By Dr. Marcela Szymanski
The period under review (May 2021 - December 2022) was dominated by Covid 19, an unprecedented world health emergency which prompted equally unparalleled international crisis response programs – notably lockdowns and other thorough-going restrictions and vaccine roll-out. In 2022 the world’s attention was also gripped by the war in Ukraine and its political repercussions. Also of great significance were an economic crisis, notably rapid inflation, and fears of international armed conflict in the South China Sea. All this and more diverted attention away from issues relating to religious freedom at a time of increased violations of this vital human right around the world. This analysis will set out to show that the Covid-19 period was especially catastrophic for a number of religious minorities who were targeted with impunity while international attention was elsewhere. Unlike in previous editions of the report, where this section focused on geographic categorisation, for the most part the analysis below will instead address prevailing themes and trends. The methodology of the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Religious Freedom in the World Report, measures violations of Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) according to a sliding scale of severity. Starting with manifestations of intolerance, these then pass the threshold of “discrimination”, whereby the law applies differently to religious individuals and communities facing these problems. More serious forms of intolerance are deemed to be “persecution” in situations where state and nonstate actors openly oppress and persecute with impunity.
The research for this 2023 report reveals that there are 61 countries where discrimination and persecution are clearly apparent, where the fundamental right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is under pressure or curtailed through new laws. As a result, citizens are persecuted by their own government or are murdered, often with little or no response from the international community (See Map).
In this edition, the report identifies trends indicating the increasing threat to religious minorities posed by autocrats. Autocrats are defined here as rulers who exert their power, their use of force and of economic resources with little to no limits. As per L. Reardon (2019), “Whether the autocracy is composed of an absolute monarch or a supreme authoritarian, religious, military, fascist, or communist leader, the autocrat strengthens legitimacy by controlling competing power centers within the state.” A religious community is often one such power center, because of its “ability to mobilize the citizenry”, which the autocrat seeks to control.
Some new autocrats have emerged during the reporting period and existing ones have consolidated their position. In both cases, they have cracked down on religious leaders and faith groups, fearful of their influence and status in the community, in other cases they try to co-opt them. Autocrats have struggled to balance their often violent and oppressive efforts to eliminate all opposition, including from religious groups, against the need to present a humane and acceptable façade to the global community. Pandemic-related economic challenges, exacerbated by energy shortages caused by the war in Ukraine, and competing international trade interests resulted in a cynical pragmatism – a selective blindness and deafness among western leaders. Such governments, which previously prided themselves on a ‘rules-based world order’, no longer upheld internationally recognised standards of human rights.
Included in this report’s Red category (persecution), are 28 countries with a combined total of 4.02 billion people equalling 51.6 percent of the world’s population. Of particular note are the two most populous countries, China and India, which are among the worst religious freedom violators. The autocrats at different levels of government combine harsh repression with soft persecution. Examples include controlling access to jobs, education and health services, installing mass surveillance, imposing financial and electoral obstacles, and failing to impose law and order when faith communities come under attack from local mobs or terrorists. Those wielding power, both state and non-state (terrorist) actors, implement a strategy with the same ultimate objective: eliminating the competing authority held by the undesirable religious community. Here we observe a new trend regarding the type of perpetrator (see below under “Perpetrators”), with more states persecuting their own citizens. Finally, several countries in the category of persecution – particularly those governments adhering to and espousing a majoritarian religion – not only manipulate the religiosity of their citizens but also inflate their numbers to entrench and extend their political dominance.
In the Orange category (discrimination) the report finds that there has been considerable change during the review period. Included within the 33 countries in this category are three newcomers – Haiti, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. Deteriorating religious freedom conditions meant Nicaragua and Sudan – two countries marked orange in the 2021 report – have moved into the Red category. New laws are being enforced, effectively legalising the violation of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion of specific groups. In 2021, there were signs of hope among countries in the Middle East and Asia where an understanding of religious freedom rights seemed to be developing, but those hopes have been dashed as existing laws and penalties became harsher (e.g.: “anti-conversion laws”). Meantime, there was little improvement in the education systems to reduce the discrimination of minority faith groups (See Backgrounder on Schoolbooks).
Classification in the Orange category is also indicative of authoritarian rulers not only applying laws to curtail religious freedom, but also failing to provide any protection or justice for the victims of physical attacks.
Finally, there is the “Under observation” category. The 2021 report highlighted the need to remain vigilant, as human rights often disappear gradually, in small steps, without anyone noticing until it is too late. Tenets of religious freedom vulnerable to incremental erosion include: “freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Each of these aspects of religious freedom is fundamental and indispensable. The weakening of any one of them can be seen as a threat to the right to religious freedom as a whole. Evidence revealing the decline in the enjoyment of this fundamental right, as states abdicated their responsibility to protect all citizens, resulted in the country in question being placed “Under observation”. This is a category where the country reports indicate not only an incremental move toward the worst violations, but moreover reveals incidents falling into the various classifications of intolerance, discrimination and sometimes even persecution. Examples include isolated attacks, even murders, with clear religious bias, and the destruction or vandalization of places of worship. Two countries – Haiti and Israel – placed “Under observation” in 2021 descended into the Orange category. Meantime, eight countries were added to this category: Argentina, Guinea Bissau, Benin, Burundi, Eswatini, Ghana, Indonesia, and Madagascar.
Resolute and confident autocrats
The autocrats driving the worst violations to freedom of religion are likely to belong to one or several categories of perpetrators: authoritarian governments, Islamist extremists, or ethno-religious nationalists. Another type of perpetrator with an interest in eliminating religious leaders who challenge their authority are organized criminal groups. In several parts of the world, these are the de-facto rulers having access to more money and better weaponry than the state. They thus give the impression that the government has abdicated its responsibility to protect all citizens, or else that the authorities are in fact cooperating with the criminals. They mainly proliferate in failed and semi-failed states such as Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Syria.
The advantage that state autocrats (except absolute dictatorships) have over organised criminal groups is that, in most cases, they can conceal their human rights violations under a democratic cloak pointing to elections of whatever form, which brought them to power. The conundrum, however, for autocrats which manipulate the majoritarian religious group (See country reports on Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar (Burma)) is the need to please both this voter base and yet maintain a ‘democratic’ façade towards international partners (See Case Study Nicaragua).
Another apparently democratic way to asphyxiate a minority religious community is to pass laws suppressing their sources of funding. For example, India’s “Foreign currency regulation act” – the complicated set of rules limiting access to foreign funding for all local groups (faith-based and non) dependent on foreign aid – has led to a suspension of social services by faith-based organizations to the poorest populations.
Our 2021 edition referenced “polite persecution”, the term introduced by Pope Francis to describe laws, predominantly in the West, that, under the guise of culture and progress, curtail the fundamental rights of individuals – particularly the right of conscientious objection. In many countries, this concept, has become prophetic where intolerance has morphed into discrimination – when laws have been introduced making it “legal” to strip away citizens’ fundamental rights. Healthcare workers are deprived of the right to freedom of conscience when they are obliged, under the threat of losing their jobs, to participate in procedures such as euthanasia or late-term abortion, or when someone can be arrested for standing in silence and praying within an abortion clinic’s buffer zone (See OSCE Regional Analysis).
Developing from a recent cultural phenomenon – a rising wave of new anthropological norms and concepts – a new challenge to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is ‘compelled speech’. Authorities, including the courts, have begun to introduce new definitions to personal identity, where all citizens are not only expected to publicly accept norms they might consider contrary to their conscience, but are compelled to use the new definitions, risking the penalty of hate speech if not observed. The framed discourse itself becomes a means to deny conscientious objection (See Regional Analysis Latin America, and Backgrounder “Compelled Speech”).
The case of the former Minister of the Interior in Finland, Païvi Rasanen, highlighted in this publication (See Case Study, Finland), reveals another challenge to the vague definition of hate speech, censorship. In April 2020, charges were brought against Ms Rasanen retroactively by the State for sharing a 2004 publication about marriage, which quoted the Bible. Conscientious objection, and freedom of thought, including on religious grounds, has been infringed or denied.
‘Attacks on minorities’ is a phrase oft repeated but questions remain about what precisely this phrase means. In some cultures, minority status brings certain privileges and is therefore positive, but for others this designation is misleading, appearing to ignore the numerical strength of the faith communities in question, as well as their historical and wider cultural influence in society, and indeed their prominent role in schools and other welfare support. Of greater concern, however, is evidence revealing that a numerical, economic, or political minority can be “fabricated”, pushing communities into irrelevance through the application of both violent and non-violent measures, either for political and/or economic gain of the majoritarian group.
Numbers are important. On 25 April 2023, the British newspaper the Financial Times highlighted the importance of religious group demographics in India and Nigeria, asserting their value as regards to obtaining power and retaining it. The article stated that “population figures largely determine political representation and what share of the national purse is distributed to each region”. The newspaper noted that many governments postpone population surveys for decades, for fear of finding unfavourable changes among the groups supporting their hold on power. The report went on to describe “local political, religious and ethnic leaders accused of inflating the numbers.”
The means by which religious demographics can be manipulated are numerous, including apparently positive consequences if a particular religion is adopted or kept. For example, in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, country reports reveal that by providing material benefits exclusively to a religious community, authorities seek to maintain the numerical size of that community for political gain. At the most basic level, in Malaysia, it is customary to register all new-borns as belonging to the majority religion, and it is up to the parents to contest it later. In Pakistan, access to the military and the government, to national sports teams, to better paid jobs are, by imposition of new laws, open exclusively to the majoritarian religious group. In India and Lebanon, several “personal status laws” and “caste scheduling” regulations consist of economic benefits that are offered to those belonging to the majority religion and no other (See Case Study Laws Controlling Religious Demographics).
Examples of negative pressure include the proliferation of laws making it a crime to change religion. The expansion of so-called anti-conversion laws across Asia, which carry fines and prison penalties to both the convert and the spiritual guide, are designed to prevent minority faith groups inviting interested members of the majoritarian faith group to convert. In the Middle East, punishment for apostasy can go as far as the death penalty. Conversely, “reconversion” from the minority faith community is encouraged with material benefits to those who repent and return to the majority faith. (See Regional Analysis Asia and Middle East).
In addition, several countries impose to religious minorities obstacles to participate in the political life of the nation. These include steps from reducing their capacity to vote, right through to outright bans on members of religious minorities taking up government positions. (See Case Study Lebanon the Christian Exodus, and country reports for Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia).
Finally, the most criminal form of demographic manipulation occurs where a religious group is forced into a minority status following constant discrimination or violent atrocities. For example, in Iraq and Syria, the Christian population has suffered targeted and repeated violence spurring emigration and thus forcibly reducing a minority religious community to the point where its long-term survival is called into question.
In terms of migration prompted by extremist violence, a repetition is underway in parts of Africa. Country reports indicate that jihadist affiliates of Al-Qaida and Islamic State are attacking relatively undefended rural areas for territorial gain but also, as in DR Congo and Mozambique, concentrating on areas with mineral wealth. Although Islamist violence is mainly indiscriminate attacking Muslims and Christians alike, since our last report jihadists have increasingly targeted Christians (See Case Study Stoned to death for a Whatsapp). Assaults take place during Christian worship, and the murders can be particularly gruesome. As noted by clergy in Benue State, Nigeria, on occasion victims are first shot and then their faces are hacked by machetes or other weapons “so that God may not recognise them”. Terrorists will also target priests or sisters, abducting or killing them, and will burn down chapels and schools. One single such attack can drive out the entire population of a village, leaving them homeless and destitute. They lose their sources of income as they abandon their fields and shops, and their children are denied education and health care. The result is that a region is emptied of its historic religious presence, and a new economic and political minority in need of every basic support, emerges (See backgrounder Nigeria a failing democracy).
Another form of religious violence is occurring in Latin America and other developing regions, the identification of traditional religions as enemies of pro-abortion and other policies affecting women. Increasingly violent demonstrations in Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, as well in several countries in the West, for example those organized to mark the UN’s “Women’s Day” (8th March), saw religious buildings and faithful attacked. People were left unaided by police and other emergency services as they sought to defend their churches, temples, and other religious buildings at great personal risk. Equally, following the violence, there were little or no legal consequences for the perpetrators, which gave them a certain sense of impunity (See Regional Analysis Latin America, OSCE). Notwithstanding these and other difficulties outlined in the Latin America report, the region is also a beacon of hope, as can be seen in the renewed public expressions of faith where millions united in joyful celebration across the continent following the lifting of Covid-19 health restrictions (See Backgrounder Religious Celebrations).
Paradoxically, vocal support in defence of women’s rights falls silent in the face of abduction, forced conversion and sexual enslavement of religious minority women and girls. Euphemistically referred to as “forced marriage”, these crimes – the abduction, rape, and forced conversion of principally minority Hindu and Christians girls, who are often underage – are at least in part motivated by a desire to limit the growth of the faith communities in question by reducing the number of babies born in that religious community. Ultimately, if carried out at scale over a long period, such criminal activity could contribute towards the group’s disappearance. As such, it can be classified as an “act of genocide” as defined in the UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (See country reports Pakistan, Regional Analysis Africa).
No Western nation can truthfully claim they do not know about the abuses occurring in the Arabian Peninsula, China, Pakistan and Nigeria. With the West looking the other way, often motivated by the need to guarantee the provision of natural and energy resources, the perpetrators become more assertive and make local legislation more restrictive. In this way, impunity is tacitly granted to perpetrators by the “international community”. Pakistan can again be cited as a case study where the newly expanded blasphemy law additionally covers insults to the family of the Prophet, or the Islamo-centric National Single Curriculum obligatory for all schools, contributing to discriminatory attitudes towards religious minorities (See Regional Analysis Middle East, Asia, Africa). Despite this, there are some positive developments in the West such as the new appetite to apply targeted, personal sanctions to individual violators rather than to entire countries, referred in some countries as “Magnitsky-type” sanctions.
An important beacon of hope is that, as more people in the world identify as religious, the impetus to develop inter-faith dialogue is growing. Not only has Pope Francis continued his rapprochement with the different branches of Islam, but also the largest Muslim organization, the Indonesian Nadhlatul Ulama, started a structured dialogue with Hindu religious leaders during the 2022 G20 meetings with a follow-up scheduled for 2023 in India (See Backgrounder: Towards a more comprehensive Catholic-Muslim dialogue).