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.

Kuwaiti man gets 10 years in jail for Twitter blasphemy he denies

A Kuwaiti man has been sentenced to 10 years in prison  after he was convicted of endangering state security by insulting the Prophet Mohammad and the Sunni Muslim rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on social media. Shi’ite Muslim Hamad al-Naqi pleaded innocent at the start of the trial last month, saying he did not post the messages and that his Twitter account had been hacked.

The written verdict, delivered by Judge Hisham Abdullah on Monday, found Naqi guilty of all charges, a court secretary told Reuters. The sentence was the maximum that 26-year-old Naqi could have received, his lawyer Khaled al-Shatti said.

The judge found him guilty of insulting the Prophet, the Prophet’s wife and companions, mocking Islam, provoking sectarian tensions, insulting the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and misusing his mobile phone to spread the comments.

Russian Muslims ask Moscow to lobby Saudis for increased haj quota to Mecca

(Muslims attend Friday prayers under a snowfall at the Central Mosque in Almaty February 5, 2010/Shamil Zhumatov)

Spiritual leaders from Russia’s large minority of Muslims asked President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday to press Saudi Arabia to increase the number of worshippers allowed to perform the annual Haj pilgrimage. Almost three million Muslims flock to Mecca every year for Haj, a duty every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must perform at least once in their lifetime. Riyadh allocates quotas for Muslims around the world.

Russia, home to 20 million Muslims, or around one seventh of the population, is allowed to send 20,000 Muslims a year for Haj, Mufti Ismail Berdiyev told Medvedev. They were attending a meeting with other Muslim leaders in Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital Nalchik in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus.

Did Bahrain’s Shi’ite opposition squander its democracy chance?

(Thousands of protesters gather at Pearl Roundabout in the heart of the Bahraini capital Manama February 15, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed)

As martial law comes to an end in the Gulf Arab state of Bahrain this week, opposition activists are wondering whether they threw away what might have been the first real chance for democracy in the Gulf Arab region.

Shortly after young Bahrainis, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, converged on a roundabout in early February, the government offered dialogue with opposition parties on political reforms. But the talks failed to get off the ground. After weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions during which sectarian tension worsened between the Shi’ite majority and Sunnis who saw the ruling Al-Khalifa family as protection, Saudi troops poured in on March 15, martial law was declared the next day and the roundabout encampment was broken up on March 16.

Witness – Searching for reforms in King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia

(Saudi King Abdullah address the nation from his office at the Royal Palace in Riyadh March 18, 2011. Saudi King Abdullah announced on Friday billions of dollars in handouts for his people and boosted his security apparatus in a renewed effort to shield the world's top oil exporter from unrest rocking the Arab world. REUTERS/Saudi Press Agency)

(Saudi King Abdullah address the nation from his office at the Royal Palace in Riyadh March 18, 2011/Saudi Press Agency)

Ulf Laessing was Reuters chief correspondent in Saudi Arabia until last week when the government terminated his accreditation over coverage of recent protests in the kingdom. He was based in the Saudi capital Riyadh since 2009 and previously worked in Kuwait after joining Reuters in his native Germany in 1997. In the following piece he describes the little progress of reforms launched by King Abdullah often titled as “reformist” in the Western press.

By Ulf Laessing

RIYADH (Reuters) – The moment my wife and I left our apartment compound in downtown Riyadh, a jeep screeched to a halt in front of us and a bearded man stepped out. “Is this your wife? I want to give you some advice. Don’t let her wear makeup,” said the religious policeman, dressed in a traditional white robe. “If she uses makeup, other men will only look at her,” he added, raising his forefinger to stress his point and staring hard at me.

Saudi Shi’ite protests simmer as Bahrain conflict rages

saudi protest

(Protesters demand the release of prisoners they say are held without trial, in Saudi Arabia's eastern Gulf coast town of Qatif March 11, 2011/Stringer)

Hundreds of young Shi’ite men marched down a commercial street in the Saudi city of Qatif, near the heart of the kingdom’s oil industry, pounding their fists in anger over their country’s military intervention in Bahrain. “With our blood and soul we sacrifice for you, Bahrain,” they chanted as they walked, according to videos of a recent protest posted on the internet. Some wore scarves to conceal their faces. Others waved Bahraini flags.

“People are boiling,” one Shi’ite activist in Qatif told Reuters by phone, asking not to be named for fear of arrest. “People are talking about strikes, demonstration and prayer to help the Bahrainis.”

Bahrain declares martial law, Sunni-Shi’ite tensions flair

bahrain

(Protesters near the Saudi Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, March 15, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed )

Bahrain declared martial law on Tuesday as it struggles to quell an uprising by the island’s Shi’ite Muslim majority that has drawn in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbour Saudi Arabia. The three-month state of emergency will hand wholesale power to Bahrain’s security forces, which are dominated by the country’s Sunni Muslim elite, stoking sectarian tensions in one of the Gulf’s most politically volatile nations.

The United States, a close ally of both Bahrain and Saudi, said it was concerned about reports of growing sectarianism in the country, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and warned that violence from any side would make matters worse.

Top Algerian Salafist’s fatwa says unrest is un-Islamic

fatwa

(A Salafist sheikh consults Islamic literature in Algiers, August 2, 2010/Louafi Larbi )

The spiritual leader of Algeria’s influential Salafist movement has issued a 48-page fatwa, or religious decree, urging Muslims to ignore calls for change because he says that democracy is against Islam. The fatwa by Sheikh Abdelmalek Ramdani, who lives in Saudi Arabia, comes at an opportune time for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as Algerians watching protests in other Arab states have begun pushing their own political and economic demands.

“As long as the commander of the nation is a Muslim, you must obey and listen to him. Those who are against him are just seeking to replace him, and this is not licit,” Ramdani wrote in the fatwa obtained by Reuters. “During unrest, men and women are mixed, and this is illicit in our religion,” said Ramdani, who claims several hundred thousand followers here.

Saudis want more science in religion-heavy education

saudi ed 1

(Secondary students sit for an exam in Riyadh June 15, 2008/Fahad Shadeed)

Saudi teenager Abdulrahman Saeed lives in one of the richest countries in the world, but his prospects are poor, he blames his education, and it’s not a situation that looks like changing soon. “There is not enough in our curriculum,” says Saeed, 16, who goes to an all-male state school in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. “It is just theoretical teaching, and there is no practice or guidance to prepare us for the job market.”

Saeed wants to study physics but worries that his state high school is failing him. He says the curriculum is outdated, and teachers simply repeat what is written in text books without adding anything of practical value or discussions. Even if the teachers did do more than the basics, Saeed’s class, at 32 students, is too big for him to get adequate attention. While children in Europe and Asia often start learning a language at five or six, Saudi students start learning English at 12. Much time is spent studying religion and completing exercises heavy with moral instruction.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sits on more than a fifth of the globe’s oil reserves and thanks to high oil prices it has almost tripled its foreign assets to more than $400 billion (248 billion pounds) since 2005. The region’s thinkers had a profound influence on the evolving western science of the Middle Ages. But from kindergarten to university, its state education system has barely entered the modern age. Focussed on religious and Arabic studies, it has long struggled to produce the scientists, engineers, economists and lawyers that Saudi needs.

U.N. restores gay reference to violence measure

united nations (Photo: United Nations headquarters in New York, July 31, 2008/Brendan McDermid)

The United States has succeeded in getting the United Nations to restore a reference to killings due to sexual orientation that had been deleted from a resolution condemning unjustified executions.

Western delegations were disappointed last month when the U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee approved an Arab and African proposal to cut the reference to slayings due to sexual orientation from a resolution on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions.

The 192-nation General Assembly approved on Tuesday a U.S. amendment to the resolution that restored the reference to sexual orientation with 93 votes in favor, 55 against and 27 abstentions. The amended resolution was then adopted with 122 yes votes, one against and 62 abstentions.