Joseph D'Souza: Religious freedom in 2020 — three key challenges and how to fight back

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2019 was a seminal year for the cause of religious freedom.

In July, the U.S. State Department held its second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The ministerial convened more than 1,100 civil society and religious leaders and foreign delegations, making it the largest event dedicated to religious freedom in the world.

This was followed by the United Nations designating — for the first time in its 74-year history — a day in August to commemorate the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief.


Then in September, President Trump made history by becoming the first American president to host an event dedicated to religious freedom at the U.N. General Assembly.

Thanks to these developments and to the efforts of leaders such as President Trump and Pope Francis, who this year became the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula, more nations are paying attention to this issue and making commitments to protect religious freedom.


Yet, even as there is much to celebrate, there’s still work left to be done. Roughly three-fourths of the world’s population lives in countries with high or very high levels of government restrictions and social hostilities on religion, according to Pew Research Center. Here are some of the biggest challenges 2020 will pose to religious freedom and what we can do to address them:

Historical revisionism 

This is happening in Muslim-majority Turkey, where the government is trying to convert the Hagia Sophia — a historic Greek Orthodox church that dates back to the 6th century — from its current status as a museum into a mosque. A recent court ruling ordering a 1,000-year-old church in Istanbul with a similar status to be converted into a mosque has raised concerns that may set a precedent for the Hagia Sophia.

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India saw something similar happen this year when its Supreme Court awarded Hindus a contested holy site in Uttar Pradesh to build a temple. The site was home to the Babri Masjid mosque, where it stood for 500 years until a Hindu mob demolished it in 1992.

Government favoritism of one religion over others paves the way for discrimination and can even result in mass violence, as religious extremists use it as cover for attacking minorities.

Authoritarian regimes 

Another challenge religious freedom will face in 2020 is the threat of nationalist movements and authoritarian governments that seek to repress minorities they consider threats to their rule.

An example is China, which is building what may be the world’s largest surveillance state. The Chinese government has used its vast network of CCTV cameras and AI face recognition software to target religious minorities. In Xinjiang, the Chinese have imprisoned over 1 million Uighur Muslims in “reeducation camps,” while police throughout China target Christians and demolish churches.

The truth is there are no easy or simple solutions to these issues, but the world can take some concrete steps to address them. 

Iran and North Korea also come to mind. Both regimes exert the full strength of their security apparatuses to spy on, imprison, torture and even execute people who do not belong to either state’s official religion.

Laws targeting minorities 

Finally, laws targeting religious groups will continue to pose one of the biggest threats to minority faith groups. Pakistan’s death penalty for blasphemy, which is used to target Christians, Hindus and even moderate Muslims, is a recurrent problem, as is Saudi Arabia’s stringent Sharia laws that prohibit public worship services for non-Muslims. Yet the spotlight will be on India next year, as it pushes a slew of legislation that will heavily affect religious minorities.

Most recently, India amended its Citizenship Act to grant statehood to illegal migrants from neighboring nations who may have fled to India due to religious persecution, but notably excluded Muslims. The law — which triggered nationwide protests and led the government to shut down the internet multiple times — comes as there’s discussion of a National Register of Citizens, a move many fear could target Muslims and render millions of them stateless.

Christians, who comprise a fraction of India’s population, are also targeted through anti-conversion laws. Several states already have these laws in place, but some lawmakers are proposing a nationwide law that would expose Christians to severe attacks and harassment.

The truth is there are no easy or simple solutions to these issues, but the world can take some concrete steps to address them.

One approach is to demand reciprocal religious freedom in bilateral relations, so nations cannot exploit the liberties offered to their citizens abroad while denying them to religious minorities at home.


Another option is to make foreign economic investment conditional on religious liberty, an approach President Trump seems to have adopted in the religious freedom business alliance he announced at the U.N. General Assembly earlier this year. This approach may not only help protect people of faith but also help highlight the economic benefits of religious freedom.

Religious freedom is the most basic human right. Let’s resolve to protect it in 2020, so every person can worship freely and without fear.