Countering Bad Faith Religious Freedom Protection

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Freedom of Thought Report

International Religious Freedom Act of 1998

Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (2016)

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

Speakers in the press conference clip:

  • Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-8) is a co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus and a champion of freedom of religion and belief. Representative Raskin understands the importance of defending freedom of expression, freedom of thought and human rights around the world, and recently announced the sponsorship of Nigerian political prisoner and humanist Mubarak Bala in an effort to urge his pardon.
  • Congressman Jared Huffman (CA-2) identifies as a Humanist, and is proudly the only open non-religious Member of Congress. Representative Huffman founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which he co-chairs, to promote sound public policy based on reason, science and moral values, while protecting the secular character of government and championing the value of freedom of thought worldwide.
  • Ambassador Rashad Hussain serves as principal advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State and advisor to the U.S. President on religious freedom conditions and policy. He leads the U.S. State Department’s efforts to monitor religious freedom abuses, persecution, and discrimination worldwide. He also oversees policies and programs to address these concerns and works to build diverse and dynamic partnerships with the broadest range of civil society, with equitable and meaningful inclusion of faith actors globally.
  • Appointed to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom by U.S. President Biden, Commissioner Mohamed Magid has focused on promoting freedom of religion or belief, preventing violence against women, and preventing violence and hate in our societies. The Commissioner is involved in multiple Islamic and interfaith initiatives that aim to promote peace, pluralism, and the protection of religious minorities.
  • Lily Bolourian is the Legal and Policy Director for American Humanist Association. The proud daughter of Iranian asylees, Lily is a seasoned strategist, policy wonk, and advocate with over 15 years of experience working to promote secular democracy and progressive values.
  • Gary McLelland has served as the Chief Executive of Humanists International since 2017. McLelland will be presenting the findings of the 2023 Freedom of Thought Report.
  • Humanists International ‘Case of Concern’ humanist Panayote Dimitras faces judicial harassment, threats of violence, and smear campaigns in an apparent attempt to prevent his work to defend human rights in Greece. Humanists International fears that humanist human rights defender Panayote Dimitras is being subjected to such antagonism in retaliation for his peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression.
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Show Transcript

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[0:01] Humanist International released their 2023 Freedom of Thought Report last month. We take a deep dive into the history of the report, what the findings are, and ask the big question, why have there been no atheists appointed to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom? them. I’m Doug Berger, and this is Secular Left.

[0:27] Music.

[0:40] One of the topics that we talk about quite a bit here on the podcast, and a topic that is important to humanism in general is, of course, separation of church and state, but also as part of that religious liberty, religious freedom. We’re talking real religious freedom. Basically, that the government cannot prevent you from practicing your religion. They can’t force you to practice a religion. They can’t establish a religion and they can’t pass laws that privilege the religious or call them out, you know, single them out for special privileges. Even though we know for a fact that that actually does happen. That’s how we’re not supposed to do that.

[1:27] And one of the groups that takes a look at this issue of freedom of thought is Humanist International. Humanist International is the worldwide organization of humanist groups. It includes the American Humanist Association, Humanist UK, all kinds of different ones. The Netherlands, Germany, other places. And they issue this report about freedom of thought in the world. And they issue this report yearly. yearly, they try to do it for all of the countries in the world, but they don’t update all the countries. And I’ll mention that here a little bit later when we talk about it. They don’t update all the countries every single year. It’s every five years. But what they do is through their contacts, their local groups, some worldwide groups, they find out the state of the freedom of thought in that particular country for that reporting year.

[2:32] And then they issue a report. Well, they had a big presentation introduction in Washington, D.C. On December the 14th that was hosted by the American Humanist Association, where they had several speakers that made comments about the report, and then they did a brief summary of the report. But the report is available online, free for anybody to read it.

[2:59] Some of the speakers that they had was Congressman Jamie Raskin from Maryland.

[3:04] Jared Huffman, Congressman Jared Huffman from California. They had Ambassador Rashad Hussein. He’s the principal advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State for religious freedom conditions and policy. They also spoke to Commissioner Mohamed Magdi. He was appointed to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. them. He spoke, Lily Bolarian, she’s the legal and policy director for American Humanist Association, and she’s an Iranian, well, child of an Iranian immigrant, people that sought asylum from Iran.

[3:42] Gary McClellan from Humanist International, he’s the one that presented the paper, or the report. And then they had comments from Humanist International case of concern, concern humanist Payeto Dimatris from Greece, who is being harassed and bullied by the government and other people in Greece because he’s defending human rights. And so he made some comments towards the end. What I’m going to do is I’m going to talk about the reason for this report and how it came about and about the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. We’ll get to that part, but I just wanted to give you a heads up that then I’m going to be playing some clips of the speakers from this event. I do apologize in advance that the audio isn’t that great because it was a recording, a capture recording from a webinar on Zoom. So it wasn’t great but we’ll get to it for more information about the topics in this episode including links used please visit the episode page at

[5:04] Okay and so what i wanted to do is i wanted to kind of frame this before we just talk about the report. I kind of want to give kind of a background or history of it, why the report came to be. And basically it all started in the 90s, 1990s. Some Christian conservatives were upset that some Christians in other countries were being denied the ability to practice their Christianity. And so what they wanted to do was they wanted to pass a law in the United States where it would require the Department of State to call out these countries that were violating people’s religious freedom and punish them, punish these countries for doing it.

[5:56] I guess the United Nations Charter wasn’t good enough for them. I’m not sure. But it was all in this… The other part that came out of this, too, was Religious Freedom Restoration Act that has been used to privilege Christianity for many, many years also got its start here in the 90s. And I think it was all part of that whole concept that there was a lot of Christians in government believing that they were being persecuted and they wanted to use the force of the state to stop the persecution. Now on the surface that seems like an okay thing to do, but again as we’ve seen time and time again when you try to protect people’s religious freedoms, sometimes that gets used as a kugel to discriminate against religious minorities or people that aren’t religious. So in 1998, there was a law passed and it was called the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. And that would basically set up this commission, the United United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and they would then make a report every year.

[7:24] Naming countries, countries of concern that would be violating people’s religious liberties, religious freedom. And of course, it was always the same group of countries. You had Iran, China, some of the Islamic countries.

[7:44] I think there was another one, Laos. And basically what it was is if you were harassing people, torturing them to get them to obey your particular religion or trying to maybe give death sentences to people that were practicing a religion that the government didn’t agree with. And so they would get called out in this report. court. And it was supposed to be used then to leverage the negotiations for funds from the United States, you know, support and art exchanges, things like that. You could say, well, you know, you’re on this list, you need to do better or we’re not going to work with you. That was the goal. Good goal. You know, religious persecution is not a good thing, no matter who’s doing it for for whatever reason. Well, the main problem, and it took me a while to remember what it was, but one of the main problems I had with this, and this was during the time when I had just got into the humanist movement, and got into being an atheist, and no religion, and I was, relatively pretty militaristic about it.

[9:04] One of the things that bothered me about this, and and it also was related to them forming the faith-based initiative office in the White House, is that this Religious Freedom Act that produced this report, it was biased towards Christianity. Because that was basically the only thing that they were talking about. They weren’t talking about Islamic people being discriminated against in Christian-dominated countries. It wasn’t talking about Buddhists being discriminated against or anything like that. For most of the time, it only dealt with Christianity, like the Coptic Christians in Egypt being discriminated against, and Catholics and other Protestants in China being harassed, that sort of thing. And so I really didn’t.

[10:06] I really didn’t support this International Religious Freedom Act and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. It was just more just talking, you know, it was just more thumping their chest, Christians thumping their chest like, you know, we’re using the power of the state to mess with you. Well, other people have also saw that problem. problem. And then there was some other like, um, infrastructural problems with the, with the commission, uh, you know, how much they could do. And, and, and, and the members of the commission are appointed, uh, by the, uh, president. There’s, uh, there’s nine members, uh, two or three by the president, two or three by, um, the speaker of the house, two or three by the president of the Senate.

[10:58] And things like, and they serve like several year terms. And so you had that. So, so commissioners made up of evangelicals and Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council, which is designated as a group. He was a commissioner. In fact, he was chair of the commission and that, that was a big deal. That was in 2018 when that happened. And there was also Gary Bauer, also from the Family Research Council.

[11:30] There was a lot of Catholics, a lot of Jewish people, a scattering of Islamic people. There was even the Muslim minority from China. They had a representative on this commission. And the commission also had problems almost because they would go visit these countries that they were going to call out. And some of the religious minorities that were being oppressed wouldn’t meet with them.

[12:00] Um, they refused to meet with them because they assumed it was, uh, American imperialism and, and they were acting as missionaries. Well, when you have, everybody’s a Christian and they believe in God and they’re coming in and telling you that, that you’re messing around with people’s religion. Yeah. You get that imperialistic vibe. So in 2016, they, there was a movement to change this commission and change the law behind the commission. And one of the big things that they added when they passed this law was called the Frank R. Wolfe International Religious Freedom Act. And they passed that in 2016. And the biggest change was that they added atheism as part of the groups that they keep track of. So they not only keep track of minority religions in these particular countries but they also keep track of how those countries act towards the non-religious the humanists the atheists agnostics and and that for the first time included people like us now this was in 2016 four years before that because.

[13:24] The American Humanist Association identified this problem with the commission, that it was so Christian-centric. And they knew that in some of these countries that humanists and atheists and agnostics are being harassed and maybe put to death or long prison terms. They went to the State Department and they said, you know, you need to look at this too. And they said, well, fine, get us the data, do a report. court. So they went and got with CFI and Secular Coalition for America and American Atheists and through their contacts and everything, they did a report. They looked at 63 countries and they brought this report back to the State Department. The State Department went, whoa, because they had no idea because they were so Christian centric. So I think that kind of led to atheists and humanists and agnostics and other non-Christian religions being added to the groups that they look at for this report.

[14:34] Well, after the AHA and those groups did the report, they handed it off to Humanist International, which is, as I said, the international group of humanist groups. And so since that time, they’ve been compiling a report on all the countries in the world. And so that’s what they were presenting on December the 14th was the 2023 version of the report.

[15:02] Now, I’m kind of disappointed a little bit in that they didn’t update the United States. The last update for the United States was 2021, and it was when President Trump was still the president.

[15:22] And it’s not due to be updated until 2026 or 2025. And that’s after President Biden’s term of office will have expired. Right.

[15:37] So they’re going to, I just think five years for the United States is just too long. I think if they’re going to do it, they should do it every four years for the United States. And they should do it in the middle of a president’s term. Because that’s, I think that’s how it should fit the United States. Other countries, I’m not sure about. So Humanist International has this report. It’s online. I put the link into the show notes. Oh, the other thing I wanted to mention, too, about the history of this report and the history of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom is I looked at they had a list of former commissioners. And again these are people that are appointed they’re appointed by the president by the house of representatives by the uh speaker of the house speaker of the uh senate president i think the pro tem and and i think the state department has uh an ambassador who doesn’t vote but he observes everything and that’s who spoke at this this presentation thing but i looked at But I went through and I looked up all of these former commissioners.

[16:57] There was Catholic bishops. I think it was a cardinal or two. Rabbis. People that are big in the Jewish religion. Orthodox Christianity. Christianity, as I said, there was the guy that represented the Muslim minority in China. There was somebody from Tibet, a Buddhist from Tibet, or from that religion, Benai. All these religious, theistic religions have been on this commission since it was formed in 1998. And in 2016 is when atheism, humanism, non-belief was specifically added to this reporting. And they still have not appointed an atheist or humanist or agnostic to the commission.

[18:07] I’m very disappointed in that. I’m very disappointed that they have not done that. You know, 2016, they could have done it, and they have not. And I don’t know if it’s, well, we’ve got to have so many Christians, and we’ve got to have so many Catholics, and Presbyterians, and all that stuff. I mean, I looked at the bios of all of these people that they have listed on their website. And I cannot find I didn’t recognize any names that was humanistic or atheistic I didn’t I looked in their bios and the ones that were obvious were not atheists there was maybe one or two that weren’t obvious but just looking at what their jobs are they are not atheists and I think that that’s just a telling thing and it really disappoints me about the government about About the United States government. That they give us this lip service. Hey you’re included too. We’re watching for you. But the believers are so privileged. That they’re not mentioned. So in the next segment. What I’ll do is. We’ll move in and I’ll play a clip. Of the people that spoke at the presentation. On December the 14th. After this.

[19:32] Hello, this is Doug, host of Secular Left, reminding you that I like to be validated. If you like this podcast and want to thank me, feel free to buy me a coffee. Go to slash secular left and donate some cash to help make this a better show and validate me as a person. You’ll feel better in the morning.

[20:00] Okay, what I’m going to do now is I’m going to play recorded clips of the speakers that they had at the presentation press conference on December the 14th for the Freedom of Thought report from Humanist International. They kind of lead up to it where they have several different people speak ahead of the person from Humanist International. I’ll put their bios in the show notes, but I’ll just give you kind of a mini bio here. The first person we’re going to hear from is Congressman Jamie Raskin. He’s the co-chair of the Congressional Free Thought Caucus and a champion of freedom of religion and belief.

[20:41] Then we’ll hear from Congressman Jared Huffman. He identifies as a humanist. In fact, he’s the only congressman that identifies publicly as a humanist. And in his comments, I’m not sure if I used those particular comments, he explains that He knows that there’s more humanists and agnostics in Congress than people publicly know. He’s also, he found the Congressional Free Thought Caucus and he co-chairs it. Then we’ll hear from Ambassador Rashad Hussein, and he is in the U.S. State Department. He’s the principal advisor to the president on religious freedom conditions and policy. He oversees policies and programs to address these concerns and works to build diverse and dynamic partnerships.

[21:32] Then we’ll hear from one of the commissioners from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. It is Muhammad Magdi, and he is focused on promoting freedom of religion or belief, preventing violence against women, preventing violence and hate in other societies. societies. Then after him, we’ll hear from Lily Balarian. She’s the legal and policy director of American Humanist Association, and she’s the proud daughter of Iranian Asylees. That means that her parents came to the United States to get an education, and then they were forced to stay after the revolution in 1979. And then finally, there’ll be Gary McClellan. He is the chief executive of Humanist International, and he’ll present the summary of the findings in the 2023 Freedom of Thought Report. And then lastly, we’ll hear from the Humanist International case of concern, Humanist Paiote Dimitrious, and I’m mispronouncing his name, I apologize. He faces judicial harassment, threats of violence, and smear campaigns in an apparent attempt to prevent his work to defend human rights in Greece. Here’s the clips.

[22:50] I would say that the separation of church and state was the great and revolutionary innovation of the American Constitution and the thing that we still most have to offer the rest of the world. That is the demonstration of a multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-racial society that’s able to thrive based on the separation of church and state and the freedom of expression and the allied values that are out there. Are, we can see all around the world the way that the theocracies and religiously based political movements are driving the world apart. You know, we’ve got the opportunity in the House, in Congress, in America to stand up strong for the separation of church and state against the theocratic agenda and movement that came right into our house on January 6th, 2021 as well. So I’m thrilled about the release of the report.

[23:59] All of the forces of secular, humanist, liberal democracy need to be supporting each other all over the world. I’m thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to adopt numerous prisoners of conscience, religious prisoners who are being persecuted or humanist prisoners who are being persecuted. And this is something that every member of Congress, regardless of party or political ideology, can and should do. And it’s something very concrete we can do, even if otherwise we’re inhabiting a do-nothing Congress. It really tells us a lot about the precarious state of secularism.

[24:37] In a world that is becoming more secular and ought to better reflect religious diversity and religious freedom this is uh coming at a time that’s really interesting for those of us that work in these issues because um the christian nationalist threat uh did not go away uh when donald trump lost the 2020 election by the way he lost the 2020 election that’s news to some people in this capital.

[25:06] It is actually more threatening than ever. And if you think about it, in just a few short years, this Christian nationalist movement has stacked the Supreme Court, sacked the U.S. Capitol, taken away women’s reproductive choice, and installed a very radical Christian dominionist as the person who’s now second in line to the presidency of the United United States. And they’ve been able to do all of this at a time when religiosity in this country is declining, when the actual agenda that they advocate is deeply unpopular across our country. There are a number of reasons for how they’ve been able to defy political gravity like that, but it is a real threat to our democracy and certainly to the secular character of our republic and to all of the religious freedoms that all of you I know care so much about. I will tell you, though, there are a lot more humanists than just me in the Congress, and there are a lot more secularists and non-believers in this country than you see in the United States Congress. Looking around this institution, it’s like it was frozen in religious amber from the 1960s or something.

[26:19] You’ve got pretty dramatic over-representation of Protestants, also over-representation of Catholics, a lot of over-representation of evangelicals. Evangelicals in particular. I mean, the nuns, people who don’t subscribe to any religion, are a bigger group right now in America than Baptists and Methodists and Catholics and any number of other denominations that people think of as mainstream religious groups. So I think it’s important that the secular community in this country feel its power, try to get as organized as possible. And the politics will at some point catch up. It may take a while with the Republicans. They are deeply frozen in religious amber. In fact, their caucus is 99% Christian.

[27:11] In a country that is very religiously diverse and certainly does not reflect anything close to those demographics. But we can only keep working and organizing and educating, and that is what all of you do. And I’m just so grateful for it. The biggest, I think, takeaway from those who look at how humanists and atheists and other nonbelievers believers are treated around the world, is that where they are discriminated against, there’s almost 100% correlation of discrimination against other religious minorities.

[27:51] It is a very important red flag that religious freedom is not well when humanists and atheists are being mistreated anywhere in the world. This report is super important. It should be important to everyone who says they care about religious freedom, but we’ve got a healthy debate here in the Capitol over what religious freedom even means. You are absolutely champions of religious freedom, and I want to thank you for that, and I want to appreciate it. I talked about the threat of Christian nationalists. Speaker Mike Johnson is someone that I hope all of you will take some time to learn about.

[28:34] This is not some cartoonish threat that we don’t need to take seriously. Speaker Johnson has spent his career not just being deeply religious, but trying to impose a very extreme set of biblical codes on the rest of the country and on millions of people who don’t agree with him, don’t have the same religious views, and certainly don’t agree with this radical political agenda that he has been pursuing in the name of religion for his entire career as a lawyer, as a state legislator. And now, you know, we fear as the person who is second in line to the presidency of the United States. In my role as ambassador for international religious freedom, it’s very important to me that we are out there for everyone. And so when we see members of religious communities being persecuted, we speak up.

[29:30] And we don’t ask questions about you know what are the politics behind it and you know who’s supporting this group and who’s not supporting this group it is our mandate uh and my obligation, uh that i took the oath of office on to make sure that we are out there speaking up for everyone and so when we see a rise a sharp rise that we’re seeing right now for example in anti-semitism or the spike in islamophobia we’re out there making sure that we’re doing everything that we can we see religious minorities being persecuted around the world uh we’re out there advocating meeting with governments meeting with civil society uh and making sure that our voices are heard uh and and and very importantly doing everything that we can to empower our civil society partners as more than any other area that i’ve worked on in my career civil society plays a really leading and critical role uh in advancing freedom of religion or belief so it’s something it’s very important to me i see as my obligation under the constitution as an officer of the united states and something that’s also very personal and important to me and i and i will also say that based on my own uh teaching and upbringing we have this tradition this principle uh that in arabic is and the imam here will know better than i do but the meaning of this is that there’s no compulsion in religion. You cannot compel, you cannot force somebody to adopt a religion.

[30:56] And so it’s very important for me to also make sure that we’re doing everything when we uphold freedom of religion or belief to make sure that we’re clear about the or belief part. And there are all, as your report notes, people all around the world that are persecuted because they’re humanists or atheists or have no particular religious belief. So we want to make sure that we are doing our obligation to be out there and speaking out when those groups are persecuted as well. As the Hamas International Report makes clear.

[31:30] Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the rights of an individual to reject any religion or belief, to identify as a humanist or atheist, and to manifest non-religious conviction through expressions, teaching, and practice. Despite these certain Disrupting protections, the right to freedom of religion and belief of the non-religious is certainly overlooked.

[32:03] And very disturbingly, Human Rights International found that the majority of countries around the world fail to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and non-religious. religious. USRF is also closely monitoring and report violation committed against non-religious population. I will offer just a few brief observation based on our reporting. Government continue to use blasphemy law to target non-religious for punishment including fines, imprisonment, death penalty. In September, ISRAF released a report showing that 95 countries around the world have national-level laws criminalizing blasphemy. The prevalence of blasphemy laws globally is concerning, given their clear inconsistency, with international human rights law protections for both the right to freedom of religion, or belief and the right to freedom of opinion and expressions.

[33:15] We have also been tracking cases of non-religious individuals who have been detained and imprisoned present blasphemy allegation to our Frank Wolf freedom of religion or belief victim list. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. Congress requires you serve to maintain the victim list, which contain profiles of certain victims of religious persecution, including humanists. I encourage you all to consult with the victim of the list.

[33:53] The victim list, and if you know of any humanists or non-religious individuals who have been targeted or persecuted, I invite you to log into USRIF website and submit information for us to review. We’ll welcome all of your participation so that we can become aware of those who have been persecuted around the world. In addition, the blasphemy laws useless closely monitor legislation that criminalize or impose legal burden on individuals freedom to convert from one religion or belief to another, or to non-belief at all, otherwise known as anti-convergence laws. Just a few weeks ago, we released a report showing 73 national level laws limiting the freedom to convert. The Clueless Seven criminalization apostasy are in force across 46 countries around the world. Apostasy laws are particularly creating problems for humanists and other non-religious individuals Because they harshly punish renunciation of one religion or belief, it is not uncommon for apostasy laws to mandate death penalty.

[35:18] I know all of you saw, and many of you rose with us, when Iranians took to the streets last year demanding regime change after the murder of Juna Mahsa Amini. Pardon me, I get emotional about this. A 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman who was killed by the Morality Police in Iran for allegedly improperly wearing the state-mandated hijab.

[35:41] The protests, led largely by young women, had a simple message. Women, life, freedom. Zan, zindigi, azadi. But these peaceful protests were responded to brutally by the regime, with ethnic and religious minorities being disproportionately targeted.

[36:00] Hundreds of protests were killed, including many children and teens. There were over 10,000 arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, many sentenced to death, and eight innocent men were officially executed for their participation in protests calling for freedom for the women of Iran. Within Iranian prisons are many prisoners of conscience, including 2023 Nobel laureate Nargis Mohammadi, who was given her award for her longstanding fight against the oppression of women in Iran and to promote human rights and freedom for all within that country. Country, but she was unable to travel to receive her award because she remains a political prisoner locked up in Iran.

[36:40] And while the government of Iran is certainly unique in many ways, it is incumbent upon all of us who live in countries with the ostensible right to freedom of speech and expression to remain vigilant of the ways in which similar forces are working to turn our nations into their own flavor of theocracy. Please remember that Iran or Persia is an ancient civilization with thousands of years of invaluable contributions to the world, to the world’s understanding of math, poetry, arts, and yes, human rights. The horrors we see today from that nation came after a largely liberal society slipped very quickly into theocracy in 1979 during the chaos of revolution. And look at what has happened to its people over the last nearly five decades, including many, many, many of my family members who are still trapped there.

[37:36] We must understand that the U.S. is not immune to the types of oppression we see highlighted in this report. We must stop allowing ourselves to believe American exceptionalism will protect church-state separation or stop Christian nationalism from decimating the shared values we all hold so dear. There is no legitimate question about whether or not the U.S. Is and was intended to be a secular nation, because our Constitution alone makes it extremely clear. Indeed, the very first line of the First Amendment reads, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Crystal clear to me. And so the United States has always claimed to be this bastion of freedom and civil liberties, an example to the world, a city upon a hill because of our outsized role in global affairs. But because of this, the U.S. also has a solemn responsibility to ensure our secular and pluralistic principles remain strongly protected at home. But these very principles that make the U.S. great are in danger. Indeed, in the United States, we’re watching as religious fundamentalists and Christian nationalists are fighting to take hold of all of our institutions and redefine American democracy. From the courts, to Congress, to public schools and more, the attacks on the secular fiber of our democracy are increasing and coordinated.

[39:01] Just two years ago, a violent Christian nationalist insurrection took place right next door in the U.S. Capitol building with the intent of thwarting our secular democracy by any means necessary. So we gather here today to launch the 2023 edition of the Freedom of Thought Report. The report is now in its 12th year. It scrutinizes the legal and human rights landscape for humanists, atheists and non-religious people across the globe.

[39:28] Its findings compel us to reflect on the challenges at hand and more importantly to consider what actionable steps we can take together to build positive change and i will have some suggestions for you all very shortly um before we unpack the the insightful analysis inside this year’s report and allow me just briefly to outline the broader mission of humanist international for seven decades now humanist international has been at the forefront front of championing human rights, secularism, freedom of religion and belief for all on the global scale. With an unwavering commitment to defending human rights of atheists and the non-religious, Humanist International has become a powerful force for change. Through extensive research, advocacy, collaborative efforts with like-minded organizations, many of whom are here today, we strive to create a world where every individual can freely believe and express their beliefs without freedom of discrimination or persecution. We ourselves are at the heart of a global network of 130 organisations that strive to do this all around the world, many of whom I know are watching today from all around the world. I think the Freedom of Thought Report really stands as a testament to our ongoing commitment to shed light on the challenges faced by non-religious individuals and mobilising collective action for inclusive change on this important agenda. gender.

[40:48] Moving on to some of the contents of the report, our examination reveals a very disturbing reality where humanists face discrimination in 186 countries around the world. For those of you that are doing the maths, that’s quite a lot. Depending on how you count them, almost all.

[41:04] This discrimination takes various forms ranging from overt marginalisation, violence, legal prohibitions against identifying as atheist or non-religious. It’s crucial to dissect this nuanced aspect of this discrimination so that we can craft effective strategies for progress.

[41:22] In 11 countries, government figures or state agencies openly marginalise, harass or incite violence against the non-religious. In 15 countries it is illegal or unrecognized to identify as an atheist or a non-religious person infringing upon the fundamental right to express one’s beliefs. The report uncovers instances where a state religion limits the rights of those who do not adhere to the prescribed belief system. In 23 countries non-religious individuals are barred from holding certain public offices, impeding their full participation in civic life. Moreover, as has been mentioned by our distinguished guests, blasphemy remains a punishable offence in at least 87 countries, perpetrating the outdated and regressive norms associated with that practice. Religious courts influencing family or moral matters in 48 countries raise concerns about the separation of religion and state discriminatory funding of religion in 85 countries exacerbates inequality while 32 countries make it difficult or illegal to run overtly humanist organizations.

[42:35] Mandatory religious instruction in state-funded schools without a secular or humanist alternative exists in 33 countries around the world highlighting the need for inclusive educational environments the key countries edition of this report which is the one which is available for you today excuse me the key countries of this uh the key country edition of this report underscores the global nature of this challenge it examines countries with different forms of governments ranging from democracies to absolute monarchies and theocracies the inclusion of countries includes australia brunei burkina faso canada the czech republic iran north macedonia russia slovakia and zambia and it reveals the widespread nature of the issues which confront us so what actionable steps can we take to address this global challenge i’m going to address some of my points i think to our partners that are in this room and also generally to the us government since we’re here um and we have the opportunity the first one i want to say is that we have an opportunity through our own diplomatic advocacy opportunities as ngos but also obviously with the the weight of the us government we feel that we should really leverage the opportunity of of US foreign policy and diplomatic advocacy, to make sure that freedom of religion and belief for all, a genuine and inclusive freedom of religion and belief for all is one of the many important human rights factors that is taken into consideration, in foreign policy interactions.

[44:03] It’s very important i think has been touched upon earlier when we talk about freedom of religion or belief and i think that terminology is very important we have to avoid an idea of an exceptionalist form of religious freedom when we talk about freedom of religion before we need the balancing of rights of every individual to freely express their genuinely held beliefs and we need to avoid this idea that religious freedom somehow trumps other human rights we have to make sure that we’re moving forward in an integrated, balanced way with all human rights, of which freedom of religion and belief is an important one.

[44:37] Foreign aid conditions is another issue I want to mention. It’s become common in recent years for foreign aid to be directed through religious organisations on the ground in many countries, and we have to be very careful with this. As has been mentioned by the Ambassador and others, we know that in many countries, minority religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs are very often at the whim of majoritarian belief systems. This is exemplified in blasphemy laws and other coercive control approaches. So we need to be very careful that, especially with foreign aid, when we’re partnering with religious organisations or majoritarian religious organisations, we need to make sure they’re aware of their responsibility to be engaging with all faith and belief communities, and that includes non-religious people. I can tell you confidently that I know of non-religious communities that exist in almost every country in the world. So those people are there, they do exist. In many countries, even meeting up, existing, even choosing to identify themselves is an act of such defiance that it can often put their life in danger. They may not be visible, but I can tell you that they are there.

[45:45] International partnerships are really important. It’s really important being here with our colleagues from AHA, American Atheists, Secular Coalition for America and others. It’s really important that we maintain and strengthen these international partnerships. And the other thing I want to say is, as has been mentioned by the ambassador before, this is something on which we should all agree, religious, non-religious, it shouldn’t matter. We should be in favour of freedom of religion and belief for all. And I want to make it clear that if opportunities exist for Humanists International to partner with religious organisations and religious partners in the future, we welcome that. We would like to make this something which is a genuine open call for international partnerships.

[46:24] Support for at-risk individuals. I know there’s some colleagues again here today that are doing that important work and this as the ambassador mentioned the case of Mubarak Bala being able to provide this support for individuals who are human rights defenders, who are speaking out, who are at the coalface of this important work that we do is absolutely imperative. The promotion of I think something very close to the heart of American culture, secular governance, the separation of religion and state should be something, a principle, I think, which underlines all of the work that we do to promote freedom of religion or belief for all. And I think that’s something, again, which should be very close to the heart of US foreign policy. And the last thing I want to say is educational initiatives. So, again, with some of the partners in this room, Humanists International has been very privileged to work with a number of organisations providing inclusive education opportunities, opportunities, training opportunities about the important fundamental right of freedom of religion and belief for all. We welcome that and we look very much forward to what opportunities there might be in the future to strengthen that work. So in conclusion, I think we really stand here at the intersection of a challenge and an opportunity. We should be drawing inspiration from the rich tapestry of human resilience and the enduring memory of those who have dared to question dogmas.

[47:48] The Freedom of Thought Report not only serves as a mirror reflecting the injustices faced by many, but it also beckons us to be the architects of change. It’s a rallying cry for governments, civil society, CSOs and individuals to unite in a shared commitment to dismantle the barriers that stifle freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief around the world. We must forge new partnerships and strengthen existing alliances to make sure we can do this important important work and together as partners and allies we can usher in an era where the freedom flame freedom of thought flame burns brightly for all thank you very much, colleagues esteemed guests and advocates for freedom and human rights, thank you for gathering here today at the launch of the 2023 freedom of thought report, it is both an honor and a privilege to stand before you sharing my journey as a human rights defender and a proponent of humanist values in greece my name is panagiotis dimitras and i where I co-founded the Greek Helsinki Monitor and Minority Rights Group Greece, three decades ago, along with the Humanist Union of Greece in 2010.

[49:02] Our journey as humanists and defenders of human rights has been fraught with challenges and obstacles. In the pursuit of justice and equality, I faced intense harassment and discrimination from the authorities. It was particularly evident in the defense of ethnic minorities, a cause that led to my expulsion from State University where I taught. My book, Addressing the Rights of Minorities, was banned, and my right to attend international conferences was denied in a blatant violation of academic freedom. In 1993, we conducted a fact-finding mission alongside Human Rights Watch and the Danish to investigate the challenges faced by the Macedonian minority in Greece. The consequences were severe. A detailed report by the Secret Service, including personal information of those involved in the mission, was published by an extreme-right neo-Nazi weekly.

[50:02] Despite the backlash, our NGO reports brought the Macedonian minority into national and international focus, challenging the government’s refusal to acknowledge its existence. The struggle continued over the years, with criminal investigations and legal battles aimed at suppressing our work. In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Greece had violated the freedom of association, or the Macedonian Minority Association, reinforcing the need for vigilance in protecting the rights of marginalized communities.

[50:37] Since 2015, the Greek Helsinki Monitor has documented numerous cases of hate speech, hate crimes and violent pushbacks against asylum seekers. Despite facing charges of filing false complaints, we persisted in our commitment to justice. The legal charges culminated in a recent case where I was accused of forming a criminal organization for reporting the arrivals of asylum seekers, a clear attempt to undermine our efforts in promoting and defending human rights. This year, my personal and professional life has been marred by restrictive measures, a travel ban and the freezing of a bank account, all orchestrated to pressure me into abandoning my work. This pattern of behavior by the Greek authorities has not gone unnoticed, as it has been condemned by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the Council of Euro Human Rights Commissioner. Amid these challenges, I want to highlight some positive developments. Legal victories against Greece in 2010-2012 led to the amendment in the law abolishing the mandatory religious oath in criminal proceedings. Additionally, the extension of civil partnerships to same-sex couples in 2015, marked a triumph for humanist values.

[52:02] As we navigate the complexities of advocating for human rights, we must recognize the pivotal role that democracy plays in safeguarding these principles. Democracy serves as a bedrock for humanism, providing a platform for dialogue, inclusivity and protection of minority rights. The journey may be arduous, but it is through the collective efforts of organizations like ours that positive change is achieved. In conclusion, I stand before you as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The struggles we endure are not in vain, and the pursuit of justice and human rights is a noble cause for fighting for. As we launch the 2023 Freedom of Thought Report, let us renew our commitment to defending the rights of all individuals, irrespective of their background or beliefs. Thank you.

[53:01] Thank you for listening to this episode. You can check out more information, including links to sources used, in our show notes on our website at Secular Left is hosted, written, and produced by Doug Berger, and he is solely responsible for the content. Send us your comments either using the contact form on the website or by sending us a note at comments at

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