Thursday, April 24, 2008

What Religious Discrimination Really Looks Like

It's not uncommon in the US for both sides of the culture wars to cry oppression. Christians, in spite of being an overwhelming majority in this country, can find oppression and discrimination around every corner, even though they're the ones policing the street. Atheists, other non believers, and other minority religious folks often take great umbrage at the presence of Christian symbols or speech in the public square, even if it's only a reflection of the great majority of the populace. Are there acts of discrimination on both sides? Yes, but it's mostly nibbling around the edges.

For a look at what real religious discrimination looks like, take a look at what's going on in Russia. As this New York Times article discusses, the Eastern Orthodox church is exercising growing exclusive power due to its increased ties to the Putin regime:

It was not long after a Methodist church put down roots here that the troubles began.

First came visits from agents of the F.S.B., a successor to the K.G.B., who evidently saw a threat in a few dozen searching souls who liked to huddle in cramped apartments to read the Bible and, perhaps, drink a little tea. Local officials then labeled the church a 'sect.' Finally, last month, they shut it down.
The term "sect" is quickly becoming code for a dangerous organization that is not tied to the state. It's a mutually beneficial partnership between church and state, allowing each to gather power:
Mr. Putin makes frequent appearances with the church’s leader, Patriarch Aleksei II, on the Kremlin-controlled national television networks. Last week, Mr. Putin was shown prominently accepting an invitation from Aleksei II to attend services for Russian Orthodox Easter, which is this Sunday.

The relationship is grounded in part in a common nationalistic ideology dedicated to restoring Russia’s might after the disarray that followed the end of the Soviet Union. The church’s hostility toward Protestant groups, many of which are based in the United States or have large followings there, is tinged with the same anti-Western sentiment often voiced by Mr. Putin and other senior officials.

The government’s antipathy also seems to stem in part from the Kremlin’s wariness toward independent organizations that are not allied with the government.

Orthodox preachers take to the state-controlled airwaves to denounce Protestant heretics. Meanwhile, government officials hassle non-Orthodox churches with regards to the required paperwork to operate. And the message is sinking in:

'As a Russian Orthodox believer, I am against the sects,' said Valeriya Gubareva, a retired teacher, who was asked about Protestants as she was leaving a Russian Orthodox church here. 'Our Russian Orthodox religion is inviolable, and it should not be shaken.'

Like other parishioners interviewed, Ms. Gubareva said she supported freedom of religion.

Of course she does! The members of the favored group rarely openly oppose free speech or free worship. The key is to make those folks - and everyone - realize that the only way be be assured of that freedom is to extend it to everyone, even those whose beliefs you find odd, wrong, or dangerous.

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