This is Why Obama’s Speech on American Muslims Matters

US President Barack Obama speaks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, in Windsor Mill, Maryland on February 3, 2016. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama speaks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, in Windsor Mill, Maryland on February 3, 2016. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

I never thought it would happen, and it may never happen again. On Wednesday, President Obama visited a U.S. mosque for the first time in his presidency. He quoted from the Islamic holy book, the Quran. And he unequivocally denounced anti-Muslim hate.

This may sound uneventful, but it was actually bold. Muslims, Islam and the Quran are nearly dirty words in the U.S. political mainstream right now. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Man Sentenced to Death in Saudi Arabia for 'Sorcery'

Right now, ‘Abdul Hamid al-Fakki is facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.  His crime? Sorcery.

‘Abdul Hamid al-Fakki is a Sudanese man, about 36 years old.  He was entrapped by a man who worked for the Committee for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), also known as the Mutawa’een (religious police), who asked him to produce a spell so that the man’s father would leave his second wife.  Apparently, ‘Abdul Hamid al-Fakki agreed, in exchange for 6,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (about $1600).  When he delivered his work, about 9 pieces of paper with codes written in saffron, he was arrested, reportedly beaten, and coerced into confession.

He didn’t have legal representation and his trial was held in secret. He was sentenced to death on March 27, 2007 and remains in Madina prison. Amnesty International believes him to be at imminent risk of execution.

In Saudi Arabia the death penalty can be imposed for a wide number of offenses and carries out executions. So far, at least 17 people have been executed in 2010.  “Sorcery” isn’t actually defined as a crime in Saudi Arabian law, but it’s been used to punish people for the peaceful expression of human rights such as the freedom of thought, belief, conscience and expression. In fact, scores of people were arrested for sorcery in 2009.  A man was executed for sorcery in 2007 and others, like ‘Abdul Hamid al-Fakki have been sentenced to death.

‘Abdul Hamid al-Fakki’s case raises so many human rights concerns from the freedoms of religion and expression to unfair trials, and the use of the death penalty.  It’s been three years since his death sentence, but Amnesty International has a new action on his case.  During the month of Ramadan, Saudi Arabia has a moratorium on executions.  Additionally, the King often issues amnesties and pardons to some prisoners.  We’d like your help to write the King about ‘Abdul Hamid al-Fakki’s case to ask for the death sentence to be commuted and, if the conviction is based only on the exercise of his religious freedom, for release.

Will you help ‘Abdul Hamid al-Fakki?

Read more about Amnesty International’s Urgent Action on ‘Abdul Hamid al-Fakki

Ready to act? Click here for a sample letter.

Linda Veazey, Amnesty International country specialist for Saudi Arabia contributed to this post

France Votes to Ban Full-Face Veils

Advocates for the ban say full-face veils are contrary to French Republican values.

Today the lower house of the French parliament voted 336 to 1 in favor of banning full-face veils.

In response to this overwhelming vote, Amnesty International has issued a statement, condemning the vote.

The proposed law, which must still be approved by the French Senate, prohibits wearing in public any form of clothing intended to conceal one’s face.

A breach of the law would be punishable by a fine of up to 150 Euros (~$190) and/or the requirement to complete a community rehabilitation program. The law also provides for a penalty of up to one year imprisonment and a fine of up to 30,000 Euros (~$38,170) for those who use force or threats to oblige others to cover their faces.

“A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab as an expression of their identity or beliefs,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe.

Advocates for the ban in France have characterized full-face veils as contrary to French Republican values, incompatible with gender equality and a threat to public safety.

States are obliged under international law to protect women against pressure and threats to wear full-face veils.

“However, comprehensive bans are not the way to do this,” said Dalhuisen.

They carry a risk that women who currently wear full face veils will become confined to their homes, less able to work or study and to access public services.

Governments should instead be looking to strengthen efforts to combat the discrimination faced by Muslim women, both in their communities and in the broader societies in which they live.  Their focus should be on empowering women to make their own choices, rather than limiting the range of choices available to them.

Legitimate security concerns can be met by targeted restrictions on the complete covering of the face in well-defined high risk locations.  Individuals may also be required to reveal their faces when objectively necessary, for instance for identity checks.  French law already allows for such limited restrictions.

Priorities, Priorities

Pakistan has been in the news lately for some completely horrific human rights violations, including one last week, where 70 Ahmadi worshippers were killed in their mosques in Lahore, allegedly by the Tehrek-e-Taliban.  So, you would think that the Pakistani authorities will be using all of their police resources to ensure that these types of attacks against civilians are prevented.  Suicide bombings have killed dozens of Pakistani civilians in 2010 and hundreds in 2009.  It’s really hard to imagine living in a place where you could be killed at a market while shopping for groceries.

But, apparently, that is not as important for some as a couple’s sexual orientation and what they do to celebrate their lives.


Iran's Beleaguered Baha'i Minority Faces Serious Threat

Baha'isSeven leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community are currently on trial on serious, but baseless, charges that could lead to the imposition of the death penalty. Although they have done nothing more than peacefully practice their religion, they have been charged with spying for Israel, for “insulting religious sanctities,” with “propaganda against the system” and with “mofsed fil arz” or “corruption on earth.”

The seven include two women, Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet, and five men: Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaei, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm. All are leading members of a group responsible for the Baha’i community’s religious and administrative affairs. Mahvash Sabet who acted as the group’s secretary, was arrested on March 5 2008. The others were arrested on May 14 2008. All seven are held in Section 209 of Evin Prison in Tehran, which is run by the Ministry of Intelligence. They have only been allowed very limited access to their lawyers while they have been in custody.

The first session of their trial—which had been repeatedly postponed—finally began before a Revolutionary Court in Tehran on Tuesday January 12 and is set to continue on February 7. Amnesty International has repeatedly criticized proceedings held in Iran’s Revolutionary Courts for their failure to adhere to international standards for fair trials. In fact, the authorities attempted to bar the Baha’is’ lawyers from the courtroom on January 12 and only allowed them access after they insisted upon entering.

One of the Baha’is’ lawyers, Abdolfattah Soltani, was himself arrested in June in the crackdown following the disputed June 12 presidential elections and detained for more than two months. He is a member of the Center for Human Rights defenders, founded by Iran’s Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, which was forcibly shut down by authorities in December 2008.


Shia Muslims Still Face Inequality in Saudi Arabia

A new report by Human Rights Watch, entitled “Denied Dignity”, outlines how Shia Muslims of Saudi Arabia struggle against “systematic discrimination”.  The Shia community, which comprises about 10% to 15% of the Saudi population, faces “unfavourable treatment” in areas including religion, education, employment, and the justice system.

A recent Human Rights Watch report highlights an incident this past February where Shia Muslims clashed with religious police in the holy city of Medina. The report found that at this incident, “Security forces shot a 15-year-old pilgrim in the chest, and an unknown civilian stabbed a Shia religious sheikh in the back with a knife, shouting ‘Kill the rejectionist [Shia].’ This led to a number of demonstrations in the Eastern Province and to many protestors also being arrested.  Additionally, the report mentions how communal Shia prayer halls in the city of Khobar were closed in July of 2008 and how in 2009 many Shia religious and community leaders were arrested.

In the report’s press release, Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch said:

 All the Saudi Shia want is for their government to respect their identity and treat them equally. Yet Saudi authorities routinely treat these people with scorn and suspicion. 

While Human Rights Watch recognized some efforts toward religious tolerance made by King Abdullah the monarch of Saudi Arabia, they stated that “the discrimination by state institutions has not ended” and that domestically no progress has been made towards promoting or implementing religious tolerance. In the same press release Human Rights Watch also demanded that a commission be established for the equal sharing of holy places by all Muslims especially in the holy cities of Mekka and Medina.

The BBC and both Human Rights Watch cite religious differences to be main source of the tension and subsequent inequality between the religious groups.

At the end of the press release, Whitson called on the Saudi government to change its ways and honor the vows for religious tolerance that King Abdullah made in his speeches in Madrid and New York in 2008,

The Saudi government has long regarded its Shia citizens through the prism of Wahhabi dogma or state stability, branding them as unbelievers or suspecting their national loyalties. It is time for a new approach that treats Shia as citizens with equal rights.

Sana Javed contributed to this post.

It's Separation of Church and State, Stupid

© Emad Nasry

© Emad Nasry

Not persecution of the Church by the State. Unfortunately for Patriarch “Abune” Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the government of Eritrea doesn’t think that way. Considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty, he has been under house arrest since January 2006 after continually resisting government interference in religious affairs.

Minority faith groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and over 35 evangelical Christian churches are banned in Eritrea. An estimated 2,000 members of minority evangelical churches which have been outlawed since 2002 are in detention in harsh conditions. Amnesty International has received reports that some detainees have been repeatedly beaten up and tied in painful positions in order to force them to renounce their faith.

In the US, it’s easy to take religious freedom for granted (this may be especially true for Christians?), but clearly not everyone is so lucky. What would you do if your religion or spiritual belief system were banned or oppressed in the country where you live?