CMC — So accustomed to annual scathing reports on human rights practices and drug trafficking, Caribbean Community (Caricom) countries have received what can be considered overall favourable and rare review of their religious practices by the United States.
In its International Religious Freedom Report for 2014, released here earlier this month, the US Department of State said “there were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom” in most Caricom-member states.
Washington, however, said that some religious groups, such as Rastafarians and Muslims, continued, in some territories, to “express concern about government practices impacting their religious activities.”
In Jamaica, the report said that while the constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom to worship and to change religion, and that it prohibits discrimination based on belief, “Rastafarians expressed concerns about the government’s prohibition of their use of marijuana for religious purposes. They stated they experienced additional scrutiny from law enforcement officials,” the report said.
“Rastafarians stated that elements of their religious observance resulted in barriers to employment and professional advancement.”
The report said local media outlets in Jamaica provided a forum for religious debate, and that the US Embassy in Kingston engaged in dialogue with religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews and Rastafarians, as part of its overall efforts to promote religious freedom.
But while some Rastafarians in Jamaica said they had also experienced other forms of societal discrimination, others said such discrimination had diminished considerably in recent years, especially as Rastafarian styles in clothing and music gained wider acceptance, the State Department said.
Similar sentiments by Rastafarians were echoed in Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and St Lucia, according to the report.
“Rastafarians continued to express concern about the government’s prohibition of marijuana use, which they stated was integral to their religious rituals,” said the report about Antigua and Barbuda.
“They also criticised public schools’ requirement that children be vaccinated, which they stated is against their religion, and the requirement to remove headgear for passport photos and at security checkpoints.”
In The Bahamas, the report said Rastafarian leaders expressed concern that some members experienced police profiling and did not receive religious accommodation in prison.
They also expressed concern that prison officials cut the dreadlocks of Rastafarian detainees held in short-term custody, and that prisoners at Bahamas Correctional Services were not regularly provided with meals that met their religious dietary requirements, the report said.
It said Rastafarians in Barbados were concerned about discrimination in employment and education.
They were also concerned about the government’s prohibition on marijuana use, which they said was “integral to their religious rituals”, according to the report.
“Rastafarians reported extra scrutiny from police and immigration officials,” said the report, adding that Muslims also “objected to a government policy that required individuals to remove the hijab for identification and passport photos”.
The State Department said the Barbados Muslim Association asked the government to change its practices to permit head coverings in identification photos.
In St Kitts and Nevis, the Department noted that US embassy officers were engaged in discussion about religious freedom with government officials and a leader of the Rastafarian community.
“Rastafarians stated they continued to face discrimination, including cases in which public and private school officials refused to enrol Rastafarian children in violation of national laws,” it said.
“The Ministry of Social Development supported the Rastafarian families and worked to reverse the school policies.”
According to the report, Rastafarians in St Kitts and Nevis said they faced extra scrutiny from police and immigration officials, such as longer or additional searches and questioning.
“They said they were sometimes required to remove hair wraps for identification photos contrary to the policies of the Ministry of National Security. Rastafarian representatives also stated the government prohibited their use of marijuana, which they described as integral to their religious rituals.”
Rastafarians in St Vincent and the Grenadines “remained concerned about government actions, which included extra scrutiny and searches,” said the report, adding that Rastafarians stated that they experienced societal discrimination in employment and education.
“They also said that some officials forced Rastafarians to cut their dreadlocks, and that prison meals did not meet their religious dietary requirements,” the report noted.
Although societal attitudes toward their community have improved, Rastafarians in St Vincent and the Grenadines “experienced informal discrimination in hiring and in schools”, the State Department said.
In St Lucia, it said Rastafarians “expressed concern about the government’s prohibition of marijuana use”, which they also said is “integral to their religious rituals”.
The report also said the St Lucia government maintained an active relationship with the Christian Council, an organisation consisting of representatives of the Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations.
In Haiti, the report said the government officially recognises the Voodoo religion, “but Voodoo priests were still unable to register for civil recognition of their marriages, baptisms and other documents.
“There were some reports of social bias against Voodoo practitioners,” said the State Department, adding that Muslim leaders noted a positive trend in societal attitudes.
“Although the government granted official recognition to the Voodoo religion in 2003, enabling registration of Voodoo places of worship, Voodoo priests were still unable to obtain the official registration required for civil recognition of their marriages. Voodoo community leaders stated Voodoo practitioners continued to experience some social stigmatisation for their beliefs and practices,” it added.
While there were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom in Guyana, the State Department said there were reports that the government discouraged religious groups from becoming advocates on social issues, “especially in cases in which the government considered the group’s position to be critical of government actions or policies.”
The department said the Guyanese government limited the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups based on historical trends, the relative size of the group and the president’s discretion.
“Religious groups stated they continued to experience adverse effects from a 1976 government takeover of the administration of more than 600 private schools and hospitals, many of which had been run by religious organisations,” the report said.
“Religious groups retained title to these properties, but the government required they be made available for government use as schools and health clinics.”
In Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, the State Department said there were “no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom”, adding that their respective constitutions provide for freedom of conscience, and of religious belief and practice, including worship.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the report said the law prohibits acts of sedition and seditious intent, “defined as engendering or promoting feelings of ill will towards, hostility to, or contempt for any class of inhabitants, including on the basis of religion”.
The State Department said a fine of up to TT$1,000 (One TT dollar = US$0.16 cents) may be levied for expressions of hatred directed specifically against a person’s religion, including any “riotous, violent, indecent, or disorderly behaviour in any place of divine worship,” or attacks, ridicule, or vilification of another person’s religion in a manner likely to provoke a breach of the peace.
“Judicial review is available to those who claim to be victims of religious discrimination,” said the State Department, adding that an anti-blasphemy law is not enforced.
In presenting the report, US Secretary of State John Kerry said “the message at the heart of this report is that countries benefit when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled.
“And this is not a hopeful theory; this is a proven reality. No nation can fulfil its potential if its people are denied the right to practise, to hold, to modify, to openly profess their innermost beliefs,” he said, noting that the purpose of the annual report is to highlight the importance of religious freedom “not by lecturing but through advocacy and through persuasion.
“Our primary goal is to help governments everywhere recognise that their societies will do better with religious liberty than without it,” Kerry said.
“The world has learned through very hard experience that religious pluralism encourages and enables contributions from all; while religious discrimination is often the source of conflicts that endanger all,” he added.