Freedom of religion is denied in much of the world, according to the U.S. ambassador for religious freedom. And a United Nations committee of NGOs dedicated to religious liberty has called the UN to protect the most fundamental freedom.
“Eighty percent of the world’s population lives in a religiously restricted atmosphere,” Sam Brownback told the committee. “Eighty percent of the world is religious. How can we tolerate this continuing situation?”
He recounted harrowing tales of persecution that he had personally witnessed, especially in the Middle East.
“In Iraq we’ve seen a genocide of Yazidis and Christians, and I’ve met myself Yazidi women sold up to 10 times by ISIS fighters claiming a religious mandate to be able to do this,” Brownback said. “I’ve talked to a woman who had a 15-year-old mentally handicapped child beat out of her arms, that they said they could take him from her … because of her faith.”
Hajnalka Juhasz, part of Hungary’s government commission on Christian persecution, recounted the statistics of Christians fleeing their native lands as the terrorist caliphate expanded.
“The greatest achievement for Western civilization, democracy, is founded on our shared values of tolerance and individual freedom,” Juhasz said. “These values originate in the Middle East, the cradle of Judaism and Christianity.”
She warned that her commission finds the freedom of religion facing increasing restrictions in the West, as well – something other watchdogs have amplified.
The UN has been part of the problem, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has issued a 48-page white paper on global religious persecution. “The focus among UN entities, from treaty bodies to special rapporteurs to UN agencies, is limiting the exercise of conscientious objection” to providing abortion or potentially abortifacient contraception.
An ecumenical group of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders in Europe shared similar concerns in a 2017 statement. They warned that Christians in Europe suffer “more subtle forms of discrimination,” such as “when they are excluded from certain roles or professions, when their right to conscientious objection is disregarded, or when persons who request counselling when faced with the choice of performing an abortion have that request denied.”
Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama said persecution, of any religion by any other religion “gives the wrong impression that religion is a force for evil.” That, too, echoes present realities in the West. Most Scandinavians and many Europeans believe religion has had a negative impact on history, and 53 percent of Western Europeans describe themselves as neither religious nor spiritual.
Interfaith tension is fed, in part, by government policy. Brownback said he just returned from a regional summit in Abu Dhabi to address “hateful” material in school textbooks directed against religious minorities in the Middle East, especially Christians and Jews.
These textbooks, he noted, were funded by the respective national governments. They may, indeed, have been financed in part by the religious minorities demonized in the texts.
A particularly heated moment came in the question-and-answer session, when the representative from China objected to characterizations of his nation’s persecution of its Uighur Muslim population.
The mass imprisonment of China’s religious minority population was carried out “in accordance with law,” in response to terrorist attacks, and to prevent the formation of a budding Boko Haram, he said.
Thomas Farr of the Religious Freedom Institute called the statement offensive and outrageous.
“This is what causes terrorism,” Farr responded. “This is tantamount to a new Cultural Revolution in China. The entire world condemns what’s happening there.”
Brownback called for “a global movement of religious freedom” that has “carrots and teeth associated with it” at the meeting, held in Geneva on March 1.
Archbishop Kaigama called for an end to inciting religious hatred.
“Sanity, not sentiments, must prevail in matters of religion,” he said. “Competition in matters of religion should only be about doing good.”
You can watch the full proceedings below: