Over 5.2 billion people suffer religious freedom violations every day. This is one of the harrowing details that are revealed in the 2021 edition of the Religious Freedom in the World Report (RFR), the main research project of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

From a small booklet first published about 22 years ago, today the RFR has become a publication of about 800 researched pages produced by a worldwide team. This evolution reflects the fact that discrimination and persecution on grounds of religious belief is a growing global phenomenon that passes under the radar of most media organisations.

With the participation of international speakers who themselves are experiencing discrimination and persecution in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria, the Malta office of ACN held a national conference to launch the RFR’s executive summary on the island.

The testimonials of Fr Spiridon Kabbash (Syria), Archbishop Bashar Warda (Iraq), Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama (Nigeria), Mgr Hector Scerri, and Regina Lynch from ACN International, highlighted aspects of real-life situations that were mentioned in the RFR findings.

ACN is the only international organisation specifically dedicated to helping persecuted and oppressed Christians in the world today.

Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Contrary to these provisions, millions of believers of various religions continue to suffer more and more infringements of this basic human right, as the RFR has discovered. 

An astonishing one out of every three countries suffer violations of religious freedom (see graphic). The 26 countries in the red category, indicating persecution, are home to 3,900 million people,  just over half of the world’s population. This classification includes 12 African countries as well as China and Myanmar (Burma) where investigations are ongoing for possible genocide.

The 36 countries in the orange category, indicating discrimination, are home to 1,240 million persons, and, in these countries, full religious freedom is neither enjoyed nor constitutionally guaranteed.

Religious freedom is violated in 31.6 per cent of the world’s countries, where (67 per cent) of the world’s population live, that is close to 5,200 million persons. Out of 196 countries, 62 face severe violations of religious freedom. The worst offenders include Bangladesh, China, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Among the RFR’s main findings, perhaps the most dangerous factors impacting religious freedom today include authoritarian governments, such as the Marxist dictatorship in North Korea, Islamist extremism, particularly evident in Sub-Saharan Africa with the rise of transnational jihadist groups and ethnic-religious nationalism, that is the promotion of ethnic and religious supremacy in some Hindu and Buddhist majority countries in Asia.

The countries of East and West Africa are home to a complex mosaic of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups and a predominantly youthful population.

Perhaps the most dangerous factors impacting religious freedom today include authoritarian governments, Islamic extremism and ethnic-religious nationalism

While the region has considerable human and natural resources, poverty, corruption and a lack of educational and employment opportunities for young people are resulting in frustration, social instability and mass migrations.

The situation is further exploited by local and transnational criminal and jihadist groups.

Fourteen of these countries have become a haven for around 25 extremist groups actively operating and increasingly cooperating. Research reveals that, in  the first quarter of 2020, the number of people killed by armed groups in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad and Mali have more than doubled compared to the same period in 2019. In Burkina Faso alone, 65,000 people were displaced by terrorist groups in February 2019. Only 12 months later, in February 2020, no less than 765,000 people were displaced by these terrorist groups.

The report refers to “unimaginable violence”. In early November last year, 15 boys and five adults were decapitated with machetes by Islamic State insurgents during an initiation rite for newly-recruited teenage boys. These massacres followed an earlier mass attack in April 2020, in which an estimated 52 men were killed in the village of Xitaxi, after refusing to join the ranks of the jihadists.

The ACN report reveals the rise of transnational Islamist networks – with ideological and material support from the Middle East – stretching from Mali to Mozambique in Sub-Saharan Africa, to the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean and to the Philippines (Mindanao) in the South China Sea, with the aim of creating a so-called “transcontinental caliphate”.

A new category introduced in this report refers specifically to countries “under observation” where emerging factors related to freedom of religion have been observed. This is tangibly demonstrated through an increase in hate crimes with a religious bias against people and property, ranging from vandalism against places of worship and religious symbols to violent crimes against faith leaders and the faithful.

COVID-19 also had a profound impact on the right to religious freedom. Some governments imposed extraordinary measures, in some cases applying disproportionate limitations on religious worship, as compared to other secular activities. In some countries, such as Pakistan or India, humanitarian aid was withheld from religious minorities.

COVID-19 was also used as a pretext to stigmatise certain religious groups for allegedly spreading/causing the pandemic.

However, the report mentions some positive steps in the period under review. Following Pope Francis’s meeting in 2019 with the Grand Imam Ahamad Al-Tayyib of Al-Azar, the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, the two leaders met again in 2020 in the United Arab Emirates to co-sign the Abu Dhabi declaration on human fraternity. This papal visit to the UAE was marked by the first-ever celebration of a papal Mass on the Arabian peninsula.

Pope Francis said: “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without any rights to a voice in the public sphere, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”

The report concludes that the reality is that religious freedom is under threat as never before.

To read more about the report, visit http://acninternational.org/religiousfreedomreport/home/.

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