In his speech recognizing today as National Religious Freedom Day, President Barack Obama encouraged Americans to, “celebrate America’s legacy of religious liberty, embrace diversity in our own communities, and resolve once more to advance religious freedom in our time.”
On this day in 1786, Thomas Jefferson introduced the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, laying the foundation for freedom of religion and the clause in the U.S. Constitution that protects it nationwide: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
But Obama’s call to “advance religious freedom in our time,” may be easier said than done. According to new research from the Washington, D.C.,-based Pew Forum, government hostility toward religion around the world is on a steady climb. Specifically, Pew found that religious freedom in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring has decreased.
When the Arab Spring bloomed in 2011, protesters across the Middle East flooded streets and took to social media demanding, among other things, democracy, new economic policies, and freedom from tyranny. Those protests were eventually responsible for the overthrow of at least four governments.
Many observers hoped the movement would spark a new era of democracy. But Pew, considering a list of 198 countries, found that the number of countries with hostility toward religion has increased steadily for the past six years. In mid-2007, 20 percent of those nations were considered hostile toward religion. That percentage increased to 29 percent in 2011 and 33 percent in 2012.
Overall, Pew found that the percentage of the world’s population living in hostile countries has increased steadily: “More than 5.3 billion people (76 percent of the world’s population) live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion, up from 74 percent in 2011 and 68 percent as of mid-2007,” the report noted.
This echoes an earlier Pew study, in which researchers concluded that the Arab Spring led directly to an increase in government restriction against religion in the Middle East and North Africa. The number of countries in the region experiencing sectarian and communal violence increased from five to 10.
According to Pew, examples of new restrictions include bans against preaching, conversions, or preferential treatment of one religious group over another. Governments also often ignore religious minorities suffering sectarian violence. Egypt is at the top of a list of countries where government officials have tightened restrictions against religion in the two years since the Arab Spring protests. Much of the violence targets Christians whose pleas often go ignored by political and military leaders.
For example, last October Islamic extremists attacked a Coptic Christian wedding in Cairo, killing four and wounding 18. Earlier in August, after the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Copts came under intense waves of violence from extreme Muslims who targeted them for supporting the interim government. They burned more than 40 churches and destroyed 23 others. Christian residents called on the military to intervene, but to no avail.
In his speech, Obama said his administration will, “remain committed to promoting religious freedom, both at home and across the globe.” But Nina Shea, an attorney with the Hudson Group isn’t convinced. "Despite the president’s claim yesterday that ‘America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose,’ the Obama administration’s record on defending Christians persecuted for their faith has been embarrassingly weak,” Shea said.
According to Open Doors International, the number of Christians killed for their faith around the world has doubled in the past year. Meanwhile, American Christians remain imprisoned around the world and critics, including Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council, say religious liberty at home in the U.S. are increasingly under attack.
Perkins pointed to a 2013 study of recent religious liberty cases compiled by the Liberty Group: bans against public displays of the Ten Commandments, cases against public invocations, and most notably, the multiple lawsuits challenging Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate.
“These policies flow from a truncated view of religious liberty,” Perkins said. “In his own words, President Obama has repeatedly expressed his support for the freedom of worship, not the freedom of religion. The freedom of worship is the ability to choose the church, if any, you want to attend on Sunday morning. The freedom of religion is the ability to live your life according to the religious teachings of your choice.”