“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”Article 18, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Over the past decades, both Peru and Colombia have experienced internal conflicts which involved extreme levels of violence in many regions and high loss of life. While the conflicts were political (pitting far left groups against the government and/or far right paramilitary groups) they directly impacted ordinary civilians and civil society, including churches.
In many cases, Christians, especially church leaders, were targeted for different reasons by the various armed actors. This directly affected freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in those areas.
In both countries, the larger Church (composed of many different denominations) found itself looking for ways to respond to the conflict and especially how to support the churches, Christians and others living in conflict zones.
A decade ago, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) published one of the first comprehensive reports on North Korea’s human rights disaster, with the conclusion that it amounts to crimes against humanity.
North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act was also one of the first reports to call on the United Nations to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate. Initially, we were almost alone in making this call – a voice crying in the wilderness, dismissed by some for pursuing an action that, it was predicted, would never happen. We were banging our heads against a brick wall, some said. We took the view that if enough of us bang our heads for long enough, we might dislodge some bricks.
Four years later, other human rights organisations were making the same call, and we founded the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, together with over forty other organisations from around the world, to campaign for a UN inquiry. In early 2013 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights added her support to this call, and a few months later the UN Human Rights Council established an inquiry. What some said could never be done was happening.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s first official visit to China, which begins today, is billed as an opportunity to boost trade with an important ally. But it will also take place against the backdrop of the country’s violations of fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.
In the last month, Christians have been detained, and unregistered churches shut down or destroyed ahead of the implementation of revised Regulations on Religious Affairs, which strengthen state control over religious activities in China.
Unregistered churches, sometimes called house churches, are independent churches which have not registered with the state-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement. The new regulations are due to come into force tomorrow, giving Mrs May a rare opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese government and publicly to reiterate the UK’s commitment to defending human rights.
Religious conversion was criminalised in India’s Jharkhand State on 11 September with the introduction of the so-called ‘Freedom of Religion’ law, making Jharkhand the seventh State to introduce such legislations after Odhisa (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Chhattisgarh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Gujarat (2003) and Himachal Pradesh (2006).
Section 3 of the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act 2017 declares “no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion/ religious faith to another by the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means, nor shall any person abet any such conversion.” The punishment includes a prison term of up to three years and/or a fine up to fifty thousand rupees (equivalent to about £580).
The international community marks Human Rights Day on 10 December, the day on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948.
I have decided to use this occasion to shine a spotlight on Article 18 of the UDHR, which enshrines the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. In doing so, I am delighted to join forces with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which does excellent work to promote Freedom of Religion of Belief around the world.
Some have suggested that Freedom of Religion of Belief is a relatively neglected human right – indeed it has been called “the orphaned right”. Whether or not this has been true in the past, it is certainly not being neglected by the UK Government.
I cherish the right to freedom of religion or belief. I celebrate the fact that people of all faiths and none are free to follow their religion or belief in the UK. But I do not forget for one moment that many millions of others are denied this universal human right. Denial of this freedom does deep and lasting damage to many of our fellow global citizens, striking at the very heart of their way of life and often putting them and their families in danger.
Millions suffer discrimination and unspeakable levels of persecution due to their religious identity. Some members of religious minorities, such as the Baha’i in Iran, Yazidis in Iraq, Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan are attacked or arrested; others are regarded as second class, and unable to access key services such as education, health or justice. Denial of religious freedom exacerbates the suffering of innocent people in many of today’s crises and conflicts – including the Rohinga in Burma, Nigeria and the Middle East. It also hinders peace and reconciliation.
This government will not remain silent in the face of violations and abuses of human rights, including the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. We will work through diplomatic channels, bilaterally and in concert with our international partners, to press the case for freedom and tolerance. If we are to make a difference, I believe we must act together: government, civil society and faith leaders.
This brings me to the main message of this blog. Many actors have a role in ensuring that everyone enjoys the human rights set out in the UDHR. First among those are the states whose responsibility it is to defend those rights. Faith leaders too have great influence and it is particularly important that they speak up for tolerance. Religion often reaches parts of societies that government cannot. All the world’s major religions preach peace and tolerance. So on this Human Rights Day I pay tribute to those faith leaders who, true to their chosen faiths, promote the rights of others to practice their chosen faith or belief.
It can be a daunting challenge to defend Freedom of Religion or Belief in today’s increasingly hostile world. At times progress can appear a distant dream. But we must not falter. Too many have been denied this right for too long. Now is the time to stand united and to demand, once and for all, that the freedoms described in the UDHR should be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
The recent decision by the United States (US) to lift two decades of sanctions on Sudan has been welcomed by some international actors, but received criticism from human rights organisations, campaigners and Sudanese opposition politicians.
The significance of this achievement for the government of Sudan cannot be understated.
Sudan has invested heavily in efforts towards the lifting of sanctions, including bringing the African Union on board and supporting the appointment of the UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. The mandate holder is tasked with investigating the human rights impact of economic measures applied by one State to change policy of another State. After the creation of the role, the Special Rapporteur’s first visit was Sudan, where he advocated for the lifting of US sanctions.
Rosaline (Rosie) Costa, a Bangladeshi human rights activist, was forced to leave the country in July 2016. In 2017, CSW interviewed her in New York. During the interview, Rosie discussed the reasons she had to leave Bangladesh, and shed light on issues of religious freedom in the country.
Rosie’s involvement in human rights work began in 1986, after she left the community of nuns to which she belonged for 17 years to pursue human rights work. She spent time working with women and children in the garment industry, establishing a hostel for rescued children who had been forced into madrasas (colleges for Islamic instruction), and speaking around the world about issues faced by minorities and particularly Hindus.
Forced To Flee
While Rosie had been no stranger to risk in her work, her fears for her safety grew following a number of killings of Christians in Bangladesh, perpetrated by people claiming to belong to Daesh. “I realised that I was being followed by some people, that’s when I left the country … I saw how the people were killed, so if something was to happen to me nobody would be able to rescue me from these people.”
For years prior to her enforced departure, Rosie faced many challenges. “I received threats when I worked for the garment industry. On many occasions the owners came to pick me up, or sent hoodlums to pick me up, once they broke my hip bone. I have been physically attacked several times, for several nights I got threatening phone calls and I realised it was not safe to stay there anymore because of the way they were killing people in their houses and on the street.”
When asked how she felt about being forced to leave Bangladesh, she replied “I feel I am dead in a way, because I had my livelihood there.”
Rosie also believes that the government has continued to monitor her.
Since 2012, Rosie has been involved in rescuing children who were being forced to convert to Islam. She offered some insight into this situation:
“Children were being taken from their parents by pimps who said they would take them to mission schools and they would not have to spend any money on these children. They were taken to madrassas, where they had to sign a paper saying that they had converted to Islam and were ready to die for Islam. They were then split into groups and sent to various madrassas. Most of the children are Christians. I know of over 500 cases of this that took place in 2012. There are many forced marriages every year. I heard of cases of children as young as four or five being kidnapped.”
Rosie also highlighted how radical Islam has been a growing problem in the country.
“We have around 147 groups in Bangladesh under various names that are related to Islamic State. Since 2015 they have targeted Christians, many priests and nuns have received death threats. None of the perpetrators have been arrested or even pursued. Last year I think there were 8 or 9 cases where they attacked missions in groups.”
“Recently Islamist terrorists have been attacking journalists, and writers. In the beginning minorities such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Shi’as were the main targets and were regularly killed.”
When asked to describe the current situation for the Christian community in Bangladesh, Rosie replied:
“The Christians are having more and more serious problems which I did not see in earlier times. Before 2000, there was one incident in 1998 in which time bombs were thrown into one church, and after that a few similar cases. In 2013-14 there were a few more incidents, but 2015 was worse and it has been getting worse ever since. People are being identified by their religion and as a result are discriminated against by the government as well as by other groups.”
The situation of Hindus is not much better:
“Hindus have been having continuous problems since 1946, but things are getting worse. The main issue is land owned by the Hindus from the days of Hindu majority regions in Bangladesh. Those are the places that are being targeted because if they can evict the Hindus, they will go to India and will be unable to get the land back.”
The current government is not directly responsible for the problems faced by religious minorities, but its inaction is an issue. CSW asked Rosie what could be done to improve the situation for minorities:
“By not doing anything, the government are indirectly supporting these extremist groups. At this point, unless the government changes the policy and takes some stern actions or decisions to stop this extremism, I don’t think there will be any development in this situation and it will get worse and worse. The prime minister has hardly done anything thus far, not a single arrest has been made, that is why I think extremism is increasing.”
While Rosie was skeptical that the government would bow to international pressure, she thought there were measures that could be taken to improve the situation of the minorities, especially if pressure came from countries giving aid to Bangladesh. For example, the government could recruit people from minorities in every sector, from administration to the army and police. She also suggested a reform of the education system, removing bias religious education materials from schools.
When asked whether there was anything that encouraged or inspired her in her work, Rosie said she was a “peacemaker” and that was her “inspiration and internal peace”, adding, “that’s what I have burned for my whole life: when people came to me with tears and left with smiling faces that was a success.”
By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Advocacy Assistant
European Union (EU) policy on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) has seen several positive developments over the past decade, one of the most significant being the 2013 EU Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of FoRB.
Achieving consensus on the guidelines was no easy task as the 28 Member States have various models of church-state relations; some even have legislation or internal challenges that constitute obstacles to FoRB and can undermine its human rights message overseas, such as blasphemy laws. However agreement on the guidelines produced a common reference point for Member States and commits the EU to using a variety of tools to protect the victims of FoRB violations worldwide.
The European Parliament (EP) Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance aims to be the watchdog that ensures their implementation.
In January 2015, approximately 2,000 churches linked to the Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination were declared illegal in Cuba under Legal Decree 322, putting them at risk of confiscation and, in some cases, demolition. CSW’s July 2017 report details a new development in the case.
In May 2017, the superintendent of the denomination was summoned to the Office for Religious Affairs (ORA), where government officials gave verbal assurances that the churches were no longer under threat of confiscation. While verbal assurances have been provided in the past have not been honoured, on this occasion a document was provided that officially rescinded the demolition order for one of the AoG churches.
At the same meeting, the superintendent received verbal promises from ORA officials that they would help legalise the churches that had been under threat. This is tentatively being considered a positive development, however it remains dependent on implementation.
It should be noted that while this appears to be good news, this meeting took place one week before the superintendent was due to attend a conference on international religious freedom held by The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Washington D.C. The officials at the ORA were aware of this and encouraged the superintendent to say that ‘there are no religious freedom problems in Cuba’. Worryingly, this could signify that the verbal concessions made by the ORA were merely an effort to manipulate what the superintendent was going to say at the conference.
Since May, there have been no further developments in the situation of the AoG churches. While it is good that the government has not done anything to indicate that they are reneging on their promise not to confiscate them, there has been a frustrating lack of movement towards the promised legalisation of the churches.
In addition, recent months have seen no developments in the return of church properties that were confiscated during earlier periods of open persecution. This took place for over three decades after the 1958 revolution, before a 1992 constitutional amendment which changed the official state religion from atheist to secular. After this, persecution became more covert, but churches that had been previously targeted received no compensation.
At present, Legal Decree 322 is still in effect in Cuba. CSW’s July 2017 report therefore makes the following recommendations:
- Reform Legal Decree 322 to ensure it cannot be used to arbitrarily expropriate property, including property belonging to religious associations
- Return church properties confiscated by the government, including under Legal Decree 322
- Enact and implement legislation allowing for the legalisation of house churches, and for churches to purchase property or receive it as a donation transferred by the owner
CSW remains committed to the close monitoring of the situation to see if there are any changes, positive or otherwise, to the status of the AoG churches.
The Cuban government has a long-standing policy of targeting the children and other family members of church leaders and activists who it deems to be a problem; one of many tactics designed to ratchet up the pressure on them.
Religious leaders are increasingly standing up to government pressure and becoming bold in their efforts to defend religious freedom in the country, as the Cuban government’s Office for Religious Affairs (ORA) cracks down on unregistered religious groups and other groups that it perceives to be unsupportive of the government.
CSW’s latest report on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba reveals that the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016 failed to mark any significant improvements to FoRB in Cuba; instead, the arbitrary detention, harassment, restriction and surveillance of religious leaders and adherents has continued throughout the first half of 2017, as has the confiscation of church properties. In addition, several cases of family members of church leaders and activists singled out for harassment and discrimination have been brought to CSW’s attention in recent months.