BAPTISM OF FIRE: U.S. calls out Caribbean on religious freedom

Author:  Edited from CMC
WASHINGTON, D.C. – 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.

Tillerson RexIn releasing the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report recently, the U.S. Department of State said 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, for example, the State Department said that while voodoo has been a registered religious group since 2003, it has not been able to perform civilly-recognized marriages or baptisms.

“By law, the government provided funds and services to the Catholic church but not to other religious groups,” the report noted, 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 nondenominational 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.

COLLABORATION

The report stated that U.S. embassy officials met with the MFA to reinforce the importance of religious freedom, as well as equal protections and equal legal rights for minority religious groups.

It noted that embassy representatives also met with faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders to seek their views on religious freedom.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the report stated that while the republic’s constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion, some groups believed 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 State Department said a “colonial-era law” criminalizing the practices of obeah and myalism in Jamaica remains in effect “but is not enforced.”

The report stated that Rastafarians said acceptance of their views and practices “have improved markedly, although cases of discrimination and profiling by police do continue to occur.”

OPPOSITION

religionIn addition, the report stated that Rastafarians reiterated their opposition to the state-mandated immunization 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 noted that local media outlets provided a forum for religious debate, open to participants from all religious groups, adding that the U.S. embassy officers met with government officials and religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews and Rastafarians.

The U.S. Department of State said discrimination on the basis of religion is prohibited in Belize, but added that a dispute over church representation in the senate caused a division among evangelical Protestants, leading to the formation of the National Evangelical Association (NEA) as an offshoot of the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (AEC).

“As the NEA was not officially recognized by the government, it could not contribute to the choice of church representation in the senate,” the State Department reported.

It said a Christian non-governmental organization (NGO) continued to manage the only prison in the country, “which uses religion as the basis of prisoner rehabilitation.” Additionally, the State Department said leaders in the Council of Churches in Belize reported certain evangelical Protestant pastors “acted irresponsibly in radio and television broadcasts” by attacking religious leaders who supported an August Supreme Court ruling that found parts of the criminal code criminalizing consensual same-sex activities unconstitutional.

The State Department lamented that the Surinamese government provided “limited subsidies” to a number of elementary and secondary schools established and managed by various religious groups.

The report stated that the Ministry of Education in Suriname reiterated government policy, “which prohibits the practice or teaching of religion in public schools.”

CONCERN

In Antigua and Barbuda, the report stated that 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,” stated the report, also underscoring alleged religious intolerance and unfair treatment of Rastafarians in a number of other islands.

The Organization for Rastafarians in Unity (ORU) in St. Kitts and Nevis said Rastafarians “continued to experience discrimination in school enrollment and in celebrating their religious holidays,” according to the report.

It said the ORU protested what they stated was police harassment and the mandatory cutting of dreadlocks while in prison. The ORU said the government continued to prohibit their use of marijuana for religious rituals, the report noted.

According to the ORU, Rastafarians said they faced societal discrimination, including when seeking employment, because of their dreadlocks, which they said were an important component of their faith.

The State Department said U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to discuss religious freedom, including issues of the Rastafarian community, and that embassy officials also spoke with the St. Kitts and Nevis Christian Council and a leader of the Rastafarian community.

In Dominica, the State Department said Rastafarians “continued to disagree with the government’s prohibition of marijuana use and said they were subjected to scrutiny from police and immigration officers.”

The report said the St. Lucia government does not officially recognize marriages conducted under Rastafarian rites and that Rastafarians reported reluctance to use marijuana for religious purposes “because of the government’s prohibition and imposition of fines for any use.”

In light of their belief against vaccinating their children, Rastafarians in St. Lucia claimed that they faced discrimination in the school system, the report said, noting as a result, some Rastafarian families decided to vaccinate their children or to home school them.

In St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), Rastafarians said they disagreed with the government’s ban on marijuana, stating it was integral to their religious rituals, according to the report. It said vaccinations as a requirement for school enrollment remained under discussion between Ministry of Health officials and Rastafarians with school-age children in SVG.

Rastafarians were concerned about access to public education in Barbados, the State Department reported, adding that Rastafarians said they faced discrimination, specifically for their dreadlocks, “but that attitudes regarding Rastafarianism were becoming more positive.”

Additionally, the report noted that Muslims objected to a government policy that required women to remove the hijab for identification and passport photographs.

The State Department reported that Guyana’s government “limited the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups, based on historical trends, the relative size of the group, and the president’s discretion.”

The report said the practice of obeah was illegal in The Bahamas and that violators may be sentenced to three months in prison.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, in unveiling the report, said: “Religious persecution and intolerance remain far too prevalent.

“We cannot ignore these conditions,” added Tillerson.

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