All rights are equal but some rights are more equal than others. FIFA and Qatari authorities are rightly criticized for restrictions on LGBT rights and their treatment of migrant workers. But nothing is said about the abuse of religious freedom rights, a global problem as well as a local problem in Qatar and other Gulf states where many migrant workers, especially those who are domestic workers , are Christians from the Philippines.
Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights spells out in detail what the right to religious freedom means – flouted around the world. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change religion or belief, as well as freedom, alone or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest one’s religion or belief through teaching, practice, worship and observance.” This means little in practice today, neither in the world nor in Qatar which hosts large inter-religious gatherings but where, even at Easter, Christian servants are denied time off to attend church services.
Around the world, harassment and persecution of people because of their faith, ranging from verbal abuse and hate speech to arson and murder, is steadily increasing. Only eight of the 198 countries monitored by the evangelical Christian organization Open Doors achieve good health status. Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic organization that works in over 140 countries, is currently running a “Break the Silence” campaign to raise awareness of the persecution of Christians and all faiths. [my italics] with a day of special events this Wednesday at the Ukrainian Catholic Church in London. Aid to the Church in Need has also renewed focus on Nigeria, where attacks on Christian churches have risen from 18 in 2019 to 31 in 2020 and 23 in the first six months of this year alone.
Religious freedom, a touchstone of human rights around the world, is not ignored in Britain, but tends to be primarily a concern of the Conservative Party. The UK has a special envoy for Freedom of Religious Belief (FoRB), Fiona Bruce MP, an evangelical Christian. The Commons and Lords, the latter with 26 Church of England bishops, the Lords Spiritual, lobby and speak out on FoRB issues. But with the exception of Uyghurs and Rohingyas, the cases they raise are rarely deemed newsworthy, can be complex, and rarely command widespread sympathy.
Take the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian. When she offered water to a Muslim colleague, it was refused; her “Christian hands” made her haram, forbidden. He was told to convert to Islam to cleanse his impurity. An altercation ensued in which she allegedly blasphemed against the Prophet and the Quran. Eventually, Asia Bibi was convicted under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and spent eight years on death row before being acquitted by a High Court judgment in October 2018. Here is a named person, a picker of fruit, a working woman we could sympathize with. Public opinion has woken up.
According to Open Doors, of the three Abrahamic religions, Christians suffer some degree of harassment and persecution in 145 of the world’s 198 states, Muslims in 139, and Jews in 88. But is the discrimination still based solely on on faith? In India, the Modi government, for its own ends, promotes cultural nationalism based on Hinduism against Muslims. Are the Hazaras in Afghanistan being persecuted because they are not Pashtuns or because they are Shias or both?
Particularly in Africa, certain ethnicities, minorities and professional groups are identified by their religious beliefs. Bloody clashes over land use in parts of northern Nigeria between herders, who are largely Muslim, and farmers, who are largely Christian, are seen as a religious conflict. From a certain point of view, these distinctions are not important. Either way, human rights are seriously violated. And as my old Nigerian friend Matthew Kukah, Bishop of Sokoto, once said, “What do you call these people? I call them criminals.”
In 1971, a synod of the Catholic bishops of the world declared: “The action in favor of justice and the participation in the transformation of the world appear to us fully as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel. A verbose way of saying that for Catholics, working for justice is a religious obligation, an integral part of Christian practice and observance – so politics and religion cannot be clearly separated. In the repressive states of southern Africa and Latin America where I worked, Christian resistance labeled it persecution, imprisonment, torture and death. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, shot on the altar in 1980, made a saint of the Catholic Church, has become an icon of this kind of martyrdom.
A little-discussed feature of the Cold War is how global political and ideological division permeated the Catholic Church itself. In Moscow, I had the unsettling experience of hearing devout Catholics whose small church opposite the KGB’s Lubyanka headquarters had cameras trained on the door, dismiss the late Cardinal Paolo Arns as a communist. Arns, a cardinal committed to the poor, was a tireless campaigner against human rights abuses by Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship.
From 1960 to 1990, in Latin America, the Philippines and South Africa, opposition to military dictatorships, oligarchies and apartheid produced martyrs killed for following the simple demands of justice. Opposition to Communist Party repression in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had the same consequences. But because of the ideological barrier of the Cold War, these victims of tyranny never engaged in a serious dialogue with each other. Religious orders with members from both parts of the world have experienced this same division within their own ranks. Catholic charities worked on different sides of the divide, Aid to the Church in Need in the Communist World, the Catholic Institute for International Relations in Latin America, the Philippines, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe ), South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique. There was no rallying around the shared experience of persecution and the terrifying hardships of those who resisted tyranny.
Today, there are new violations of religious freedom. Christians pursuing environmental causes are living martyrdom in Latin America. The question arises, who is responsible for such persecution? State action or state inaction? A former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, a raised Christian and leading opponent of blasphemy laws, was murdered by his bodyguard for supporting Asia Bibi. An ungodly amalgamation of state and working society.
Information abounds. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom publishes an annual factual global report. Utah Mormons have a comprehensive archive of FoRB court cases. In 2019, Anglican Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro produced an independent review for the Foreign Secretary called Support for the Persecuted Church. It contains an excellent summary of the plight of Christians around the world and suggests what could be done about it. But nothing changes much for the better.
In the UK, we have no right to be complacent. Anti-Semitism alongside Islamophobia remains a unifying theme for far-right organizations. I listened to black Pentecostals who believed that Muslims worshiped the devil. Ahmadis suffer the contempt, and sometimes worse, of their Muslim neighbors. Anti-Catholicism springs from the depths of social networks. The Labor Party has been investigated and castigated for its failure to adequately address anti-Semitism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and a question mark hangs over the level of anti-Muslim prejudice within the Conservative Party. Tensions between Muslims and Hindus have surfaced in Leicester.
Don’t expect these symptoms of hostility and prejudice to improve as poverty and social dislocation, intolerance and discrimination recruiting sergeants, increase in Britain and the rest of the world .
Professor Ian Linden is Visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Strawberry Hill, London. Former director of the Catholic Institute of International Relations, he received a CMG for his work in favor of human rights in 2000. He was also an adviser on European and justice and peace issues in the Department of of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. Ian chairs a new after-schooling charity in Beirut for Syrian refugees and Lebanese children at risk of dropping out in partnership with CARITAS Lebanon and works on the board of the Las Casas Institute in Oxford with Richard Finn OP. His last book was Global Catholicism published by Hurst in 2009.
Professor Ian Linden’s website: www.ianlinden.com/
Professor Ian Linden’s Blog: www.ianlinden.com/blogs.html