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Religious Freedom Report

 

ACN Interview: Mark von Reidemann on Religious Persecution

21.10.2019 in ACN PRESS, ACN USA, Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, By Maria Lozano, Religious freedom, Religious Freedom Report

ACN International

A look at the question of denominational organization and humanitarian support

 
Interview conducted by Maria Lozano of ACN International,
Text adapted by ACN Canada
  • EU Ambassador announces new European Union initiative aimed at reducing religious ignorance or religious “illiteracy” worldwide
  • Cardinal Parolin: Governments should avoid “ideological or cultural colonization”
  • 20th anniversary of the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Religious Freedom Report

 

Mark von Riedemann, Director of Public Affairs and Religious Freedom for the Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, was invited to moderate a panel on humanitarian aid at a recent USA – Holy See symposium titled: “Pathways to Achieving Human Dignity: Partnering with Faith-Based Organizations.” Maria Lozano, head of information at ACN International interviews him about his impressions.

 

ACN: The U.S. Embassy in Rome and the Holy See co-sponsored recently a symposium featuring presentations from the U.S. Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, the Holy See Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, as well as Pietro Cardinal Parolin, Secretary of State of the Vatican, about how governments can partner with faith-based organizations to better defend religious freedom. What prompted this symposium?

 Mark von Riedemann: The symposium marked 35 years of positive cooperation between the US government and the Holy See, reflecting on the work of St. Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan and their combined efforts to bring about the end of Communism in the former Soviet Union.

 

The intent was to communicate new initiatives taken by the US government to work directly with Faith Based Organisations (FBOs) on the ground. As Ambassador Gingrinch observed in her opening speech governments alone can only do so much. Even if the United States is one of the main providers of humanitarian aid worldwide, she noted, delivering that support efficiently requires partnerships with organizations on the ground. Catholic agencies and other FBO’s can help to make an impact in places where governments have neither the experience nor the network to do so.

The large diplomatic participation in this occasion also prompted the representative of the European Union to the Holy See, Ambassador Jan Tombinski, to announce the creation of an EU initiative called the “Global Exchange on Religion in Society”, supporting projects aimed at reducing religious ignorance or “illiteracy” in the EU and worldwide. The objective of such initiative is to acknowledge the importance of faith in everyday life. This is an absolute first for Europe, which to date prided itself of being “religion-blind.”

Cardinal Parolin praised the new initiatives. In his speech, however, he cautioned against the temptation by donor nations to impose certain cultural values or worldviews as a precondition for recipient nations to receive aid.

Yes, he requested firmly that governments avoid, when sponsoring faith-based organizations, what Pope Francis has called an “ideological or cultural colonization,” which consists in “imposing a different worldview or set of values on poorer societies, often by making the adoption of those values a prerequisite to receiving humanitarian or development aid.” Although Aid to the Church in Need has never been impacted by this as we rely solely on support from private donors, I was glad that he made mention of this as, through our project partners, we have heard time and again testimony of this kind of abuse. And it is abuse. Making food aid contingent upon the acceptance programs promoting contraception and abortion is well documented.

This symposium marks a string of actions over the last months with regard to religious freedom and attention to the issue of Christian persecution. What trend have you noted?

 Increasingly religious freedom is being recognized as a foundational right, that two thirds of the world’s population reside in countries with restrictions on religious freedom, and that Christians represent the largest faith group experiencing religious persecution.

This conference follows closely on the heels of a September 23, 2019 “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom,” the first-ever UN event on religious freedom hosted by a US president, and the May 28, 2019 UN resolution marking August 22 as an “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence based on Religion or Belief.’ Over the last two years there has been a flurry of initiatives including the creation of a State Secretariat for Christian Persecution in Hungary, the US initiated International Religious Freedom Alliance and perhaps of greatest note, the growing number of nations instituting or reactivating Ambassadors for Religious Freedom and Belief in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, the USA, Norway, Finland, Germany and the United Kingdom among others.

2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the ACN Religious Freedom Report. Has ACN been like a prophetic voice in the wilderness calling for religious freedom and an end to Christian persecution?

 The report has indeed been prophetic. In 1999, religious freedom was not a major topic on most government radars, yet ACN, from our project partners on the ground, received increasing testimonies of Christian persecution. For example, religious tensions in Nigeria developed with the imposition of Shari’ah law in a dozen Muslim-majority states in 1999 resulting in significant sectarian violence still ongoing today.

Since that time we have witnessed dramatic world events in the Middle East, in Africa and Asia, and the consequent suffering of untold millions have demanded greater attention and response. A pivotal moment was in 2016 when the European Union and the US passed resolutions labelling the ISIS atrocities against Christians in Syria and Iraq a Genocide. Is Christian persecution a surprise? No, it has grown over the centuries from the roots of intolerance, to discrimination, to persecution, and finally the world awakens to the genocide of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Symptomatic of this is the reduction of the Christian presence in the Middle East: in 1910, Christians represented 13.6% of the population, by 2010 that number had declined to 4.2%. The call from the US government for a new partnership between government and FBO’s is a further sign of Western countries waking up to these realities and as such are important steps in the right direction.

  1. With regard to the expression or religious “illiteracy”, Please see the abridged version of the report :  Persecuted and Forgotten 2018 

ACN Feature Report: Christians as victims of global developments

06.05.2019 in Religious Freedom Report, Sri Lanka, United Nations, Venezuela, Violence against Christians, World

WORLD

2019 – One of the bloodiest years for Christians thus far 

The papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has voiced concern in the face of increasing attacks on Christians all over the world. “As the brutal bombings perpetrated against churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday show, 2019 is already one of the bloodiest years for Christians,” declared the executive president of ACN, Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern.

The charity, which brings aid to poor and persecuted Christians in more than 140 countries, has become aware of and reported publicly on, among others, the following anti-religious attacks in the first four months of the year alone:
  • – Attacks by Islamist Séléka militia on a catholic mission station in Bangassou Diocese in the Central African Republic in which dozens were killed and around 20,000 people fled the violence at the first of January;

  • – The Islamist attack on the cathedral of Jolo in the southern Philippines which killed 20 people and injured around 90 at the end of January;

  • – Attacks by members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen tribe on Christian villagers in the Nigerian state of Kaduna in mid-March that left more than 130 dead; and,

  • – Attacks by extremist Hindu nationalists on a Catholic school in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu at the end of March, in which the nuns who worked there were categorically hunted down.

Jesus

Christians as victims of global developments

Heine-Geldern

“The atrocities in Sri Lanka mark the bloody climax of a trend that has endured for some years now: the persecution of Christians knows no bounds. It knows no let-up, especially on the holiest days of the Christian calendar. It knows no mercy on innocent people, who are often made scapegoats for global developments,” Heine-Geldern explains.

Following the attacks in Sri Lanka responsibility was claimed by the Islamic State terrorist militia. Security authorities harbour the assumption that the bombings may have been organized in retaliation for the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand where, in mid-March, a 28-year-old man killed 49 people in two mosques.

Aid to the Church in Need also points to the continuing Islamist threat in the Middle East, as well as the violence by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. “To say that IS has been beaten militarily and therefore no longer exists is a fallacy – the ideology lives on, as do its supporters; the contact channels appear to be working. Our project partners in the Middle East remain extremely concerned,” states Heine-Geldern.

Religion often used as a political weapon to plunge countries into chaos. Most recently additional concerns for the charity have arisen about the situation in countries on the American continent such as Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela, where bishops and priests have suffered repeated attacks as a result of political turmoil. “Here it is a mixture of political ideology and the accusation that the Church is meddling because it calls on people to resist authoritarian governments and corruption. This makes it a target for aggression and violence,” Heine-Geldern says.

 Religion: used as a weapon

In many parts of the world religion is used as a political weapon to destabilize countries and plunge them into chaos. This, Heine-Geldern continues, is what is happening again in Sri Lanka. There the Church is trying extremely hard to prevent outrage at the atrocities from spiralling into further violence. “Social stability is based to a large extent on the peaceful coexistence of the various faiths. This is something many of our project partners are working to achieve,” comments Heine-Geldern.

It is rare for anti-Christian attacks to attract public attention. Thus, the perilous situation in which the Christian minority in Pakistan finds itself first became internationally known through the fate of Asia Bibi, a mother who was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy and acquitted by the court of last instance. Together with other organisations, Aid to the Church in Need had campaigned for her release. Notwithstanding this, Asia Bibi’s fate still remains uncertain.

Religious and political extremism: main causes of persecution

Extremist Islamism, excessive nationalism and authoritarian ideologies are still the main drivers of persecution against Christians and other religious minorities. This is also the conclusion of the Religious Freedom Report, the latest edition of which ACN presented in November 2018 and which illuminates the situation in 196 countries. “We note with great concern that, regrettably, none of these three trends has diminished – quite the contrary. This is currently evident among other places in African states such as Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin, where the hostilities on mission stations, priests and nuns have dramatically increased. People are becoming more and more frightened,” Heine-Geldern observes. According to Heine-Geldern, this distressing development must be challenged. “It is the duty of governments and the UN to bring about peace, to guarantee freedom of religion and to repel anti-religious attacks,” says Heine-Geldern. As for Church, Heine-Geldern says, their role is to stand by the persecuted Christians through prayer and active support and to give them a voice and a face. “ACN has been campaigning for this for more than 70 years. In view of the growing violence against Christians, it is a cause worthy of every support and every effort.”

The 2018 Report on Religious Freedom is available at : www.religious-freedom-report.org.  
For a quicker overview, please go to view our summary version for the report:  Religious Freedom Report 2018

Release of Asia Bibi : “A Triumph of Human Rights”

30.01.2019 in ACN Canada, ACN NEWS, Adapted by Julie Bourbeau and Amanda Griffin, Asia, By Mario Bard, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau, Pakistan, Press Release, Religious freedom, Religious Freedom Report

 Press Release – Release of Asia Bibi

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is relieved by the definitive release of Asia Bibi.

Montréal, Tuesday, January 30, 2019 – “This is a great day for the respect of human rights, for religious freedom and for justice. The Pakistani government didn’t allow the extremists who took to the streets with violence to influence them,” declared Marie-Claude Lalonde, National Director of Aid to the Church in Need Canada (ACN).

The international Catholic charitable organization, which regularly provides information on the issue of religious freedom in the world, and particularly on the issue of Christians persecuted because of their faith, is celebrating today. Philipp Ozores, Secretary General of ACN-International added, “Today’s decision is a triumph of human rights over religious intolerance, a victory of the law over the hatred of fanatics – and above all, personal happiness and great joy for Asia Bibi and her family”.

“Now, I would like the family to spend beautiful moments together and to savour the newfound freedom,” indicated Ms. Lalonde. She reminds us that, throughout the nine years of detention, many ACN benefactors prayed for her release. “Many prayed for her and this shows that faith really can move mountains,” she added, very moved by the events. “What’s most important is that Ms. Bibi is free, and that she can at last be reunited with her loved ones.”

At least 224 others accused since 1984

If Asia Bibi is free at last, there are 25 Pakistani Christians accused of blasphemy who are still in prison, some of whom are awaiting execution. Philipp Ozores, Secretary General of ACN-International added, “ACN will continue to pray and work for them with other organizations and project partners in Pakistan. We can only hope that the court’s decision will at least cause the government to rethink its position and that the blasphemy laws will be relaxed or better respected.”

Marie-Claude Lalonde is sad to say that, “in Pakistan, the blasphemy law can be invoked to accuse one’s neighbour in order to resolve an unrelated dispute. We hope that the signal given with the decision of the Pakistani Supreme Court is a step in the right direction.”

Pakistan is part of the sad list of 38 countries identified in ACN’s 2018 Abridged Report on Religious Freedom as a country where violations of religious rights are significant. The situation has even worsened for religious minorities in 2018, with the country’s President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops describing “an alarming increase in violence, intolerance and extremism.” *

Summary of the story

Asia Bibi is a Catholic woman who is now 51 years old. In the fall of 2009, she was in the fields with other women, harvesting the crops. During a break, she drank from the same well as the other women, but these women considered that Asia had just contaminated it since she is not Muslim.  Asia replied, the situation escalated and her colleagues accused her of blasphemy. After a hearing, she was found guilty of blasphemy according to the laws in effect in Pakistan. In 2010, she was sentenced to death by hanging. Thanks to the persistence of the country’s Christian community, her lawyers and international organizations denouncing this situation, Asia Bibi was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on October 31, 2018. A fundamentalist group wanted to appeal this decision, which forced Asia Bibi to remain in the country, in hiding, for her protection. Finally, on January 29, 2019, the Supreme Court definitively rejected the request to appeal and Asia Bibi is finally free.  

In Pakistan, only 2% of the population is Christian, with a population of more than 192 million inhabitants, which is in majority Muslim.

*Page 38, Abridged Report on Religious Freedom in the World, available at the address https://files.acn-canada.org/2018/11/ACN-Religious-Freedom-Report-2018_CanENGL_WEB-1.pdf

ACN Feature Story: Pakistan, an overview of persecution and the blasphemy laws

04.12.2018 in By Amanda Griffin, Pakistan, Religious Freedom Report, Shahbaz Bhatti

Christians living in ‘7 lanes’ district of Gulshan Iqbal Town, came under fire from Muslim extremists displaced to the neighbourhood from the tribal area bordering Pakistan. The Christian community erected walls blocking the seven lanes for security after a spate of killings and other violence.

Pakistan, an overview of persecution and the blasphemy laws

Pakistan. A country where the Christian minority experiences terrible persecution and discrimination, simply because of their faith.

One tool of discrimination used against Christians or other minorities is the “Blasphemy Law”.  In 1986, the so-called blasphemy law was enacted in Pakistan. In principle, the law protects all religions from offences, but it provides for severe and draconian punishments to offences and blasphemies against Islam: and the 1,300 people along the way accused of transgressing the blasphemy laws since it was instated. A simple suspicion or a statement would be enough to imprison a person, and the burden of proof is placed on the accused, who is left to prove his, or her, innocence. So far, no one who has been found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death has actually been executed. Though one significant case that drew worldwide attention almost saw it through. It involved a woman named Asia Bibi.

 

Asia Bibi, Christian mother of five

Ms. Bibi, a Christian woman from a simple village, living a simple life as a mother of five children—and who in fact has never even left her small surroundings even to go to the capital of Islamabad—when one day a small action on her part would devastate her entire life, giving rise to accusations of blasphemy.  The accusation was followed by a mob attacking her in the streets along with her young daughter–they were beaten and finally Ms. Bibi was arrested.  Having no credibility, as a woman and as a Christian within the Pakistani legal system, she was found guilty of blasphemy and placed on death row where she remained in isolation and awful conditions for the better part of 10 years until very recently.

Eisham Ashiq, 19 year old daughter of Asia Bibi, & Ashiq Masih, husband of Asia Bibi during their October 2018 visit to the UK as guests of Aid to the Church in Need.

On October 31, 2018 – after her appeal to overthrow the death penalty was pushed back many times because judges were unwilling to hear the case, it is assumed for fear of reprisals.  She was finally and joyously for her family and supporters around the world–acquitted of the crime, found not guilty.  But she could not be freed from her imprisonment, not let out to be with her family because riots and unrest demanding she be put to death for her crime, ensued in the country.

Unfortunately, even if she is now out of prison, she has still not been able to be with her family for the threats of violence  persist.  Recent arrests of protest leaders have maintained the ongoing threat to her life.

Like in other moments of Pakistan’s recent history, this mass reaction to uphold the death sentence demonstrates the gravity of the situation local Christians in Pakistan find themselves in. In the past, and during Asia Bibi’s trial, other brave people spoke out for her freedom and minority rights. Many were silenced for doing so, and ultimately some were assassinated. This calls to mind a brave Christian man named Shahbaz Bhatti.

 

Shahbaz Bhatti, Christian and Federal Minister for Minority Affairs

His courageous pursuit towards realizing his dream of religious freedom and equality for all led him in 2008 to being appointed Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs. Within a short time, he managed to introduce a law guaranteeing minorities a five-percent share of public posts, including parliament.  He became personally involved in difficult issues confronting ordinary people, and in particular sensitive to the two percent minority Christian community. He spoke out for the voiceless, and for among others, Asia Bibi. His open criticism about the misuse of the blasphemy law resulted in an ever-growing number of threats and although conscious of the mounting very real danger, he very bravely did not back down from his commitment to help discriminated religious minorities.

On March 2, 2011, his car was sprayed with gunfire outside his Islamabad home. Twenty-seven bullets found their target.

 

A cemetery in Gojra, diocese of Faisalabad – grave of Shahbaz Bhatti -Pakistan 2011 Photo: Magdalena Wolnik

 

Two years before his death, in yet another quote from a book that has become his spiritual testament, Bhatti wrote, “My human body is wounded but these wounds are not physical wounds, they are the wounds of worry, of grief, of the sorrows and pains of the persecuted Christians of Pakistan, of the needy and the oppressed Christians. We are one family with the people who are in need. Thus as a family we should share the sorrows, the griefs and the sufferings of each other.” I am deeply convinced that these words remain equally relevant today, as much to me, as to us all.

Now Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi said of him that he was “a man with a dream, with a vision, that people of different faiths can live here together.”

 

Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab

Another brave man assassinated for opposing the blasphemy law. On January 4, 2011, Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was assassinated in Islamabad by his bodyguard, who disagreed with Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

 

Pakistan, May 2017  Women and children during Holy Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore.

The abduction and rape of women as a tool

Another tool used to discriminate and persecute Christians, Christian women in particular, according to the Religious Freedom in the World Report released recently by Aid to the Church in Need International*, the abduction of women in minorities is also on the rise in 2018. Often, authorities tell parents the girl has converted and married of her own free will. Many families don’t report the crime, or withdraw the case, because of threats against other women and girls in the family.

 

Such abductions are part of a wider pattern of sexual violence against religious-minority women: more powerless before courts than Muslim women, they are a soft target as rapists know prosecution is unlikely. If a woman cannot prove sex happened against her will, she can be accused of adultery and face arrest, flogging or even stoning to death. For this reason, many women are frightened to report sexual violence committed against them or their loved ones.

 

Mr. Bhatti’s call for prayers for freedom of religion and equality along with so many other brave souls have finally made a difference for Asia Bibi and her family who have never ceased advocating, fighting and praying for her. Reunited, but still awaiting a firm invitation from a safe country, like Canada.

 

Pakistan, May 2017 – At the St. Joseph’s Colony. Visit of the St. Joseph’s Colony, located in a Christian-dominated neighborhood of Lahore, where an enraged mob torched dozens of houses following allegations of blasphemy against a Christian man in March 2013. It appeared that the man had been falsely accused of blasphemy.

To learn more about the volatile and increasingly dangerous situation of Christians in Pakistan, the Pakistani penal code and the “blasphemy laws” introduced in 1986, please consult the full length Religious Freedom in the World Report 2018 with extensive data on the subject compiled on the international website where you can view by country: Pakistan.

By Amanda Griffin, ACN CANADA
Sources: ACN Religious Freedom Report 2016 and 2018, the Catholic Register and various ACN Press articles
*Other sources: Human Rights Council of Pakistan and the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan

ACN News: Aid to the Church in Need Religious Freedom Report 2018

22.11.2018 in ACN Canada, ACN International, ACN NEWS, ACN PRESS, Refugees, Religious freedom, Religious Freedom Report

Aggressive nationalism is fueling religious hatred –
and the West is failing to act

Report says West is not doing enough to confront new crisis of oppressive nationalism

A surge in aggressive nationalism in key parts of the world is to blame for a rise in violence and other intimidation against religious minorities – and the West is failing to convert words of concern into action, according to a report just out.

Religious Freedom Report 2018

Religious Freedom Report 2018

Assessing all 196 countries around the globe, the Religious Freedom in the World 2018 Report concludes that “ultra-nationalism” by both government and non-state actors has caused a spike in hatred against faith minorities in countries including leading regional powers such as India, China and Burma (Myanmar). The full report is to be found on the following: www.religion-freedom-report.org. The Executive Summary is in PDF format on www.acn-canada.org.

The report, produced every two years by the charity Aid to the Church in Need, finds that religious illiteracy, including within the media, and the lack of political action in the West, has exacerbated the problem, concluding that many faith minority groups suffer behind a “curtain of indifference.”

“This is a situation that we believe is a real challenge for Canada,” considers Marie-Claude Lalonde, National Director of Aid to the Church in Need Canada (ACN) “Experience tells us the more people know about a situation, the more they can act on to change what at first may have seemed completely unchangeable. Freedom of religion must become an essential concern for Canadians if we want a real change in the numbers of countries where rampant discrimination and persecution are killing so many.”

Religious Freedom in the World 2018 criticizes governments stating: “Most Western governments have failed to provide urgently needed assistance to minority faith groups, especially displaced communities wanting to return home.”

The report says most governments failed to offer displaced minority faith groups the help they themselves have requested to enable their return to northern Iraq and elsewhere following the ousting of Daesh (ISIS) and other militant groups.

Photo: © Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN) Directorate of Social Communications

Nigeria: Fulani herdsmen (Muslims), and farmers (Christians). What was mainly an economic conflict is becoming more religious as one group wants to dominate the other. (Photo: © Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN) Directorate of Social Communications)

The investigation by the Catholic charity finds that media coverage about militant Islam has focused almost exclusively on the fight-back against Daesh and affiliate groups during the period under review – 2016-18 – and has largely ignored the relentless spread of militant Islamist movements in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

According to the report, a main driver behind the growth in extremism is the growing clash between Sunni and Shi’a, the main rival branches of Islam. The report states that in the 25-month review period the situation for minority faith groups deteriorated in almost half of the countries classed as having significant violations of religious freedom – 18 out of a total of 38 countries.

Worsening intolerance towards religious minorities meant that for the first time in the report’s 19-year history two new countries: Russia and Kyrgyzstan – were placed in the “discrimination” category.

The report adds that in a number of cases, such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, the situation was already so bad that in the period under review it was virtually impossible for it to get any worse.

“This rapid deterioration of rights in critically classified countries, such as the right to practice one’s faith in freedom and security as stipulated in article 18 of the UN Charter of Human Rights should be of great concern for all people of all faiths,” says Marie-Claude Lalonde, the National Director of ACN Canada.

 

Turning to the West

Turning to the West, the report highlights a surge in extremist attacks by militants against targets in the West. Such terrorism striking at the heart of liberal democracies means that the threat can be called “neighbourhood terrorism.” The report says the danger from such terrorists is “universal, imminent and ever-present.”

Religious Freedom in the World 2018 underlines in this context the growth of both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the West as well.  Summarizing the report’s main findings, Editor-in-Chief John Pontifex said: “Aggressive ultra-nationalism – be it by hard-line governments or violent extremist groups – means many minority faith groups feel like aliens in their own country. They are easy targets in a new era of ignorance and intolerance.

“True, there are some like the Rohingya Muslims, whose plight has received due attention in the West, but so many others – such as Christians in Nigeria, Ahmadis in Pakistan and Baha’is in Iran – feel abandoned by the West where religious freedom has slipped down the human rights priority rankings.”

Mme Lalonde, in Toronto on Wednesday November 21, for a Red Wednesday interfaith prayer vigil, an event organized by Aid to the Church in Need to raise awareness about the persecution of Christians around the world said, “We must challenge this pervasive ignorance by informing, as we are doing with this rare global report on religious freedom, and challenge intolerance through acts of unity like we are doing today by praying together as brothers and sisters of many faiths.”

 

ACN News: 22.11. 2018 – International/Religious Freedom Report 2018 
by John Pontifex, Adapted by Amanda Griffin ACN Canada