FaithWorld

from The Great Debate:

Human Rights Day: Still pursuing religious freedom

December 10 marks Human Rights Day, the 65th anniversary of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), signed by 48 nations -- with just eight abstentions.

Sixty-five years ago, naysayers insisted it was nobody else’s business how governments behaved within their borders. The declaration confronted this cynical view -- and continues to do so today. Human rights abuses and their consequences spill beyond national borders, darkening prospects for harmony and stability across the globe. Freedom of religion or belief, as well as other human rights, are essential to peace and security. They are everyone’s business.

Each signatory nation pledged to honor and protect these rights. For example, the declaration provides the foundation for much of the agenda of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve.

Yet 75 percent of the world’s population now lives in countries in which this freedom is highly restricted, according to a recent Pew study.

These include countries like Saudi Arabia, which abstained, as well as many that signed the declaration, including China, Iran and Nigeria.

Turkey lifts long-standing ban on Islamic head scarf in public service

(Headscarved protesters attend a demonstration against the ban on wearing headscarves at university, in Ankara April 12, 2008. REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

Turkey lifted a ban on women wearing the Islamic head scarf in state institutions on Tuesday, ending a generations-old restriction as part of a package of reforms the government says are meant to improve democracy.

The ban, whose roots date back almost 90 years to the early days of the Turkish Republic, has kept many women from joining the public work force, but secularists see its abolition as evidence of the government pushing an Islamic agenda.

U.S. troop conversion allegations diplomatic minefield

U.S. President Barack Obama may face a new minefield on the battlefields of Afghanistan — one that combines a potent mix of religion and culture.

Explosive allegations have emerged that U.S. soldiers have been attempting to convert Afghanis to Christianity, a scenario sure to stir passions and even anger in the overwhelming Islamic country. You can see our story on the issue here by my colleague Peter Graff in Kabul.

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The U.S. military denied Monday it has allowed soldiers to try to convert Afghans to Christianity, after a television network showed pictures of soldiers with bibles translated into local languages.

Lawsuit on alleged religious bias in U.S military widened

A lawsuit alleging religious bias, including mandatory participation in Christian prayers, against the U.S. Department of Defense was expanded  this week, the latest twist in a story that probably won’t go away in 2009.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s (MRFF) expanded lawsuit said the U.S. military was sanctioning Christian missionary activity with Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan — a highly sensitive issue in two predominantly Muslim countries where the United States is waging war.

We’ve blogged on this before  – in September the MRFF said a non-religious Kansas soldier is suing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the grounds that his constitutional rights were violated when he was forced to attend military events where “fundamentalist Christian prayers” were recited.

U.S. soldier sues over mandatory Christian prayers

A non-religious Kansas soldier is suing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the grounds that his constitutional rights were violated when he was forced to attend military events where “fundamentalist Christian prayers” were recited.

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Specialist Dustin Chalker’s cause has been taken up by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which is joining him in the suit.

The MRFF said in a statement that Chalker, a decorated Iraq war veteran stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas, “was forced to attend three events in late 2007 and in 2008  at which the battalion chaplain …  delivered  sectarian Christian prayers”.

EU pressures Turkey to boost rights for non-Muslims

Turkey has signalled it may soon amend a free speech law that has been a stumbling block in its drive to join the European Union. Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said this on Tuesday soon after the European Commission issued its annual progress report on Ankara’s membership bid. The interesting angle here for this blog is that the EU criticism singled out not only the much-criticised law on “insulting Turkishness” but also current restrictions on freedom of religion.

Demonstrator wrapped in the Turkish flag at a Brussels protest against the Kurdish PKK, Nov. 3, 2007Releasing the report, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn noted democracy had prevailed over military meddling in Turkish politics this year. “The new momentum should now be used to relaunch the reforms to improve fundamental freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression and religious freedom, so that they prevail in all corners of the country and in all walks of life,” he said (my emphasis).

The report gave Turkey a mixed review concerning religion. “As concerns freedom of religion, freedom of worship continues to be generally guaranteed,” it wrote. But it added: “Overall, the environment as regards freedom of religion has not been conducive to the full respect of this right in practice. A legal framework has yet to be established in line with the European Convention on Human Rights so that all religious communities can function without undue constraints. No real progress can be reported on the major difficulties encountered by the Alevis and non-Muslim religious communities.”