Religious freedom report shows dangerous trends in the West

Religious freedom flag Cross Credit Amanda Wayne Shutterstock CNA Amanda Wayne/Shutterstock.

Although the most severe cases of religious persecution are currently taking place in certain African and Asian countries, the 2023 Religious Freedom in the World report highlighted dangerous trends within Europe and the Western world.

The report, published by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), showed a rising trend in compelled speech, hate speech laws, censorship, the rise of cancel culture, and a growing intolerance toward some faith-based views in the West.

The Catholic organization is also following threats in Ukraine to religious freedom from the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian governments amid the ongoing war.

In some African and Asian countries, the persecution is often more direct, such as China’s internment of Uyghur Muslims or Nigerian Islamists slaughtering Christians. In Western countries, policies that discriminate against religious groups are more subtle.

“It’s not necessarily that type of persecution here [in the West],” ACN-USA Director of Outreach Edward Clancy told CNA.

Clancy said that Western governments often engage in “polite persecution,” referencing a term used commonly by Pope Francis. He cited examples such as a U.K. doctor who lost his job for refusing to use preferred pronouns, French laws that have restricted religious symbols in certain public places, and COVID-19 restrictions that put harsher rules on religious gatherings than other functions, such as in New York.

On the subject of cancel culture, the report notes that the rejection of new concepts about gender have subjected people to threats of “legal sanction” in some Western countries and that “laws have been introduced, such as hate speech, to legally enforce and entrench these concepts as new [human] rights.”

The report detailed a case in Finland in which Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola and Member of Parliament Päivi Räsänen were charged with hate speech based on a Twitter post about the Lutheran teaching on homosexuality. The prosecutor general alleged that Räsänen’s post, which referenced a 2004 pamphlet published by Pohjola, was “likely to cause intolerance, contempt, and hatred towards homosexuals.”

Although the charges were dismissed, the prosecutors have appealed the verdict.

As an example of compelled speech, the report cites a practice direction from the British Columbia Supreme Court in Canada that advises parties and their lawyers to adhere to self-identified gender pronouns, which the report argues “implicitly enforces adherence to gender identity belief without regard to religious or conscientious objection.”

Clancy said that “people [are] being prosecuted because … they violated some standards,” such as preferred pronouns, traditional marriage, or anything “contrary to secular worldview.”

The report also noted that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are now “under observation” for the next report based on concerns about religious freedom amid the Russo-Ukrainian War. Clancy said that most of the religious freedom threats in those countries occurred later than the data considered in the 2023 report, but the organization is “very well aware of … ethnic religious nationalism in both cases” from the side of Russia and Ukraine.

According to Clancy, Ukraine has shut down Russian-speaking religious services and Russia has shut down Ukrainian religious activity in Russian-dominated areas. He said ACN has a long history of working with both countries because of the persecution that occurred in that region under communism.

“It’s a very sad reminder of what the past was like for us,” Clancy said, although he noted that this type of persecution is different from the threats that took place under communism, which threatened Christianity as a whole.

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