The nearly unanimous conclusion of people following the situation of religious freedom around the world is that matters have been getting worse, not better.

Religious freedom in crisis around the world

This is not happy news for me as I begin my second two-year term as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan commission that reports on the state of religious freedom abroad and makes recommendations to the president, Congress, and the State Department. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

But the conclusion is well-founded. More and more people have been killed, persecuted, or forced to flee their homes because of their beliefs. The situation is bleak in many places in the world.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the U.S. State Department have designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as “countries of particular concern,” a legalese way of saying these countries “engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing and egregious.”

To this group, the religious freedom commission adds eight more that it believes the State Department should also classify as countries of particular concern: Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.

Our vision of religious persecution goes back to the Roman Empire, when Christians were thrown to the lions because they would not worship the Roman gods or the emperor. But post-Reformation Europe also saw Catholics and Protestants persecuting each other and going to war over religious differences. Meanwhile, Jews were persecuted by all sides.

It was the hope for religious freedom that brought many believers to America, and tolerance and religious freedom, however imperfectly practiced, have been important ideals from the founding of our republic.

John Adams in a letter to Thomas Jefferson opined that religious freedom must be respected even if it meant that Jesuits would run free in the United States. “Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gypsies can assume, dressed as painters, publishers, writers, and schoolmasters?” he wrote. “If ever there was a body of men who merited eternal damnation on earth and in hell it is this Society of Loyola’s.”

America’s conviction on the importance of religious freedom as well as our positive experience with it has made the U.S. a proponent of religious freedom around the world.

Early in the last century, the persecution of religion by fascists and communists alerted believers to these dangerous movements long before the public at large understood them. Today we understand that any regime that persecutes religion is not going to respect other human rights. We also understand how discrimination and persecution can escalate into genocide when the “other” is dehumanized and demonized.

Catholics and Protestants are no longer killing each other in Europe, although antisemitism is still alive and well. To antisemitism has been added Islamophobia, the fear of the new stranger in our midst.

Meanwhile in the Middle East we see fights between Sunnis and Shiite that are just as bloody as the fights between Catholics and Protestants centuries earlier. Christians in the Middle East have been caught in the crossfire and been targeted by Islamic radicals, especially the Islamic State group.

And in Africa, Christians and Muslims are in conflicts that have escalated out of control in places like the Central African Republic.

Religious conflicts are rarely purely theological. Often they are also fights over resources and political power by tribal or ethnic groups. What begins as a political fight or a dispute over water, land, oil, or other resources can explode beyond control if the disputants are from different religious groups. Political leaders who add religion to the mix are pouring gasoline onto a fire that had already been started.

In the past, we normally saw religious freedom under attack by states that through laws and police imposed their religious views on unbelievers. This is still true in countries like Saudi Arabia.

Other countries, like Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and China, promoted atheism but are now more interested in political domination. Their governments fear independent organizations, including religious groups that they do not control. They are usually happy to let groups worship as they please as long as they support the regime. But if a religious group wants to be independent or if it promotes democracy and human rights, the government will smash any resistance.

Today, religious liberty is under attack in many places, not so much by the state as by factions within the nation that the state is incapable or unwilling to control. This is especially true in failed states, like Eritrea, Syria, and Sudan, but also in countries like Nigeria, where the government is not persecuting believers but its criminal justice system is so corrupt and incompetent that the rule of law fails to preserve the peace. If victims cannot get justice from the state, they turn to vigilantism and retaliation, which only escalates the conflict.

Likewise, in India, the government is reluctant to crack down on violence against Muslims and Christians by Hindu nationalists who are a key constituency of the ruling party. Nor is the government of Myanmar (Burma) willing to protect Muslims from militant Buddhists.

This is why the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is concerned not just about countries that engage in bad behavior but also countries that tolerate it.

Proponents of religious freedom need to understand the complexity of each country if they want to effectively support religious freedom. In many countries, the best way of fostering religious freedom may be through encouraging the rule of law and discouraging corruption. Treating all citizens fairly is essential to avoiding violent reactions from groups who feel they are being mistreated. Proponents of religious liberty should support those promoting the rule of law and an end to corruption.

On the other hand, proponents of religious freedom need to recognize that capitalism did not bring democracy and religious freedom to China as promised, although improvements in religious freedom have occurred in Vietnam and Cuba.

Nor does getting rid of tyrants necessarily mean better relations between religious groups. Sadly, we have seen that when strongmen like Josip Tito, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi are removed, religious conflicts can increase.

Believers also have a responsibility to break down the walls between their communities through interreligious dialogue and understanding. This cannot just be a conversation between elites; it must reach down to neighborhood mosques and churches. This is important because it is harder to stereotype or demonize people when you know them personally. But this groundwork needs to be done before conflicts occur. Once the fighting starts, it is very hard to put things right.

The struggle for religious freedom will not be easy. It may take generations, which is why the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has led an effort to improve how various religions are described in textbooks, especially in Muslim countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Poisoning the minds of children guarantees problems in the future.

Religious freedom and interreligious harmony go hand in hand. It is very easy to destroy understanding and trust. Restoring it is hard.

by Thomas Reese   | May. 19, 2016

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]