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Christian Britain * Breastfeeding pope * Stoned Brunei: April’s Religious Freedom Recap

A man rests at the Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world.

Welcome to April’s Religious Freedom Recap. I’m in Paris this week for UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day conference, then back to Blighty (Britain) where April showers only serve to bring more rain in May, June and July.

Let’s pick up where I left off with the last recap on March 31. I’ll break this one down again by region.



Pledge of Allegiance

“God” stirred up quite a bit of controversy across the states last month. Mississippi’s “religious freedom” bill, which passed on April 1 and was compared by many to Arizona’s failed discriminatory statute, added the monotheistic phrase “In God We Trust” to the state seal.

The American Humanists Association filed a lawsuit in New Jersey to ban mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public classrooms amid claims that the phrase “under God” violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment Establishment Clause. This isn’t the first time a state has been sued over the pledge. I assume it won’t be the last.

Tennessee—America at Its Best (according to the state’s rather brazen official slogan) approved a bill to display the phrase “In God We Trust” more prominently at the Capitol. The state also passed a new bill to protect religious speech in public schools. Some say it’ll only protect discrimination.

An atheist in Missouri who was denied parole for not attending a religion-based substance abuse program won his case when a court decided the Establishment Clause had been violated. Four secular organizations are joining forces to highlight and prevent such anti-atheist discrimination.

The Army has approved “humanist” as a religious preference, paving the way for more humanist chaplains like our buddy and RNS blogger Chris Stedman.

A federal appeals court ruled that New York City can prevent religious groups from holding services in school buildings—the latest development in a legal battle that has been unfolding for more than TWO decades.

Another legal battle in its angsty 20s concerns the fate of a cross atop a war memorial at Mount Soledad in California. The Obama administration is standing up for the cross despite claims that it violates church-state separation. The LA Times says take it down.

Elsewhere in Cali, a Sikh man was told he can’t serve on a jury with his ceremonial knife. So if you’re looking to get out of jury duty…

There’s apparently a 1,200-mile “abortion desert” in the Badlands due to pro-life vandalism…or is it terrorism? I don’t want to get political, but calling Montana an abortion “oasis” just feels weird. The end of a law banning abortion as early as six weeks in North Dakota might shrink this desert.

Louisiana lawmakers really dislike sodomy. They rejected legislation to officially remove the state’s ban on it, a ban that’s been unconstitutional since SCOTUS ruled in 2003 that states can’t enforce such statutes. So they’re really just wasting everyone’s time to make a statement. Sounds like a lot of American politics.

In our neighbor to the north, the Jewish sect Lev Tahor won a legal victory that will prevent its children from being placed in foster care in Quebec. The sect has been accused of performing underage marriages and providing inadequate education.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report naming and shaming the State Department for failing to adequately name and shame eight countries that commit egregious religious freedom violations. I take a look at the eight baddies here (and the eight that State is willing to name), many of which crop up in the sections below.


Berridge and Lantos Swett

Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international religious freedom (left) and Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Britain and America are finding common ground on religious freedom, as my interview with Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, chair of the U.K. All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, makes clear.

But is Britain a Christian country? Politicians and pundits debated this question after Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in a column:

“I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”

David Cameron

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (right) and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (left) disagree on many issues, including the idea that Britain is and should be a Christian country.

Read what others said and my thoughts on the matter here. Not even the current and former archbishops of Canterbury could agree.

Britain’s on a witch hunt, trying to determine how much influence the Muslim Brotherhood has in the country. Cameron ordered an investigation, which the Brotherhood warned against, only heightening suspicions.  Birmingham is undertaking its own investigation into “an alleged Muslim plot to greatly expand Islamic influence in the city’s school system.” In a more literal witch hunt, activists want an African exorcist/Pentecostal preacher to be deported.

Britain’s imprisoned Rastafarians will soon be rejoicing with shakers, drums and Bob Marley CDs after being recognized as an official religion in prisons. Sadly for some, the religious freedom provisions stop short of weed. Jedis are hoping they’ll be recognized next.

An art group is being taken to court for blasphemy in Poland after depicting Pope St. John Paul II (his fun new title) breastfeeding a Polish priest. The artists say it’s all in good fun. Critics say it “offends the religious feelings of millions of people and is insulting.”

Pastafarians in Poland are celebrating a court victory that will allow them to register as an official religion in that country. Will the United Church of Bacon be next? Maybe they can team up as Spaghetti Carbonarans in the meantime.

Norway’s pretty liberal, unless you ask Saudi Arabia or Russia, both of which recently criticized the country over its human rights record. Hypocrite alert! Despite the country’s actually quite strong human rights record, the Protestant Church of Norway rejected a proposal for religious same-sex marriage. A little surprising considering that most of the country’s bishops supported it.

Russia and Saudi are looking more alike every day. A Russian MP behind the anti-gay propaganda law, which passed last year, is now calling for the creation of a morality police force.

My favorite story of the month out of Europe was this one. Spain’s government is being taken to court after a minister decided to give the country’s top policing award to a statue. It was a statue of the Virgin Mary, not the blue orgy or sexting selfie statue, but still, secularists were pissed. A representative of the group suing Spain said of the award, “the norm specifies clearly that the medal is given to people not immaterial beings.”


But religious diversity doesn’t always translate into tolerance (despite what it might mean for economic growth).

Sultan of Brunei

Sultan of Brunei

Brunei, which is predominantly Muslim but also home to a number of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, atheists and more, implemented its first phase of strict Shariah punishments. Sorry to say, the worst is yet to come.

Malaysia, which Secretary of State Kerry once praised for its “diversity, tolerance and progress,” something I’ll never let him live down, banned the film “Noah” and told hotels to remove Bibles from guest rooms.

Myanmar’s first census since 1983 prevented minority Muslims from identifying themselves as ethnic Rohingya. A new draft law to restrict religious conversion (from Buddhism to Islam) is also in the works.

Sunday textile market on the sidewalks of Karachi, Pakistan.

Sunday textile market on the sidewalks of Karachi, Pakistan.

Another month, another round of blasphemy arrests in Pakistan. A Christian couple was sentenced to death for allegedly sending blasphemous texts…despite both being illiterate. An Ahmadi Brit who fled Pakistan amid blasphemy charges spoke out from his new home in Glasgow, saying he’d love to return to Pakistan but doesn’t want to be murdered. Fair enough.  A new report claims that 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls are forced to convert to Islam and get married to older men each year. And a 9-month-old baby was charged with attempted murder, along with his entire family, for throwing stones. A family member pointed out that the baby still struggles to hold his milk bottle, let alone hurl murderous rocks.

In Bangladesh, two teens were allegedly beaten by a mob and arrested for posting blasphemous messages on Facebook. Their fate is uncertain, if the tale of Asif Mohiuddin is anything to go by. The atheist Bangladeshi blogger, who was beaten and fled to Germany for posting “blasphemous messages” last year, still faces death threats abroad.

A British woman was deported from Sri Lanka when authorities spotted a tattoo of Buddha on her arm.

Middle East:

Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo.

Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo.

Egypt’s promise of religious freedom, which came with a revised constitution and ousted Islamist president last year, has yet to transpire. A court sentenced 683 Islamist supporters to death but commuted the majority of March’s 529 death sentences to life in prison.

An Egyptian court jailed four men for attending “deviant” sex parties. Saudi religious police arrested 35 men for having a “gay party.”

A prominent imam took a bold stand for religious coexistence in Iran, gifting the long-persecuted Baha’i community a piece of art he created bearing the inscription “Consort with all religions with amity and concord, that they may inhale from you the sweet fragrance of God.”

Alevis, a Sufi-inspired Shia group, are subject to the most media hate speech in Turkey, according to a new report. Christians, Armenians, Kurds, Greeks and other minority groups are also regular targets.

Secretary of State Kerry warned that Israel could become an “apartheid state” if it doesn’t find peace with Palestinians soon. He apologized for the remark amid backlash from prominent Jewish leaders.

In a show of goodwill on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the Shoah “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era.”

Heinous crimes continue in Syria, where some extremist groups are allegedly crucifying people and tweeting out the pictures.


I really wish I could stop referring to the continent as “Anti-Gay Africa,” but read this. In a single week, Peter Montgomery documented anti-gay sentiments in Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Ethiopia. That’s only scratching the surface. Like it or not, lots of these sentiments are tied up in religion.

I don’t follow the logic here, or if I do I don’t agree with it, but Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said that African Christians will be killed if the Church of England accepts gay marriage.

The Inter-Religious Council of Uganda led a national celebration of the country’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act, which health workers may soon be enforcing. Two men already face charges under the law, which could mean life in prison. A new draft law in Uganda would prevent NGOs from “promoting” homosexuality in the country.

It’s legally and socially unacceptable for a man to be with another man in Kenya, but he can now be with as many women as he pleases under a controversial new polygyny law.

Boko Haram continues to terrorize Nigeria. The group kidnapped 234 school girls and allegedly sold them as brides for $12 each. A Nigerian netizen is still missing after reporting on a Boko Haram attack, no doubt increasing self-censorship in the country.

Update: Sectarian violence is still raging in the Central African Republic.


We had a fun RNS staff retreat in Missouri last month…

…and a very successful event at the Newseum

Don’t want to miss the next recap? Sign up below. I’ll reward you with some shenanigan selfies from the Interfaith Kosovo conference I’m moderating in a few weeks in Pristina.


About the author

Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is based in Cape Town, South Africa.


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  • People today seem to only focus on gay marriage. What about sins
    like getting drunk,gambling,gossip,being mean/sharp tongues and
    sleeping around? Many people today don’t want to face their own
    sin and that’s why so many people like to only focus on other people
    so their sin doesn’t seem so bad. Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk
    and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that drunkards go to hell so why are so
    many “Christians” still drinking/getting drunk? It’s because it never
    gets confronted along with sins like gossip,gambling/coveting,jealousy,
    being mean/sharp tongues,sleeping around. The wine Jesus made was
    from the fruit of the vine/new wine/diluted and the Bible says don’t get
    drunk on strong wine so people who get drunk with wine are also wrong!

  • Fundamentalists can’t make headway getting those other things banned under the color of law. Drunks, gamblers, blabbermouths, bimbos and jerks are too great in number and their lobbies are far more powerful. 🙂