Donate to RNS

Anti-Semitism * Helmet hair * ROHINGYA : August’s Religious Freedom Recap

Anti-Semitism continues to seep across Europe following the Israel-Hamas ceasefire. Motorcycle-riding Sikhs in Ontario must wear helmets, even though they don’t fit over their turbans. And Myanmar is asking foreign officials not use the word “Rohingya,” to which I say “ROHINGYA ROHINGYA ROHINGYA.”

Sikh men on motorcycles

So much for August being a slow news month. Let’s start this Religious Freedom Recap in the Americas, where chaos reigned supreme.

The U.S. is, in theory, a secular state. Reality paints a different picture, which might explain why I have a job on this beat.

Last month the IRS said it will monitor houses of worship for illegal electioneering. Their tax-exempt status means no partisan politics from the pulpit, but some people aren’t too happy about the announcement, most notably the folks at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Tobin Grant maps out exactly what faith leaders and congregations can and can’t do if they want to keep their tax perks.

America LOVES eagles, so the government doesn’t take kindly to folks knicking their feathers. Non-recognized Native American tribes who use eagle feathers in their religious ceremonies may soon get an exemption. Wholly unrelated sidenote – the Queen of England owns all unmarked swans in open water in the U.K., and one of her many titles is “Seigneur of the Swans.” Birdnapping can bring about treason charges. #themoreyourknow

Quiz time!

  • Can a Florida dad tell his kids that their mother’s Catholicism is lame? Yes.
  • Can California force care workers to accompany disabled residents to religious services? Yes.
  • Can Texas parents who just know the rapture is imminent stop homeschooling their kids? No.
  • Can a New Jersey couple force their kid into gay conversion therapy? Still no.
  • Can a Florida county ban atheists from opening public meetings? Pretty sure SCOTUS said no, but they did it anyways.
  • Can the U.S. Navy put Bibles in guestrooms? Yes. No. Yes again. Ask me next month.

In hair news, which is a thing because I say so, a federal appeals court overturned the hate-crime convictions of an Amish sect leader who led a bizarre beard-cutting rampage in 2011. The leader’s last name is Mullet (I KNOW!). Mullet and his cronies remain in prison. No word on what’s next. Please someone turn this into a movie.

Sikh motorcycles

Sikh men on motorcycles

The ACLU in Louisiana is challenging the school suspension of a Rastafari student who refuses to cut his hair on religious grounds. Daniel Bennett says SCOTUS will hear a “hair-razing case” (groan) on whether a prison can prohibit inmates from keeping a beard for religious reasons. And motorcycle-riding Sikhs in Ontario must wear helmets, even though they don’t fit over their turbans. Clearly there’s a market for bigger helmets.

The governor of Tennessee declared a “Day of Prayer over Students,” which is legal, but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense during summer recess. Why didn’t he wait until exam time?

A Republican lawmaker from Mississippi sent Bibles to every member of Congress to aid in their decision-making. Did he use his Congressional franking privileges for all those Bibles? That’s a lot of frank.

The Adult Swim show “Black Jesus” has offended some people. They should probably get over it.

An Orthodox Jew sued a hospital in Illinois for cremating his amputated leg instead of preserving it to be buried next to him, as per custom. The man is only 43. Where was he planning to keep it for the next few decades?

On the foreign policy front, the Near East and South Central Asia is getting its own U.S. special envoy to promote religious freedom of religious minorities. There’s talk that the new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom might just take this job, too.

The BBC reports on the stigma of being an atheist in the U.S. The U.K.’s All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group has more than 100 members. How many openly atheist members of U.S. Congress? Zilch.

Do American conservatives “make a mockery of the oppression of religious minorities” abroad by focusing on the issues raised above? Read the international sections below and tell me what you think in the comments section.


In the past year in Pakistan, 1,200 people have been injured and 430 killed in more than 120 incidents of sectarian violence. Journalists in the country are being silenced with threats and blasphemy charges.

Monks and protestors in Burma (2013).

Monks and protestors in Burma (2013).

Myanmar’s predominantly Muslim Rohingya population remains in dire straits. Restricted travel and overcrowding is hampering young Rohingyas’ educational opportunities. The government is asking foreign officials and aid agencies to not even use the name “Rohingya.” Some U.N. and U.S. officials are apparently capitulating, to which I say “ROHINGYA ROHINGYA ROHINGYA.”

Burmese officials are struggling with how to handle ethnic and religious hate speech on social media. The country plans to introduce an Internet code of conduct to stem the spread of false information likely to stoke violent tensions.

Malaysia is threatening to censor the internet in the interest of “protecting public morality” and may go full sledgehammer, blocking Facebook to prevent abuse and hate speech.

In India, if you even plan to “like” a Facebook post that could potentially hurt religious sentiments, you’re looking at 90 days to a year in jail before you can plead your case in front of a judge. Paul Fidalgo makes the obligatory “Minority Report” reference.

Indonesia now recognizes the Baha’i faith as a religion, which is good news for Baha’is, but I still don’t think governments should be in the business of formally recognizing or rejecting parts of people’s identities.

A Protestant pastor imprisoned for allegedly killing a cow and eating it in predominantly Hindu Nepal has been released. Hindus are prohibited from eating beef in the country, but for everyone else it’s just taboo.

The city of Xinjiang, China has banned Islamic headscarves, young men with beards, clothes bearing Islamic symbols and other “abnormal appearances” from its public transport system. China also arrested nearly 1,000 members of the Quannengshen religious group, classified as an illegal cult in the country.

Children in North Korea

Children in North Korea

A Canadian couple in China faced investigation for allegedly stealing state secrets, but some say the charges may be tied up with the pair’s religious activities in helping to spread their Christian faith to North Koreans. The American missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been held in North Korea for promoting Christianity in the country, announced that his health is deteriorating.

In Cambodia, four alleged “sorcerers” have been decapitated or hacked to death in recent months. In Bangladesh, 60 people armed with machetes raided a Catholic convent, beating up its nuns and priests.

Middle East:

The Islamic State continues to dominate headlines and terrorize Iraq and its neighbors. 40,000 Yazidis were stranded atop a mountain in Iraq facing death threats from ISIS while another 130,000 fled to the Kurdish north. More than half of those mountain-bound escaped after U.S. airstrikes while hundreds of women were forced to convert and marry jihadists. Others have been raped and sold off. Hundreds if not thousands remain stranded on Mount Sinjar.

Other religious groups are facing similar persecution in Iraq. The country’s Christian population is about four times smaller than it was in the 1970s under Saddam Hussein, and some religious leaders are calling the latest assault genocide. Here are 11 documentaries to help wrap your head around ISIS in all its horror.

The summer of heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas has ended (we hope), but the fallout will continue to affect Palestinians, Israelis and Jews around the world for a long time.

Turkey’s new president (and long-time prime minister) Recip Tayyip Erdogan said “Israel will drown in the blood they shed,” provoking long-simmering animosity towards Turkish Jews.



French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala in 2007.

Anti-Semitism has flared across Europe this year, but groups in some countries are heading online to counter it. British Jews report feeling “frightened and insecure” following anti-Semitic attacks, a sentiment shared by Jews across France, Germany, Belgium and elsewhere within the E.U.

Italy expelled an imam for preaching hatred against Jews, and a Swedish newspaper pulled a cartoon commenting on current events with the caption, “Hitler gassed the wrong Jews.”  Meanwhile lobbyists are trying to convince France to rename a small hamlet that has been called “Death to Jews” for a millennium, in case you forgot just how entrenched anti-Semitism is in Europe.

Muslims face plenty of discrimination too. Here’s a look at the troubles veiled Muslim women in Britain face, and another take on the never-ending debate: Should Britain ban the burqa?

The Church of England stepped out of character to attack British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “incoherent” Middle East policy.Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim to serve in a British cabinet and the senior Foreign Office minister for faith and communities, resigned from her posts over what she called the government’s “morally indefensible” policies in the Middle East. Some argued the whole faith portfolio should have been scrapped in Warsi’s wake while others think the U.K. needs a new additional post for international religious freedom.


African media leaders have launched a continent-wide campaign to tackle hate speech, which I can get behind as long as freedom of expression and freedom of the press are protected.

Boko Haram continued its terrible assault on Nigeria, killing at least 100 people in a north-eastern town.

Remember Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law, which was scrapped on a technicality? Uganda’s parliament plans to reintroduce it as feared/expected. Social hostilities can be just as problematic as potential laws. Six LGBT Ugandans were reportedly stoned to death.

Not to be outdone, Kenyan lawmakers are proposing a new bill to make gay stonings legal.

Thus concludes the recap and my stationary summer in London. I’m chucking everything in storage next week and vagabonding for four months in the U.S., Asia and South Africa. Wish me luck on my constant quest for stable Wi-Fi.