A recent editorial published in the Toronto Star, Canada’s most read daily newspaper, listed religiously tolerant Israel alongside China and Saudi Arabia, countries that use state-sanctioned discriminatory laws and institutions to persecute their ethnic minorities and stymie their religious freedoms.
Contrary to this editorial, the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report of 2011 lauded Israel for its respect of freedom of religion. The report noted that: “While there is no formal constitution, laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty protects religious freedom. The Basic Law describes the country as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’ and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which promises religious freedom and full social and political equality, regardless of religious affiliation.”
Israel has been praised for its efforts to safeguard the right to free practice of religion, conscience, and belief for all faiths; and has preserved, restored, and funded Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy sites and places of worship. Israel recognizes five religions: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Druze and Bahá’í and all adherents have full rights under the law. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Muslims enjoy Ramadan in Jerusalem. Every Christmas, close to 100,000 pilgrims visit the Holy Land. It’s no wonder that Israel is the only place in the region where its Christian population is growing. In sharp contrast, Coptic Christians in Egypt suffer from persecution, discrimination, and are fearful of the rise of Muslim Brotherhood, while over a hundred thousand Christians have fled the civil war in Syria.
Israel is a safe haven for religiously persecuted minorities from surrounding countries that restrict open practice of religion and who target those considered heretical or apostates. Faced with Iranian persecution, The Bahá’í World Centre, the spiritual and administrative heart of the Bahá’í community, is located in the twin cities of ‘Akká and Haifa in northern Israel. This month, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs produced a must-read backgrounder on various countries in which religious persecution is particularly egregious. The list, which also included North Korea, Iran, Pakistan etc. said the following about China and Saudi Arabia specifically:
China: While China allows worship for some communities through state-sanctioned institutions (such as churches affiliated with the state), religious activity in China is largely carried out underground. For example, the state-sanctioned Catholic church has no official relationship to the Vatican (which is considered a potentially threatening foreign influence). It is thus estimated that most Catholics worship in non-sanctioned churches, officials of which experience harassment and imprisonment. A similar situation faces Protestant worshippers in China, many of whom likewise worship in covert churches. In 1999, it was revealed that the Chinese government intended to launch a comprehensive campaign to “eradicate” Falun Gong (which it deems a political enemy rather than a faith movement). Tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have since been imprisoned, with widespread reports of torture and death at the hands of authorities. This has coincided with a public propaganda campaign to marginalize Falun Gong, as well as book burnings and “re-education” of adherents in detention facilities.
Saudi Arabia: The Sunni Islamic regime of Saudi Arabia considers conversion from Islam to another faith to be apostasy and punishable by execution (as is blasphemy). Saudi state textbooks have been found to incite children to hate Christians, Jews, and “polytheists”. Saudi authorities enforce Sharia Law on all who enter Saudi Arabia, including through the total banning of pork and alcohol, severe restrictions on women’s rights (including the right to drive a car), and a ban on non-Muslim admittance to the city of Mecca. The state forbids non-Islamic religious practices from being performed publicly, the entrance of non-Islamic religious officials, and the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials. There is significant discrimination against the country’s Shi’a Muslim minority, including in the areas of employment, legal standing, education, and restrictions on the public display of Shi’a celebrations.
Leaving aside the fact that Jews can’t even enter Saudi Arabia and that Palestinian officials contend that a future Palestinian state must be Judenrein, Israel is a place where freedom of religion matters. Indeed, minorities in Israel have more rights in the Jewish state than in any Arab or Muslim country and Israel is on par with most developed countries.
Surrounding Arab countries have regularly destroyed religious objects and shrines that are Jewish or Christian in nature. One may recall how under Palestinian Authority administration, Jewish holy sites like Joseph’s Tomb were destroyed in October of 2000. This is the same Palestinian Authority that lobbied for Rachel’s Tomb to be declared a mosque and which proclaimed that one of Judaism’s holiest sites, the Western Wall, was a revered Islamic site defiled by the Jews. Consider how the Jordanians destroyed the Hurva Synagogue, reducing a revered Jewish holy site to rubble, when they occupied the area from 1948-67. Think of Afghanistan’s 2,000 year-old Bamyan Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Look no farther back than just a couple days ago, when Palestinian rioters threw improvised hand grenades at a Jewish shrine in Bethlehem.
And yet, the Toronto Star lumped Israel in with backward human rights offending nations that are black holes, not desert oasis’, when it comes to protecting minority rights and religion.
Let us not forget, Israel is a beacon for religious tolerance, not its serial abuser.