U.N. Human Rights Council Considers Cameroon’s Human Rights Issues 

In  early 2019, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on behalf of the U.N. Human Rights Council visited Cameroon to assess its human rights record in the Francophone-Anglophone crisis. Afterwards the Council published a press release about the visit.[1] Here is what it said.

The High Commissioner “welcomed the Government’s openness to work with the UN Human Rights Office, and the rest of the UN, to seek effective solutions to the major human rights and humanitarian crises caused by the serious unrest and violence taking place in the west and north of the country.”

She said, ““I believe there is a clear – if possibly short – window of opportunity to arrest the crises that have led to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, as well as the killings and brutal human rights violations and abuses that have affected the northern and western areas of the country,” Bachelet said. “But it will not be easy to turn these situations around. It will take significant actions on the part of the Government, and substantial and sustained support from the international community – including us in the UN.”

She added, ““The challenges are immense, and the situation involving some ten or more separatist movements in the North-West and South-West regions risks spiraling completely out of control, if serious measures are not taken to reduce tensions and restore trust. There is also a general understanding that the root causes and underlying grievances must also be tackled if long-term stability is to return to a country that had, until just a few years ago, been one of the most settled and peaceful in the region.”

These problems coincide with “other major challenges, including cross-border incursions by armed groups and criminal organizations along its eastern border with the Central African Republic. At the same time, in the north of the country, the armed forces are struggling to cope with the depredations and suicide attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram and, in the far north around Lake Chad, the population is being terrorized and  attacked by another extremist organization, the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). In addition, Cameroon is hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Central African Republic and Nigeria.”

“In several regions, civilians and soldiers have been killed and mutilated, and entire villages have been burned.  Children have been abducted and forced to join the armed groups, and have even been utilized as unwitting suicide bombers by Boko Haram. In the two western regions, schools, hospitals and other key infrastructure has been targeted and destroyed by the various separatist groups; and government employees, including teachers who have dared to continue teaching, have been targeted and killed or abducted.”

“The security forces have also been accused of committing serious violations, including extra-judicial killings and torture, against civilians and captured fighters in both the north and the west.”

Bachelet said she believed that two new Cameroonian bodies—the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism and the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Committee—“can potentially make important contributions over time to better understand and deal with the crisis in the two western regions, and to encourage increasing numbers of fighters to lay down their arms and reintegrate into society in both the north and the west. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the daunting challenges both bodies are facing, and I offered to share advice and important lessons we have learned from similar efforts in other parts of the world.”

She “also offered to provide advice and assistance to the Government – similar to that being provided to the G5 forces in the Sahel – to help ensure that military operations are in compliance with international human rights standards and violations are prevented, when military forces are engaged in counter-terrorism operations and combat against armed groups.”

Although government troops faced great challenges, “it is essential that members of the security forces who commit serious violations are held accountable.” Indeed, “every violation committed by Government forces is not only unlawful, but also counter-productive as it plays into the hands of the extremist groups, by feeding local resentment and aiding recruitment. The armed forces must win and keep the trust of local populations, and to do that they must keep scrupulously within the framework of international law and standards. If they fail to do that, they will not defeat an enemy that thrives on civilian mistrust of the authorities. In the meantime, the civilians trapped between these two powerful, if asymmetric, opposing forces, are increasingly vulnerable to lethal abuses and violations by both sides.”

The High Commissioner urged the government “to be fully transparent about such cases. It is essential that crimes are punished, and are seen to be punished. If there is impunity, then there is an assumption of immunity – and this will lead to more crimes being committed, and a further decline in trust in the armed forces, which will only compound the challenges they face. The maintenance of morale is important, but deterring unlawful actions by members of the security forces is imperative. This particular issue is damaging Cameroon’s international standing, and undermining international support for efforts to combat the armed groups operating on its territory.”

Another condemnation was leveled by the High Commissioner at “the targeting of civilians by all armed groups, as well as the torching of schools and medical facilities by the separatist groups in the North-West and South-West regions. “There is no logic to their behavior,” she said. “If they are arguing for more autonomy, why seek to deprive their own children of education, why kill the teachers, and destroy the health facilities? This is not idealistic, it is nihilistic. The only way to solve the issues in the two western regions is through dialogue, including in-depth analysis of the root causes of the unrest, and I urge all sides including the Government to make a strenuous effort to end the fighting and begin peace talks.”

Bachelet “also raised the issue of lack of access for both international and national human rights workers – including the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms – and the humanitarian agencies, to the affected regions. The lack of access is feeding international and local mistrust: including mistrust of the casualty figures; suspicions and competing narratives about who is responsible for which violations and abuses; and reluctance to give full support to the Government’s efforts to deal with these crises, for fear that the lack of access and lack of clarity is masking something untoward. Limited access is also hampering the efforts of the humanitarian agencies to reach victims, and this in turn may fuel further population movements. So, as much access as possible – within the limits of what is safe – would be an important positive step forward in terms of building confidence, and I appreciate the attention the Government has given to this particular request.”

Yet another concern was “the shrinking of civic space in Cameroon, noting that some of the civil society organizations, religious leaders, opposition politicians and diplomats she met with described how certain rights and freedoms, especially those of peaceful association and assembly, had been eroded in recent months. Human rights defenders described how they have been facing harassment by the police, and many of the High Commissioner’s interlocutors raised the issue of the arrest of leading opposition politician Maurice Kamto and more than 150 of his supporters.”

A specific criticism was raised about the “practice of charging civilians before military courts.”

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[1] UN Office of High Commissioner, Bachelet welcomes Cameroon’s willingness to cooperate to tackle human rights crises (May 6, 2019). Also relevant are previous posts about Cameroon.

 

U.S. Increases Warning on Travel to Cameroon

On March 27, the U.S. State Department warned U.S. nationals not to travel to the following regions of Cameroon:

  • North, Far North, Northwest and Southwest Regions, and Parts of East and Adamawa Regions due to crime.
  • Far North Region due to terrorism.
  • Northwest and Southwest Regions due to armed conflict. [1]

For the North, Far North, Northwest and Southwest Regions, and Parts of East and Adamawa Regions, the Advisory states: “In the Adamawa Region north of the capital, Ngaoundere, and East Regions, there is a heightened criminal threat within 20 kilometers of the border with the Central African Republic.. . . Violent crime, including kidnapping by terrorists and/or kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, assault, and carjacking are serious concerns in Cameroon, especially in all these regions.”

For the “Far North Region, the Advisory states, “terrorists may attack with no warning, targeting local facilities and places frequented by Westerners.”

For the Northwest and Southwest Regions (the Anglophone regions), the Advisory states, “a separatist movement has led to increased levels of violence. Armed clashes between separatists and government forces, and other acts of violence, including kidnapping for ransom and arson, have occurred. Ongoing conflict has led to a breakdown in order, crimes of opportunity, and a significant decline in medical resources in large areas of both regions.”

Moreover, Cameroon as a whole is rated by the State Department as “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution due to crime.” It adds, “violent crime, such as armed robbery and carjacking, is common throughout Cameroon. Local police lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”

If a U.S. citizen nevertheless decides to go to Cameroon, the State Department adds these specific suggestions:

  • “Do not display signs of wealth, such as expensive watches, handbags, or jewelry.
  • Monitor local media for breaking events and be prepared to adjust your plans.
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program(STEP) to receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country, help the Embassy contact you in an emergency, and help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.
  • Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Review the Crime and Safety Report for Cameroon.
  • U.S. citizens who travel abroad should always have a contingency plan for emergency situations. Review the Traveler’s Checklist.”

As noted in a previous post, on January 10, 2018, the State Department announced a new system of travel advisories for every country in the world with the same “four-level ranking system, starting with a Level 1, which is ‘Exercise normal precautions’ (e.g., Aruba);  Level 2, ‘Exercise increased caution’ (e.g., Jamaica); Level 3, ‘Reconsider travel’ (e.g., Cuba); and level 4, ‘Do not travel’” (e.g., Mexican states of Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas due to crime).” [2]

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Travel Advisory: Cameroon (March 27, 2019).

[2] State Department’s New Travel Advisory System for Cuba and Other Countries, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 11, 2018).

Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom   

On April 25, 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report on the subject for 28 countries in the world. Of these the Commission concluded that Cuba and 11 other countries had engaged in or tolerated religious freedom violations during 2017 that were serious and “systematic,  or ongoing, or egregious.”[1]

Commission’s Key Findings About Cuba[2]

According to this report, “religious freedom conditions in Cuba remained poor” with the following Key Findings:

  • “The Cuban government engaged in harassment campaigns that included detentions and repeated interrogations targeting religious leaders and activists who advocate for religious freedom.”
  • “Officials threatened to confiscate numerous churches and interrogated religious leaders countrywide about the legal status of their religious properties.”
  • “The government continues to interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs and actively limits, controls, and monitors their religious practice, access to information, and communications through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment.”
  • “While the Cuban constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, this protection is limited by other constitutional and legal provisions. At the end of the reporting period, 55 religious communities were registered; only registered religious communities are legally permitted to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply to travel abroad for religious purposes.”
  • “The Cuban Communist Party Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) answers only to the Party and so it has broad, largely unchecked power to control religious activity, including approving some religious ceremonies other than worship services, repair or construction of houses of worship, and importation of religious materials.”
  • “Authorities prevent human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities, sometimes using force. Almost every Sunday in 2017, the government prevented members of Ladies in White from attending Mass.”
  • “In a positive development, officials verbally promised the Assemblies of God that the government would not confiscate 1,400 of their churches as it threatened to do in 2015 and 2016.”

Commission’s Recommendations About Cuba to U.S. Government[3]

The Commission also made the following recommendations about Cuba to the U.S. Government:

  1. “Publicly denounce violations of religious freedom and related human rights in Cuba.”
  2. “Press the Cuban government to:
  • “Stop harassment of religious leaders;
  • End the practice of violently preventing democracy and human rights activists from attending religious services;
  • End destruction of, threats to destroy, and threats to expropriate houses of worship;
  • Lift restrictions on religious communities buying property, building or repairing houses of worship, holding religious processions, importing religious materials, and admitting religious leaders;
  • Allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally, and repeal government policies that restrict religious services in homes or other personal property;
  • Allow registered and unregistered religious groups to conduct religious education;
  • Cease interference with religious activities and religious communities’ internal affairs; and
  • Hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of religious practitioners, including the religious freedom of political prisoners.”
  1. “Increase opportunities for Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to, exchange aid and materials with, and interact with coreligionists in the United States.”
  2. “Apply the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, Executive Order 13818, or other relevant targeted tools, to deny U.S. visas to and block the U.S. assets of specific officials and agencies identified as responsible for violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, including considering responsible officials from the ORA for such measures.”
  3. “Use appropriated funds to advance internet freedom and widespread access to mass media, and protect Cuban activists by supporting the development and accessibility of new technologies and programs to counter censorship and to facilitate the free flow of information in and out of Cuba, as informed by the findings and recommendations of the Cuba Internet Task Force created pursuant to the National Security Presidential Memorandum, ‘Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba.’”
  4. “Encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocs, to ensure violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”

Conclusion

On May 29, the State Department will release its annual report on religious freedom in every other. country in the world.[4] Thereafter we will examine its comments on Cuba and then analyze and evaluate the two reports’ discussion of Cuba.

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[1] U.S. Comm’n Intl Religious Freedom, USCIRF Releases 2018 Annual Report, Recommends 16 Countries be Designated “Countries of Particular Concern,” (April 25, 2018). The other 11 countries in this category (Tier 2) were Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain,  Egypt India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey. The Commission also recommended that the State Department designate the following 16 countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (countries whose government engage in or tolerates particularly severe (or systematic, ongoing, and egregious) religious freedom violations: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The Commission is an unusual quasi-governmental body. See U.S. Commission on International Freedom: Structure and Composition, dwkcommentaries.com (May 29, 2013).

[2]  2018 Annual Report at 148-53.

[3]  Id.

[4]  U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo To Release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report (May 25, 2018).

 

Interfaith Worship Service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

On Thanksgiving Day, November 26, a moving Interfaith Worship Service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was organized and conducted by clergy from the Downtown Congregations of Minneapolis.[1]

This service was the perfect incarnation of a message given that same day by Pope Francis at a meeting of religious leaders in Nairobi Kenya. The Pope said there was a profound “need for interreligious understanding, friendship and collaboration in defending the God-given dignity of individuals and peoples, and their right to live in freedom and happiness”. Indeed, said the Pope, “ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is not a luxury . . . [or] something extra or optional, but essential, something which our world, wounded by conflict and division, increasingly needs.”[2]

Calls to Prayer

There were three Calls to Prayer at the Minneapolis service. Cantor Barry Abelson of Temple Israel sang one in Hebrew. The Westminster Choir in English sang “God Be in My Head” by Gwyneth Walker.[3] Muezzin Elijah Muhammad of Masjid An-Nur (Mosque of the Light) sang his Call to Prayer in Arabic.

Voices Around the Table

The participants in the service then gathered around a common table in the front of the Sanctuary for the reading of passages of sacred and other texts from their different faiths. In addition to those mentioned below the participants were Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Westminster’s Senior Pastor; Rev. Phil Boelter, Vicar of Gethsemane Episcopal Church; and Rev. Judy Zabel, Lead Pastor of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church.

Rev. Dr. Carla Bailey, the Senior Minister at Plymouth Congregational Church, read these excerpts from “A Litany of Thanksgiving” by Howard Thurman, an influential African-American theologian, educator and civil rights leader (1899-1981):

  • “Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.”
  • “I begin with the simple things of my days:
    Fresh air to breathe,
    Cool water to drink,
    The taste of food,
    The protection of houses and clothes,
    The comforts of home.”
  • “I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:
    The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;
    The tightening of the grip in a single handshake when I feared the step before me in the darkness;
    The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest and the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
    The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open page when my decision hung in the balance.”
  • “I pass before me the mainsprings of my heritage:
    The fruits of the labors of countless generations who lived before me, without whom my own life would have no meaning;
    The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
    The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp and whose words could only find fulfillment in the years which they would never see;
    The workers whose sweat watered the trees, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;”
  • “I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment to which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
    The little purposes in which I have shared with my loves, my desires, my gifts;
    The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence that I have never done my best, I have never dared to reach for the highest;
    The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the children of God as the waters cover the sea.”
  • All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
    I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
    O God, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.”

Hamdy Dr. El Sawaf, the Senior Iman of the Islamic Community Center of Minnesota and the Masjid Al-Iman (Mosque of Faith), read the following passages from the Holy Qur’an in Arabic with the following English translations by Maulana Muhammud Ali:

  • “Blessed is He Who made the stars in the heavens and made therein a sun and a moon giving light!” (25:61)
  • “And He it is, Who made the night and the day to follow each other, for him who desires to be mindful or desires to be thankful.” (25:62)
  • “And We have enjoined on man concerning his parents — his mother bears him with faintings upon faintings and his weaning takes two years — saying: Give thanks to Me and to thy parents. To Me is the eventual coming.” (31:14)
  • “So he smiled, wondering at her word, and said: My Lord, grant me that I may be grateful for Thy favour which Thou hast bestowed on me and on my parents, and that I may do good such as Thou art pleased with, and admit me, by Thy mercy, among Thy righteous servants.” (27:19)
  • “And He it is Who made for you the ears and the eyes and the hearts. Little it is that you give thanks!” (23:78)
  • “And certainly We established you in the earth and made therein means of livelihood for you; little it is that you give thanks!” (7:10)
  • “O people, keep your duty to your Lord and dread the day when no father can avail his son in aught, nor the child will avail his father. Surely the promise of Allah is true, so let not this world’s life deceive you, nor let the arch-deceiver deceive you about Allah.” (31:33)
  • “Surely Allah is He with Whom is the knowledge of the Hour, and He sends down the rain, and He knows what is in the wombs. And no one knows what he will earn on the morrow. And no one knows in what land he will die. Surely Allah is Knowing, Aware.” (31:34)
  • “Even as We have sent among you a Messenger from among you, who recites to you Our messages and purifies you and teaches you the Book and the Wisdom and teaches you that which you did not know.” (2:151)
  • “Therefore glorify Me, I will make you eminent, and give thanks to Me and be not ungrateful to Me.” (2:152)

Senior Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel read Leviticus 19: 9-18 in Hebrew from the Hebrew Bible with the following English translation:

  • “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
  • You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”
  • “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
  • “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.You shall not go around as a slanderer[a] among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood[b] of your neighbor: I am the Lord.”
  • You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Rev. Laurie Feillle, Senior Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) read this passage from the Christian Gospel (Matthew 6:25-33) in English:

  • “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Sermon

The Sermon, “Gratitude for Dreams,” was delivered by Rev. Peter Nycklemoe, Senior Pastor of Central Lutheran Church. Here is a summary of his message.

The above passage from Matthew stresses personal piety, almsgiving, prayers and calls for forgiveness. The text also tells us not to worry. But often being told not to worry just makes the situation worse. Matthew, however, points the way forward: “strive first for the kingdom of God.”

A helpful understanding of the kingdom of God comes from Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and author, who said:

  • “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.” [4]

We all are homesick for hope in this world, and the gathering at this common table of representatives of three great religious traditions is a sign of that hope.

The words of Leviticus that were just read by Rabbi Zimmerman also are important: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.”

These words from the Hebrew Bible reminded Rev. Nycklemoe of a celebration organized by one of his congregants in the State of Washington, Olaf Hanson, who owned an apple and potato farm. After harvesting what he needed, Olaf hosted a Gleaning Day for his guests to gather the gleanings of the fruit and vegetables and put them in paper bags for the poor and needy.

We too need to share our longings, our lostness, our need for love and the gifts of one another.

Responding in Gratitude

The solicitation of offerings to support the work of the Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness was provided by The Very Rev. Paul Lebens-Englund, the Dean of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral.

Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations

President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day was read by Fr John Bauer, Rector of The Basilica of Saint Mary, Here are its words:

  • “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.”
  • “Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”
  • “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
  • “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
  • “And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

President Barack Obama’s 2015 Presidential Proclamation was read by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church:

  • “Rooted in a story of generosity and partnership, Thanksgiving offers an opportunity for us to express our gratitude for the gifts we have and to show our appreciation for all we hold dear.  Today, as we give of ourselves in service to others and spend cherished time with family and friends, we give thanks for the many blessings bestowed upon us.  We also honor the men and women in uniform who fight to safeguard our country and our freedoms so we can share occasions like this with loved ones, and we thank our selfless military families who stand beside and support them each and every day.”
  • “Our modern celebration of Thanksgiving can be traced back to the early 17th century.  Upon arriving in Plymouth, at the culmination of months of testing travel that resulted in death and disease, the Pilgrims continued to face great challenges.  An indigenous people, the Wampanoag, helped them adjust to their new home, teaching them critical survival techniques and important crop cultivation methods.  After securing a bountiful harvest, the settlers and Wampanoag joined in fellowship for a shared dinner to celebrate powerful traditions that are still observed at Thanksgiving today:  lifting one another up, enjoying time with those around us, and appreciating all that we have.”
  • “Carrying us through trial and triumph, this sense of decency and compassion has defined our Nation.  President George Washington proclaimed the first Thanksgiving in our country’s nascence, calling on the citizens of our fledgling democracy to place their faith in “the providence of Almighty God,” and to be thankful for what is bequeathed to us.  In the midst of bitter division at a critical juncture for America, President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged the plight of the most vulnerable, declaring a “day of thanksgiving,” on which all citizens would “commend to [God’s] tender care” those most affected by the violence of the time — widows, orphans, mourners, and sufferers of the Civil War.  A tradition of giving continues to inspire this holiday, and at shelters and food centers, on battlefields and city streets, and through generous donations and silent prayers, the inherent selflessness and common goodness of the American people endures.”
  • “In the same spirit of togetherness and thanksgiving that inspired the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, we pay tribute to people of every background and belief who contribute in their own unique ways to our country’s story.  Each of us brings our own traditions, cultures, and recipes to this quintessential American holiday — whether around dinner tables, in soup kitchens, or at home cheering on our favorite sports teams — but we are all united in appreciation of the bounty of our Nation.  Let us express our gratitude by welcoming others to our celebrations and recognize those who volunteer today to ensure a dinner is possible for those who might have gone without.  Together, we can secure our founding ideals as the birthright of all future generations of Americans.”

Music

Interspersed throughout the Service were pieces of wonderful music.

The Preludes–“America the Beautiful” (Calvin Hampton for organ), “Variations on Simple Gifts” (Michael Burkhardt) and “The Promise of Living” (Aaron Copland)–were provided by Westminster’s Minister of Music & the Arts/Organist, Melanie Ohnstad, and the Westminster Choir directed by Dr. Jere Lantz.

Jon Romer on a Native American flute played two Ojibwe pieces—“Song of Welcome” and “A Song of Love.”

The choir and assembled people sang the following hymns: “O God, Show Mercy to Us;” “This Is My Song;” “ We Praise You, O God;” “Now Thank We All Our God;” and “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”

Conclusion

This was a powerful and meaningful worship service, especially in these days of too frequent expressions of hostility towards Muslims and Syrian refugees. This service was exactly what Pope Francis called for in his previously mentioned remarks in Kenya and on November 30 at the Grand Mosque of Koudoukou in the Central African Republic:[5]

  • “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.  We must therefore consider ourselves and conduct ourselves as such. . . . Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace.  Christians, Muslims and members of the traditional religions have lived together in peace for many years.  They ought, therefore, to remain united in working for an end to every act which, from whatever side, disfigures the Face of God and whose ultimate aim is to defend particular interests by any and all means, to the detriment of the common good.  Together, we must say no to hatred, no to revenge and no to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself.  God is peace, God salam.”

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[1] The bulletin for the service is available online,  So too is a video of the service.

[2] The Pope held the meeting at the city’s Apostolic Nunciature (diplomatic mission of the Holy See) with leaders of different Christian confessions (Anglican, Evangelical, Methodist, Pentecostal and others) and of other religions (Animist, Muslim). Holy See, Ecumenical and Interreligious Meeting: Address of His Holiness Pope Francis (Nov. 26, 2015); Interreligious meeting in Nairobi: service to the common good. News.Va (Nov. 26, 2015).

[3] A prior post discussed this anthem, its composer and its derivation from the Sarum Primer of 1514.

[4] Other references to Buechner are contained in previous posts: Honorary Degree (Aug. 14, 2011); My General Thoughts on Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014).

[5] Pope Francis visits Grand Mosque of Koudoukou in Bangui, News.Va (Nov. 30, 2015)

U.S. State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedom in 2013

USDeptStateseal

On July 28, 2014, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom around the world.[1]

 Secretary of State Kerry’s Comments

Announcing the release of the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said although the U.S. was “obviously far from perfect,” it was important for the U.S. to treasure freedom of religion as “a universal value. . . . The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith is the birthright of every human being . . . [and] are properly recognized under international law. The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State.” In short, “religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”

Executive Summary of the Report

The world had the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents. Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map.” In conflict zones (Syria, Central African Republic and Burma), this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.

All around the world, individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all. Countries where this was a significant problem were Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Eritrea. Throughout Europe, the historical stain of anti-Semitism continued to be a fact of life.

Governments repressed religious freedom. Governments from all regions subjected members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws. These governmental actions not only infringed on freedom of religion themselves, but they also often created a permissive environment for broader human rights abuses. Restrictive policies included laws criminalizing religious activities and expression, prohibitions on conversion or proselytizing, blasphemy laws, and stringent registration requirements or discriminatory application of registration requirements for religious organizations. This was especially true in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Burma, Russia and Bahrain.

Governments engaged in discrimination, impunity and displacement of religious minorities. When governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened, even to the point of physically attacking individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Governments in these countries failed to protect vulnerable communities and many religious minority communities were disproportionately affected, resulting in a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons. This was especially true in Syria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Nigeria. Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the following countries of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict:Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and United Kingdom.

Religious minority communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year. In some of these areas, the outward migration of certain communities has the potential to permanently change the demographics of entire regions.

“Countries of Particular Concern”

Pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State designated the following countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Such countries “engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom” or “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention of persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons based on religion.”

Turkmenistan, which is new to this State Department list, is the only one of eight countries recommended for such designation by the latest report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The others so recommended by the Commission are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.

Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom

Simultaneously with this report’s release, the Obama administration announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Rabbi Saperstein, a reform rabbi and lawyer known for his work in Washington to advance religious freedom, would be the first non-Christian to lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, if confirmed by the Senate.

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[1] This post is based upon the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 (July 28, 2014); Secretary Kerry, Remarks at Rollout of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Assistant Secretary Malinowski, Remarks on the Release of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Department of State, Fact Sheet: 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014). Earlier posts covered the international law regarding religious freedom and the State Department’s reports on the subject for 2011 and 2012.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Annual Report 2014   

Comm'n Intl Religious Free                                                

On April 30, 2014, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its Annual Report 2014, pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988 (“the Act”).[1]

Introduction

The Commission relies upon this definition of the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.[2] (P. 9.)

The Report stressed the importance of this freedom. It says this right “protects the freedom of religious communities, as groups, to engage in worship and other collective activities. It also protects every individual’s right to hold, or not to hold, any religion or belief, as well as the freedom to manifest such a religion or belief, subject only to the narrow limitations specified under international law.” (P. 9.)

This right is important, says the Commission, “because it enables people to follow what their conscience dictates. . . . People are entitled to religious freedom by virtue of their humanity.” Therefore, there can be no “coercion or compulsion in these matters.” (P. 2.)

Moreover, whenever this freedom is abused, “societal well-being would suffer” as well as democracy and other human rights and economic productivity. So too “peace and security may become more elusive.” In short, according to the commission, “the defense of religious freedom is both a humanitarian imperative and a practical necessity.” (P. 3.)

General Recommendations

The Commission recommended that the U.S. do the following with respect to this freedom:

  • develop and implement a religious freedom strategy;
  • demonstrate the importance of religious freedom , including the designation of “countries of particular concern ” identified by the Commission;
  • reinvigorate and create new tools under the Act;
  • expand training, programming and public diplomacy about the subject;
  • expand multilateral efforts on the subject; and
  • protect asylum-seekers from being returned to countries where they face persecution for religious reasons. (Pp. 7-8.)

“Countries of Particular Concern” (Tier 1 Countries)

Under its authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) (or “Tier 1 Countries”) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. (P. 5.)

The latest report recommends that the Secretary of State re-designate the following eight countries as Tier 1 countries: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. In addition, the Report recommends that the following additional eight countries also be so designated by the State Department: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. (P. 5.)

Tier 2 Countries

The Commission also designates some countries as “Tier 2 Countries,” i.e., countries on the threshold of Tier 1 status, i.e., when their “violations . . . are particularly severe” and when at least one, but not all three, of the criteria for that status (“systematic, ongoing and egregious”) is met. (P. 5.)

The latest Report designated the following nine countries as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Russia and Turkey.[3] (P. 5.)

Other Countries

The latest Report also discussed seven other countries (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka) and one region (Western Europe) that it monitored during the year. (P. 5.)

Conclusion

Because of my personal interest in Cuba, including its religious freedom, a subsequent post will critique the Report regarding that country.

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[1] The Act § § 202, 205. The Report contains an account of the development of the Act and the 15-year history of its implementation. (Pp. 11-23.) A prior post examined the fascinating structure and composition of the Commission, and another post its report issued in 2013.

[2] See Post: International Law Regarding Freedom of Religion (Jan. 1, 2012).

[3] Previously the Commission called this group the “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Global Forced-Displacement Tops 50 Million

On June 20th, the United Nations refugee agency (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR) reported that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced (IDPs) people was 51.2 million in 2013. This is the first time after World War II that the number has topped 50 million. (Articles about this report may be found in the New York Times and the Guardian.)[1]

This represented an increase of 6 million over the prior year due largely to the war in Syria and conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Here is a graph showing the totals (with components), 1993-2013:

 

Refugee graph

Here is another graph showing the largest sources of refugees in 2013:

Source of refugees

Developing countries host 86% of the world’s refugees. The top five host countries are Pakistan, 1.6 million; Iran, 0.9 million; Lebanon, 0.9 million; Jordan, 0.6 million; and Turkey, o.6 million. The U.S. ranks 10th as a host country with 0.3 million.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said,”We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict. Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue.” He added, “The international community has to overcome its differences and find solutions to the conflicts of today in South Sudan, Syria, Central African Republic and elsewhere. Non-traditional donors need to step up alongside traditional donors.”

Serge Schmemann of the New York Times editorial board observed that the report indicates that half “the refugees are children; a growing number of these are on their own . . . . More than half of the 6.3 million refugees under the refugee agency’s care have been in exile for five years or more, testifying to conflicts that rage on and on.” Schmemann added that the “stunning figures offer a bitter counterpoint to the growing resistance in Europe and the United States to letting in immigrants and asylum seekers, and to the endless sterile blame-games about responsibility for the various conflicts.”

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[1] A brief history of the UNHCR was provided in a prior post while another post discussed its report for 2010. Another post reviewed the international law of refugees and asylum seekers.