Comment Opinion & Features

The West’s cowardice has helped cause a wave of persecution

A damaged statue of Mary is seen in a church in Qaraqosh, Iraq (CNS)

Iraqi Christians can attest to Western indifference

Where in the world is religious liberty rapidly shrinking? Is it under tyrannical regimes like North Korea, in communist countries such as China or in Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia? All three countries are – unsurprisingly – named as violators of religious freedom in a new study by the charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). But the nation causing the most alarm, according to the report, is a democracy with a fast-growing economy and strong ties to the West.

ACN’s Religious Freedom in the World report, released last week and available at religion-freedom-report.org, singles out India as one of the world’s worst nations in which to be a religious minority. “Among those countries which saw the sharpest decline in religious freedom during the period in question [2016-2018], India is particularly significant as it is the world’s second most populous country,” it notes. The report has no difficulty identifying the cause of this deterioration: “a rise in religious ultra-nationalism”. As Hindu nationalism – which asserts that Hindus are the only truly authentic Indians – grows in political strength, religious minorities are driven further to the margins.

According to the new report, India is the most notable instance of a global trend towards “religious ultra-nationalism”. It cites other examples, such as Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan presents Sunni Islam as the basis of national identity. This has negative consequences not only for Turkey’s small number of Christians, but also for minority Muslim groups such as Alevis and Alawites.

Yet this year’s Religious Freedom in the World report is, in some respects, more hopeful than the last edition, issued in 2016 when ISIS was rampaging through Syria and Iraq. That report coined the term “hyper-extremism” to describe the savage persecution of religious minorities by surging Islamist groups. Two years on, with ISIS driven out of most of its strongholds and militants on the run elsewhere, the situation is somewhat less bleak. “A sharp decline in Al Shabaab militant violence meant that Tanzania and Kenya – ranked as ‘Persecution’ countries in 2016 – were re-categorised ‘Unclassified’ in 2018,” the report says.

There is still plenty of cause for concern. ACN identities significant violations of religious freedom in 38 of the 196 countries surveyed. In 18 of these – almost half – the plight of minorities has deteriorated. “In many of the others – including North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Eritrea – the situation was already so bad, it could scarcely get any worse,” the report notes. ACN places two new countries – Russia and Kyrgyzstan – in the “Discrimination” category for the first time.

The charity believes there is a second major factor, alongside religious ultra-nationalism, that explains the decline in religious liberty in some parts of the world. This is the moral cowardice of the West: our reluctance to insist that religious freedom, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should apply to all, regardless of their birthplace.

The report argues that a “curtain of indifference” has fallen between the West and oppressive nations. While it acknowledges that the media spotlight was briefly trained on Rohingya Muslims as they were driven out of Buddhist-majority Burma, it argues that this was an “exception to the prevailing trend”. “In the eyes of Western governments and the media,” the report says, “religious freedom is slipping down the human rights priority rankings, being eclipsed by issues of gender, sexuality and race.”

Iraqi Christians can attest to Western indifference. After ISIS was driven from the Nineveh Plains, the faithful began to return to their towns and villages, only to find that many of their homes were uninhabitable. But despite many statements of concern in London and Washington, neither Britain nor the United States has done much to help those seeking to rebuild their lives. “This work of rehabilitation has mainly been done by charities and Church organisations,” ACN says. “Had they not provided this assistance, the Christian community in the region could have vanished. Western governments, to whom appeals for urgent assistance were made, badly let down the communities concerned.”

This is where we, the Catholic community in the West, can help. We should put pressure on our elected representatives to stand up for persecuted minorities around the world. We must part the “curtain of indifference” so that the downtrodden can enjoy the liberties that we so easily take for granted.