Human Rights Activist: Film Protests Cast Doubt on Arab Spring Progress

A human rights activist has stated that recent protests over an anti-Islam film have cast doubt on the progress Middle Eastern states have made on religious freedom since the "Arab Spring" began.

Tad Stahnke, director of Policy and Programs at Human Rights First, told The Christian Post that the protests have cast a "stark" image on whether religious freedom has improved in the Middle East.

"Are governments in Tunisia and Egypt, are they prepared to denounce the government restrictions and social hostility that is being promoted by these demonstrations?" said Stahnke. "It is an open question. It remains to be seen. We've been critical of governments not taking a definitive stand against violence, against religious intolerance, against extremism."

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Stahnke's remarks come as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report that says the Middle East and North Africa are the worst places for religious freedom.

According to the findings, taken from mid-2010 data and released Thursday, the Middle East-North Africa region of the world is the worst regarding social hostility and government restriction of religion.

"Middle East-North Africa had by far the world's highest levels of social hostilities involving religion as well as government restrictions on religious beliefs and practices," says Pew Forum.

"The new study, which is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, finds that the share of countries with high or very high restrictions on religion rose from 31 percent in the year ending in mid-2009 to 37 percent in the year ending in mid-2010."

Stahnke, who has served as a consultant for Pew Forum studies, told CP that he felt their assessment of Middle East religious tolerance "is absolutely true" and "still true given the post-2010 events."

"They have a sophisticated methodology that I think is well grounded in facts. I think they report significant government restrictions and social hostility in many parts of the world," said Stahnke.

Earlier this month an anti-Islamic amateur short film titled "The Innocence of Muslims" was uploaded online. The depiction of Muhammad as a fraud, child molester, and womanizer led to violent protests in several major cities across the Islamic world.

In response to the violence, the 57-member international body the Organization of Islamic Cooperation called for the United Nations to pass a measure condemning the blasphemy of religious figures.

Regarding the OIC's latest effort to get such a measure passed by the U.N., Stahnke told CP that the move, if successful, would be a "huge step back."

"We think that it would be a huge step back for the U.N. to reconsider prohibiting defamation of religions. The approach that reached consensus last year, you can combat hatred without restricting speech," said Stahnke.

"And that approach should be invigorated. It shouldn't be undermined by governments seeking to reap political advantage from the current climate."

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