By Martin Surridge –

As the nation of Haiti continues to suffer through one of the worst natural disasters in recent years, and the chaos and desperation that followed the earthquake, an incredible amount of material and financial relief has flooded into the former French colony. While Haiti may seem like another world for many people, what many do not realize is that Haiti lies only 681 miles off the coast of Miami, and that many American cities have substantial populations of Haitian-Americans. In addition, the United States government estimated that several thousand Americans were likely killed in the earthquake. Haiti, it turns out, is not as far away as we had previously thought. Sadly, the fact of the matter is that concerned citizens and other individuals tend to pay a little closer to attention to a global problem when the effects can be keenly felt in their own homes.  

While they have been easy to miss, the news has been peppered recently with stories of serious threats to religious liberty not in the developing world, war-torn regions in the Middle East, or third-world countries struck by natural disasters, but in Europe, our own geopolitical backyard. In the modern era, Europe has been a beacon for personal liberty and religious tolerance, with religion playing a seemingly minor role in most of the continent's wars and conflicts. However, one does not need an advanced degree in history to know that Europe has also been a bastion of religious persecution, a trait that has reared its ugly head in recent weeks, mostly as the continent struggles to define itself against growing waves of Muslim immigrants.

Radical, or at least conservative, Islam was seen as the enemy in the legislative decision made in Switzerland recently, when the Alpine nation banned the construction of minarets on Muslim places of worship. Not only is Switzerland a famously tolerant nation, it is also a nation with a grand total of four such minarets. The campaign that advocated for the ban preyed on people's fears of Islamic terrorism and resorted to despicable tactics, including a poster that featured minarets rising skyward like nuclear missiles.

Perhaps less surprising that the minaret ban in Switzerland, but just as concerning, was a recent incident on the Greek isle of Crete when the only synagogue on the island was attacked by arsonists twice last month, which destroyed thousands of books, two offices and part of the historic building's roof. Anti-Semitism is hardly new in Greece, but neither is the peaceful coexistence of Jewish and Christian communities in a country where some Jewish congregations can trace back their roots hundreds of years. 

Religious liberty is also under threat in France, where parliament is expected to enact a law that will require dozens of conservative Muslim women to cease wearing the controversial burqa, the face-covering full length veils. Arguments abound on both sides of the debate. Those opposed to the veil argue that it degrades women, is an affront to gender equality, insinuates that men are incapable of controlling their lust, and is a threat to public security. Those who contend that such a law would infringe upon freedom of speech and religion claim that it unfairly targets Islam and have pointed to the fact that conservative nuns expose little more than their hands and face in their own full length dresses with similar head scarves. Regardless of political affiliation or personal opinions on the burqa, it is hard to deny that if such a law were passed it would amount to government interference in religion. 

If this pattern of religious liberty infringements were anything to go by, the United States may not be far behind. Connections between North America and Europe run deep and while there may be several key differences between the two continents, religious intolerance seems to be an emerging, unifying theme. These incidents display a disturbing trend that scholars of religion and sufferers of anti-Semitism have known for a long time: laws prohibiting the free practice of religion are just the first in a series of slippery steps toward widespread intolerance and institutionalized discrimination. It is time that the Europe, and the other nations of the west, show the developing world that religious liberty is not optional, but rather a fundamental and guaranteed principle of our society.


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