“In arguments filed late Friday, Justice Department lawyers told the court that an employer’s religious beliefs aren’t a legitimate reason to deny something as important as preventive care to an employee who is entitled to it under the health law.
“ ‘The connection is too indirect as a matter of law to impose a substantial burden’ on employers’ right to practice their religion, the lawyers wrote in their opening argument defending the contraceptive requirement against Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.”
The crux of the Obama administration’s legal argument seems to boil down to two points:
1) Opposing forced coverage of abortion pills isn’t a legitimate religious belief; and 2) our pro-abortion agenda is far more important than your silly religious beliefs anyway.
If that sounds like an argument to turn the religious liberty protections of our Constitution on its head, that’s because it is. The moment the government can tell us what is and is not an important part of our faith and further that what we consider to be a sin is far too attenuated to actually be real sin in God’s eyes is the moment we have lost our religious liberty.
This argument comes days after Obama’s DOJ attempted to convince the court that forcing Catholic nuns to pay for abortion pills in no way violated their faith because all they had to do was sign a form and let someone else violate their faith for them.
The absurdity of these arguments is astounding. There is no stronger principle upon which our nation was founded than religious freedom. If the government can say my religious beliefs don’t count, then what religious liberty can we possibly have?
The Supreme Court is set to consider this exact question later this year. At the ACLJ, we are preparing to file a brief on behalf of thousands of concerned Americans and our clients (each of which we have put a stop to the mandate for as their cases continue). Join the fight by signing on to our amicus brief today.
Matthew Clark is associate counsel for government affairs and media advocacy with the ACLJ. A lifelong citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia, he lives with his wife and three boys in Northern Virginia. Follow Matthew Clark on Twitter at @_MatthewClark.This article is crossposted on Red State.
A local government official in central Bangladesh has halted the construction of a church, forced Christians to worship at a mosque and threatened them with eviction from their village unless they renounce their faith.
The Tangail Evangelical Holiness Church in Bilbathuagani village, Tangail district, about 100 kilometers north of Dhaka, was created Sept. 8 by a group of about 25 Christians who had been meeting secretly for three years.
However, local council chairman Rafiqul Islam Faruk joined around 200 demonstrators Sept. 13 to protest against the start of the building of the church.
The following day, the Christians were summoned to his office. More than 1,000 Muslims waited outside, following an announcement at all local mosques to gather at the chairman’s office.
Ordered to Embrace Islam
Mokrom Ali, 32, told World Watch Monitor he was forced to accept Islam.
“The chairman and the imams of the mosques interrogated me for accepting Christianity. They asked me why I had become a Christian. It is a great sin to become a Christian from Islam,” Asli said. “If I did not accept Islam, they would beat me, burn my house, and evict me from the society.
“Their threats chilled me to the bone. That is why I pretended to accept Islam, but faith in Christ is the wellspring of my life. Now I am no longer a Muslim; I am a Christian.”
Mojnu Mia, 31, told World Watch Monitor he was also forced to accept Islam against his will.
“The chairman and the imams asked me what my religion is. I said I was a Christian. Then they threatened to beat me and evict me from the village unless I recanted my faith in Christianity,” Mia said.
“They had browbeaten me into accepting Islam. I accepted it only to get out from that predicament. But later, I embraced Christianity by swearing a confession in the court.
“The chairman came to know that I became a Christian again, by affidavit. He threatened that it would not be possible to practice Christianity in that area. If I stick to this religion, I must leave this place.
“The chairman is clipping the wings of our faith. I do not know how long we can grin and bear it. We want religious freedom. We want to practice our religion freely.”
Eight Christians agreed to return to Islam since Sept. 14, under the chairman’s orders. The chairman and his associates had already beaten some of those Christians three years ago for accepting Christianity.
‘They Were Derailed’
Local chairman Faruk told World Watch Monitor that some Christians had been acting against Islam, due to their incorrect interpretation of the Quran.
“The imams and other elders of the society called them for rectification because of their aberrant behavior. They were derailed, so we tried to put them on the right track,” he said.
“Eight people who had deviated came back to Islam. We are trying to bring back others. To change a religion, a person needs to swear his or her name, and should inform a local magistrate. If the magistrate permits, then he or she can change religion. But what they are doing is completely wrong.”
World Watch Monitor asked Faruk if he would protest if any of those people filed an affidavit with the court re-affirming their Christianity.
Faruk said there would be “huge pressure from the society against it. As a representative of the local people, I cannot go against the public sentiment.”
The chairman warned the Christians not to resume the construction of the church, saying it was anti-Islamic.
The Bangladesh constitution grants every citizen the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion. Every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.
Rev. Mrinal Kanti Baroi, the group’s leader, told World Watch Monitor they had tried to show the constitution’s clause on religious freedom to the chairman, to no avail.
“We took one copy of the constitution to the chairman and other elders of the society, but they did not listen to us and did not want to see it,” Baroi said.
On Sept. 15, members of the congregation wrote a letter to the district administrative chief, requesting safety and protection.
Deputy commissioner Anisur Rahman of Tangail district told World Watch Monitor that necessary steps had been taken to ensure their safety and security.
A Plea for Harmony Bangladeshi Prime MinisterSheikh Hasina, who has been leading a secular government in the Muslim-majority country since 2009, on Sept. 3 called upon her countrymen to work together to protect the communal harmony “being nurtured in the country for thousands of years”. She made her remarks after inaugurating reconstructed Buddhist temples, which had been damaged and burnt by criminals in September 2012.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom removed Bangladesh from its Watch List after the victory of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League in the 2008 general election. Her center-left party is considered to promote secular policies and to be favorable toward minority rights. Her announcement to implement religious freedom reforms was another cause for Bangladesh to be removed from the Watch List.
Of Bangladesh’s 154 million people, Sunni Muslims constitute 90 percent and Hindus 9 percent, according to the 2001 census. The remaining 1 percent is mainly Christian and Buddhist.
Police officers attacked a Christian couple in Lào Cai province, Vietnam, last Monday after the couple refused to recant their newly found Christian faith. Police repeatedly struck both the husband and wife until the wife began bleeding, at which point the police halted the beating and released her.
The attack came after police from the Muong Khuong district of Lào Cai province repeatedly summoned the heads of two recently converted Christian families, whose names are being withheld for their security, to the police station for questioning. The official police summons received by the families were vague, one of which stated only that they were to come in “for questioning.” However, during the third interrogation, sources in Vietnam report that the police began to “strongly pressure” the Christians to recant their faith, despite the fact that such pressure is illegal under Vietnamese law.
“The beating by police of this couple last week for refusing to give up their religious beliefs is simply horrific,” says Ryan Morgan, International Christian Concern‘s regional manager for Southeast Asia. “It is a tragic example that, despite positive improvements in the government of Vietnam’s overall treatment of religious minorities in the past decade, there remains a tremendous amount of progress to be made.
“No citizen of Vietnam, including those from ethnic tribal communities, should be detained or physically attacked for their choice of religious belief. We call on the federal government of Vietnam to immediately redress this violation of religious freedom by punishing those responsible for the attack and ensuring that these families are protected from further harassment.”
Two of the three police involved in the violent interrogation are reported to be Hàng Vềnh, the deputy chief of police of Ta Thang Commune, and Vàng Tre, a ranking officer of Ta Thang Commune. It is unknown if the officers have yet faced any sort of disciplinary action for the incident last Monday.
The two families, who converted to Protestant Christianity in March, are members of the ethnic Hmong community and reside in the mountainous Lào Cai province of northern Vietnam. Christians among the Hmong communities both in northwestern Vietnam and the Central Highlands regularly face pressure to recant their faith and return to more traditional animist belief systems.
The reported attack comes on the heels of an unusually positive development in Kontum province, Vietnam, where federal authorities this month resettled four minority Christian families after their property was destroyed earlier this year by local villagers.
The Vietnamese government maintains tight control of religious activities in the country. In its most recent annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom concluded that “the government of Vietnam continues to expand control over all religious activities, severely restrict independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority.”
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, Shaykha Reima Yosif and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik may have significant differences when it comes to religion and theology. But on Thursday in Washington, D.C., these U.S. faith leaders—alongside other representatives of the Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Latter-day Saint, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, Muslim and Sikh faith communities—will set aside religious and political differences in the defense and promotion of religious freedom in America.
“At a time when government restrictions and social hostility against religion are increasing in America, members and leaders of all faiths are coming together to reaffirm the integral role religious diversity plays in our nation,” says Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program.
Key conference speaker Rodriguez, evangelical founder of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, concurs:“People of all faiths come to America because it has been a land of hope where they may practice their religious beliefs without government interference or coercion. We must resist every threat to religious freedom and ensure that people of faith remain free to establish equality and justice throughout society.”
Some 200 faith representatives, policy leaders and state legislators from across the country are expected to attend the one-day, invitation-only conference—themed “Many Faiths, One America”—that will see major addresses from Rodriguez, Soloveichik and Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, representing the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. (Lantos Swett also chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.)
Top faith and government leaders will brief participants on threats facing religious freedom in America today and on bipartisan multifaith efforts to enact new protections for religious liberty and rights of conscience. Attendees will also hear from state lawmakers representing more than 15 states, many of whom have enacted important religious freedom protections in 2013.
In an exclusive interview on SaharaTV, Senator Khalifa Zanna discusses the reason Boko Haram has continued to thrive in Nigeria, and the cost of government’s negligence in fighting the terrorists. He also exposes their hiding place in Borno, where more than 2,000 members are presently being trained and much more. Lastly, the Senator explains why he no longer feels safe in his constituency.
Held in a Kazakhstan jail for preaching outside state regulation and facing extradition for his Christian beliefs, Makset Djabbarbergenov is now seeking asylum.
The legal ground continues to shift underneath Makset Djabbarbergenov, a house-church leader being held in a Kazakhstan jail at the request of his native Uzbekistan.
Djabbarbergenov was arrested Sept. 5 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan wants him back to face charges that he practiced religion outside state regulation. His fate could be decided at a court hearing scheduled for Monday.
During his detention in an Almaty jail, Djabbarbergenov has discovered that Uzbekistan has increased the severity of charges against him, and that the Kazakhstan Supreme Court claims to have no record of the appeal he thought he had filed in hopes of obtaining refugee status for him and his family.
He, his wife, Aigul, and four boys await the Nov. 5 court hearing. Having fled Uzbekistan in search of asylum, Aigul has no legal standing in Kazakhstan and has been denied access to her jailed husband.
The Norwegian religious-freedom watchdog agency Forum 18 has followed Djabbarbergenov’s case closely. Based on interviews with Kazakh prosecutors and court officials, and examination of government documents, Forum 18 reported on Oct. 29 that:
At a hearing Oct. 15 — the last day of Djabbarbergenov’s 40-day detention approved by the court following his September arrest—the judge extended his detention to Nov. 5. The court’s reasons: Uzbekistan’s general prosecutor had not yet delivered necessary extradition documents to Kazakhstan; and the Uzbek allegations against Djabbarbergenov would, if enforced under Kazakhstan’s laws, meet the definition of advocating terrorism.
The Uzbekistan extradition papers still had not arrived as of Oct. 29.
At the same Oct. 15 hearing, one of the original Uzbekistan charges against Djabbarbergenov no longer was part of the record: a charge of storing and distributing religious literature that carries a 3-year maximum prison sentence. In its place appeared a more serious charge of leading a “religious extremist” group, which carries a 5- to 15-year sentence.
A spokesperson for the Kazakhstan Supreme Court said it had no record of Djabbarbergenov’s appeal of a lower court ruling that denied his application for asylum for him and his family.
Born in Uzbekistan in the small town of Symbai, Djabbarbergenov became a Christian in 2000 and soon became an active church leader in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, the autonomous republic of Uzbekistan. At present, no Protestant church in Karakalpakstan has an official registration: they are considered illegal.
Djabbarbergenov was hauled into court six times. Police raided the family’s apartment in August 2007, prompting Djabbarbergenov and his family to flee to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. He crossed into Kazakhstan the following month, his family followed a few months later.
Their time since has been spent seeking asylum in Kazakhstan. Though the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determined the family to be refugees who would face prosecution in Uzbekistan because of their Christian faith, the Kazakh government disagreed and has ruled against Djabbarbergenov at several turns. The Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights and the Rule of Law told Forum 18 that it had filed Djabbarbergenov‘s appeal to the Supreme Court in August.
“We can’t understand why they cannot find it,” Forum 18 quoted the bureau’s Denis Dzhigava as saying. “It seems the application has been lost.”
In the meantime, Djabbarbergenov’s family waits.
“I and our older children are praying for Makset. We all miss him very much,” Aigul told Open Doors. “But pray that we can follow God and He’ll lead us to be where He wants us to be. We want Him to solve and resolve the situation and tell us what to do.”
She said the church would be troubled if Makset is sent back to Uzbekistan. Yet, she said, “in the church people are also united. They feel they are very close to each other. They are one. They began to pray often. They fast often. And I felt that unity. I found that Christian love.”
Uzbekistan is ranked No. 7 on the World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. “Christians are fined or given short-term prison sentences. When brought to court, fair treatment is not ensured,” according to the World Watch List.
“The Uzbek government violates the full range of human rights and harshly penalizes individuals for independent religious activity regardless of their religious affiliation,” including Muslims, the Commission declared in its 2012 annual report.
Picaklar, of Agape Church in Samsun, lives in the Black Sea region, a bastion of Turkey’s unique Islamic-imbued nationalism, where Christians live under increasing pressure. He has seen his building attacked and his family and congregation threatened.
“Just as it is difficult to belong to Jesus all over the world, unfortunately it is the same in Samsun, if not worse,” Picaklar said. “We have been here for 10 years, and people here still treat us like cursed enemies. Our families feel anxiety. On the hour my wife calls me and I have to say, ‘There’s no problem,’ as if to say, ‘I’m still alive.’”
Picaklar’s son received death threats on Facebook last September. A man in his early 20s caused minor damage to Picaklar’s church building last month, the latest in a series of aggressions that has led the church to file charges after long declining to do so.
Police called Picaklar in the middle of the night on March 4 to tell him to come to the police station because a young man had disturbed neighbors near the church building. Neighbors heard the suspect, Eren Cilce, yelling, “Corrupt, perverted Christians, we are going to bring this church down on your heads, get lost,” among other threats, Picaklar said.
The church was housing visitors who had traveled from Romania, he said. Visitors, especially foreigners, attract unwanted attention from local nationalist groups, he added.
The assailant’s threat was nothing new. In June a man broke into the church building and painted threats on the wall. When authorities captured the perpetrator, he asked Picaklar for forgiveness. The church didn’t press charges.
Though Picaklar’s congregation has never pressed charges for previous hate crimes, last month they decided to formally complain.
“We are always forgiving, but since the threats are continuing in aggression and we are innocent, we decided as a congregation for the first time to press charges,” he said.
A court hearing will likely take place in May, and Picaklar said he expects the culprit will be fined. Police informed him that Cilce was drunk, and Picaklar said he hopes the court doesn’t dismiss the case on that basis. The congregation does not have a lawyer.
Of the 50 members of his church, only a dozen have made the brave move to change the religion status on their identification cards from Muslim to Christian, or at least to leave it blank, Picaklar said.
Many in Turkey see Christians as corrupt elements of the West out to shake the integrity of Turkey and Islam; this portrayal has been propagated to some extent in media and literature, including school textbooks. Though constitutionally Turks are allowed to share their faith with others, the word “missionary” carries negative connotations, including the mistaken notion of undermining Turkish sovereignty. In recent years a series of assassinations of Christians in Turkey has brought to the fore deep-rooted prejudices against Christians.
Country of Particular Concern Such indiscretions are one reason the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last month recommended that Turkey be designated as a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC),” among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, for religious freedom violations.
The report cited the government for “systematic and egregious limitations” on religious freedom, stating that Turkey, “in the name of secularism, has long imposed burdensome regulations and denied full legal status to religious groups, violating the religious freedom rights of all religious communities.”
Restrictions that deny non-Muslim communities the rights to train clergy, offer religious education and own and maintain places of worship have led to their decline and in some cases their disappearance, the report stated. The Greek Orthodox community of Turkey has dwindled to around 2,500 from tens of thousands early in the 20th century.
The report called some of the positive steps the government has made in the area of property, education and religious dress as “ad hoc” that have not led to systematic constitutional and legal changes.
Religious restrictions in Turkey have not increased in the last year, but the report stated that continued legal discrimination against non-Muslim groups was a dangerous trend.
Turkish officials called USCIRF’s recommendation to the U.S. Department of State “null and void.” Turkey’s parliament is in the process of drafting a new constitution, and a special parliamentary committee has met with members of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities to hear from them how the new constitution could better represent their communities.
A researcher on religious freedom in Turkey, Mine Yildirim of ABO Academy in Finland, told Compass that USCIRF’s portrayal of religious freedom in Turkey is correct but that the country did not deserve to be designated as a CPC.
“I think it was an unfair attestation, and though they wanted to give a strong message to Turkey, it backfired because the ministry said it was null and void and they wouldn’t take it into account at all,” said Yildirim, a Turkish Christian.
Yildirim acknowledged that religious freedom violations against Protestants had increased in 2011, noting that with few exceptions they are still unable to establish places of worship. Most of Turkey’s churches function as civil associations and can therefore meet in buildings.
Malatya, Five Years Later Five years after the murder of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske in Malatya, no verdict has been issued due to Turkey’s slow judiciary. This has not helped Turkey’s religious rights image.
The Malatya Third Criminal Court is making some progress in shedding light on a shadowy group that was allegedly behind the murders, experts said, but the process has been painfully slow.
A new indictment due last month against the alleged “masterminds” of the murders is still not ready, prosecution lawyers said, setting back hopes for progress at hearings this week.
“Nothing is going to happen,” plaintiff lawyer Erdal Dogan said before today’s court hearing. “We are still waiting for the new indictment.”
The court decided to re-convene on June 18.
The April 2007 murders are believed to be part of a conspiracy to overthrow the current pro-Islamic government.
Prosecuting lawyers and members of the local Protestant community still hope that the new indictment due ahead of the June 18 hearing will be a step forward in bringing the perpetrators to justice.
“I believe the indictment will uncover many details we are not aware of,” Umut Sahin, coordinator of the Legal Committee of the Association of Turkish Protestant Churches (TEK), told Compass. “I think it might surprise us.”
Sahin said he believed the delay of the new indictment was due to its complexity and length and not any unwillingness to advance the case.
Since 2008 there have not been similar bloody attacks against Protestants, but according to TEK, 2011 saw a spike in hate crimes against the association’s 4,500 members.
Commenting on the slow proceedings of the Malatya trial, researcher Yildirim of the ABO Academy said that the judiciary and Turkish “problems of rule and law” were partially to blame, but that the forthcoming new indictment would be a positive step.
“For Malatya, if you put aside the slowness, now finally a new indictment is being prepared to find the instigators,” she said. “So this is a positive effect. It’s not what we expect from justice, but even though it is slow, this is a positive outcome of the trial.”