A young church leader is unwittingly caught up in a
security dragnet, arrested, falsely accused and imprisoned. Another church
youth leader is shot and killed when security forces open fire on peaceful
protestors. In the same country, the military surrounds a cathedral where over
a thousand peaceful protestors have sought refuge after fleeing tear gas and
violence at the hands of security forces.
What is happening in Venezuela today shows how
religious groups can become caught up in larger political movements, sometimes
despite their best efforts to remain neutral and disengaged from politics.
Once religious groups find themselves in situations like these they can be forced out of their neutrality, putting them in opposition to powerful forces; this in turn can lead to violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) as the authorities crack down on what they perceive to be rebellious religious groups.
Germano Nati Gojo, an Eritrean politician, was arrested at his home by security agents as he listened to the radio on his veranda. One agent stood outside the gate. The other entered and said: “Sir, we need you on a work-related issue”. Saying nothing, Germano Nati Gojo stood up, went to change his clothes and left with them. His two younger children, then aged 16 and 12, witnessed this. The family has not seen or heard from him in 17 years, despite inquiring.
His eldest son, Yona Germano Nati, addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2018. He spoke of how his father had joined the struggle for independence of Eritrea in 1976, shared the story of his father’s enforced disappearance in September 2001, and described their poignant last meeting prior to the arrest, during which his father expressed his readiness to be jailed alongside his pro-reform colleagues who are now known collectively as the G 15.
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.
In June 2016, CSW joined a number of African and international civil society organisations in signing and delivering a letter marking the fifth anniversary of the conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions, to 10 Downing Street. The letter urged the Prime Minister to use the UK’s considerable influence to ensure that international human rights and humanitarian law are respected.
Protesters walked from the Sudanese Embassy in London to Downing Street to deliver the letter. Among those taking part, it was striking to see veiled and unveiled Sudanese women from the Nuba Mountains, people from other parts of South Kordofan and Darfur, young children, and men in traditional Nuba dress united in calling for an end to all conflicts in Sudan.
This demonstration of unity in diversity was compelling, as was the cry for peace and freedom for all Sudanese citizens. The repression of religious and ethnic diversity in Sudan has been used repeatedly by President al Bashir’s government to sustain his 27-year rule, and what was clearly expressed on that overcast Saturday afternoon in London was the longing for an end to conflicts that serve to perpetuate a divisive government and for a lasting peace in which people can live side by side without fear, regardless of their cultural, linguistic, ethnic or religious differences.
Every Sunday Cuba’s Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco, in Spanish) have been forcibly and often violently prevented from attending Sunday morning services. Every Sunday since the group was formed in 2003, the women attend (or at least attempt to attend) Sunday Mass dressed in white to symbolise peace and walk through the streets in silent protest afterwards.
The Ladies in White movement was formed in response to the Black Spring in 2003 – a mass crackdown by the Cuban government on dissidents and journalists. Since 2010, all of the Black Spring prisoners have now been released. However, political prisoners remain in Cuba and the Ladies in White, a movement largely comprised of wives and other female relatives of former and current political prisoners remain active.
As the world marks International Women’s Day on 8 March, CSW commends their courage and peaceful protest, which saw them awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005.