Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A storm of religious persecution around the world (Terry Glavin)

I was just about to post something about the latest pogrom against the Ahmadi Muslim minority in Pakistan. which was worth noticing precisely because it was neither unusual nor surprising. But I see that Terry Glavin wrote a terrific piece for today's Ottawa Citizen which starts with that pogrom and puts it in its larger context. Persistent and often intensifying religious persecution in countries around the world, along with widespread sectarian (or ethno-sectarian) violence, add up to a very big and important story, but one that tends to get curiously insufficient attention.

That may strike some of you as an odd claim, given all the recent front-page articles about ISIS in Iraq, the civil war in Syria,  and that sort of thing.  But in fact only a few scattered examples of this pervasive world-wide phenomenon get intermittent attention. And even when there are reports about specific abuses, persecutions, conflicts, and atrocities in one place or another, they tend to be treated in isolation, and rarely get put together to bring out the overall picture.

Glavin makes an excellent start at giving us that picture. A few highlights from a piece that should be read in full:.
The U.S. Secretary State this week released a global study of trends in religious persecution. Its key finding:  “In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory.”

And it’s Christians who appear to be getting hit the hardest.  ....  [Meanwhile,] a January report by the Pew Research Center found that Christians and Muslim minorities are equally victimized in law, most noticeably in Muslim majority countries.
That is, in a number of Muslim-majority countries—like Pakistan—discrimination and persecution are directed not only at non-Muslim religions like Christianity, but also at forms of Islam considered religiously incorrect. Of course, there are also ongoing campaigns of violent persecution of Muslims in some non-Muslim-majority countries—Glavin mentions western China, but an even more striking example, among others, is Burma. Nor are Christians and Muslims the only targets of religious persecution today.

But read the whole thing (below). Many people who are aware that there's violence of all sorts around the world right now—who could miss it?—don't realize that for much of the world, this is a period of widespread and often increasing religious persecution and conflict, both institutionalized and explosive. (And also, perhaps not coincidentally, a period of widespread religious ferment and dynamism.) But it's a fact worth recognizing..

—Jeff Weintraub

Ottawa Citizen
July 30, 2014
A storm of persecution
By Terry Glavin

Last Sunday in Pakistan, a mob rampaged through a ghetto of the minority Muslim Ahmadi sect in Gujranwala City, looting and set fire to houses and shops. A 55-year-old woman and her two granddaughters were burned to death. The pogrom was triggered by local Sunni clerics who said they were enraged by a “blasphemous” photograph that an 18-year-old Ahmadi man posted on his Facebook page.

If you are an Ahmadi in Pakistan, you can be sent to prison for calling yourself a Muslim, for greeting a fellow Muslim with the traditional Salaam Aleikum, for preaching your faith and for even calling your mosque a “mosque.” Over the past quarter-century, nearly 700 Pakistanis have been charged with blasphemy. More than 50 of of these accused blasphemers were murdered before their cases were heard by a judge. Twenty were given life sentences, and 16 others are on death row

Around the same time as the Gujranwala pogrom, hundreds of fighters from the Islamist Boko Haram militia, best known for having kidnapped and enslaved more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls last April, were looting and burning Kolofata, a town in Cameroon. They murdered at least three people before withdrawing back across the border into Nigeria with several hostages, including the wife of Cameroon’s deputy prime minister Amadou Ali, a local mayor and five members of his family.

On Monday, the Chinese government’s noose-tightening repression of religious minorities sparked riots in the Kashgar prefecture of the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region that subsided only after Chinese troops opened fire and killed dozens of Muslim Uyghurs, and Beijing’s policy of persecuting Uyghurs, Tibetans and Falun Gong practitioners is now being extended in a new clampdown on the country’s 60 million Christians. Authorities have recently issued demolition orders to about 100 churches, instructing congregations to remove crosses from church buildings.

Also on Monday, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that nearly 2,500 Syrians were killed during the just-concluded month of Ramadan. More than 170,000 Syrians have been killed and nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced in the Islamist bedlam that has arisen in the wake of the democratic uprising against the Baathist dictator Bashar Assad that began three years ago.

Syria has become a charnel house of warring Sunni Islamist militias, Al-Qaida offshoots and the Tehran-backed, Beirut-based Shia terrorist organization Hezbollah. A new study by the Council of Foreign Relations concludes that Syria’s casualty toll now surpasses the carnage in Iraq over the past decade, and the various Islamist factions have attracted more foreign fighters to Syria than were engaged in the recent decades of fighting in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia combined.

Next door in Iraq, where a Syrian-Iraqi Al Qaida mutation has headquartered its cross-border “caliphate,” Islamic State fanatics are pursuing a terror campaign of firing squads, mass beheadings and crucifixions. Since Easter, tens of thousands of Christians have been hiding out in the deserts and cowering in basements, or have fled north to the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan. Nearly a million Christians have been chased out of Iraq in recent years, leaving perhaps 300,000 behind. As of this week, for the first time in 1,800 years, Mass is no longer being celebrated in the ancient city of Mosul.

“It’s tragic because it’s the largest Christian city in Iraq; it was what you call the nucleus of Christian presence for many centuries,” the Syriac Christian patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan told reporters in Washington this week. (Patriarch Younan will be visiting Ottawa next week). “And we have at least 25 churches in that city. All are abandoned. No more prayers, no services, no more Masses on Sundays in Mosul because no clergy, no people there that are Christian.”

In Europe in recent days, mobs reportedly enflamed by Israel’s assault on Hamas in Gaza have attacked synagogues in Paris, and rioters in Sarcelles have been heard to scream “Death to the Jews.”  Two months ago in Europe, a fanatic opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, murdering four people. A recent European Union survey found nearly a third of Europe’s Jews no longer feel safe, and are considering emigration. Thousands have already left. The latest edition of Newsweek magazine has devoted its cover story to the phenomenon. Its headline: 'Exodus: Why Europe’s Jews are fleeing once again.".

“It seems like we’re living in a world where there are all these perfect storms of religious persecution,” Andrew Bennett, Canada’s ambassador for religious freedom, told me the other day. “There’s definitely been an increase in religious persecution in the world.”

The U.S. Secretary State this week released a global study of trends in religious persecution. Its key finding:  “In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory.”

And it’s Christians who appear to be getting hit the hardest. The International Society for Human Rights reckons that Christians are the victims in four fifths of all acts of racial discrimination across the globe, while a January report by the Pew Research Center found that Christians and Muslim minorities are equally victimized in law, most noticeably in Muslim majority countries.

When Canada established Bennett’s Office of Religious Freedom last year, there was a lot of jeering about it, along with insinuations that Bennett’s own Christian background would prejudice him somehow. The carping has given way to a newfound appreciation around Ottawa for the good sense of the initiative, and since the office we established, six more countries have joined with Canada, the U.S., France and Britain in identifying religious freedom as a foreign policy priority.

There is often little that Canada can do beyond acting as a “voice for the voiceless,” an interlocutor on behalf of persecuted minorities with the governments that discriminate against them. That is no small thing.

In the case of the Iraqi Christians, Canada has also taken in 20,000 refugees in recent years. Bennett’s office also funds human-rights research and “dialogue” forums in countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia. Some countries – notably Iran, China and Saudi Arabia – are simply incorrigible, and impervious to persuasion. But there is another kind of incorrigibility Bennett has to contend with, of what might be called a “domestic” variety.

“What we’re witnessing in the Middle East right now is the wiping out of close to 2,000 years of Christianity, and sometimes if feels like it’s not politically correct to talk about Christian persecution. That has to end.”

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.