At Large

Bishops, Religious Freedom, and Islamist Terror

Free expression is hard to defend in Middle East conditions.

By 9.21.12

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Sadly, four Anglican bishops in the Middle East have joined to endorse international blasphemy laws.

"In view of the current inflamed situation in several countries in response to the production of a film in the USA which evidently intends to offend our Muslim brothers and sisters by insulting the Prophet Mohammed, and in view of the fact that in recent years similar offensive incidents have occurred in some European countries which evoked massive and violent responses worldwide, we hereby suggest that an international declaration be negotiated that outlaws the intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith," they wrote the United Nations general secretary.

The four bishops serve in or are responsible for churches in Egypt, Cyprus and the Gulf, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.

The bishops' letter, as noted by "Anglican Ink," somewhat echoes the 2011 United Nations' resolution urging nations to "combat" negative speech and attitude about religious groups. It dropped a specific reference to "defamation" long pushed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) of 56 majority Muslim countries. Like the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the resolution affirms freedom of expression. But clearly its emphasis is on squelching criticism.

Likewise the Anglican bishops insisted their proposed declaration would not contradict freedom of expression. But their suggestion is to "outlaw" defamation of religion, which certainly does assail free speech. They understandably want to preempt violence, but by restraining "malicious opinions." The bishops concluded that "as people living here in the Middle East, we see that the way ahead for peaceful coexistence and religious harmony is through mutual respect and love."

Who can fault these poor bishops, responsible for tiny, besieged flocks, saying what they must for continued survival? Unlike the U.S. Embassy in Cairo trying to appease the mob, Christian communities in the Middle East have no earthly power to defend them. Amid ongoing Christian exodus from the region, they are trying to preserve what remains. God bless them. But Christians elsewhere, with other people of conscience, must defend truly free expression, even when Islamist killers threaten. Otherwise, today's free societies may slide into what these bishops must now routinely experience.

Christians in sub-Saharan Africa, who unlike declining Mideast churches are surging in numbers, are typically more robust in defending religious freedom. Nigeria's Catholic bishops recently denounced the Islamist terror group Boko Haram and demanded their national government act aggressively to defend vulnerable Christians in the country's mostly Islamic north.

"The patience of Christians, especially in the north, has been tried and tested for too long now through the unprovoked and senseless killing of Christians by the dreaded Islamic sect," the bishops announced. "We ask that the reckless attacks on them and other innocent Nigerians be brought to a halt through the proper use of intelligence and expertise available of government and security agencies both within and beyond Nigeria."

Nigeria's Catholic bishops cited their national Constitution's protection of religious freedom. But they regretted that "some Nigerians misunderstand their right to religion as right to persecute other Nigerians of different religious persuasion. The right to propagate one's religion must not be exercised in ways that violate the right of people of other religions. We deplore the use and abuse of religion to trample on the rights of others." Not shy, the bishops denounced their violent enemies as blasphemous and fraudulent. "We wish to note that those who claim that they love God while hating their fellow human beings, even to the extent of killing them, are liars," the bishops declared. "God has not given anyone the right to kill in his name. Neither has he authorized anyone to violate the dignity of other human beings."

One bishop preached to his fellow Nigerian prelates: "We must speak out loud and clear against some states in the northern part of our country, where the fundamental human rights of Christians to freedom of religion and worship are abbreviated, where Christians are not permitted to proclaim their faith publicly; where they are not allowed to acquire lands for the building of Churches, schools and hospitals."

Despite supposed national legal protections, Muslim law often prevails in Nigeria's northern provinces. Nigeria's Catholic bishops, similar to its Anglican and most other Protestant leaders, do not trumpet limits on freedom of speech to "protect" religion but instead are demanding full religious liberty for all persons.

No doubt many American church leaders could profit from their courageous and morally consistent example.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.