International Institute for Religious Freedom

“Many Christians unconsciously self-censor themselves”

Religious freedom seems to be increasingly under threat in many parts of the world. To discuss this, Omnes Magazine spoke with Dennis P. Petri.


Omnes interviewed Dennis P. Petri, director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom, a research center responsible for the in-depth study of this fundamental human right around the world. The institution has more than 15 years of experience and has developed a large number of academic studies.

What projects are you working on at the institute? 

Among other things, we publish our own scholarly journal, the “International Journal for Religious Freedom”. We also publish books and research reports, facilitate trainings, advise policy makers who wish to promote religious freedom and academics who seek to integrate the issue into their educational curricula and lines of research.

Currently, one of our projects in expansion is the Violent Incident Database. It is an instrument for collecting, recording and analyzing violent incidents related to violations of religious freedom. With this data we seek to influence public policies in the various countries we monitor.

For the time being, the staff of the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America (OLIRE), a program I founded in 2018, maintains this database for Latin America. More recently we have taken the first step to make it a global project, starting with data collection in Nigeria and India.

What is your overall assessment of religious freedom in the world? Are we improving?

Today, there is a wide variety of instruments measuring religious freedom. All, without exception, confirm that religious discrimination in the world is on the rise. It is a global trend that affects all religions and geographic areas, including the Western world. While there are improvements in some countries, on average, there are deteriorations in many more places.

There is still a long way to go before religious freedom is fully guaranteed in the world. Many countries are beginning to recognize and understand what it really means to guarantee religious freedom. It is no longer just a matter of enacting this right in their political constitutions, but of developing public policies that integrate the religious diversity of their countries on an equal footing.

In an increasingly globalized and polarized world, religious diversity remains a challenge for the culture and governance of many countries. At the same time, it represents an opportunity to strengthen democracy or a risk to it if this dimension of man is reduced only to the private sphere and relegated from its social role.

Which countries are of particular concern to you at the moment?

One country in the world that is of particular concern to me is Nigeria. It is an extremely complex country. The religious freedom situation is very difficult to interpret because there are so many factors and actors involved. There is some disagreement about whether the conflict is a dispute between farmers and herders over natural resources, or whether there is more to it than that. I think the debate is not whether it is one or the other, but both.

In any conflict there are always multiple factors involved, so we can debate for years whether it is a religious conflict or not, but I think that is not the right debate. In my view, we should recognize that, in addition to a religious conflict, it is also a political, cultural, economic, ethnic and resource conflict. Whether it is religious or not, religious groups are suffering and that is what we should emphasize.

What can you tell us about religious freedom in Latin America, especially in Nicaragua?

In Latin America, the countries to which OLIRE pays special attention are Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua. Mexico, because of what we have been observing during the last few years, due to the special vulnerability experienced by religious community leaders who carry out their pastoral or community work in areas affected by drug trafficking and human trafficking. These are clear examples of how organized crime has conditioned the religious freedom of many people in the world. And, unfortunately, it has come to light at a global level after the murder of priests and pastors in border areas with the United States.

In Nicaragua, the situation has escalated in a worrying way during the last six months. The role played by various members of the Catholic Church as defenders of human rights has exposed them in a particular way to the arbitrary actions of Daniel Ortega’s regime. The actions of the government have increased not only in their level of censorship of the free expression of religious expression or opinion of priests and parishioners, but have even manifested a seriously worrying level of violence. From the various arrests, prosecutions of priests, expulsion of religious men and women from the country, to the violent seizure of various facilities, such as a Catholic radio station closed by the government, the police siege of priests critical of the government, the cordoning off of parishioners to prevent them from participating in their celebrations, among others.

These actions have intimidated not only the bishops and priests, but also the parishioners, who are beginning to perceive it as a risk to participate in a certain parish community, given the constant surveillance and harassment by the police.

Is there a politician in any country who stands out for his or her defense and fight for religious freedom? 

I had the privilege of working with a Dutch MP, Dr. Pieter Omtzigt, and religious minority rights activist Markus Tozman. In 2012 we organized a public consultation on the situation of the thousand-year-old Syriac Orthodox Mor Gabriël monastery, which was being expropriated by the Turkish government. We called on the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands to agendize the issue internationally. Unfortunately, the initiative was of little consequence due to the geopolitical realities of the world, although the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, continued to raise the issue.

Also noteworthy are the Colombian politicians who promoted the creation of the Comprehensive Public Policy on Religious Freedom in 2017. This is a unique initiative in the world, which generated a framework for the consultation of religious actors in decision-making on relevant issues. It has had very positive applications in several local governments, including the Municipality of Manizales and the Department of Meta.

Of course, mention can also be made of the International Religious Freedom Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998. Following efforts by a broad coalition of religious and human rights organizations, religious freedom became a permanent focus of U.S. foreign policy.

Do you think believers in the West are sufficiently aware of religious persecution in other countries? 

I believe that in the West there is a perception that religious persecution is something that is experienced in distant regions such as the Middle East, Africa, India or China. However, the West is facing other forms of limitation to religious freedom, many of which believers in the West are just beginning to recognize. Secularism, religious intolerance or dictatorial regimes are some of the challenges facing religious freedom in our countries. For example, in Latin America it is believed that, because the continent is mostly believers, these limitations to religious expression should not occur.

However, every day western societies seem to understand that this right is not something that is only fought for in conflictive territories. It happens in the vast majority of our countries without us being aware of the level of self-censorship to which we are subjected by various external agents, such as ideological groups or the misunderstanding of the secular state, among others.

What is the self-censorship that your reports talk about?

To better understand what we mean by self-censorship, we must first know what the “chilling effect” is. This term was first developed by the Supreme Court of the United States. This phenomenon occurs when an individual who enjoys the freedom to express himself freely, decides to censor himself in order to avoid the negative consequences of expressing his opinion in a given case.

The “chilling effect” or “intimidation effect” is a term that, in relation to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, can be used to refer to the deterrent effect that arises when people fear the consequences of expressing their religious convictions or even behaving according to their own convictions, which can ultimately lead to self-censorship. Thus, “chilling effect” and self-censorship are two aspects of the same phenomenon.

We have observed that this phenomenon can occur as a consequence of the implementation of laws and/or policies that indirectly reduce freedom of religious expression. Or when an individual perceives a hostile environment, or suspects that expressing his or her beliefs will have negative consequences.

In June we published a report on self-censorship in Christians entitled “Perceptions on Self-Censorship: Confirming and Understanding the ‘Chilling Effect’”. After conducting interviews with Christians in Germany, France, Colombia and Mexico, we gathered very interesting data on the factors that influence this phenomenon. Among the findings we can mention that many Christians often find it necessary to be “prudent”, to “self-secularize” or to use “democratic language” to express their ideas. Showing faith-based values with transparency implies a very high social cost: being the object of censure, disqualification or even discrimination in the social or even labor sphere.

Moreover, this behavior is often not recognized as self-censorship by the individuals themselves. In short, we have observed that many Christians unconsciously censor themselves.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the idea has spread that religion breeds violence and therefore we should do everything possible to suppress it. How would you respond to this argument?

The unfortunate events of 9/11 marked a before and after in the field. For much of the 20th century, the social sciences were dominated by the so-called “secularization theory,” which argued that the world was becoming secularized. Religion would never disappear completely, but the process of secularization would be inevitable. The unfortunate events of 9/11 were a wake-up call for the international scientific community, because they made it very clear that religion was still a relevant factor to be taken into consideration.

The fact that the scientific community is more interested in religion is significant. The problem is that 9/11 also led to the association of religion with terrorism and violence, which is very worrying, as it obscures the positive role that religious actors have had, and continue to have, in promoting development at many levels.

It is important to remember that radicalism of any kind, whether religious, ideological or political, is extremely risky and volatile. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by specific individuals, with a radicalized interpretation of their faith, who ultimately did not represent the totality of Muslims in the world or in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the suffering and bewilderment of millions of people in the world has caused us to lose sight of the values, principles and peaceful contributions that most of the religions present in our civilization have brought.

Can we forget the religious dimension?

The religious, spiritual or transcendental dimension of man is essential to his human condition, which is why it has always been and probably will always be present in the new generations. Religious communities have demonstrated throughout history their relevant role as agents of social cohesion, as mediators of conflicts, providers of humanitarian aid, as well as collaborators in the construction of peace and justice.

To detract from the merit of the various religious communities in the field of humanitarian service, the defense of human rights and the promotion of human dignity, would be to neglect a key strategic actor in the construction of peace. This would be a great loss. Instead of adding peace partners, we reduce the analysis to the idea that all religions lead to violence, when history and facts have shown us that this position on religion is wrong.

Many religions do not accept the gender vision promoted by the UN. How do you think this diversity of opinion will evolve and will religious freedom be threatened by this issue?

It is difficult to predict how the debate will progress in this regard, but I believe that, in order to protect religious freedom in these international arenas, religious advocates and referents must advocate respect for the diversity of religions and religious expressions. It is in this diversity, all together, that they could demand from international agencies consistency with their discourse of inclusion and diversity.

Diversity of opinion on gender will be a threat to the extent that we give up demanding respect for the value of cultural diversity expressed in religiosity. It may sound naïve, but it is important that religious advocates and leaders do not give up on using the human rights advocacy system to assert their voice as one that must be respected.

The argument often used in these instances is that the majority religions impose their hegemonic vision with respect to gender. However, it would be helpful if the majority religions were understood as part of a cultural diversity that must be respected in the same way as other more “modern” religions, so to speak. It is in the brief renunciation of individuality that religious communities could consolidate a unity of the various religions with a similar idea of gender in order to counteract the threat of arbitrary impositions on the matter.

Are there universities or other academic institutions where data on religious persecution is studied in depth? Are any of these universities really relevant?

Indeed, in recent years, many university research programs have emerged that are interested in religious freedom. The best example is the Religion and State led by Dr. Jonathan Fox at the University of Bar-Ilan in Israel. This project is the most comprehensive database for analyzing religious discrimination in the world. With nearly 150 indicators, it is currently the “gold standard” for religious freedom data in academia. It has been used in more than 200 publications, including books, academic articles, doctoral and graduate theses.