Tag Archive | "religion"


At the Breaking Point: Religious discrimination in Myanmar


Theravada Buddhist civic leaders in Myanmar.

On July 7, 2015, Myanmar’s parliament passed the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill (“Marriage Bill”).  The measure is one of four (one of which has passed and two of which are still pending) that are aimed at protecting race and religion in the country, known as the Protection of Race and Religion Laws.  The Marriage Bill will make it difficult for Buddhist women to marry outside their faith.  There is a fear that if the bill is signed into law, religiously motivated violence will erupt in the country.  And given Myanmar’s past, such fears are not baseless.

The Marriage Bill requires Buddhist women who intend to marry outside their faith to register with the government.  If there are objections to the marriage, the couple can be stopped from marrying.  Some see the measure as a step to repress women.  Especially since President Thein Sein signed into law the Population Control Health Care Bill (“Healthcare Bill”) in May.  Now, some mothers (i.e. poor mothers) are required to wait 36 months between each pregnancy.  According to US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, this legislation could be used to “undermine reproductive rights, women’s rights, and religious freedom.”

But it is the religious freedom aspect that is causing human rights organizations most cause for concern.  This is because the Marriage Bill (as well as the Health Care Bill) is specifically targeted at regulating Rohingya Muslims, the religious minority in the country.  The Marriage Bill is aimed at limiting marriages between Buddhist women and Rohingya Muslim men.  Both laws were drafted due to pressure exerted by extremist Buddhist monks in the country that hold a lot of political sway.  In fact, the passage of the Marriage Bill (and the other three Protection of Race and Religion Laws) is just a continuation of a long line of discriminatory acts by the Myanmar government against the Rohingya.

The systematic discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar began in the early 1990s.  Since then, Rohingya have been denied citizenship, despite the fact that their ancestors have lived within the current Myanmar borders for generations.  The animosity against the Rohingya has been motivated by extremist Buddhist beliefs.  Buddhism is the majority religion in the country.  In 2012, this animosity exploded into violence.  Since then, almost 140,000 Rohingya have been herded into a makeshift, costal camp that they are not allowed to leave.  The conditions in the camp are prompting many residents to flee the country, creating a refugee crisis in the region.  The rest of the Rohingya residents of the country are similarly severely restricted when it comes to travel.  All Rohingya in the country, no matter their location, face severe discrimination.

In light of the historical, and all too recent religious tensions in Myanmar, the passage of the Marriage Bill has human rights organizations concerned.  Some have heralded the law as dangerous and as hate speech against an oppressed minority.  If the bill is signed into law, violence is predicted to erupt.  Others hope that the passage of the Marriage Bill will galvanize the international community to take action before the discrimination against Muslims in Myanmar reaches, or surpasses, the levels seen in 2012.

President Sein, has until July 28, 2015 to sign the bill into law.  As of today, he has not done so.  Myanmar, and the international community, can only wait with baited breath, hoping that the bill is not signed into law.  And if it is, hopefully the international community will exert much needed pressure on the Myanmar government to suppress any religiously motivated violence stemming from its passage.

Allison Derschang is a 2L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and is a Staff Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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Buddhist monks in Meiktila, Myanmar

Myanmar religion law restricts conversion and criminalizes adultery

International organizations are outraged over proposed legislation being negotiated in the Myanmar Parliament which would require individuals to obtain government approval before converting to, or adopting, a new religion. Myanmar (Burma) is a primarily Theravada Buddhist nation of 54 million people with a generally poor, but improving, human rights record. President Obama has visited Myanmar twice in recent years, placing an international spotlight on the country as it begins its path to reform. Although Myanmar President Thien Sein has introduced increased governmental transparency, the inaugural elections under the new democratic system upcoming in October are already marred in controversy. Myanmar parliamentarian and famed pro-democracy advocate Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi claimed in November that domestic reforms had stalled.

Burmese Parliament

The Burmese Parliament in Naypyidaw with Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi center. Photo: Reuters, irrawaddy.org

Human Rights Watch reports that the proposed legislation would also prohibit Buddhist women from joining an inter-faith marriage, criminalize extra-marital affairs, and penalize women who have multiple children within a 3-year period. Amnesty International (AI) insists that Parliament reject or revise the laws, which they claim would “risk fueling further violence against religious minorities,” and contribute to the already widespread discrimination against women. The proposed legislation also prescribes discriminatory obligations on non-Buddhist citizens, particularly effecting Muslim minority populations.

Concerns with the proposed legislation focus on four draft bills, which are opposed by AI and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on the grounds that they violate international law and have dire human rights implications.

  • The Religious Conversion Bill requires anyone who wants to convert to a different faith to apply through a state-governed agency. It establishes “registration boards” who “approve” conversions. It is a clear violation of the ICCPR.
  • The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill exclusively regulates marriage between Buddhist women and men from other religions. It discriminates against women and non-Buddhist men. It is a violation of CEDAW.
  • The Population Control Healthcare Bill establishes a 36 month “birth-spacing” interval between allowed child births. It does not have a clear enforcement mechanism and could lead to forced reproductive control.
  • The Monogamy Bill is aimed at consolidating existing marriage and family laws, but most notable criminalizes extra-marital relations.
Undocumented Muslim immigrants gather at the Immigration Detention Center during Ramadan

Undocumented Rohingya Muslim immigrants gather at the Immigration Detention Center during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Kanchanaburi province, Thailand on July 10, 2013. Photo & Caption Credit: Reuters, HRW.org

Ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar have been subjected to ongoing and systematic discrimination for years. Recent reports from Rakhine state show that discrimination against the ethnically Muslim Rohingya population is pervasive and is only likely to increase if public sentiment generated by the proposed laws encourages the discrimination. Non-Buddhist women in Myanmar are subject to widespread discrimination and the law would increase the potential for legally sanctioned abuse. AI’s Asia-Pacific Director, Richard Bennett, is particularly concerned that the language of the laws plays into the “harmful stereotypes about women and minorities, in particular Muslims, which are often propagated by extremist national groups.”

Racial and religious tensions in the country are rising; heightened by the election and the November 18th arrest of a Burmese ISIS member following an accidental blast in bordering Burdwan, India.

Buddhist monks in Meiktila, Myanmar

Buddhist monks in Meiktila, Myanmar, where violence between Muslims and Buddhists left 43 dead in March 2013. Photo Credit: CNN

Some Buddhists in Myanmar feel the laws are necessary to prevent further violence. Myanmar Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann urged Parliament to pass additional legislation establishing and protecting a national religion. Political activist Monk Ashin Parmouhka told a Democratic Voice of Burma reporter “If you want to see peace and an end to religious and racial conflict in Burma, [the religion legislation] must be adopted. If you want more conflicts and unrest in the country, then don’t adopt the laws.”

While Myanmar is not party to the International Covenant on Cultural and Political Rights, it is a party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In a joint statement, AI and the ICJ claim the laws are in violation of the country’s existing international treaty obligations. They fear that these draft laws are discriminatory and will result in human rights violations, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to privacy, children’s rights and the right to freedom of expression. The legislation is currently tabled in Parliament, no date has been set for a vote.

Jeremy Goldstein is a 2L law student at University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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A scientist works during an IVF process on Aug. 11, 2008.

UK approves law allowing conception of three-parent babies

In a bold and unprecedented move in the House of Commons, 382 Members of Parliament voted in favor of a technique that stops genetic diseases from being passed down from a mother to her child, with 182 members in opposition.  This technique uses the DNA from two women and one man to “create” a baby with altered DNA.  This alteration causes a permanent change in order to prevent a genetic disease from being passed to future generations.  As a last legislative hurdle, the law was approved in the House of Lords on February 24th by a majority of 232.  The introduction of such a law will launch the UK into a new frontier, and the surrounding debate has engendered skepticism and controversy.

The technique, developed in Newcastle, aims to help families who want to have healthy children but are confronted with the obstacle of a genetic disease, such as mitochondrial disease.  An estimated one in 6,500 babies in the UK are thought to develop a mitochondrial disorder, a serious health problem that can lead to heart and liver disease, respiratory problems, muscular dystrophy and blindness. The issue is that defective mitochondria are only passed to the child from the mother, so this technique uses a modified version of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) to supplement the DNA of the two parents with the healthy mitochondria of a donor woman.  Ultimately, the baby would only possess 0.1% of the donor woman’s DNA, and the process would completely eliminate the disease from passing down to future generations.  If the law is passed, around 150 babies could be born each year utilizing this technique.

A scientist works during an IVF process on Aug. 11, 2008.

A scientist works during an IVF process on Aug. 11, 2008.
Photo Credit: Ben Birchall / AP, USAToday

Proponents of the law, which amends the 2008 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act, believe it is an important step onto the frontiers of science and a long-awaited opportunity for families struggling with this issue.  The Public Health Minister Jane Ellison is included in this group, as she believes it is “a bold step for parliament to take, but it is a considered and informed step.”  The law’s supporters believe it falls short of being considered “genetic modification” because the mitochondrial DNA constitutes only 0.054% of a human’s overall DNA and none of the nuclear DNA that actually determines a human’s characteristics and traits.  Those in favor of the law believe it is a wonderful scientific step for the UK in the realm of IVF treatments.

The law is not without opposition, however.  Opponents worry that families attempting the technique will be disappointed and let down because of the technique’s uncertainties should it fail.  Others equate the situation to genetically modifying crops and believe that the approval of this law might create a slippery slope to allowing even further genetic modification of children.  Strong opponents of the law include the Catholic and Anglican Churches in England.  They do not support the law because they believe the technique involves the destruction of embryos.  Others in opposition do not think the science behind the technique has been adequately proven and others argue about where to draw the ethical line, but now that the law has passed, it will still be up to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not the treatment can proceed.  If a certain case is approved, the child born will not be able to discover the identity of the “third parent” donor.

Now that the law has passed in the House of Lords, the next step is for the UK fertility regulator to develop and publish licensing rules for evaluating applications to perform this technique.  By early October of 2015 the regulations are set to come into force, and the first babies could be born as soon as next autumn using the new technique.  Critics caution that the law could open up the UK to dangerous precedents, but others applaud the brave new future of scientific discovery.  Time will tell where this path will take the UK and whether or not other countries will follow suit in years to come.

Laura Brodie is a 3L law student at University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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Meriam Ibrahim

Meriam Ibrahim’s Case Shines Light on the Darkness of Apostasy Laws

The tragedy of Meriam Ibrahim, the 27-year old Sudanese Christian who was convicted of apostasy on May 15, should be familiar by now. On Tuesday, June 9, an appeals court in Khartoum began reconsidering her sentence. The appellate court overturned her conviction on June 23 and released Meriam from prison. Less than 24 hours after her release, Sudanese officials re-arrested Meriam, her husband, and her two children and accused her of travel document forgery and providing false information. After two days of detention at the airport, the family was re-released and is now staying at the U.S. embassy in Khartoum on the condition that she stay in Sudan.


Meriam was convicted of apostasy after she married Daniel Wani, a Sudanese Christian man with U.S. citizenship. Even though Meriam’s mother raised her as an Orthodox Christian, her estranged father is Muslim, and, by extension, so is Meriam under Sudanese law. Her self-identification as a Christian led to the apostasy charge.


Though Khartoum’s seesawing between arrest and release warrants outrage by itself, Meriam suffered even more severe persecution for her faith. Meriam was eight months pregnant when she was imprisoned and was forced to give birth to her child while shackled in a Sudanese jail. As she recounted in an interview to CNN: “I gave birth chained. Not cuffs but chains on my legs. I couldn’t open my legs so the women had to lift me off the table.” Prior to her acquittal, Meriam faced a punishment of 100 lashes and death by hanging. Sudanese officials also threatened to take custody of both of Meriam’s children.

Meriam Ibrahim

Meriam Ibrahim was re-arrested on forgery charges the day after she was released from imprisonment for apostasy.


Under Article 126 of the Sudanese Criminal Law of 1991apostasy is defined as the renouncing of Islam, either by refusing to follow Islam or converting to another religion. Apostates, including Meriam, are given a chance to repent, but if they refuse, as Meriam did, they are punished with death. Apostasy laws obviously violate the basic human right to religious liberty. Under Article 18 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of religion “includes freedom to change [one’s] religion or belief” and the U.N. Human Rights Committee interpreted the religious freedom guarantees in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to entail “the right to replace one’s current religion or belief with another.”


Historically, apostasy was tied to the rebellion against the Islamic state, not merely falling away from the faith. Gradually, however, various Islamic scholars contorted this original understanding and began defining apostasy as renouncing Islam and added the death penalty for unbelief.


Today, tragically, there are many people convicted of apostasy around the world whose plight does not receive the attention it deserves and needs.


A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 20 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific have laws penalizing apostasy. These laws are often so overly inclusive as to be almost limitless. Governments use apostasy bans as a tool to persecute people for unorthodox religious beliefs and for converting from Islam and to repress Muslim political reformers who challenge the legitimacy of their regimes.


In their survey of apostasy and blasphemy laws, human rights scholars Paul Marshall and Nina Shea show just how far reaching these laws can be. For example, in Iran it is a criminal offense to “fight against God” and to “create anxiety in the minds of the public.” Pakistan prohibits any statement that “directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed.” And in Egypt, a person who converts from Islam may be officially prosecuted under a statute prohibiting degrading Islam. Apostasy laws often co-exist with constitutions that protect freedom of religion. Article 38 of Sudan’s own constitution provides that “no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he or she does not believe in, nor practice services to which he or she does not voluntarily consent.”


Private individuals and groups often mete out punishments that are even more severe than those that are officially sanctioned. Two weeks ago, for example, the New York Times reported that a father from Pakistan fled to Afghanistan to escape his family who threatened to kill him and his three-year-old son for converting to Christianity.


Official and extra-judicial apostasy laws clearly violate the fundamental right to choose, and change, one’s religion, and Meriam’s conviction highlights the intolerance, severity, and cruelty of such laws. Despite all of the public support for Meriam, the U.S. State Department only publicly denounced her imprisonment on June 12. Secretary of State John Kerry correctly urged “the Sudanese judiciary and government to respect [Meriam’s] fundamental right to freedom of religion” and “to repeal its laws that are inconsistent with its 2005 Interim Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” Prior to this statement, however, the State Department had only stated that it was “deeply disturbed” by the sentence and apparently would not recognize the couple’s children as U.S. citizens without DNA testing even though Daniel holds U.S. citizenship. There are also reports that the State Department “discouraged congressional leaders from speaking out publicly on behalf of” Meriam and her family.


Rather than retreat from such blatant affronts to the fundamentally and eternally important right of religious freedom, the United States, and American citizens, churches, synagogues, and mosques, should work feverishly and publicly to renounce apostasy laws and to obtain the release of those imprisoned for their faith. The United States should not withhold good from those who deserve it, especially when it has the power to declare and to show that those convicted of apostasy will not suffer alone.


Bryan Neihart recently graduated from the University of Denver with a J.D. and a master’s degree in international human rights.

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Members of the group "Pussy Riot" waiting to stand trial.
(Amnesty International)

Critical Analysis: The Consequences of Artistic Expression in Putin’s Russia

Members of the group “Pussy Riot” waiting to stand trial.
(Amnesty International)

On August 17, 2012, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina, members of the Russian punk band, Pussy Riot, were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in a penal colony for their open protest of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The band argued that their political protest, which involved the balaclava-clad crew performing the anti-Putin song, “Virgin Mary, Cast Putin Out,” in Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral, was merely a display of artistic expression. The courts clearly disagreed. Penalizing Pussy Riot exhibits the treatment of artistic expression as religious hate crimes in Putin’s Russia.

The Pussy Riot protest is not the first instance of artistic expression with religious subtext being penalized in Russia.  In 2005, an art exhibit entitled “Caution! Religion,” featuring 42 pieces of art meant to provoke discussion on the role of religion in society, was on display at the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow. Within days of opening, the exhibit suffered vandalism at the hands of a Russian nationalist group called Movement for the Renewal of the Fatherland. The vandals were charged with “hooliganism,” but these charges were dropped after the Russian Orthodox Church intervened.

Instead, museum director Yuri Samodurov and his assistant Lyudmila Vasilovskaya were charged with “inciting ethnic and religious hatred” for the artistic display, each being fined $100,000 rubles. This surprising contradiction is a perfect example of the powerful role the Russian Orthodox Church seems to play within the Russian political landscape.

Similarly, in 2006, the “Forbidden Art Exhibit” was also on display at the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow. The exhibit featured 20 artistic pieces all previously rejected by other exhibits.  One featured piece included a depiction of Mickey Mouse as Jesus Christ and another image depicted Lenin on a cross. This blending of religious and political imagery was not well received by the Church. The director of the museum, Yuri Samodurov, and the curator for the exhibit, Andrei Erofeev, were both found guilty of “incitement of religious and ethnic hatred” and were fined 200,000 and 150,000 rubles, respectively.

What is interesting about the “Forbidden Art Exhibit” case is the outpour of support from fellow artists that came about after the charges were raised. These positive endorsements demonstrated that Russian artists were fully aware of the hold that the Russian Orthodox Church has on Russia’s political arena, and the limits on creative expression within modern Russian art movements. Public outcry for the Pussy Riot incident mounted with similar fervor, perhaps on a larger scale, as the international community, including Amnesty International, became involved. The question, as it stands now, is whether the Russian government will take these protests as sign to strive for a less theocratic leaning.

Stacy Harper is a 2L at Denver University Law School and a Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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A church in Kurdistan

Critical Analysis: Kurdistan Debates Blasphemy Law

A church in Kurdistan http://mnnonline.org/images/story_pics

The Kurdish parliament is considering a bill that would criminalize offending and insulting religions in response to the arrest of Hamin Ary, the editor of an Erbil-based Kurdish monthly magazine.  Ary was arrested in May for “violating religious sensibilities” after he republished a controversial article entitled “Me and God.”  The article, originally published on Facebook in 2010, imagines a fictional conversation between its author and God.  Local imams and government officials in Kurdistan consider the piece blasphemous and insulting to Islam.

Following Ary’s arrest, as many as 2,000 people protested in the streets of Erbil and demanded the death of the article’s original author.  Members of the Kurdish parliament responded by proposing a bill tentatively entitled “The Draft Law” to protect sanctities.  The legislation would criminalize “swearing at and mocking God” and “swearing at, mocking, insulting and portraying prophets inappropriately,” and would punish offenders with up to ten years in prison and fines up to $40,000.  Proponents of the law argue that it will protect religion from offensive acts and will apply to all religions equally, including minority religions that have existed in the Kurdistan area for ages.

Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region in northeastern Iraq that is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a body with the authority to enact its own laws independent of the Iraqi government.  Due to violence and persecution directed at religious minority groups in Iraq, tens of thousands of individuals belonging to minority religions have sought refuge in Kurdistan.  These groups include Yezidis, a distinct ethnic group targeted for persecution because of the belief among many Muslims that they are devil worshipers; Baha’is, whose faith Iraq officially banned until 2007; Shabaks, an ethnic group that practices either Shi’a or Sunni Islam; and Chaldean, Assyrian, and Syriac Christians.  Though these minorities have experienced comparative freedom and safety in Kurdistan, blasphemy laws have more frequently been used to squash minority religious viewpoints and political dissent than to protect the sanctity of religions and the lives of the devout.

Countries with some of the worst human rights records vigorously enforce their own version of blasphemy laws.  For example, on August 16 in Pakistan, a Christian girl no older than fourteen was arrested under the country’s blasphemy laws.  The girl, Rimsha Masih, was accused of burning pages of the Qu’ran, a crime punishable by death.  In September Masih was released from prison on bail after it was discovered that a Pakistani mullah deliberately framed her.  Although the case against her has not been entirely dropped, Masih is fortunate compared to the thousands of others around the world accused of blasphemous acts.  In Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Indonesia and other countries around the world, political reformers, religious leaders advocating alternative theological interpretations, and members of minority faiths are imprisoned, beaten, and murdered for their actions and beliefs.

As Kurdish parliamentarians draft their blasphemy bill, their challenge will be to ensure that the law serves to protect the rights of religious freedom and freedom of speech for everyone in Kurdistan.  While the KRG must protect its citizens, blasphemy laws tend to offer protection at the expense of liberty, a trade off that should not be accepted in Kurdistan.

 Bryan Neihart is a 2L and a staff editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law