US report lauds RP for religious freedom

Published by rudy Date posted on November 23, 2009

THE Philippines was singled out for praise by the United States for exerting “special efforts” to respect religious freedom and tolerance, as well as promote interfaith dialogue in the world arena, according to a recent report by the US State Department.

The 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom, released in Washington, DC, in late October, said the Philippine government generally respected religious freedom in practice and that there was no change in the status of this respect during the period of the study, from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009.

“There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor American citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the US, or the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the US,” the report said.

“There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners in the country. The government does not ban or discourage specific religious groups or religious factions,” it added.

The Report on International Religious Freedom is submitted to Congress annually by the State Department in compliance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Regarded as the most comprehensive survey of religious freedom worldwide, it records the status of respect for religious freedom in all countries.

The report’s primary focus is on the actions of governments, including those that contribute to religious repression or tolerate violence against religious minorities as well as those that protect and promote religious freedom.

This year’s edition of the report examined how governments in 198 countries are protecting or failing to protect religious freedoms.

Each country report covers the country’s religious demography; government respect for religious freedom (including the legal and policy framework, restrictions on religious freedom, abuses of religious freedom, and improvements and positive developments); societal respect for religious freedom; and US government policy and actions.

In remarks at the launch of the report last month, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton said this year’s report noted efforts by some countries to promote and support interfaith dialogue and tolerance.

Interfaith cooperation

“We commend, for example, the Philippine leadership in the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace at the United Nations,” Clinton said.

It was a Philippine initiative that brought interfaith cooperation into the agenda of the UN in 2005 and led to the creation of the tripartite forum, an open-ended consultative group composed of representatives of UN member states, the UN system and nongovernmental organizations.

The 2009 religious freedom report noted that in the Philippines, the Council on Interfaith Initiatives “continued to strengthen the government’s existing institutional arrangements for interfaith activities by coordinating interfaith programs and initiatives with all government agencies, local government units, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) partners.”

It, however, noted complaints from the Muslims, who are concentrated in some of the poorest provinces, that the government had not made sufficient efforts to promote their economic development as they still suffered from economic discrimination.

It noted that the Philippine Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

Discrimination noted

But it said that some ethnic, religious, and cultural discrimination against members of the Muslim minority by members of the Christian majority, combined with economic disparities, contributed to persistent conflict in certain Mindanao provinces.

Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, public schools in the Philippines give religious groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours, the report said.

The report said the government continued to implement its unified curriculum, designed to integrate madaris (Muslim schools) into the national education system. In addition to the 38 madaris registered with the Department of Education (DepEd), 37 additional madaris in Mindanao were in the process of obtaining operation permits from the education department.

It said the DepEd has ordered public elementary schools that had at least 25 Muslim students to begin offering Arabic language instruction and classes on Islamic values.

During the 2008-2009 school year the DepEd provided Arabic language instruction and Islamic values education, including textbooks on these subjects, to Muslim students in 754 public elementary schools.

The government’s National Ecumenical Consultative Committee (Neccom) fosters interfaith dialogue among major religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, Muslim groups, Iglesia ni Cristo, Aglipayan, and Protestant denominations.

Smaller Protestant denominations are represented in the Neccom through the National Council of Churches of the Philippines and the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, two large networks of Protestant churches and mission groups. Neccom members meet periodically with the President to discuss social and political issues.

The report noted that the Philippines observes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, All Saints’ Day, Christmas Day, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays.

Human rights policy

According to the State Department report, the US government discusses religious freedom with the Philippine government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

The US Embassy in Manila is actively encouraging the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and maintained active outreach with religious leaders and NGOs to engage them in interfaith activities, it said.

In 2008, 60 percent of the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) $91 million budget for the Philippines went to programs in Mindanao, mostly in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

“USAID programs were instrumental in supporting the peace process and helped foster an environment for greater religious tolerance,” the report said.

It said USAID also implemented an internship program for young Muslim students and potential leaders in the largely Christian-dominated House of Representatives which helped policymakers develop a more intimate understanding of Muslim cultures, while fostering an appreciation among the interns for the policymaking and legislative processes.

The embassy also sought to help community leaders broaden their cultural understanding through exchange programs by sending education officials and principals of Muslim schools to the US under its voluntary visitor schemes. –Cynthia Balana, Philippine Daily Inquirer

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