Has the pandemic weakened religious liberty?

(Photo: Unsplash/Abel Marquez)

Dr Dennis Petri has just been as the new head of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF), a global network of academics dedicated to providing quality data and evidence on the subject at a time when millions of Christians continue to live under oppression and persecution because of their faith. 

He speaks to Christian Today about some of the areas of concern and what impact the pandemic has had on religious liberty. 

CT: Is there a region or country in the world that is of special concern to you?

Dennis: One country we're working on a lot right now is Nigeria. It's an extremely complex country and the religious freedom situation is also very difficult to interpret because there are so many factors and actors involved. I think the contribution we can make is to try and bring some clarity into what is a very complex situation.

CT: There is some disagreement as to whether it is a dispute between farmers and herders over natural resources, or whether there's more to it than that. Do you think there is a religious dimension to it?

Dennis: I think the debate isn't whether it is one or the other, I think it's both. In any conflict there are always multiple factors involved and so we can debate for ages whether this is a religious conflict or not, but I think that's not the right debate. I think we should recognise that as well as a religious conflict, it is also political, cultural, economic, ethnic and about resources.

But whether it's religious or not, religious groups are suffering - including Christians - and so I think that's what we should highlight. Essentially both arguments are right at the same time, but there really are people suffering and we need to speak out for them.

CT: Across Africa, there is a lot of extremist activity. Has the centre of extremism shifted from the Middle East?

Dennis: Historically, Islam started in the 7th century in what is now Saudi Arabia and expanded to Turkey, Egypt, North Africa and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and that process is still ongong. It's a very, very long process and what we see is that the most intense conflicts in Africa are really on that borderline between Muslim and non-Muslim. And you can see that in Nigeria.

Dr Dennis Petri

CT: Your context is Latin America. What kinds of religious freedom violations are you seeing there?

Dennis: There are many aspects of religious freedom violations in Latin America that are not really visible. Latin America is a majority Christian continent - more than 90% of the population across all the countries in Latin America are Christian - so the problem is not related to religious identity and being a Christian, or owning a Bible and going to church. Saying you are a Christian is not really an issue in Latin America.

The issue is when you engage in behaviour that becomes a threat to the powers that be. And who are those powers? It can be organised crime, it can be indigenous authorities, or communist governments like in Cuba or Venezuela.

And so although Christians are by no means a minority in Latin America, actively practising Christians are a minority and it's this minority - especially the most active ones denouncing injustice and being very involved in social work - who are vulnerable to suffering and, I would say, persecution.

CT: In countries like the UK, we're increasingly seeing censorship or self-censorship of evangelical beliefs, especially in the workplace. Is this an area your work will touch on too?

Dennis: Absolutely. Self-censorship is definitely something we've identified as a major issue. The court cases involving Christians are having a chilling effect on free speech but it may even become the case that we start to see fewer court cases precisely because of self-censorship.

However, we need to do more research to understand how big the issue is - to quantify it, essentially. The second thing is that we need to understand where it's coming from. Is it because there is an anti-religious and even anti-evangelical sentiment in society? Or is it some other reason, like perhaps religious illiteracy?

We need to understand better what the real cause of this is, because if it's about religious illiteracy, then we can deal with that by raising awareness and educating policymakers about religion and that could, we hope, create more understanding about what's important to evangelicals. If, on the other hand, there's also an anti-religious sentiment, then that's much more difficult.

CT: In terms of the pandemic, churches have had to close all around the world in an unprecedented way. Do you think this has weakened religious liberty globally?

Dennis: Religious freedom has both an individual and collective dimension. The individual dimension is when you're at home and read your Bible and pray. The collective dimension is when you gather with others to worship. And the truth of the matter is that the collective dimension has been severely restricted all over the world.

Of course there were good reasons for it. We're fighting a pandemic so sanitary measures are necessary. But I must say I'm a bit surprised there haven't been more church leaders speaking out about this.

When you look at the protection of religious freedom in international law, there is a stipulation that religious freedom can never be restricted, not even in cases of emergency, unless there are sanitary reasons, which has provided the justification for closing churches. But we still need to realize that what's happened is really very radical.

There's another aspect to this, too. The social work that many Christians and evangelical leaders are doing all around the world has been hindered by the sanitary measures so that's another dimension of religious freedom that has been restricted. Again, maybe it was for good reasons but it's terrible for religious freedom.

Once everything opens up again, we'll see whether people will actually go back to church. I know there are many people longing to go back to church but there are also many others who are very comfortable sitting in on church services from their home.

CT: When it comes to religious freedom violations around the world, there tends to be a lot of bad news. But are there any places where you are encouraged and seeing positive change?

Dennis: I think Colombia is very interesting. There are still many problems but one positive development I see there is the national religious freedom policy and at local level municipal governments starting to implement religious freedom policies.

There are interfaith councils, which are a brilliant conflict prevention model where people come together to talk and solve any problems that come up among themselves. But the councils also act as advisers to the local mayor and local governments, and they are actively involved in shaping public policies.

Whenever new policies are being adopted, they get to speak up and express their opinion, and that's not only on issues like freedom of worship or church-related issues, but on things like education, the environment, social care, whatever might touch upon what's important for these religious communities. And so that leads to a much more informed policy that is mindful of the specific needs of religious groups.

Directly involving religious groups in policy making at a local level is a very interesting conflict resolution model that I think should be explored more and replicated in other parts of the world. It's a very positive development.

CT: What will be your priority in taking over the IIRF?

Dennis: I think we're now entering a consolidation phase so I want to give the institute much more structure and stability, and engage and activate the whole network that we have. And we really want to be a service-oriented think tank, meaning we really want to respond to any requests we get from the global church and any vulnerable religious groups in the world.

We really want to be of service to them and support them in their advocacy, and our research needs to be a resource because right now there's a lot of research being done on religious freedom both within the institute and beyond, and this information needs to be user-friendly and accessible, whether it's for ministries, policymakers or journalists.

And that ties into another area, which is religious literacy. We live in a world that is not exactly secularizing - because religion continues to be present in all shapes and forms. But we need journalists and policymakers to really 'get' religion - why it's important to people, why and how people suffer, and what the concept of religious freedom really entails because it's much more than a theme that's just related to separation of church and state. It's about promoting religious freedom and also promoting religious freedom literacy. So we really want to see religious literacy increase.