5 Reasons the world needs a wake-up on religious persecution

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All over the world, people—and whole communities—are suffering from persecution purely because of their religion or beliefs. This kind of violence—including attempts to annihilate whole religious groups—is on the rise.

In the past five years alone, there have been two mass atrocities that meet the United Nations’ legal definition of genocide.

So, let’s shine a light on just five of those dark corners where acts of violence based on religion or belief are a daily reality.

1) Daesh’s reign of terror

In 2014, Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL) attacked religious Yazidi and Christian minority groups in Iraq in an attempt to destroy them and establish a purely Islamic state. Daesh’s campaign of terror involved murder, kidnapping, people trafficking, rape, sexual slavery and the destruction of cultural heritage.

2) The Rohingya crisis

In 2016, atrocities perpetrated by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state reached the level of genocide, resulting in more than 700,000 people forcibly displaced to Bangladesh.

An independent, international fact-finding mission reported that “the nature, scale and organisation of the operations” suggested a level of pre-planning and design on the part of the Tatmadaw (military) leadership”. The atrocities reinforced the vision of the commander-in-chief, senior-general Min Aung Hlaing, who sought a solution to what he referred to as “The Bengali problem”.

By that he meant the Rohingya Muslims who for decades have been referred to as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

3) Christians in Nigeria

In Nigeria’s Middle Belt, Christians farmers have been slaughtered by Fulani herdsmen, attacks that have claimed hundreds of lives. Meanwhile, in northern Nigeria, the extreme Islamist group Boko Haram continues to terrorise the region and kill anyone who does not agree with their perverted ideology.

4) Oppression in China

An estimated one million Uighur Muslims have been detained in so-called “re-education camps”, which are designed to strip them of their religious and ethnic identity and replace it with absolute loyalty to the state. Also in China, members of Falun Gong (a spiritual meditation movement) are imprisoned and many of them subsequently disappear without a trace.

5) Persecution in Pakistan

In Pakistan, religious minorities, including Christians and the Muslim minority Ahmadi group, are subjected to severe discrimination that often translates into acts of violence perpetrated with impunity. For example, a Christian couple, Shahzad and Shama Masih, were beaten and burnt alive by a mob for allegedly desecrating the Qur’an.

There have been instances of Christian and Hindu girls and women being abducted and then forced to convert to Islam and marry, while religious minorities suspected of blasphemy have been attacked and murdered by angry mobs.

But even the justice system is not able to provide victims with a fair trial or redress. For example, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, spent nine years on death row after being accused of blasphemy. Her conviction was ultimately overturned after an international outcry, but there are many more facing death on accusations of blasphemy.

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So, what needs to be done?

States and civil society representatives must unite behind the common aim of addressing this neglected issue. Any action plan needs to address the different types of atrocities perpetrated in different parts of the world and improve human rights by adjusting them to international standards. Introducing mechanisms to strengthen implementation and oversight would be key. Also, placing more focus on criminal prosecutions would help deter crime and human rights violations.

The Anglican bishop of Truro in the UK, Philip Mounstephen, published a report in July 2019 on his government’s response to the persecution of Christians around the world. The report says more should be done to obtain reliable information about the situation of persecuted communities. It calls on the UK government to strengthen its response to persecution and champion international efforts that combat impunity for mass atrocities based on religion or belief. While the recommendations were written with the UK in mind, these are valid recommendations that could be adopted by other states as well.

As Tariq Ahmad—who sits in the UK’s House of Lords—has emphasised, “Our biggest challenge is not when we stand up for our own rights and beliefs. The real test is when we stand up for the rights and beliefs of others.”



Religious persecution: the facts

  1. Persecution on the grounds of religion or belief is a worldwide phenomenon. Three quarters of the world’s population live in countries that have either restrictions on the right to religion or belief, or a high level of social hostility involving religion or belief. However, these countries represent just one quarter of the world’s nations
  2. Believers of all kinds face violence or discrimination in various parts of the world: Tamil Hindus face hostility in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, atheists are subject to the death penalty in a number of Muslim-majority nations, Christians in Communist China must choose between tightly controlled official churches or “underground” unregistered groups, and Muslims have been forcibly converted to Christianity by armed “anti-balaka” groups in the Central African Republic, who are also accused of burning or burying alive women believed to be “witches”.
  3. Despite Christians comprising about 30 per cent of the world’s population, about 80 per cent of religious persecution is directed at Christians, making them the most likely group to be persecuted.
  4. The worst persecutors of religious minority groups—in terms of severity and scale—are governments or extremist groups with hardline Islamic ideologies and Communist totalitarian states, with North Korea consistently topping the list of the most repressive regimes.

Sources/more information:

Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO Support for Persecuted Christians—Interim Report, May 2019.

Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, 2017, United Nations.

• World Watch List, Open Doors.


Ewelina Ochab is a PhD candidate in the Law school at the University of Kent, UK. A humans rights advocate, she has written 30 UN reports and submissions for the Human Rights council. This article has been re-published under Creative Commons License.

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