Christians were dragged from their church in India’s Chhattisgarh state and beaten with sticks as their attackers demanded they convert to Hinduism.
Following this assault in November 2015, Catholic Bishop Patras Minj of Ambikapur described itinerant priests’ “tremendous fear” after local legislation banned “non-Hindu religious propaganda, prayers and speeches in villages.”
India’s Hindu extremists are flexing their muscle against minority faiths, sometimes with shocking results. In June one religious Sister in Chhattisgarh was gang raped.
But India is not only the only country where religious minorities currently face persecution, oppression and coercion. A litany of states can be mentioned – North Korea, Sudan, China, Pakistan, Eritrea – all of which restrict the rights of their citizens to freely live out their faith.
Indeed a litany of horrors can be recited too (even if we restrict ourselves to events in November 2015):
– Fr Pedro Yu Heping, who criticised the Chinese government, was found dead in suspicious circumstances, floating in Shanxi’s Fen River.
– Iraq’s parliament tried to pass a law forcing non-Muslim children to convert to Islam when one parent remarried or changed religion.
– A church in Jakarta, Indonesia was ordered to relocate by authorities – indeed a law promoting “religious harmony” has led to more than
1,000 church closures since 2006.
Given all this it is, perhaps, surprising that the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, is not receiving more attention.
Dignitatis Humanae responded to the evils of the 20th century which had seen religious groups severely persecuted by both Soviets and Nazis.
Christians made up a sizeable proportion of those who suffered in Stalin’s gulags and the genocide of the Jewish people in the concentration camps shocked the world. The Church had seen the denigration of human dignity and wanted to ensure secular power did not encroach “on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations”.
The Declaration on Religious Freedom calls for liberty for religious groups from states, groups and individuals who seek to repress and subject those whose faith they disagree with. Indeed ISIS’s campaign of terror in the Middle East (which is paralleled by Boko Haram’s in Nigeria) illustrates that it is not always states who violently persecute religious minorities, sometimes it is groups. But such atrocities should lead the international community to ensure that religious freedom is respected and minorities protected. Instead we see vulnerable religious groups ignored in both the distribution of UN aid to refugees and by programmes designed to relocate the most insecure.
In Dignitatis Humanae the Church prophetically demands that human dignity and freedom in religious matters is recognised and upheld. But when people look back on 2015 – the anniversary of the Vatican II declaration – they will see churches torn down, priests detained without trial, Christian women beaten to death, and realise that its prophetic call is still far from being heard.
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