US calls out Caribbean on religious freedom
WASHINGTON – Though religious freedom is generally upheld in most, if not all, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, the United States has called out some nations for what it describes as religious intolerance.
In releasing the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report earlier this week, the US Department of State said that almost 20 years after passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal,” including those in the Caribbean.
The Department of State, therefore, cited instances of what it regarded as religious intolerance in some CARICOM-member states, particularly in the larger ones.
In Haiti, the State Department said that while Voodoo has been a registered religious group since 2003, it has not been able to perform civilly-recognised marriages or baptisms.
Below: A voodoo priest (left) attends a mass ritual with his congregation during the Plain Du Nord Festival in Haiti July 24, 2010. (Reuters)
“By law, the government provided funds and services to the Catholic Church but not to other religious groups,” said the report, adding that the Haitian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religious Denominations (MFA) did not act on a pending request to register the Muslim community, and that many non-denominational Christian and Muslim groups said they operated without registering with the MFA.
The report noted that a mob decapitated a Voodoo priest following reports that the priest had used his spiritual powers to kill a local woman and a church director.
“Voodoo community leaders stated Voodoo practitioners continued to experience some social stigmatisation for their beliefs and practices,” the report said.
“According to the leadership of the National Confederation of Haitian Vaudouisants (KNVA), teachers and administrators in Catholic and Protestant schools, at times, openly rejected and condemned Voodoo culture and customs as contrary to the teachings of the Bible.”
The report said US embassy officials met with the MFA to reinforce the importance of religious freedom, as well as equal protections and equal legal rights for minority religious groups.
It said embassy representatives also met with faith-based nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and religious leaders to seek their views on religious freedom.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the report said that while the republic’s constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion, some groups say the government provided less financial support for religious ceremonies than in previous years, and that they were invited to officiate at fewer government ceremonies.
But the government said the reason for the decrease in funding for religious groups was a decrease in the national budget.
“The government’s national security policy continued to limit the number of long-term foreign missionaries to 35 per registered religious group at any given time. There were public calls to adopt legislation to outlaw child marriage, but some religious groups, including some Hindus and Muslims, said the legislation would infringe on their religious rights.
“The US embassy conducted outreach to religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Orisha and others as part of its overall efforts to promote religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy representatives met with religious leaders and delivered remarks at a number of events highlighting the importance of religious freedom,” the report noted.
The State Department said a “colonial-era law” criminalising the practices of Obeah and Myalism in Jamaica remains in effect “but is not enforced.”
The report said Rastafarians stated that acceptance of their views and practices “have improved markedly, although cases of discrimination and profiling by police do continue to occur.”
In addition, the report said Rastafarians reiterated their opposition to the state-mandated immunisation of children as a prerequisite to register and attend school.
The State Department said Seventh-day Adventists have complained that their observance of a Saturday Sabbath in Jamaica caused them to be discriminated against by some employers, despite a “flexi-work week” law passed by parliament in 2014 that gave employees the right to negotiate working hours.
Jamaican Rastafarians said elements of their religious observances, such as wearing dreadlocks and smoking marijuana, continued to “present barriers in employment and professional advancement,” according to the report.
It said local media outlets provided a forum for religious debate, open to participants from all religious groups, adding that the US embassy officers met with government officials and religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews and Rastafarians.
In support of its religious freedom goals, the US Department of State said the embassy in Jamaica discussed tolerance and diversity, citizen security, human rights and social inclusion.
It said embassy officer also interacted with religious leaders who had taken part in a US-sponsored citizen exchange program about advocating for minority rights.
The US Department of State said discrimination on the basis of religion is prohibited in Belize, but added that a dispute over church representation in the senate caused a division among evangelical Protestants, leading to the formation of the National Evangelical Association (NEA) as an offshoot of the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (AEC).
“As the NEA was not officially recognised by the government, it could not contribute to the choice of church representation in the senate,” the State Department said.
It said a Christian nongovernmental organisation (NGO) continued to manage the only prison in the country, “which uses religion as the basis of prisoner rehabilitation.”
Additionally, the State Department said leaders in the Council of Churches in Belize reported certain evangelical Protestant pastors “acted irresponsibly in radio and television broadcasts” by attacking religious leaders who supported an August Supreme Court ruling that found parts of the criminal code criminalising consensual same-sex activities unconstitutional.
“A representative from the council said there was ‘a need for respect and responsibility’ in exercising freedom of religion,” the report said, adding that US embassy representatives interacted with a wide spectrum of religious groups “to reinforce the importance of religious freedom.”
The State Department lamented that the Surinamese Government provided “limited subsidies” to a number of elementary and secondary schools established and managed by various religious groups.
The report said the Ministry of Education in Suriname reiterated government policy, “which prohibits the practice or teaching of religion in public schools.”
In Antigua and Barbuda, the report said Rastafarians “continued to express concern that government practices, including the prohibition of marijuana use, required vaccination for entry to public schools and headdress restrictions, negatively impacted their religious activities and convictions.
“They also reported being subjected to undue scrutiny at security checkpoints,” said the report, also underscoring alleged religious intolerance and unfair treatment of Rastafarians in a number of other islands.
The Organization for Rastafarians in Unity (ORU) in St Kitts and Nevis said Rastafarians “continued to experience discrimination in school enrollment and in celebrating their religious holidays,” according to the report.
It said the ORU protested what they stated was police harassment and the mandatory cutting of dreadlocks while in prison.
The ORU said the government continued to prohibit their use of marijuana for religious rituals, the report said.
According to the ORU, Rastafarians said they faced societal discrimination, including when seeking employment, because of their dreadlocks, which they said were an important component of their faith.
The State Department said US embassy officers met with government officials to discuss religious freedom, including issues of the Rastafarian community, and that embassy officials also spoke with the St Kitts and Nevis Christian Council and a leader of the Rastafarian community.
In Dominica, the State Department said Rastafarians “continued to disagree with the government’s prohibition of marijuana use and said they were subjected to scrutiny from police and immigration officers.”
The report said the St Lucia government does not officially recognise marriages conducted under Rastafarian rites, and that Rastafarians reported reluctance to use marijuana for religious purposes “because of the government’s prohibition and imposition of fines for any use.”
In light of their belief against vaccinating their children, Rastafarians in St Lucia claimed that they faced discrimination in the school system, the report said, noting as a result, some Rastafarian families decided to vaccinate their children or to home school them.
In neighbouring St Vincent and the Grenadines, Rastafarians said they disagreed with the government’s ban on marijuana, stating it was integral to their religious rituals, according to the report.
It said vaccinations as a requirement for school enrollment remained under discussion between Ministry of Health officials and Rastafarians with school-age children in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
“Rastafarians stated they continued to face discrimination because of their religious practices, in particular their use of marijuana,” the report said. “Rastafarian activists stated, however, that Rastafarians were increasingly accepted in society, and society was more tolerant of their way of life.”
The report said US embassy officials raised general religious freedom issues with the government, and that embassy officials discussed the prohibition of Rastafarian dreadlocks with the Ministry of Mobilization.
Rastafarians were concerned about access to public education in Barbados, the State Department said, adding that Rastafarians said they faced discrimination, specifically for their dreadlocks, “but that attitudes regarding Rastafarianism were becoming more positive.”
Additionally, the report said Muslims objected to a government policy that required women to remove the hijab for identification and passport photographs.
The State Department said the Guyana government “limited the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups, based on historical trends, the relative size of the group, and the president’s discretion.
“Religious groups reported, however, the visa quotas allotted to them did not adversely affect their activities, as the visa-limitation rule was rarely applied stringently,” it said.
The report said the practice of Obeah was illegal in the Bahamas and that violators may be sentenced to three months in prison.
“Religious persecution and intolerance remain far too prevalent,” said US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson (left) in unveiling the report.
“Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.
“We cannot ignore these conditions. The [Donald] Trump administration has committed to addressing these conditions in part by advancing international religious freedom around the world. The State Department will continue to advocate on behalf of those seeking to live their lives according to their faith.”
Tillerson said the US 2016 International Religious Freedom Report “details the status of religious freedom in 199 countries and territories, and provides insights as to significant and growing challenges”. (CMC)