The threat to religious freedom: What challenges face the Trump Administration

Massimo Introvigne

In this interview given to the Christian information web site, Prof. Massimo Introvigne analizes, tra l'altro, the situation of China and Russia, where religious freedom is still a mirage.

Interview with sociologist Massimo Introvigne, founder of the Center for Studies on New Religions

by Jesús Colina | Agu 28, 2017

The governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback, is slated to become the next ambassador at large of the United States for international religious freedom, if the Senate approves President Donald Trump’s nomination.

What are the challenges that await him? Aleteia spoke with sociologist Massimo Introvigne, founder and director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR). He has also served as representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for the fight against racism, xenophobia, and discrimination, with the specific mission of focusing on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions.

On an international level, what do you consider to be the gravest threats to religious freedom on which the future representative of the United States for these matters should focus?

Massimo Introvigne: The obvious answer is: North Korea, the territories still controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS), and the Islamic countries that punish apostasy with execution. However, it would be difficult for the representative of the United States to achieve concrete results on these issues. At most, he will be able to keep international awareness of them alive.

However, I do think that Brownback can achieve something regarding Russia and China, which are the two greatest obstacles to a shared global policy of religious freedom today—although he will run into problems, even inside the Trump administration

The recent annual report of the U.S. State Department’s Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) criticizes not only the enemies of the United States in the international chess game, but also allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. How should the United States deal with these “friendly” countries? Is it congruent to sell them weapons and ally with them militarily, and at the same time witness their violation of basic religious rights?

Massimo Introvigne: The truth is that in the chess game of the Middle East, there are very few “good guys.” But making respect for religious freedom (and not just lip service to it) a condition of military assistance is certainly justifiable.

Do you think that the “travel ban” introduced by Trump—which prohibits the entry of citizens of six Muslim majority countries into the U.S.A., considering them a terrorism risk—constitutes a problem for religious freedom?

Massimo Introvigne: I consider the travel ban a mistake, because according to the statistics, terrorists don’t come from those countries. If we take into account the terrorist attacks that have taken place in the West in recent years, there are many Saudis and people from other Gulf countries involved, as well as Algerians and Moroccans, and even some French, Belgian, and English citizens, but there are no Iranians. The travel ban has provoked justified annoyance among Muslims, and makes dialogue about religious freedom more difficult.

The U.S. State Department’s report also criticizes China and Russia for violations of religious freedom. Does the United States have what is necessary to demand respect for the freedom of believers in those countries?

Massimo Introvigne: As I said before, these are Brownback’s biggest problems. But they are different from each other.
China limits religious freedom in order to protect the State and the hegemony of the Communist Party; it isn’t acting against any religion in particular. Russia, on its part, wants to protect the Orthodox Church from the proselytism that has its origin in more dynamic religious expressions, many of which come from North America.
China has a policy which, as the Holy See knows well, is capable of wearing down anyone’s nerves: a policy of “stop and go,” making concessions followed by stepping backwards. Here, I would make a distinction between two problems. The first affects Catholics and Protestants, who do not want to form part of the “official” and “patriotic” religious organizations (controlled by the Communist Party), which are the only ones recognized and authorized by the regime. Today, there is a certain degree of tolerance in practice, and there is an ongoing dialogue with the Holy See. All of this, from time to time, is counterbalanced by gestures indicating a regression, which are meant to send the message that the regime always intends to keep a tight leash on anyone who doesn’t submit to its authority.
The second problem is constituted of the so-called “xie jiao.” These are religious groups that have been blacklisted, whose members are at risk of prison or something even worse. In the West, “xie jiao” is often translated as “sects,” but this is a mistake. The expression “xie jiao” dates back to the Ming era, which is to say, long before controversies regarding “sects” in the West. Its meaning ranges between theology (“heterodox beliefs”) and public order (“criminal religious movements”). China has about a hundred “sects” on the books, to use to the Western term (which is generally avoided by sociologists); whereas there are very few groups classified as “xie jiao” and which run the risk of facing much more serious consequences. Certainly, the Chinese mentality is quite different from that of Europe. Since repression in China can be drastic, it will be necessary to persuade China to categorize as “xie jiao” only grave crimes that have actually been committed, and not mere heterodox beliefs, or ideas that are critical of the regime. Government institutions have begun dialogue with international experts, in which I have been invited to participate, on the subject of the “xie jiao”, but the dialogue is very difficult
In a certain sense, the situation is even worse in Russia, as evidenced by the recent “disbanding” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a dissident historian, defined as “not a crime, but an error” the attempt to “disband” these groups—among which is the Church of Scientology—as well as the Yarovaya laws, which prohibited religions and movements from proselytizing beyond the confines of their own houses of worship. The situation is worse, because the legal system is inspired by an aberrant principle of “spiritual safety,” which involves protecting citizens from religious ideas different from the Orthodox Church’s version of Christianity. In addition, the Russians try to export their theories on an international level, with the help of “friendly” organizations and highly sophisticated propaganda, frequently based on “fake news,” which is something the Chinese do not have. I am convinced that Brownback will not make the mistake of letting himself be inhibited by antipathy towards groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Scientology. The true problem isn’t the way Russia manages the organizations and proselytism (if specific individuals break the law, Russia could prosecute them), but rather the court decisions that prohibit books and proscribe ideas, in virtue of a mentality that excludes religious freedom as defined in international conventions which Russia has signed. Brownback must work based on the understanding that within the Orthodox Church itself, and perhaps among Putin’s close collaborators, there are “hawks” and “doves” in matters related to the repression of religious minorities.
As I said before, Brownback will have to face obstacles from the “friends of the Kremlin” in the Trump administration as well. When speaking about Russia, the U.S. Secretary of State’s report uses expressions that could justify the inclusion of that country on the list of “countries of particular concern”; such inclusion is the prologue to sanctions, until the situation of religious freedom improves. That was the recommendation of the Commission that prepared the report, but in the end, “someone” from the State Department vetoed it.

Do you think that the United States considers itself as a sort of international religious freedom “police”?

Massimo Introvigne: In fact, Americans do frequently commit the error of believing that their country’s model must be imposed on the entire world, and that in this way, the problem of religious freedom will be solved.

One cannot propose for—nor much less impose upon—the Orthodox, and Russians in general, the model of the American Constitution, in which all religions great and small, ancient or recent, are considered equal, and in which the State is forbidden to favor one over another. This model, which is excellent for the United States, is tied to American history, but it is not appropriate for Russian history. Certainly, religions should be treated equally before the Law and should enjoy fundamental rights. But it is not contrary to religious freedom—and this has been established on various occasions by the European Court of Human Rights (which, by the way, isn’t an organ of the European Union, but of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member) and by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, of which Russia is also a member)—for a State to recognize the special role of one or more religions in the history of the country, guaranteeing them a kind of recognition and cooperation on the part of the authorities that is not granted to other religious organizations. Such is the case of the Anglican Church in England—or the Catholic Church in Italy, where the Constitution grants a special role to the Concordat (the agreement between the Holy See and the State), while providing for agreements with other religions represented in the country and ensuring religious freedom for all. Such could be the case of the Orthodox Church in Russia. The Italian model, not the American one, could be presented to Russia in a dialogue that seeks to achieve results.
As with the Chinese, dialogue with the Russians is difficult. I experienced it in the year 2011, when I was a representative of the OSCE for religious freedom, and I had a meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion, Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, as well as with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. Personally, I didn’t want to give up. I know that the Orthodox Church applauded the “disbanding” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, making a grave error (in my opinion). But we must not confuse the Orthodox Church as a whole with its most radical and extremist factions.

Are there violations of religious freedom in the United States?

Massimo Introvigne: This question entails two issues.
The first is very delicate: it affects the conflict between the right to religious freedom and other rights: in particular, the right of homosexuals not to be discriminated against. There are well-known cases of photographers, florists, and pastry chefs opposed to gay marriage, who refuse to offer their services for the celebration of such unions, and they end up being condemned for discrimination. Some believe that the problem should be resolved with a religious freedom law, which would authorize them to practice a sort of conscientious objection. This argument isn’t incorrect, but it risks mixing the problem of religious freedom with the “culture wars,” and that shouldn’t happen. Perhaps there are other legal paths for resolving—calmly and with common sense—the problems of people who do not want to contribute their work to a marriage between two people of the same sex, without making this issue the center of the problem of religious freedom (which seems a bit forced to me).

The second issue is that, in the United States, there is also discrimination against groups labeled as “sects,” which at times seem not to have the right to be treated like the others. It’s true that courts have blocked the maneuvers of the so-called movements against sects. But a culture of intolerance still endures. Let’s look at two examples: the first, there is the television program of actress Lea Remini on Scientology, which has a sizeable audience—perhaps because the presenter is a beautiful woman—but it seems to me that the program is often nothing but a series of insults without arguments to back them up.
Another case is the fact that TED, the enormous educational platform, published a video on “cults” that repeats stereotypes of psychological manipulation criticized by the great majority of experts. When the video reached 800,000 views, I decided to start promoting a letter to TED, signed by 27 experts from different continents; honestly, it was signed by the most famous names in the field of new religious movement studies. It is a friendly letter (you can read it here), but TED hasn’t deemed to reply.

It’s true that this is a case of intolerance, which is a cultural phenomenon, not discrimination, which is a legal matter. But when I worked for the OSCE, at an international conference in Rome I introduced what many today call the “Rome model,” according to which intolerance opens the door to discrimination, and the latter, as Russia is teaching us today, prepares the way for authentic persecution.