WASHINGTON — In Egypt, a young Coptic Christian pharmacy student at the top of her class is passed over for a job in favor of a non-Christian with lower grades. An imam in Switzerland is prohibited — via public referendum — from building a minaret, the tower structure from which the Muslim call to prayer is issued. In Iraq this past Christmas, a Chaldean archbishop canceled all midnight Mass celebrations and urged the faithful to celebrate quietly in order to avert a violent response from the local Shiite Muslim community.

A recent report reveals that these real-life examples of religious bigotry, governmental restriction and outright violence exist in countries where the majority of the world’s population lives. The report is the first to compile data from 16 separate sources — including the U.S. State Department, Council of the European Union, the United Nations and groups like the Hudson Institute and Amnesty International — in an effort to provide a snapshot of religious liberty in 198 nations with 99.5% of the world’s population from mid-2006 to mid-2008.

“About 70% of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions from the government or hostilities toward religion from society. This number jumps off the page,” said Brian Grim, senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which published the report.

Countries in the Middle East (including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran) and northern Africa (including Egypt) had the worst track records. China, India and Indonesia were also at the top of the list. North Korea was not rated since it is nearly impossible to get unbiased data about its civil and religious rights record, Grim said. Calls from the Register to the Indian and Egyptian embassies were not returned.

The findings are “shocking,” said Tom Farr, senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University and an expert on international religious freedom. “We are speaking here not only of the right to worship, but of the right to enter and exit religious communities, the right to persuade others to join one’s religious community, and the right to engage in political life in accord with one’s religious beliefs,” he said.

Grim noted that four out of 10 countries restrict proselytizing and conversions from one faith to another. Nine out of 10 countries require religious organizations to register with the government, frequently resulting in further restrictions. In most countries, religious minorities receive the brunt of oppressive governmental policies or hostile social attitudes, he said.


Catholic Countries Better

Several nations with majority Catholic populations — Brazil and Italy, among them — had the lowest levels of religious oppression, while nations with non-Catholic majorities tended to have higher levels. “This is not surprising. The very concept of religious freedom emerged in the West … from the teachings of Judaism and Christianity,” Farr said.

According to Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae (The Dignity of the Human Person), “The social nature of man … requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.”

The United States is the only country in the world (besides the Vatican) to have a statutory mandate, the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, establishing international religious freedom as part of its foreign policy.

According to Farr, who served as the first director of the State Department’s office on international religious freedom, U.S. national interests and religious liberty are closely intertwined. Additional research shows that until religious liberty is established in culture and law, democratic governments will not stabilize.

Since President Obama took office, he has not appointed an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, indicating it is not a priority, Farr said.

Furthermore, the administration has recently adopted a troubling tone by linking religious freedom and human rights with a homosexual agenda, Farr said. He cited a recent address by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who stated that human rights mean people “must be free to worship, associate and to love in the way that they choose.”

“We’ve been promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues as part of a human-rights agenda, which also includes religious rights,” State Department spokesman Alex McLaren said. These issues are “under the umbrella of human rights rather than religious freedom, but of course often the two come together,” he said. He also stated that despite the open ambassador post, the assistant secretary for democracy rights and labor has been very active on international religious-freedom issues.

“It would be tragic indeed if religious-freedom diplomacy were sidelined under the pretext that it won’t play in Muslim countries, while at the same time U.S. human-rights policy becomes associated with extremist gay-rights demands, something that is problematic in itself and certainly will not play well in Muslim countries,” Farr said. “Such a development, which seems entirely possible, would turn both logic and national security on its head.”


Domestic Issues

On the domestic front, there are plentiful examples of infringement on religious liberty. Farr cited threats against conscience, such as requiring Catholic health professionals to perform abortions or Catholic agencies to place children with same-sex adoptive parents.

“The rights of Catholics and other religious individuals and communities are at risk if they are not permitted to continue to make religiously informed arguments in the public square in order to support laws that promote the common good,” Farr said. “The very purpose of the First Amendment was to encourage individuals to bring their religiously informed ideas into American political discourse.”

Janneke Pieters writes from Asheville, North Carolina.