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The World

Religious freedom is under threat worldwide, but what about the US?

Each year, the US State Department releases a report on religious freedom around the globe.

It often highlights some pretty bleak stuff. Crimes against religion. Persecution. Killing in the name of God. And worse. 

Rabbi David Saperstein is ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the State Department. He says the report does make for a sobering read. But that it also provides a voice to those oppressed for their beliefs.

"Our report is used by the foreign ministries of other countries as kind of a blueprint for their embassies in those countries to engage constructively on behalf of religious freedom," he says. "It allows us to strengthen international cooperation on these issues."

It's not toothless.

Last year, Turkmenistan made the list. A big complaint was their treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses being held in a jail. Those prisoner were freed shortly after the designation was made.

"It also helps us engage with countries who want to improve," he says.

The US is not one of the nations covered in the State Department’s annual report on religious freedom. But religious scholar Reza Aslan says he would give America high marks.

“As a modern democratic constitutional state, we have a commitment to uphold freedoms of religion, human rights, equal rights for all citizens,” Aslan says. “At the same time, however, these commitments are going to constantly be in conflict with some more conservative interpretations of religion.”

The challenge for the US is to uphold its secular values, “while at the same time promoting religious beliefs, even when they sometimes clash with each other,” adds Aslan, author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth."

Aslan says fellow Muslims he meets overseas are often shocked to hear that he feels quite comfortable as a Muslim living in America. “Muslims probably have a better life as Muslims here, have greater freedoms personally and with regard to their religious diversity in the United States, than they do in any other country in the world — certainly in any other Muslim majority country in the world.”

He is quick to add, however, that Islamophobia is a real problem in the US. “Anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States is at unprecedented levels,” Aslan says. And that is thanks in part to politics, he says.

“When we have elections, particularly presidential elections, you’re going to see candidates who are going to try to tap into that xenophobia, the racism, the anti-Muslim sentiment for votes.”

Religious liberty is something that people from America’s Christian majority are also concerned about these days. Many conservative Christians, for example, viewed the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage as an ominous sign.

These kinds of culture clash because of religious belief, Aslan says. “[But] religion is always in a state of constant evolution. It is always evolving and adapting itself to whatever social and societal circumstances it finds itself confronting.”

From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International

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