here to retrieve two of my past GetReligion pieces.

The latest news out of Russia is pretty bad. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent declaration of quasi-support for his nation’s Witnesses, a foreign-born member of the group has been sentenced to six years in prison for — well, basically for being a member of the faith.

Here’s the top of a Religion News Service report:

MOSCOW (RNS) —  A Russian court has sentenced a Danish member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years on extremism charges in a case that has rekindled memories of the Soviet-era persecution of Christians and triggered widespread international criticism.

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Malaysia bars Israeli para-athletes, loses major swim competition and major media ignored it

Malaysia bars Israeli para-athletes, loses major swim competition and major media ignored it

We hear a great deal these days, and appropriately so, about rising anti-Semitism across Europe, much of it masquerading as anti-Israel political rhetoric. For years we’ve known about the virulent anti-Semitic attitudes that permeate the Arab world and neighboring Turkey and Iran.

Nor is there any lack of probing news coverage about the spike in anti-Semitism here in the United States. Look no further than the recent Women's March on Washington for evidence.

Still, I urge you to read this recent analysis by Holocaust and anti-Semitism scholar par excellence Deborah Lipstadt to better understand this ominous state of affairs.

Lipstadt notes how even Israel’s government and some Jews unwittingly make the situation worse.

What we hear very little about, however, is the Jew hatred — and its geopolitical twin, the hatred of all things Israeli — that emanates from Malaysia.

This past Sunday — which coincided with international Holocaust Remembrance Day — the International Paralympic Committee cancelled a top-level swimming competition set for Malaysia later this year because of that nation’s refusal to allow Israeli athletes to compete in, or even enter, the Southeast Asian country.

Did you see anything about this in the mainstream media?

Speaking at the Oxford Union [in England] a week ago, prime minister Dr Mahatir Mohamed confirmed that the visa-denial was punitive but restated his country’s right to bar visitors from countries whose policies he disagreed with, adding that if the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) wanted to withdraw Malaysia’s right to host the tournament, “they can do so”. He has also previously described Jews as “hook-nosed” and suggested four million, rather than six million Jews, were killed in the Shoah [Holocaust].

The above paragraph is from London’s Jewish News, as carried by the Times of Israel news website.

As you might imagine, the Malaysia story has been followed closely by Israeli and Jewish diaspora media, along with Asian and Muslim-world news outlets.

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Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

During the year-end news rush, many or most media – and The Religion Guy as well – missed a significant development in the ongoing religious liberty wars that will be playing out in 2019 and well beyond. 

 On Dec. 10, Business Leaders in Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Iowa for removing the group’s on-campus recognition on grounds of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This club for business students requires its leaders to uphold traditional Christian beliefs, including that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife.” See local coverage here.

These sorts of disputes across the nation are thought to be a factor in religious citizens’ support for Donald Trump’s surprise election as president. And the Iowa matter is a significant test case because the Trump Department of Justice filed in support of the club Dec. 21, in line with a 2017 religious liberty policy issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

The DoJ’s court brief is a forthright presentation of the argument the Iowa club and other such organizations make for freedom of association, freedom of speech and “free exercise of religion” under the Constitution. Contact: Eric Treene of the Civil Rights Division, 202–514-2228 or eric.treene@usdoj.gov.

More broadly, what does the American nation believe these days regarding religious freedom?

That’s the theme of a related and also neglected story, the Nov. 29 issuance of a new “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” (info and text here). The years-long negotiations on this text were sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute, which evolved from a Georgetown University initiative, and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. 

The Religion Guy finds this document important, although at 5,000 words needlessly repetitive.  In essence, it asserts that freedom of religiously grounded thought, observance and public action, and the equal rights of conscience for non-believers, are fundamental to the American heritage and the well-being of all societies. 

Adopting lingo from federal court rulings, the charter says these freedoms are not absolute. But any “substantial burden” limiting them “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest” and implemented by “the least restrictive” means possible. The charter also endorses the separation of religion and state.

It is remarkable — and discouraging to The Guy — that basic Bill of Rights tenets even need to be reiterated in this dramatic fashion, because that tells us they are too often neglected -- or rejected.  

The charter has won a notably varied list of initial endorsers because it purposely avoids taking stands on the “sometimes bitter debates” over how to apply these principles, in particular clashes between religious traditionalists and the LGBTQ community.

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Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

My wife was born in Israel and most of her extended family still lives there. We have several close friends living there, plus I also have journalist friends and acquaintances in Israel.

It’s wonderful to have so many people I care about in a nation to which I’m deeply connected. However, this means that when we visit, which is often, we generally have a packed schedule. This leaves us little down time for rest and seeking out new experiences, even when we’re there for a couple of weeks or more.

So for that we schedule stopovers in Europe, either going or coming. Just the two of us and a rented car, exploring and hanging out where our interests take us, including  beautiful and nourishing environments. We're also drawn to Jewish historical sites, old synagogues and the like.

We’re now thinking about another trip to Israel this spring or summer. But this time, we’re considering skipping our usual European respite. Why? Because of the increasingly overt anti-Semitism.

We have no desire to either experience it anew or spend our money in societies where the dislike of Jews and Israel are menacingly on the rise.

A disturbing survey, released just last week, by the European Union on the growing insecurity of the continent's Jews — and their increased desire to emigrate — prompted our reevaluation. Here’s part of how Bloomberg reported the survey's chief findings.

Insecurity fueled by anti-Semitism prompted a growing number of British, German and Swedish Jews to consider leaving their countries, according to a landmark survey conducted by the European Union.

Nine out of every 10 Jews sense anti-Semitism is getting worse with some of the most acute concern registered in northern Europe, according to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. The survey is the largest of its kind worldwide and polled more than 16,000 Jews in 12 countries.

“Mounting levels of anti-Semitism continue to plague the EU,” said Michael O’Flaherty, the Irish human rights lawyer who runs the Vienna-based agency. “Across 12 EU member states where Jews have been living for centuries, more than 1/3 say that they consider emigrating because they no longer feel safe as Jews.”

Concerns over safety are prompting Jewish communities in some of the EU’s biggest economies to question whether they should remain, according to the data. In Germany, their share soared to 44 percent from 25 percent six years ago.


The BBC ran its online story on the survey under the headline, “Anti-Semitism pervades European life, says EU report.”

Let that sink in for a moment. “Pervades.”

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Finally: A decent mainstream news article about the Southern Poverty Law Center

Finally: A decent mainstream news article about the Southern Poverty Law Center

Well. Finally someone wrote a realistic, balanced piece about the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Washington Post Magazine staff writer David Montgomery put together a (roughly) 6,700-word piece that asks whether the SPLC is what it pretends to be — the ultimate (and accurate) judges of hate in America.

It gave ample voice to several of the SPLC’s most prominent critics, including one mainstream evangelical Christian organization that narrowly missed being in a bloodbath because of being labeled a hate organization.

See that speck there?” retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin says, directing my gaze to the ceiling of the Family Research Council’s lobby in Washington. I spy a belly-button-size opening in the plaster. “That’s a bullet hole.” … Fired on August 15th, 2012, by Floyd Lee Corkins.” …

Asked by an FBI agent how he came to single out the FRC, Corkins replied: “Southern Poverty Law lists anti-gay groups.” The gunman, who was found to be mentally ill, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“He came in here to kill as many of us as possible because he found us listed as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center website,” continues Boykin, FRC’s executive vice president, who is dressed today in a leather vest over a shirt and tie. “We and others like us who are on this ‘hate map’ believe that this is very reckless behavior. … The only thing that we have in common is that we are all conservative organizations. … You know, it would be okay if they just criticized us. … If they wrote op-eds about us and all that. But listing us as a hate group is just a step too far because they put us in the same category as the Ku Klux Klan. And who are they to have a hate-group list anyhow?”

The piece then switches venues to Montgomery, Ala., headquarters of the SPLC, which began in 1971 as a legal aid group, then expanded in the 1980s to monitor Klan groups.

Then the SPLC began widening its definition of hate and extremism.

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Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

This past Saturday, the Jewish sabbath — just two weeks removed from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and 80 years to the day following Kristallnacht -- the Israeli news site Times of Israel ran the following stories on its home page. Each was about anti-Semitism; either a hateful display of it (including one new one in the United States) or warnings about its steady rise in Europe.

Because it would take too much space to explain them all, I’ll just supply the links and note the nation of origin. Please read at least a few of them to gain a sense of the level of concern.

(1) The Netherlands.

(2) The United Kingdom.

(3) Poland.

(4) Germany.

(5) Austria.

(6) United States.

A quick web search that same day uncovered a host of other stories documenting recent anti-Semitic actions, many cloaked in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, including this one from The Jewish Chronicle, the venerable, London-based, Anglo-Jewish publication.

A local Labour party [meaning a regional branch of Britain’s national opposition political party] confirmed it amended a motion about the Pittsburgh synagogue attack to remove a call for all forms of antisemitism to be eradicated and for Labour to “lead the way in opposing" Jew-hate.

The story, of course, included the usual explanations meant to excuse actions of this sort. And, for the record, while I do not consider all criticism of Israeli government actions to be anti-Semitic, I do believe that the line between legitimate political criticism of Israel and hatred of Israel because its a Jewish nation is frequently blurred.

I listed all the above stories to make some journalistic points. The first of them is to point out journalism’s unique internal clock.

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Sikhs imprisoned in Oregon: How a national scandal hit a small farming town

Sikhs imprisoned in Oregon: How a national scandal hit a small farming town

Oregon is a diverse state and one in which I did lots of religion coverage during the my early reporting years. There are generous concentrations of Jews, Christians and Muslims and sprinklings of other groups — but Sikhism are one faith that isn’t heard about often.

This 2013 Oregonian piece estimates there are probably less than 1,000 Sikhs in the entire state, which may explain why officials at a local prison knew nothing about this 500-year-old faith when a load of Sikh immigrants was dumped at their door.

The mistreatment of these Sikhs –- and the number of Oregonians who volunteered to help them -- led to an Associated Press story that ran last week.

We’re going to be looking at several interesting stories, because this is — sadly — a story that isn’t going away anytime soon.

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — With the sun bearing down, Norm and Kathy Daviess stood in the shade of a prison wall topped with coiled razor wire, waiting for three immigrants to come out.

It’s become an oddly familiar routine for the Air Force veteran and his wife, part of an ad hoc group of volunteers that formed in recent months after the Trump administration transferred 124 immigrants to the federal prison in rural Oregon, a first for the facility.

The detainees were among approximately 1,600 immigrants apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border and then transferred to federal prisons in five states after President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy left the usual facilities short of space.

Almost half of those sent to the prison outside Sheridan, an economically struggling town 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Portland, on May 31 are from India, many of them Sikhs — part of an influx of Indian nationals entering the U.S. in recent years...

The story is not new.

In June the Portland-based Willamette Week covered a demonstration of religious leaders railing against the detaining of so many religious refugees at this prison.

Religious leaders from the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice today denounced the treatment of the 123 immigrants detained in a federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., saying many of the men are religious refugees fleeing persecution in their home nations.

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Soros: He's invoked from DC to Malaysia. An anti-Semitic dog whistle? Atheist straw man?

Soros: He's invoked from DC to Malaysia. An anti-Semitic dog whistle? Atheist straw man?

OK, readers, it’s pop quiz time. My question: What do the following political players have in common; Franklin Graham, George Soros and the Koch brothers?

Did I hear you mumble “nothing,” other than gender and the aforementioned political-player designations?

Not a bad guess. But not the answer I’m looking for at the moment.

The commonality I have in mind is that they all serve as public boogeyman — names to be tossed around to convey a suitcase of despised qualities that need not be unpacked for opponents skilled in the art of in-group rhetoric.

Those on the left tend to think of Graham and the Kochs as despicable actors poisoning the political well with hypocritical religious justifications (Graham) or by employing their vast wealth to back libertarian, hyper pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulatory agendas (the Kochs).

Those on the right tend to view Soros as an atheist billionaire, internationalist busy-body set on destroying what they view as rightful national norms for the sake of unrealistic democratic (note that’s with a small “d”) fantasies. In America, many conservatives see him as a fierce enemy of the religious liberty side of the First Amendment.

If you paid close attention to the soul-numbing Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation fight you may know that, unlike Graham and the Kochs, Soros’ name popped up at the tail end of that scorched-earth display political bloodletting — which is why I bring him up now. (President Donald Trump, as he has before, first mentioned Soros; Sen. Chuck Grassley disparaged Soros when asked about Trump’s comment.)

But first.

My point here is not to convince you of the rightness or wrongness of Soros or the others mentioned above. Frankly, I have strong disagreements with them all. Besides, love them or hate them, I’m guessing your minds are already pretty well made up about what level of heaven or hell they’re headed for come judgement day. So what chance at changing minds do I really have anyway?

Also, they're all entitled, under current American law, to throw their weight around in accordance with their viewpoints — again, whether you or I like it or not.

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Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

“Who gets to define a nation?,” journalist Anne Applebaum asks in a piece she wrote for the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine. “And who, therefore, gets to rule a nation?

For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled — but why should they ever be?”

Newspaper, magazine and broadcast reports attempting to explain the moves toward nationalist-tinged political populism in a host of European nations, and certainly the United States as well, have become a journalistic staple, which makes sense given the subject’s importance.

Here’s one recent example worth reading produced by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat  that looks at the issue in light of the recent Swedish national election. His focus is whether the political center can continue to hold, and for how long?

So why single out this magazine essay by Applebaum, who is also a columnist for The Washington Post?

Because it’s a good example of how a writer’s deep personal experience of living within a culture for many years can produce an understanding that’s difficult to find in copy produced by the average correspondent who, at best, spends a few years in a region before moving on to a new assignment.

Granted, the American-born Applebaum has the advantage of being married to a Polish politician and writer. She herself has become a dual citizen of the U.S. and Poland, and is raising her children in Poland.

As a Jew, however, she retains her outsider status in Polish society. It's from this vantage point that she conveys how Poland’s shift toward right-wing populism has impacted the nation, and her. (Her piece is one of several published by The Atlantic grouped together under the ominous rubric, “Is Democracy Dying?”)

If it is dying, at least in the short run, she argues that in large measure it’s due to the sweeping demographic changes in Europe triggered by the large number of Muslim refugees and immigrants fleeing war, poverty and general chaos in Syria, Iraq, North Africa and elsewhere who have moved there.

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