Why isn't religious freedom 'the defining issue of our time'?

What is the defining human rights issue of our time? Candidates include inequality (Barack Obama), modern slavery (Theresa May), climate change (UN), transgender equality (Joe Biden) and even biodiversity (New Scientist).

Perhaps someone could tell the one million Uyghurs who are locked in internment camps in China because they are Muslims. “Members of the Xinjiang Uyghur minority, along with others who were identified as Muslim, [are] being treated as enemies of the State based on nothing more than their ethno-religious identity,” according to a recent UN report. Massimo Introvigne, editor of Bitter Winter, an on-line magazine about religious liberty in China, agrees: “although no persecution is ever purely religious, the Uyghurs are indeed victims of a religious persecution.”

About 690,000 Muslim Royhingyas have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh since August 2017 after ethnic cleansing by the Army sparked by Buddhist monks. In Myanmar religion, ethnicity and politics are closely interlinked so it is difficult to categorise this massive dislocation as pure religious persecution. However, without doubt religion is a major factor.

Nobody has locked up one million people because they don’t believe in climate change. Or transgender equality. Or biodiversity. No one has forced 690,000 people into exile either.     

Without a doubt, violations of religious freedom touch more people globally than any other aspect of human rights. Yet, according to a survey of religious freedom by the Catholic NGO Aid to the Church in Need, “In the eyes of Western governments and the media, religious freedom is slipping down the human rights priority rankings, being eclipsed by issues of gender, sexuality and race.”

The report, which covers the two years to June 2018, found that “the situation 
for minority faith groups deteriorated in 18 of the 38 countries – almost half – found to have significant religious freedom violations. Especially serious decline was noted in China and India. 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.”

Chinese authorities are clamping down on all religious groups. In February, the most restrictive new laws on religious practice in 13 years came into effect, with new restrictions on online religious expression and proselytising. In April the government issued a white paper which declares that “active guidance” will be provided to religious organisations to help them “adapt to the socialist society”. Religion, according to the white paper, must serve the Communist Party.

All religions suffer. Between 2014 and 2016, authorities in Zhejiang Province forcibly removed thousands of crosses from churches and destroyed part or all of some church buildings. Last year, not long before Christmas, thousands of Christians in an impoverished county in rural southeast China swapped their posters of Jesus for portraits of President Xi Jinping as part of a local government poverty-relief programme. Officials successfully “melted the hard ice in their hearts” and “transformed them from believing in religion to believing in the party”, according to local media.

The crackdown on Muslims in China’s west has been particularly severe. But perhaps harshest of all is the persecution of the Falun Gong sect. The government’s aim is to “destroy their reputations, cut them off financially, and eradicate them physically.” Apparently they take this literally, as there are persistent reports that Falun Gong members in prison are killed to supply a growing need for organs.

India is a secular democracy with constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. But extremists amongst the Hindu majority bitterly resent a downward trend in proportion of Hindu Indians, an upward trend amongst Muslims and the stabilisation of the proportion of Christians. According to a national government report presented to Parliament in February 86 people were killed in sectarian violence in 2016 and 111 in 2017.

There are persistent proposals to put a stop to Christian proselytising. Of India’s 29 states and seven territories, six have passed anti-conversion laws. Laws to protect cows, which are sacred to devout Hindus, are increasing. In Rajasthan a “Cow Ministry” has been established and in Gujarat, the sentence for illegal slaughter of cows increased from seven years to life imprisonment.

The report attributes an overall rise in global religious persecution to what it calls “ultra-nationalism” in countries like Russia, Myanmar, India and China. This “not only identifies a threat to the nation-state from law-abiding minority groups but carries out acts of aggression calculated to force them to forsake their distinctive identity or leave the country.”

There are some bright spots. The defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has meant that there are fewer incidents of Islamic persecution of Christians and other minorities. Some Christians have returned to their home villages. There has also been a sharp decline in violence by the jihadist group Al Shabaab in Kenya and Tanzania.  

However, globally, the report concludes, “Compared to two years ago, more countries with significant religious freedom violations showed signs of deteriorating conditions for faith minorities – 18 countries, up four on the figure for 2016.”

The question that the report poses for prosperous and largely peaceful Western countries is this: why isn’t more attention being paid to religious persecution? It is vastly under-reported. John Pontifex, spokesman for Aid to the Church in Need, argues that Western indifference fuels persecution elsewhere. “The impact of this apparent international indifference cannot be over-estimated, since the disengagement actively contributes to the problem, with few if any steps being taken to hold the governments in question to account.”

True, the plight of the Royhingya was widely publicised. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, now a minister in the Myanmar government, has been ostracised by her former admirers in the West for not defending them. But, says Pontifex, “This publicity is the exception to the prevailing trend; a cultural curtain has fallen, behind which religious minorities suffer as the religiously illiterate West turns a blind eye. In Europe and elsewhere in the West, little has been done to convert words of concern into an agenda to defend and uphold religious liberty.”

This is dangerous, he asserts. “For it remains the case that for the majority of people in the world, religion is a crucial, and often pre-eminent, driving force. The West ignores this at its peril.”

However, it is not simply the case that religious persecution is losing out in a media competition with sea turtles skewered by plastic straws and the love lives of the Kardashians. In an increasingly secularised society there’s an underlying indifference toward the very notion of religious freedom. It's no more than an obsolete nuisance cluttering up the legal system. As Harvard human rights expert Mary Ann Glendon told the online Catholic news service Crux, religious freedom, especially in the United States is “becoming a second-class right that is regularly, or too often, subordinated to a whole range of other rights, claims and interests.”

For instance, Princeton professor Brian Leiter argues in his influential 2012 book Why Tolerate Religion? that religious denominations in the US do not deserve legal and financial exemptions. The concept of "freedom of religion" is pointless, he argues. To protect freedom of conscience and to shield people from discrimination, the notions of freedom of expression and freedom of association are more than enough. 

“That’s very dangerous, and of course it betrays a lack of understanding of the role of religious freedom as foundational for many other rights,” Glendon comments.

Perhaps Western sympathisers with religious freedom ought to take a leaf out of the #MeToo book. As the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir, said last week in an interview with Deutsche Welle: “One of the things the #MeToo revolution has taught us all is that oppression of women thrives in silence. If we do not speak up and let it be known that we no longer tolerate certain behavior, things won't change. If we stay silent, women will keep on suffering."

Oppression of religion thrives on silence too. We all have to speak up. Otherwise people of faith around the world will continue to suffer.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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