The international Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief taught us that religious liberty is more threatened than even before, and only a global coalition can hope to achieve results.
by Ruth Ingram
Kurdistan’s Zoroastrian Kurds, Sikhs, Humanists, Christians, Afghan Hazaras, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Chinese amongst many others, together with their religious leaders and civil society grassroots groups from around the world, gathered in London to talk about suffering and persecution, but also hopes and dreams for a better world, and to pledge to work tirelessly to increase global action on freedom of religion or belief for all.
The overarching theme of the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB) from July 5-6th, organized by the British government following two previous FORB Ministerials in Washington DC and one in Warsaw, as hundreds of international delegates converged on London, was to call out and prevent FORB violations and abuses, which in many countries not only continue unabated and unchallenged but in some areas of the world are intensifying.
The U.K. became a co-founding member of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance in 2020 and in two years global membership has increased from 27 to 35 countries. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, hosting the event, declared “the freedom to believe, to pray, to commit acts of worship or indeed not to believe is a fundamental human freedom and has been since the dawn of time.” Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury called on leaders to “allow freedoms of expression and worship,” without which “other freedoms are lost.”
Killings and abductions of Christians in Nigeria, death sentences, and mob violence against those accused unjustly of blasphemy in Pakistan, torture, rape, and illegal incarceration of millions of Western China’s Uyghurs, suicide bombings carried out on Afghanistan’s Hazara community, and unspeakable outrages meted out against North Koreans were a small sample of atrocities raging around the world that had the ears of the international community.
Rahima Mahmut, head of the U.K. World Uyghur Congress spoke passionately at a side event about the ongoing suffering of her people and Lord David Alton raised the importance of detecting the beginnings of genocide but regretted his own government’s failure to put into place “adequate mechanisms to prevent genocides from happening over and over again.”
Lord Alton, once described as “the conscience of the House” (of Lords) was seen in several side events flagging up human rights violations in such diverse areas as Eritrea, China, Tibet, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He pointed out the discrimination embedded in Pakistani textbooks whereby Christianity and other non-Muslim faiths were portrayed as inferior. To illustrate his point he cited a paragraph in a tenth grade textbook. “Because the Muslim religion, culture and social system are different from non-Muslims, it is impossible to cooperate with Hindus,” he read. “A review of the curriculum demonstrates that public school students are being taught that religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus, are nefarious, violent, and tyrannical by nature,” he said, quoting from the 2016 US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Hindu and Christian students are bullied and humiliated and even occasionally killed for their beliefs, he said, adding that students are frequently invited to abandon their own religions and embrace Islam, which in turn causes many of them to feel rejected and to leave school altogether with no qualifications.
Joined by Baroness Kennedy QC, Lord Alton raised the urgent need to address the persecution of the Hazara in Afghanistan and the Yazidis, and the imminent risk of genocide against both communities. “An ocean of impunity exists in relation to the Yazidi genocide,” he said quoting an article in the Guardian urging Turkey to be called to account and face an international court over their genocide.
The Jubilee Campaign, in collaboration with Set My People Free and Humanists UK spoke out against the criminalization of apostasy, and the death penalty for these “crimes” which is still carried out in twelve countries of the world. Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan (that has currently tens of Christian converts on death row), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and some northern states of Nigeria were cited for their hostile environment for those who “dare” to leave Islam. Nigerian student, 22 year old Deborah Samuel Yakubu, has been stoned to death and set on fire by classmates for simply criticizing their WhatsApp group’s undue focus on religious content and for crediting her faith in Jesus for her exam success.
The groups have recommended the insertion of FORB-specific language into two United Nations General Assembly resolutions that are up for vote again this November, and a recommendation that, “the death penalty can never be imposed as a sanction for non-violent conduct such as apostasy and blasphemy.”
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) was responsible for side events ranging from the ongoing persecution in Eritrea, religious extremism in South Asia and the vulnerability of faith groups campaigning for democracy in Myanmar and Sudan, to the suffering of Tibetans, Christians and Uyghurs in China, women fighting for freedom in Latin America and human and faith rights in Cuba and Nigeria.
Founder president of CSW, Mervyn Thomas, speaking at a simultaneous Uyghur protest event outside Parliament House to remember the fallen of the Urumqi massacre in 2009, reminded those assembled that atrocities and genocides were ongoing. He had been shocked to hear of the numbers of Uyghurs that were being taken to so-called “transformation through education” camps in North West China. “People have been taken away from their families, women have been sterilized. This is nothing but genocide.” He promised Uyghurs gathered to mourn the thousands of peaceful protesters mown down at night by machine gun fire thirteen years ago, that his organization CSW and other groups committed to their cause, would stand by them.
“We will not be quiet on this issue. We will continue to stand up and speak out until every person is freed and until this situation is changed,” he said. “Until the Communist Party realize that human rights and the freedom of religion and belief are important to the rest of the world, we all need to stand up and speak out. We will be calling on our governments around the world. The plight of the Uyghurs has already been mentioned a number of times during the ministerial conference and we will continue to do that till they are free,” he said.
Pledges were made by all attendees, governments and decision makers listened to the pleas, minority groups spoke up and hopes were raised. In common with all groups, CSW’s sentiments were echoed across London in halls, churches, side rooms and seats of power. “The International Ministerial comes at a key moment for communities of faith and belief around the world, with refugees fleeing Afghanistan and Ethiopia/Eritrea, China introducing even wider restrictions on religious life, and communities in Nigeria under attack in a manner which may indicate an emerging genocide,” the group urged in its ministerial briefing. “Global issues require global solutions. Itʼs only when those in power get round the table, and with input from NGOs and activists, that leaders can formulate a coordinated response in a way that drives action.”