Firefighters work outside the burning church of Asuncion after it was set on fire by demonstrators on the commemoration of the first anniversary of the social uprising in Chile, in Santiago, on October 18, 2020. (CLAUDIO REYES/AFP via Getty Images)
Written by more than 30 experts and running to more than 700 pages all told, the report looks at religious freedom violations in 196 countries – basically every country on earth – and covers trouble spots both on and off journalists’ radar screens.
From China, where the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities including Uighur Muslims and Christians of various denominations has made headlines alongside the use of new technology to oppress religious believers, to Africa, where Islamic militancy is becoming more organized and more brutally efficient, to other parts of Asia and across the global south, the document offers painstaking analysis and frequently gruesome detail.
One case study offers a stark picture of an increasingly violent and destructive situation in Chile, where dozens of churches have been burned during months of general social unrest.
“The initial social discontent lasted for over three months,” the executive summary recounts, “later diminishing to sporadic protests across Chile,” where the protracted crisis of Church governance has combined with general social malaise to produce a particularly toxic and destructive environment.
The case study details reported looting, damage, and occasionally destruction of churches between October 2019 and October 2020. “In total 59 churches, 53 Catholic and six Evangelical, were vandalised in eight cities across the country.”
Things have improved at least marginally, according to the report, in places like Cuba, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and Iraq. Almost everywhere else in the world, circumstances have either remained substantially unchanged, or deteriorated since the last similar ACN report in 2018.
“The methodology was revised between this current report and the last report in 2018,” Fionn Shiner of ACN told the Catholic Herald, explaining that the change in methodology has made direct comparison difficult. “What we can say is that some countries have certainly got a lot worse.”
Shiner specifically cited situations in Africa, “where the threat of jihadism has grown,” and China, as well.
“What we can learn from this is that authoritarian governments continue to see religion as an existential threat and the military defeat of Daesh (ISIS) in the Middle East has by no means meant the end of global, Islamic terrorism,” Shiner said.
He noted that religious freedom has improved in Iraq, and pointed to Pope Francis’s recent historic pilgrimage to the country as evidence. “The military defeat of Daesh has been a good thing for the country,” Shiner went on to say. “However, the future of Christianity in Iraq is not secure.”
One of the more disturbing trends the report discusses is the emergence of a so-called “cyber-caliphate” apparently expanding hand-in-hand with “growing jihadi networks across the equator which aspire to transcontinental “caliphates”. The cyber-caliphate, Shiner explained, “is an established tool of online recruitment and radicalisation in the West.”
“Citizens should be aware that terrorists are using the internet as a tool to radicalise impressionable young minds,” he warned.
Shiner also warns that ability of Western societies successfully to advocate for the basic rights of their fellows in other places continues to depend on vigilance at home.
“Polite persecution” is the term – coined by Pope Francis – which the report uses to denote the quiet relegation of religious believers from the public square in Western countries.
“Western Christians who have been kicked off social media sites for their beliefs on same-sex marriage,” Shiner told the Herald, “should not equate their treatment to underage Christian girls in Pakistan who are abducted, raped, forced to marry and convert to Islam.”
“The two things are not remotely the same in terms of trauma and harm,” he said. “However, what can be said is that religious freedom violations act on a continuum and acts of violence against religious believers do not emerge out of a vacuum.”
“So,” he continued, “if Western countries wish to have moral integrity advocating for human rights (of which religious freedom is a vital one) in developing countries, then they need to ensure that believers in their own countries are not quietly made to suffer for expressing beliefs and opinions that go against the prevailing culture of the day.”