US calls out Caribbean on religious freedom

Monday, August 21, 2017

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WASHINGTON, USA(CMC) — 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 last 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 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 civilian marriages or baptisms.

“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 that 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, 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 MFA to reinforce the importance of religious freedom, as well as equal protection and equal legal rights for minority religious groups.

It said embassy representatives also met with faith-based non-governmental organisations 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 ofobeah 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 officers also interacted with religious leaders who had taken part in a US-sponsored citizen exchange programme about advocating for minority rights.

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.

“Religious persecution and intolerance remain far too prevalent,” said US Secretary of State Rex W Tillerson in unveiling the report.

“Almost 80 per cent 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”.

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