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Introduction

By Dr. Thomas Heine-Geldern, Executive President of ACN

“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, 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. [1]

Pope Francis

 

On 28th May 2019, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution establishing 22nd August as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The proposal had been tabled by Poland with the support the United States, Canada, Brazil, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria and Pakistan. This resolution was a clear message and mandate – and every 22nd August a reminder – that acts of violence based on religion cannot and will not be tolerated by the UN, its member states or civil society.

In addition to the 28th May 2019 UN resolution and the 23rd September 2019 Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom – the first ever UN event on religious freedom hosted by a US president – there has been a flurry of national initiatives. These include the USA-initiated International Religious Freedom Alliance, the creation of a Secretary of State for Christian Persecution in Hungary and, perhaps of greatest note, the growing number of nations instituting or reactivating Ambassadors for Religious Freedom and Belief, such as Denmark, the Netherlands, the USA, Norway, Finland, Poland, Germany and the United Kingdom, among others.

By implication, the protection of those suffering violence based on religion is also a recognition of the fundamental human right to religious freedom, an acceptance of the sociological reality of religion in society, and an acknowledgement of the positive cultural role of religion. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in response to the anti-Christian violence in Iraq, “the right to religious freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person whose transcendent nature must not be ignored or overlooked.”[2]

Regrettably, however, despite the – albeit important – UN initiatives, and the staffing of religious freedom ambassadorships, to date the international community’s response to violence based on religion, and religious persecution in general, can be categorised as too little too late. Although it is impossible to know exact numbers, our research suggests that two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where violations of religious freedoms occur in one form or another, with Christians being the most persecuted group. Is this a surprise? No, the situation has grown over the centuries, from the roots of intolerance, to produce discrimination and persecution.

Aid to the Church in Need’s (ACN) Religious Freedom in the World Report is ACN’s principal research project, and has evolved considerably over the years, from being a small booklet to becoming a publication of approximately 800 pages, produced by a world-wide team. This evolution is due to the fact that today discrimination and persecution on the grounds of religious belief is a growing global phenomenon. Behind the violent conflicts, whether in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, the Central African Republic or Mozambique – to mention only a few countries – are those in the shadows who, manipulating the deepest convictions of humanity, have instrumentalised religion in the search for power.

Our engagement with this topic reflects our mission. This report is not only a means through which to better fulfil our service to the suffering Church, but also a way to give a voice to our project partners – those who have been tragically marked by the consequences of persecution. It is now 22 years since our Italian office first started publishing the Religious Freedom in the World Report, in 1999. Regrettably, this year will not be the last in which the report is needed.

ENDNOTES

[1] “Meeting for Religious Liberty, Address of the Holy Father”, 26th September 2015;

http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/september/documents/papa-francesco_20150926_usa-liberta-religiosa.html

[2] “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace”, Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for the Celebration of The World Day Of Peace, 1st January 2011; http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/messages/peace/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20101208_xliv-world-day-peace.html