Freedom of Religion: Why do some governments oppress religious groups?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Freedom of Religion
Friedensgebet peace prayer in Schwerin Cathedral before the Monday demonstration, November 6 1989

The world witnessed the catalytic power of religious groups in East Germany in late 1989 as prayer services like this one in Schwerin Cathedral became rallying centers for peaceful mass demonstrations against the communist government. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Note from Dr. Wayne Baker: This week, as millions of Americans await the visit of Pope Francis, we are sharing from an Ahead of the Trend overview on religious freedom by Roger Finke and Robert R. Martin. This is the third column in this series

WHY do some governments limit religious freedom—or decide to actively oppress some religious groups?

In Part 1, we explored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the global consensus that religious freedom is a basic human right. Then, in Part 2, we looked at how widespread oppression is today—despite the lip service many regimes pay to the idea of religious freedom.

Today, we ask why oppression is so widespread?

In their overview of global research, Finke and Martin point to at least three motives:

FAITH GROUPS ARE ALTERNATIVE SOCIETIES—”Along with providing religious beliefs, symbols and practices for the local community, religious institutions can also serve as a source of unity at the regional and national levels,” Finke and Martin write, adding, “One of the fears for governing bodies is that religious institutions can provide organizational form to underlying political and cultural pressures.”

That fear is not unfounded. When revolutions were sweeping across Eastern Europe, the leadership was largely secular—but discovered churches that had survived the communist era were ideal staging grounds for peaceful anti-government rallies. This was especially true in East Germany, where so-called “Monday demonstrations” began in September in a Leipzig church then spread to churches in other cities.

SOME COUNTRIES VALUE SECULARISM—The scholars write, “Some secular states, especially communist nations, support a secular ideology that views religious organizations as potential threats and requiring heavy regulation. Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1979) or the former Soviet Union offers one extreme, where the state attempts to eliminate religion. Countries such as France and Turkey have a secular state and do not hold a secular ideology, such as the atheism of communist countries, but they are assertive in forcing a public secularism.”

A DOMINANT FAITH MAY SEE OTHERS AS RIVALS—They write, “Dominant religions can appeal to the history and culture of their country as motives for denying religious freedoms and even justifying violence. Many national and cultural identities are so closely interwoven with or against selected religions that ensuring religious freedoms for all, is perceived as challenging the cultural identity as a whole.”

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