Nina Shea on Religious Freedom

'There's a difference between threats to religious freedom abroad and at home: Let's address both,' says member of U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom.

Nina Shea
Nina Shea (photo: Hudson Institute)

Threats to religious liberty are hitting close to home as a number of states and the federal government impose ideological mandates that restrict the free exercise of religion.

That said, the problems “faced by Christians, and others, in the U.S. pale beside what happens elsewhere,”javascript:nullo() as documented by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea in their new book Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide.

In an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez, Nina Shea offers a striking comparison between the state of religious freedom at home and abroad: “We don’t face death squads, torture or labor camps, as millions do elsewhere, so we should be careful in our rhetoric. At the same time, there are growing, dangerous restriction on religious freedom in the U.S., and more so in Europe, and we need to protest and fight them. We can do both, while not confusing their gravity.”

As the U.S. Bishops, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and other organizations address threats at home, Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute and a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom since 1999 addresses the fight abroad and argues that U.S. foreign policy should explicitly defend religious freedom.

Was Pope Benedict’s speech on the tyranny of relativism at Regensburg an important moment?

Yes, it showed that even a serious and scholarly mode of criticism of Islam—based on theological grounds, before a Christian audience, in a university setting, in one of the West’s most important countries—would no longer be permitted. This was not about a cartoon. His talk was met with deadly, indiscriminate violence against Christians in several other countries.

Did any people who needed to hear it, hear it?

Unfortunately, people, or more precisely West European leaders, took away the message that their states should start regulating speech on behalf of Islam. Silenced details the many new legal standards and prosecutions in EU countries to accomplish this.

Who is your nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, from among those profiled in Silenced?

Shahbaz Bhatti and Gov. Salman Taseer of Pakistan wouldn’t qualify since both have been murdered this year and posthumous nominations for the prize are not permitted. I would, therefore, nominate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian-Dutch former member of parliament. For raising the issue of violence against women in the Netherlands’ Muslim communities, she endured and overcame death threats, a criminal hate speech investigation, a civil hate-speech trial , the stripping of her citizenship, eviction from her home, a constant need for bodyguards and social ostracism. She, however, has not been silenced.

How should the name Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani politician who was assassinated this year, be known?

Shahbaz Bhatti was quite simply a Catholic martyr. He was murdered early this year because he opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which is regularly used to persecute the Christian and Ahmadi minorities and Muslim liberals. Peacefully defending minorities persecuted for their religious beliefs in Pakistan was his life’s work both from his base as the head of a non-governmental organization and from his post as the only Christian in the government’s cabinet as minister of minority affairs. He put his life on the line every day.

What can American Catholics do?

Catholics need to become more aware of the intense religious repression suffered by other Christians in Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, northern Sudan and elsewhere. They need to pray for them and reach out to them. They need to use their rights as citizens of the world’s leading democracy to insist that their president and members of Congress defend persecuted believers.

A good place to start would be with Asia Bibi, the 45-year-old Catholic mother of five who has been on death row in a Punjab prison awaiting appeal on blasphemy charges since November 2010. The Catholic media Asia News reports: “The bishop of Islamabad wants Pakistan’s highest authorities, including the justice minister, to intervene. However, so far, warnings by Western governments and Pope Benedict XVI’s appeal and words of solidarity for the Christian mother have fallen on deaf ears. … She had been arrested on blasphemy charges in June of 2009 stemming from a discussion she had had with Muslim women. At the time, she tried to defend her Christian faith and Jesus, who died on the cross for humanity’s sins, asking her co-workers what Muhammad had done for them. After verbally assaulting her, they accused her of “contaminating” a well by drawing water from it. … Local Muslims retaliated against her once the charges of blasphemy were made. They surrounded her home and tried to lynch her.”

While American Catholics—and all people who take their religion seriously—are understandably offended when their faith is mocked, hate-speech laws are not the solution.

Government-coerced speech codes would be applied in a broad fashion to curtail individual freedom and would also be used against them. The state regulation of Christian preaching has already happened in Western countries that have hate speech laws: clergy have been put on trial for preaching against gay marriage and for teaching the differences, in Christian theological terms, between Islam and Christianity. Following the example of Father John Courtney Murray in the last century, we must promote, including in Rome, the importance of the American First Amendment.

A lot of the nations you survey are allied with the U.S. in one way or another. What can we do to influence religious liberty abroad? Why is it any of our business?

We need to better integrate religious freedom into our foreign policy. We should now anticipate great persecution against Christians, a religious cleansing, for example, in Iraq, Egypt and Syria and make plans to forestall that though our diplomacy and aid. We should stop partnering with the Organization of the Islamic Conference on issues involving freedom of religion and speech; this validates its agenda of repression.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.