A new report by a European Union group details how Christians and other minorities are subjected to horrific human rights abuses.
The EU Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance released their annual report last week, in which they highlighted restrictions to freedom of religion and religious persecution in 53 countries. Many of these countries have government-sanctioned persecution, while others have groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) operating within them and oppressing religious minorities.
“Our beliefs are at the core of our human dignity – tragically, however, today not everyone enjoys the freedom to hold and manifest their beliefs. We have witnessed the near extinction of Christians in Iraq and Syria,” said Peter van Dalen, a member of the European Parliament and one of the co-chairs of the group.
The report outlined some of the restrictions facing Christians, Yazidis, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and others in countries across the world, many in the Middle East and Africa. In Nigeria, for example, non-Muslims have been forcefully brought for judgement in sharia (Islamic) courts and punished by caning, amputation or death by stoning for “offencss” including blasphemy.
The report, which can be found in full online, notes that, in some ways, the situation has improved in Egypt recently under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule. Nevertheless, minorities – especially Coptic Orthodox Christians — still face sectarian abuse and discrimination. Christian girls are still being abducted by Muslims “and the government’s inability to respond over several years has made the situation worse.”
In Saudi Arabia (a Sunni country, where Shiite Muslims are amongst the persecuted), apostasy, blasphemy and peaceful dissent are punishable by death. The report calls Saudi government restrictions “the most severe violations of the freedom of religion or belief in the world.”
Bahais in Iran are “deemed apostates by the government and denied civil rights.” Amongst other restrictions, they “are banned from higher education, denied the right to establish … religious institutions, [and] excluded from the social pension system.” Around 90 Iranian Christians have been detained or imprisoned “because of their religious beliefs and activities” and there has been a “significant increase” in the number of physical assaults of Christians in prison.
In some areas of Syria, ISIS has carried out “brutal ethnic and religious cleansing” of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities. In Aleppo, for example, just 60,000 of the city’s original Christian population of 400,000 remain. The European Parliament has called ISIS’ massacres in Syria a “genocide” but, like the UN, has fallen short on taking action.
The report describes how “the 2,000-year-old Christian community in Iraq is facing extinction” and has decreased from 1.2 million in the 1990s to just 260,000 in 2015. Iraqi Christians are forced to convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax (essentially protection money) or face execution. Similarly, Yazidis in Iraq are subject to “forced conversion and marriage, sexual assault, slavery, torture and murder,” with many victims being women and children.
The hope is that this report “will effectively help us to address religious persecution throughout the world and ensure that the European Union uses its political and financial power to safeguard the fundamental rights of religious minorities in all countries,” according to Sophia Kuby, director of EU Advocacy for ADF International. She said that we “cannot accept that people today are being killed, tortured, or oppressed, simply because of their religious convictions or beliefs.”
The report is a sad reminder of the scale and breadth of religious persecution taking place in today’s world as well as also an important call (for the EU, at least) to take real action and put an end to these atrocities.
“The EU, in its external actions, continuously compromises its human rights agenda in favor of a more economic and geopolitical agenda”, according to Dennis de Jong, a member of the European Parliament and the second co-chair the EU group that released the report.
Until the foreign policy apparatus of the EU, along with UN bodies (especially the Security Council), prioritize this issue and take action, the annual release of reports such as this will continue to be a sad and constant reality.