A guest blog by the Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP.
Today is the 15th birthday of Leah Sharibu. But, unlike most young girls around the world, she will be spending her birthday in captivity.
On 19 February 2018, Leah was among 110 girls who were abducted from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi, north eastern Nigeria, by the al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram. The oldest abductees were 18 years of age; the youngest were 11.
On 21 March 2018, over a month after their capture, Boko Haram returned 105 of the girls to Dapchi, following negotiations with the government. Five had reportedly died during the arduous journey to Boko Haram’s hideout.
However, returnees confirmed that Leah Sharibu, the sole Christian among them, remained in captivity due to her refusal to convert and wear a hijab. Her friends said they begged her to feign conversion so they could all leave together. However, a tearful Leah is reported to have informed them she could not live with herself if she did so. She also asked them to tell her mother, Rebecca Sharibu, to pray for the will of God to be done in her life. In a comment to Nigerian media her father Nathan Sharibu said: “They gave her the option of converting in order to be released but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad… but I’m also jubilating too because my daughter did not denounce Christ.”
Member States of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
Re: CSW’s application for UN ECOSOC Consultative Status
We are writing to you requesting that you vote in favour of Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s (CSW’s) appeal for UN ECOSOC consultative status in April 2017.
CSW is a human rights advocacy organisation with almost 40 years’ experience of promoting the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in over 20 countries worldwide. Its advocacy work is firmly rooted in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
CSW engages regularly with United Nations mechanisms providing evidence-based analysis. It applied in 2009 for consultative status in order to broaden the scope of its work with key human rights advocacy platforms, including the Human Rights Council and General Assembly.
On 3 February 2017, the UN Committee on NGOs voted to reject CSW’s application after repeated deferrals. Since 2009, CSW has provided timely and comprehensive answers to over 80 questions from the Committee, to no avail.
We, the undersigned, are disappointed at the Committee’s decision and deeply concerned about the wider message that the rejection of CSW’s application sends regarding the Committee’s commitment to facilitating NGO access to UN mechanisms.
CSW’s situation is not unique. In May 2016, over 230 NGOs raised concerns about the Committee’s repeated deferral and denial of NGO applications for consultative status, which effectively blocks a number of NGOs from participating fully in UN processes.
In the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, the parliamentary chapel just underneath Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament, Burma’s first-ever Cardinal celebrated Mass.
“Coming from a country, Burma, that is just emerging from over half a century of cruel, brutal military dictatorship, a country torn apart by war, ravaged by religious and ethnic persecution, with rampant corruption and dire poverty, into a new Easter dawn of democracy, to stand here in this chapel with all that it symbolises and represents is an immense joy,” Cardinal Charles Bo said. “Britain and the British Parliament has a long history with Burma; many of you have been with us in our darkest hour, stretching out a hand of friendship and solidarity in our time of need, raising a voice for us when we were voiceless.”
It was just one of many beautiful and significant moments during Cardinal Bo’s almost three-week tour of the United Kingdom and Brussels, which began with Mass in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow, with a piper on the door. The tour then took us the length and breadth of the UK, and to Westminster and the European Union.
The visit was co-hosted by CSW together with Missio, Aid to the Church in Need and the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.
Cardinal Bo met with Cardinal Vincent Nichols; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby; the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Hugo Swire; and the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. He celebrated Mass in four Cathedrals and met with the Anglican Bishop of Coventry, Bishop Christopher Cocksworth, who speaks for the Church of England on international religious freedom. He spoke to school children and in Brussels he met the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis and the recently appointed EU Special Envoy for freedom of religion or belief, Jan Figel. In Parliament, Cardinal Bo met several Parliamentarians including Baroness Kinnock, David Burrowes MP and Valerie Vaz MP, addressed a meeting chaired by Lord Alton and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Burma, the APPG on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Catholic Legislators Network, before finally speaking at a reception in Speaker’s House hosted by Mr Speaker.
It was a remarkable visit. Cardinal Bo delivered a clear message with two key points.
First, there are certainly some changes in Burma for which we must all be thankful.
Second, there is still a very, very long way to go, Burma continues to face many challenges, and the country continues to need our prayers and support.
One of his most striking messages was his appeal for the protection of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all.
In the chapel in the UK Parliament, where the Gospel reading was Mark 9:38-40, he said: “Today’s Gospel speaks to us all of the need to unite with friend and stranger. To speak not only for our own kind but for our neighbour, our brother and sister in humanity, and the stranger. For as our Lord says, ‘Anyone who is not against us is for us’.” That, he added, is a message our world today “desperately” needs to hear.
“That is why I spend so much of my time making friends with my brothers and sisters in other faiths – Buddhist monks, Muslim clerics, Hindu leaders – and with my Protestant brethren – because those of us who share the same values – of freedom of religion, democracy, peace, justice – must work together against the merchants of hatred, the dark forces who seek to sow conflict and destruction. Anyone who is not against us is for us … So when we see others, of other beliefs, doing good, let us remember the words of Jesus: ‘You must not stop him’ … Unless they speak evil of us, unless they are against us, they can be for us, and we must be for them.”
Of all the memories of travelling together with Cardinal Bo and his secretary, Father Dominic, for almost three weeks, two in particular stand out.
The first was his homily during Mass in Westminster Cathedral. He spoke about the persecution of Christians around the world. “To be a Christian today is not an easy task … I belong to a church that underwent its own quota of suffering during the dictatorship. I wish to pray for all those who are persecuted for their religion.”
And the second was a simple, symbolic, spontaneous and beautiful act at the end of Cardinal Bo’s final public engagement, the reception in Speaker’s House. He presented Mr Speaker with a gift, a painting of a scene of Burmese landscape. Mr Speaker and the Cardinal then hugged, and with that hug summed up the entire message of Cardinal Bo’s visit: let’s stand in solidarity with each other, let’s work for freedom and human dignity for all, and let’s reach out to a hurting world with a message of hope, to celebrate unity in diversity. “Evil,” says the Cardinal “has an expiry date. Hope has no expiry date.”
“Evil,” says the Cardinal “has an expiry date. Hope has no expiry date.”
By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader
* Click here to watch the BBC interview with Cardinal Bo on the plight of the minorities in Burma
**Click here to listen to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales’ interview with Cardinal Bo on Burma’s new dawn of democracy
***An abridged text of his speech in Parliament was published here earlier this month. And you can find all his speeches from the visit here and a booklet of some of his quotations here.
On May 25th Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Burma, spoke before a meeting chaired by Lord Alton and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Burma, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Catholic Legislators Network. Below are sections from that speech, on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Burma and the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Please contact CSW‘s office for a copy of the full speech and further recommendations.
My country, Myanmar, now stands on the threshold of hope. We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice, with five nails: dictatorship, war, displacement, poverty and oppression. Easter seemed a distant dream. My country was buried in the tomb of oppression and exploitation for six decades.
But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen. But it brings with it fresh challenges: reconciliation and peace-making, religious intolerance, land grabbing, constitutional limitations, and the fragile nature of a nascent democratic transition. And the old dangers have not gone away: the military remains powerful, corruption is widespread, and ethnic conflict continues in some parts of Myanmar.
“We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice (…) But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen.”
Despite winning an enormous mandate from the people, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred by the Constitution from becoming President. The military, under the Constitution, retain control of three key ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – and 25% of the seats in Parliament reserved for them. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee. So the new government is constrained, the military is still very powerful, and the country continues to face enormous challenges. Our journey has not ended; we are simply entering into a new chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights, human dignity and peace.
Following the Conservative party’s election win in 2015, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) took the opportunity to ‘re-configure’ their work in order to ensure the UK’s promotion of Universal Human Rights had the most impact.
Focus on Freedom of Religion or Belief under the Coalition Government
Under the Coalition Government in 2010-2015 the FCO undertook encouraging work on human rights, with freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) forming a significant part of the overall human rights programme as one of eight main thematic priorities.
Baroness Warsi, then the Minister responsible for Human Rights at the FCO, established the advisory group on FoRB, a group of experts from all faiths and none to advise the Minster on how to best protect and promote FoRB worldwide. After Baroness Warsi left her post, FoRB remained a human rights priority and the advisory group continued to meet and advise the new Minister.
Human Rights Work Reconfigured
The most significant part of the FCO reconfiguration was changing the eight thematic human rights priorities to three human rights ‘themes’. The rationale behind this was not to relegate nor promote any of the existing priorities, but instead to create overarching themes that encompassed everything the FCO human rights work does, while allowing for that work to be prioritised and developed in locally appropriate ways.
The themes are:
Democratic Values and the Rule of Law,
Strengthening the Rules Based International System,