‘A growing culture of impunity’: NGO highlights disturbing trend in global religious persecution

Western leaders’ ‘willful deafness and blindness toward autocrats’ condemned

People wait at a temporary shelter in a military camp, after being evacuated by the Indian army, as they flee ethnic violence that has hit the northeastern Indian state of Manipur on May 7, 2023. Some 23,000 people have fled ethnic violence in northeast India that has reportedly killed at least 54, the army said on May 7, 2023, although there was no new 'major violence' overnight.
People wait at a temporary shelter in a military camp, after being evacuated by the Indian army, as they flee ethnic violence that has hit the northeastern Indian state of Manipur on May 7, 2023. Some 23,000 people have fled ethnic violence in northeast India that has reportedly killed at least 54, the army said on May 7, 2023, although there was no new "major violence" overnight. | ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

In a report published this week, Aid to the Church in Need sheds light on the escalating culture of impunity surrounding religious persecution worldwide. It reveals that over 4.9 billion people reside in countries with severe violations of religious freedom.

These 4.9 billion people live in 61 countries, where the state of religious freedom, as secured in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, looks grim, says the report, titled the 2023 World Religious Freedom Report, that covers the period from January 2021 to December 2022.

“It means that 62% of humanity lives in countries where people are not free to practice, express or change their religion,” ACN says. “Culprits of religious freedom violations range from armed terror groups to authoritarian governments, but the rule continues to be one of impunity for attackers who are rarely, if ever, brought to justice or criticized by the international community.”

Of the 61 countries, 28 are marked in red, denoting “hot countries” where persecution is rampant, while an additional 33 are marked in orange, indicating high levels of discrimination.

The situation has worsened in 47 of these countries since the previous report, with only nine showing signs of improvement, the report says.

The growth of impunity has been remarkable over the last two years, said Marcela Szymanski, ACN’s head of advocacy, in a virtual press conference where the report and its executive summary were presented.

“Normally, the West would be at least saying something … ‘Oh, you don't do that, or I’m looking at you, I’m going to impose some sanctions, I’m going to reduce your trade facilities, etc.’ Now, they are not doing anything,” she said.

“There is willful deafness and blindness towards these autocrats because they (leaders in the West) need them.”

Political leaders in Europe, the United States, and other nations often readily jeopardize their commitment to civil rights and religious freedom, swayed by their policy imperatives, she continued.

United States President Joe Biden hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who departed on Saturday, at a time when a spate of violence in the northeastern state of Manipur was ongoing. The visit occurred amid criticism of the Biden administration for purportedly overlooking severe violations of religious freedom in India.

Szymanski added, “It’s unbelievable that the same countries that you see (marked in red and orange) … are the same countries where you have material for sustainable energy development and for fossil fuels. So there you are in a very dangerous combination of dependency and wishful thinking about principles.”

The ACN report reveals that half of the countries with the most severe restrictions on religious freedom are in Africa, where a rise in jihadist activity, especially in the Sahel region, continues to be of great concern. “But Asia — where China continues to try to exert totalitarian control over all areas of society, including religion, and India, where state-sponsored ethno-religious nationalism manifests itself, among others, in the form of harsh anti-conversion laws — is also a continent of particular concern.”

The study attributes this alarming trend to a combination of factors, including the global climate impacted by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fallout of the war in Ukraine, the military and economic concerns around the South China Sea, and the rapid increase in the cost of living worldwide.

Autocrats and fundamentalist group leaders view religious communities as threats to their power and authority and retain and consolidate power globally, the report highlights, saying they were found to be responsible for increased violations of religious freedom.

The oppression of religious communities was facilitated by a range of tactics such as terrorist attacks, destruction of religious heritage and symbols, electoral system manipulation, mass surveillance, anti-conversion laws and financial restrictions, ACN points out.

The report also identifies several significant trends that have emerged during the study period.

Firstly, it highlights the emergence of “hybrid” cases of persecution, characterized by a combination of “polite” restrictions on religious freedom through controversial laws and the normalization of violent attacks against individuals of certain faiths. Governments in various regions discriminated against religious communities through the implementation of laws that restricted their freedom of religion, while violent attacks against these communities went largely unpunished, ACN explains.

The report also notes a shift in the profile of persecuted religious communities, with majoritarian religious groups now increasingly experiencing persecution alongside traditional minority communities. This trend was observed in countries such as Nigeria and Nicaragua.

Another troubling aspect highlighted in the report is the muted response from the international community toward religious freedom violations by strategically important autocratic regimes such as China and India. This growing culture of impunity allows key countries like Nigeria and Pakistan to escape international sanctions despite revelations of severe violations against their own citizens, the report points out.

The rise of “opportunistic caliphates” was also observed during the study period, particularly in Africa. Transnational jihadist networks altered their tactics by focusing on hit-and-run attacks to establish isolated communities in poorly defended rural areas with valuable mineral resources. This shift in strategy has led to increased insecurity, revolts and military coups in affected regions.

The report further highlights divergent trends within Muslim communities, with disenfranchised youth increasingly attracted to Islamist terrorist and criminal networks in Africa, while growing numbers of Muslims in Iran and elsewhere identify as non-religious.

The Jewish community in the West has not been spared from religious persecution either, according to the report, which shows an increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes following the COVID-19 lockdowns, with reported incidents rising from 582 in 2019 to 1,367 in 2021 in countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Abductions, sexual violence, and forced religious conversion remain rampant and largely unpunished in various regions, particularly West Africa and Pakistan, the report continues. Worsening poverty and increased armed conflicts have fueled abductions and human trafficking, with religious minority women and girls disproportionately affected.

The report also sheds light on the manipulation of religious data in some countries as a means of maintaining political power. Faith communities seeking to preserve their status have exaggerated the number of faithful by providing misleading information during official registrations or postponing population census indefinitely. Lebanon, India and Malaysia are cited as examples of this trend.

Furthermore, the study reveals an increase in scrutiny and mass surveillance targeting faith groups, particularly in Western countries. Social media platforms have been used to marginalize and target religious communities, undermining fundamental liberties such as freedom of conscience, thought, religion, expression, movement and assembly.

In Western nations, the emergence of "cancel culture" and "compelled speech" has further threatened religious freedom. Individuals who hold differing views for religious reasons have faced harassment, legal threats, and job loss for failing to conform to prevailing ideological demands. Social media has played a significant role in driving this trend.

The report highlights the insertion of derogatory content about minority faiths in school textbooks in countries like India and Pakistan, which could have far-reaching consequences for inter-faith relations in the future.

The proliferation of anti-conversion legislation and reconversion initiatives has also been noted, particularly in Asia and North Africa. Harsher implementation of existing laws and new legislation aim to consolidate political power for religious majorities, while economic benefits are offered to those who join or return to the majority religion. The welfare of entire families, particularly in poverty-stricken areas, is compromised when individuals convert or revert, CAN says.

Religious leaders and Church personnel have increasingly become targets of organized criminal groups in Latin America, the report adds. Those who champion the rights of migrants and other disadvantaged communities have been subjected to abductions and even murder for speaking out against criminal gangs and taking action against them.

On a positive note, the report indicates record participation in popular religious celebrations following the COVID-19 lockdowns. After years of restrictions, the return of major religious feasts has attracted millions of faithful worldwide, serving as a public expression of popular religiosity.

The report concludes by underscoring the global rise of authoritarian governments and fundamentalist leaders.

This deadly effect on religious freedom is exacerbated by a culture of impunity, with perpetrators of religious persecution rarely facing prosecution in 36 countries. The silence of the international community toward violations of religious freedom, particularly in strategically important countries, contributes to this culture of impunity.

Africa remains the most violent continent in terms of religious persecution, with jihadist attacks intensifying and spreading to neighboring countries. Nearly half of the "hot countries" identified in the RFR map are located in Africa, with regions such as the Sahel region, Lake Chad, Mozambique, and Somalia being particularly affected.

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