The US State Department recently hosted the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Bringing together more than 1,000 civil society and religious leaders and 100 foreign delegations consisting of ministers, ambassadors and policy-makers, this was the largest ever religious freedom gathering in the world, and the biggest human rights event ever to take place at the State Department in Washington, DC.
The Ministerial was timely, coming just a week after Britain’s Foreign Secretary released the report of the independent inquiry into the persecution of Christians. On the day of the Ministerial, Pew released its annual report which found that 52 governments, including some in populous countries such as China, Indonesia and Russia, impose either “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions on religion. This was up from 40 in 2007. The number of countries where people are experiencing the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion has risen from 39 to 56 over the course of the study.
Yet amid these high-level government initiatives which provide a welcome spotlight on religious persecution around the world, a bishop from Burkina Faso raised a difficult but important point. Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Laurent Birfuoré Dabiré of Dori drew attention to the flow of weapons which jihadist groups use to target Christians in the north of the country. “If the world continues to do nothing, the result will be the elimination of the Christian presence in this area and quite possibly in future from the entire country.”
Pleading with governments to intervene to stop the supply of arms, Bishop Dabiré said: “The weapons they are using were not made here in Africa. They have rifles, machine guns and so much ammunition, more than the Burkina Faso army has at its disposal. When they come to the villages, they shoot for hours.”
He then raised a crucial question: “Who is supplying them with these resources? If they were not getting this support from outside, they would have to stop. That’s why I’m appealing to the international authorities.”
Many Christians have already been driven out by ISIS in the Middle East. They have also faced severe persecution across Africa, particularly in northern Nigeria, Sudan and Eritrea, and throughout Asia, from North Korea and China through to Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Burma, and in parts of Latin America.
In many parts of the world, Christians are persecuted by governments using repressive laws and regulations, combined with torture and imprisonment. But Christians are also targeted in some countries by both national armies and non-state armed groups, by extremists and militias with the force of arms.
Unless the flow of arms is stopped, no amount of inspiring speeches and international summits on religious freedom will change matters. That is not in any way to disparage the recent Ministerial, or Britain’s persecution report – both of which are extremely welcome in offering long overdue attention to one of the world’s most grave human rights crises. But they must be accompanied by practical measures.
Two years ago Pope Francis said that it is hypocritical to speak of peace while fueling the arms trade which, he said, only serves the “merchants of death”. The Pope told his Worldwide Prayer Network in a video message that “it’s an absurd contradiction to speak of peace, to negotiate peace, and at the same time, to promote or allow the arms trade”.
The Church does teach in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church that while “a war of aggression is intrinsically immoral”, a state that has been attacked has “the right and duty to organise a defence even using the force of arms”. Drawing on Just War theory, it also teaches that there is “the duty to protect and help innocent victims who are not able to defend themselves from acts of aggression”. But the targeting of civilians in war, resulting in their displacement and sometimes brutal massacre, is an appalling crime.
While it may be unrealistic to expect the “elimination of arms trade”, as the Pope called for two years ago, there is surely a strong case for preventing arms reaching the wrong hands. Democracies should restrict their arms sales to those countries which share democratic values, the rule of law, respect for human rights and the protection of religious freedom. This would help to ensure that arms are sold only to those states that use them for their own justifiable defence or to defend those who are vulnerable, instead of in wars of aggression and repression aimed at eliminating particular religious or ethnic groups.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that the commercial arms trade is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War. The US, which is leading the way in championing religious freedom, also produces more than half of the world’s weapons. If the inspiring messages sent out from the recent Ministerial are to mean anything, the US and its allies, including Britain, must take the lead in stopping the flow of arms to those who use them to persecute Christians and other religious minorities. They should heed Bishop Dabiré’s words: “Whoever has the power to do so, may they put a stop to all this violence.”