Rosie Costa

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.

Rosalind Costa

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.

Forced Conversion

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.”

Extremism

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.”

Religious Minorities

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.”

Government Inaction

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.

Rosie’s Inspiration

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

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The European Parliament’s Watchdog on Freedom of Religion or Belief: Bark or Bite?

 

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.

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Update: The Status of 2,000 AoG Churches Threatened with Confiscation in Cuba

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.

Guilty by Association: Increased Targeting of Family Members in Cuba

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.

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Mexico: Protestants Cut Off From Basic Services

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Chiapas, Oaxaca and Hidalgo are all home to some of the largest and most varied indigenous populations in Mexico. Unfortunately, this diversity sometimes provokes division, and the three states have some of the highest numbers of documented violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the country, with the number of documented cases highest in Chiapas.

In Mexico, state and federal governments have a designated office to deal with religious affairs, a responsibility to address violations of religious freedom and to actively mediate a solution to religious conflicts. However, the officials are almost always distinctly under-resourced and lack training in human rights – especially religious freedom.

At best, state and municipal governments are unable or unwilling to protect the religious freedom of their citizens and to address these human rights violations. At worst, they are passively or actively complicit in the violations. A particularly concerning way FoRB is violated in these states is through the cutting off of basic services, like water and electricity, to Protestant families by the local authorities – as is often the case, the violation of one right leads to others

One of the most striking aspects of the cases Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has profiled in its latest report is the lack of official intervention to resolve them – apart from a few exceptions, for most of the people affected, little has changed.

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“Between a Rock and a Hard Place”: the Future of Abyei

It has now been six and a half years since the people of Abyei should have decided their future.

Abyei, an oil-rich region situated between Sudan and South Sudan, was due to have a self-determination referendum on the 9 January 2011; the day South Sudan decided to become an independent nation. However, disagreements between Sudan and South Sudan regarding voter eligibility has meant that the people of Abyei are still waiting to hold an official vote.

These disagreements centre on whether the nomadic Arab Misseriya tribe who spend a portion of the year in Abyei are eligible to vote. Despite a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) stating that only the Ngok Dinka tribe, and those permanently residing in Abyei for a period of 3 years, may vote, the government of Sudan failed to accept these terms.

As the delay continued, the Ngok Dinka General Conference conducted what was termed a “People’s Referendum”: it was an unofficial vote but 98% of registered Ngok Dinka voters participated, of which 99.9% voted to join South Sudan. Sudan and South Sudan, as well as the African Union and international community, rejected the outcome of the referendum but both Khartoum and Juba have laid claim to Abyei.

Since the Peoples Referendum, South Sudan has descended into chaos, while Bashir’s grip on Sudan appears to be strengthening. With chaos to the South and oppression to the North, the decision may not be as simple as it was a few years ago – Abyei and its people are clearly trapped between a rock and a hard place.

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No Ifs, No Buts: Torture Should Be Universally Condemned

“He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth… After taking the pills he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred… He was beaten. He endured gruelling questioning while being denied sleep for days on end…” 

Wang Qiaoling describing the torture of her husband, lawyer Li Heping

 

“Even our breaths were suppressed. No voices. No texts. No images. No talking. No walking. Our hands, feet, our posture…every body movement was strictly limited. We needed permission for even the most trivial action”.

 Lawyer Zhao Wei, the youngest legal assistant detained in the 709 Crackdown

 

“Prisoners were also put in cages submerged mostly in water, and left inside for seven days, the entire body underwater with a space to breath at the top. As they stood in the water and tried to sleep, rats would scurry about outside the cage, biting their nose and ears.” 

Letter to world leaders by ‘709’ Family Members

These are just a few accounts of the torture experienced by human rights lawyers in China. Over 300 lawyers, activists, colleagues and family members were detained, interrogated or disappeared in a sweeping crackdown beginning on 9 July 2015, dubbed the 709 Crackdown. Two years on, most have been released, some on “bail” conditions amounting to house arrest, but with news of their release have come numerous testimonies of physical and psychological torture including frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication, violent threats, and prolonged isolation.

Use of torture in China

Lawyers and activists are by no means the only victims of torture. Many of the lawyers caught up in the crackdown had defended clients who had been tortured by police or security agents, including those arrested in connection with their religion or belief such as Falun Gong practitioners and Christians associated with unregistered churches, as well as those accused of crimes not related to politics or religion.

Li Heping reunion

Human rights lawyer, Li Heping (right) pictured with his brother Li Chunfu (left) following his release from detention.

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UK General Election: an opportunity to reiterate a commitment to human rights

Coming less than a year after the EU referendum, the UK’s snap General Election on Thursday will provide a fresh opportunity to ensure human rights are at the heart of government policies.

Amid competing priorities, it remains important that the new government pledges to uphold the UK’s commitment to human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in all aspects of foreign policy, including diplomacy, international aid and trade.

Freedom of Religion or Belief matters

According to the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the state of international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations. Its new report states:

“the blatant assaults have become so frightening—attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship—that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated.”

Against this backdrop, it’s increasingly important that the government shows its commitment to protecting this right. It must speak with boldness in challenging FoRB violations and allocate adequate resources, in addition to using its diplomatic and political capital, to address them.

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Eritrea Protest Vigil 2017

Heather Fenton protesting.JPG

Three years ago, I found myself at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), playing a game with an eight year old girl – I would say the name of an animal and she would draw it.  She was an Eritrean refugee and had come to the HRC with her parents as part of a delegation who were there to give testimony at a side event. Her entire family had been detained by the government, locked up with others in a shipping container. She shared memories of the entire place smelling awful, of being freezing cold at night and roasting hot during the day and of how she and her other siblings joked about which family member was covered with the most lice. A serious issue was turned into a game as their parents did  their best to shield their children from the full force of the horrors they were experiencing.

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What Difference Does a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief Make?

As Ján Figel starts his second year as the EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the European Union, the last 12 months of his time in this new mandate show the respect for this role that has developed amongst sceptics and the potential for his role going forward.

In under 12 months Mr Figel has raised the profile of FoRB as a human rights priority for the EU, highlighting the important role religion and belief, including the right not to believe, plays in the daily experience of millions across the globe.

Early on in his first term the Special Envoy said “FoRB is a litmus test for general human rights… Those who don’t understand, religion and the abuse of religion can’t comprehend what is going on in the world today.” At the end of his first year, there has been a visible widening of EU engagement on this sensitive human right, as part of its dialogue and development policies.

“FoRB is a litmus test for general human rights… Those who don’t understand, religion and the abuse of religion can’t comprehend what is going on in the world today.” – Ján Figel, EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief

Sudan is one of several countries with poor human rights records which Mr Figel has visited in his first year. Such visits open up opportunities for a senior EU diplomat to engage with religious leaders and religious communities to address societal hostilities, in addition to working with government officials.

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