Acton Institute Powerblog

How global leaders used COVID-19 to restrict religious liberty

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From violating burial rites to blame-shifting toward religious minorities to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the pandemic has served as a precursor to all sorts of anti-religious mischief. A new report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms shows how religious freedoms have been curtailed across the world. […]

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COVID-19 has posed unique challenges to religious liberty across the United States, spurring politicians to impose public health measures that restricted in-person worship services. Globally, the situation has often been much worse, with many governments using the pandemic as an excuse for targeted persecution through a mix of misinformation and coercive action.

In the latest annual International Religious Freedom Report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) details these developments, along with other evolving threats to religious liberty around the world.

“In many cases these [public health] measures complied with international human rights standards protecting freedom of religion or belief, but in some cases they did not,” the report concludes. “USCIRF’s monitoring revealed that in some countries, already marginalized religious minorities faced official and/or societal stigmatization, harassment, and discrimination for allegedly causing or spreading the virus.”

From violating burial rites to blame-shifting toward religious minorities to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the pandemic has served as a precursor to all sorts of anti-religious mischief.

Forced cremation in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, authorities insisted on the cremation of those who died from COVID-19, including Muslims for whom the practice is religiously prohibited…Vietnam arrested members of the Ha Mon religious group on charges of “sabotaging implementation of solidarity practices.” In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, government authorities indicated Shi’a religious communities were responsible for the spread of coronavirus and subjected some neighborhoods and localities to stricter lockdown measures. On a positive note, however, in several countries, as part of efforts to reduce prison populations for health reasons, nonviolent offenders, including prisoners of conscience, were furloughed or sent to house arrest.

Religious intolerance in India

The pandemic also fostered a wave of misinformation targeting religious minorities…In India, for example, Muslims were accused of spreading COVID-19, leading to a reported increase in attacks on members of the community. In April, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, issued a statement warning that the pandemic has precipitated a “flare-up in existing religious intolerance in many countries.” For example, USCIRF received reports of numerous anti-Hindu incidents in Bangladesh that occurred with impunity, particularly during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Rise of antisemitism in Germany

…A rise in antisemitism also coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19, particularly in Europe. In Germany, protests against public health measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 involved the invocation of Holocaust imagery and antisemitic conspiracy theories about mandatory vaccination. Social media users in France used antisemitic tropes to criticize Jewish former health minister Agnes Buzyn, and a Polish Holocaust revisionist claimed that COVID-19 was being used to introduce “Jewish” values into “Western Christian culture.”

India, Russia, Syria and Vietnam become ‘Countries of Particular Concern’

Beyond the COVID-19 crisis, longer-term challenges continued, as well. The report assesses a broad range of violations to “the broad right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief, including the right to nonbelief, protected under international human rights law.”

The report highlights growing turmoil in four specific countries — India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam — and recommends adding them to USCIRF’s “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) designation, along with pre-designated countries such as Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. It also recommends keeping Cuba and Nicaragua on its second-tier “Special Watch List” (SWL), while adding 10 additional countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

With an overview of each country in question, the report provides extensive details about evolutions in political/legal dynamics and rises in violence and persecution, as well as recommends next steps for U.S. policymakers.

Overall trends include attacks on houses of worship (in China, France, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Ethiopa), political unrest leading to religious liberty violations (in Yemen and across Eastern Europe), and the enforcement of blasphemy laws (in Sri Lanka, Morocco, and Poland). The report also points to a rise in anti-Semitic incidents across Europe, whether among neo-Nazis in Norway, far-right nationalists in Spain and Ukraine, or far-left conspiracy peddlers in Great Britain and Germany. Meanwhile, school textbooks in Islamic countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to promote anti-Semitic ideas to rising generations.

China further restricts religious freedoms

Perhaps most notably, while China has long been on the report’s list of CPCs, its violations continue to multiply. “In 2020, religious freedom conditions in China deteriorated,” the report concludes. “The government intensified its ‘sinicization of religion’ policy, particularly targeting religions perceived to have foreign connections, such as Christianity, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism.” Religious minorities across the country are aggressively tracked and monitored, leading to now routine reports of forced labor, torture and rape, and genocidal sterilization.

Unfortunately, China’s oppressive behavior doesn’t stop at its borders, and continues to spread as the country grows in international influence. As the report explains:

China’s coercive policies at home have negative transnational implications for religious freedom. In some cases, such policies amount to the active aiding and abetting of religious freedom violations in other countries. Uyghur, Kazakh, and other Turkic Muslims in foreign countries reported in 2020 that Chinese authorities harassed them through messaging apps and phone calls, and by targeting their relatives back home, to silence and suppress their speech and activities overseas. Chinese authorities also rescinded their passports to lure them back to China where they faced persecution, such as internment.

In addition, Chinese authorities continued to carry out a policy of forced repatriation of North Korean refugees in China who faced severe persecution upon their return to North Korea, in many cases due to their exposure and connection to Christianity and to South Korean Christian missionaries who play a crucial role in assisting them to escape North Korea.

Lastly, the Chinese government and its allies continued to weaken and subvert the international human rights system and norms within the United Nations (UN) by arguing that economic progress should precede respect for individual rights, including the right to religious freedom.

Taken together, the global threats to religious liberty are significant in size and scope, comprising far more than a string of one-off abuses. The human costs of each situation are tragic, and yet such violations sow seeds of disorder and destruction that spread across the social and economic order.

Samuel Gregg has outlined how religious liberty is intricately linked to economic and political liberty. Likewise, researchers such as Brian Grim, Greg Clark, and Robert Edward Snyder have demonstrated a strong correlation between such liberty and economic growth.

“In understanding and securing religious freedom, we open the door to the full panoply of human rights and to the limits of the state,” wrote Daniel Mark in Acton’s One and Indivisible, a collection of essays on the relationship between religious and economic liberty. “… In building and preserving the institutions of freedom in our time, we would do well to promote the centrality of religious freedom not only for its own sake but also because it undergirds all of our rights.”

When the state stifles religious liberty, it spreads from the persecuted and their families to the fruits and frame of society as a whole — and back and forth again. In our efforts to further a free and virtuous society, both at home and around the globe, such a report reminds us that the fight for our “first freedom” is central to all else.

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.