Is Internet freedom vital to religious freedom? Increasingly yes, argue experts asking the U.S. government to spend millions more on improving international religious freedom in an unconventional way.
Baptist Press (BP) reports that members of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable have joining Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf in calling on the federal government to "dramatically increase its support of technology to breach Internet firewalls established by authoritarian governments." Representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Evangelicals for Social Action have signed a letter asking Congress to allocate 10 percent of the Boardcasting Board of Governors's (BBG) $720 million budget toward overcoming Internet censorship in countries such as Iran, Cuba, and China.
The BBG is an independent federal agency that oversees Voice of America and other international media focused on freedom. It includes "combat Internet censorship and jamming" among its "key tactical steps" to accomplish by 2016.
According to BP, SBC public policy specialist Barrett Duke offered seven reasons that Internet freedom is critical to religious freedom:
"Minority faiths need connection for encouragement and protection."
Religious leaders with little opportunity for formal theological instruction need access to the Internet.
"New faith groups need connection to more mature groups to encourage them and assist them" in faithful growth.
Cults produced by erroneous theology are "less likely when errant interpretations of Scripture can be thoroughly investigated."
"Fellowship and communion" are key parts of expressing religious faith.
"Religious freedom involves the freedom to seek God," which includes the liberty to ask others about God.
Collective worship online is a vital part of religious expression.
Countries that restrict Internet access also are among those that most heavily restrict religious freedom. According to Freedom House's "Freedom on the Net 2012" report, authoritarian states including Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria, and China have imposed serious restriction on Internet speech.
Of the 47 countries that Freedom House evaluated, "20 have experienced a negative trajectory since January 2011, with Bahrain, Pakistan, and Ethiopia registering the greatest declines," the report states.
Its most aggressive violator of Internet freedom? Iran.
Overall, that's not so different from World Watch Monitor's (WWM) annual World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where Christians face the most intense persecution. Saudi Arabia ranked 2nd on this year's list, Iran ranked 8th, Syria ranked 11th, and Pakistan and Ethiopia came in side by side at 14th and 15th. (WWM's top-ranked North Korea does not appear among the countries that Freedom House evaluated.)
CT has spotlighted the nations where it's hardest to believe and charted the differences between international religious freedom advocates, as well as covered a landmark Pew study on religious persecution that examined governmental vs. societal restrictions.