Human Rights Day: Standing up and speaking out until everyone is free to believe

Today is Human Rights Day. It marks the 73rd anniversary of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a milestone document which proclaims the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being.

Article 18 of the UDHR declares “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes 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.”

It conveys the principle that everyone should be free to believe whatever they choose to believe; however, in many countries around the world, individuals have not only been denied this freedom, but their physical freedom also on account of their religion or belief.

On this day, we remember those around the world for whom the full enjoyment of Article 18 is not a reality, and stand in solidarity with those who will instead be marking the day without freedom, either under some form of arrest or detention, or held in captivity by non-state actors.

We stand with Leah Sharibu, the 18-year-old Nigerian schoolgirl who was abducted from her school in Dapchi by Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) terrorists in February 2018. For over three years, Leah has been denied her freedom after she refused to renounce her Christian faith and convert to Islam as a precondition.

Leah Sharibu

Leah is not alone either. Over the past year, Nigeria’s northern and central states have witnessed a scourge of abductions that have resulted in over 1,100 students kidnapped for ransom, and at least seven killed.  Several students are still in captivity, including three who were abducted from Bethel Baptist High School in Kaduna in July. An estimated 110 girls infamously abducted from their school in Chibok in 2014 also remain in captivity. We stand with all of them today.

We also stand with Chinese Christian and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who has been imprisoned since May 2020, when she was detained by Shanghai police for her reports from Wuhan on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Zhang has spent much of her detention on hunger strike, and there are serious concerns for her health.

Zhang Zhan

Again, Zhang is by no means alone in her imprisonment. Yesterday marked the third anniversary of the arrest of Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Church, who is currently serving a nine-year prison sentence on unfounded charges of ‘inciting to subvert state power’ and ‘illegal business operations’. Among the many others who are detained are Early Rain Church elder Qin Defu, and human rights lawyers Chang Weiping and Gao Zhisheng, the latter of whom has been disappeared since August 2017. Once again, we stand these individuals, and call for their immediate and unconditional release.

In Cuba, we stand with Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, who has been imprisoned since 11 July after taking part in unprecedented and peaceful nationwide protests. He is currently being held in Boniato Maximum Security Prison, and in October his wife was informed that the government is seeking to impose a ten-year sentence against him. His trial was expected to take place this week, but has since been suspended indefinitely.

Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo and his wife Maridilegnis Carballo

We also stand with Christians in Iran, like pastors Yousef Nadarkhani, Matthias Haghnejad and Amin Khaki, all of whom are currently serving sentences on spurious charges relating to “national security” and “propaganda against the state” in cases which are emblematic of the Iranian regime’s effective criminalisation of Christianity and other minority religious faiths.

We stand with those in Pakistan currently imprisoned on blasphemy charges. The country’s controversial blasphemy laws are open to abuse, and often used against both Muslims and non-Muslims to settle personal scores or to resolve disputes over money, property or business. Under Section 295(C) of the Penal Code, the crime of “defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed” carries the death penalty or life imprisonment.

In Eritrea, we stand with Abune Antonios, the legitimate patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, who has been under house arrest since January 2007 after having been removed from office in 2006 by a regime that stands accused of crimes against humanity for violations perpetrated since 1991. The nonagenarian patriarch is severely diabetic and suffers from high blood pressure.

We also stand with church leaders Dr Kuflu Gebremeskel, Rev. Haile Naizge, Rev Million Gebreselassie, Dr Futsum Gebrenegus, Dr Tekleab Menghisteab and Rev. Gebremedhin Gebregiorgis, all of whom were detained arbitrarily in 2004, and Rev Kidane Weldu, held without charge or trial since 2005.

The list could go on and on, but this Human Rights Day CSW reiterates our commitment to stand up for all these individuals, and the hundreds of others I have not named, until everyone is truly free to believe and enjoy every fundamental human right enshrined within the UDHR.

By CSW’s CEO Scot Bower