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Religion and Foreign Affairs 2014 Outlook

Following are some personal prognostications about what may come to be in 2014 relating to religion and foreign affairs. I’ve never made predictions like this before, but after reading numerous forecasts made by others, it seems de rigueur these days. The outlook isn't good, but there are opportunities.  Here we go: Increasing pressure on Christians in the Middle East.  Christianity in the Middle East will continue to experience the combined stresses of violence and legal restrictions.  These realities will threaten the long-term viability of these communities by increasing pressure on individuals to leave.  Violence and legal harassment will further inhibit their ability to cultivate a thriving, and not shrinking, presence.  Countries to watch – Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.  Attacks on religious minorities globally will continue.  Across the world, state and non-state actors will continue to target adherents of minority religions or dissenting members of the majority faith (another type of minority).  Toleration will continue to wane for individuals and faith communities from different religions or with different theological interpretations, replaced by a growing culture that welcomes, if not celebrates, repression and violence. This will impact Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, as well as people with no religious affiliation. Countries to watch – Bangladesh, China, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Elections will spur violence against the religious “other.” Several countries will settle leadership or governance questions at the ballot box in 2014.  Politicians will play the “religion card” in ways that incite violence and non-state actors will target religious groups to intimidate them from participating. Countries to watch – Egypt (constitutional referendum in January, presidential TBD), India (parliamentary before May), Indonesia (parliamentary in April, presidential in July), Iraq (parliamentary in April), and Turkey (presidential in August). Religiously inspired violence and terrorism will increase.  The proliferation of twisted theologies condoning acts of violence has not been checked, and the increase of ungoverned or ungovernable space allows terrorist organizations to perpetuate their ideology while equipping for and planning attacks.  Countries to watch – Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan (with violence possibly spreading north into Central Asia and/or southeast into India).  Repressive laws restricting religious practice will continue to proliferate.  One of the widest, yet least noticed, limitations on freedom of religion or belief are restrictive legal systems that attempt to heavily regulate and control religious activity.  These are especially common in former communist and authoritarian countries.  It’s a proven, low cost model for repression and will continue to spread or be “perfected” by countries with already bad laws.  Countries to watch – Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Russia, and Sudan.  Global interest in religious freedom will grow.  With challenges rising, global interest in freedom of religion or belief will also increase.  For instance, the Pope spoke about the plight of the Christian church during his Christmas address.  In the United States, the White House should soon nominate a new Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, which will elevate the issue within the State Department (at least momentarily).  In addition, Congress may approve a Special Envoy for religious minorities in South Central Asia and the Middle East, adding another high level diplomat to the effort.  Also, Canada, European countries and the European Union will continue to expand their engagement on these issues, and South American countries may become increasingly active.  Countries to watch – United States, Canada, European Union and member states, Norway, Brazil. Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  The views expressed here are his own.

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