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Religious tolerance differs in significant ways from religious freedom.

The former is possible even in nations with authoritarian rule and where an official (or favored) religion exists, as it places the burden on religious communities and adherents to maintain the peace within, and between, faith traditions.

The latter requires government involvement, often necessitating substantive reforms to policies and procedures to ensure that all people are free to believe, or not believe, as their conscience dictates.

These are key assertions set forth in a report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, published December 13.

The USCIRF report explores how strong authoritarian countries are investing in religious tolerance promotion, or RTP, and why they’re doing so, and considers the differences between RTP and freedom of religion or belief, or FoRB.

Authoritarians’ primary focus is retaining power and control, so any actions taken toward religious communities – whether positive or negative – are based on this goal.

“If an authoritarian state deems elements of religious life threatening to state power, it will engage in repression,” the report said. “However, if tolerating or promoting certain elements of religious life are deemed to better ensure an authoritarian regime’s survival … then a regime will do so.”

In countries that focus on and promote religious tolerance rather than religious freedom, some traditions might fare better than others, depending on whether a given tradition is viewed as a threat to the ruling regime.

References to religious tolerance – often selectively applied to specific faith groups – are part of an authoritarian regime’s international diplomacy, much like references to democracy are used to ensure that foreign aid continues, the report said. The purpose of such rhetoric is not to promote religious freedom, or democracy, through structural reform and legal frameworks that guarantee human rights for all, but to appease world powers through “tolerance talk” and “democracy language” to remain in power.

The way RTP is used by authoritarian leaders undermines true religious freedom, because such governments often favor and promote the views of certain faith groups it views as more tolerant or moderate than others. Those faith traditions not viewed favorably by the ruling power are subject to “increased surveillance, censorship, and regulation of religious life and wider civil society” under the guise of promoting religious tolerance.

In addition, RTP often goes no further and no deeper than public statements or declarations of tolerance, which are designed and intended to distract attention from the continued oppression or persecution of certain religious groups.

Religious tolerance declarations also seek to place the blame for oppression on a particular religious tradition to deflect responsibility for abuses and human rights violations from the authoritarian regime.

“Nearly all the high-profile declarations in recent years have emerged at the behest of predominantly Muslim authoritarian states and state-approved organizations,” the report noted. “The chief result of many of these declarations appears to be to ‘blame Islam rather than authoritarianism.’”

Calling RTP and FoRB “meaningfully different,” the report emphasized the need for the U.S. and other democracies to acknowledge the distinction in order “to engage states’ RTP initiatives without compromising the goal of holding authoritarian states to their own international commitments.”

The full report is available here.

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