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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Youhanabad: This Is Our Land, This Is Our Spirit

For 65 years we have tolerated aggression against us so something must have drastically gone wrong that day for that to happen.’

Walking into Youhanabad on the outskirts of Lahore you notice the busyness of life; children playing, street vendors selling fruit and delicious fried snacks and motorbikes and scooters whizzing pass. Two years ago that the scene was transformed – chaos, carnage and confusion ensued on the morning of Sunday 15th March in 2015 when two suicide bombers approached Christ Church and St John’s Catholic Church and blew themselves up killing 15 and injuring around 70 people. After the bombing a mob was instigated, protest turned into violence and violence resulted in two people being lynched.

‘Within a few minutes victims became aggressors’

Suddenly the narrative changed, with many people thinking the attacks were a pre-planned Government conspiracy. Victims of the bomb blast who were Christians were refused treatment and turned away from hospitals. Women hired as domestic workers to do cooking and cleaning were laid off and young men returning to work were told they had no jobs. Retaliatory crimes were committed against Christians with police collusion and police raided Christian localities in Lahore indiscriminately arresting young men; there were complaints of ill treatment and torture.

Youhanabad was built when the Caritas Mission gave funds to Christians to obtain land outside of Lahore. Historically the area had a reputation associated with poverty and crime; as a consequence many Muslims on the outside had developed a very poor view of the Christians living there. After 30 years with the assistance of NGOs, Christians have worked hard to raise their status through better education and employment opportunities changing the attitudes of their Muslim neighbours.

In the aftermath

After the tragedy around 100 men were arrested using media profiling and video footage from mobile phones. A hearing took place to cancel the bails of some of the young men who were arrested; however, the judge maintained the bails and instead questioned the police for not pursuing their investigation and the criminals who were responsible for the double bomb blast.

Today as you approach the two churches there are stark, visible reminders of the tragedy – posters of victims are displayed outside both churches and the walls are covered with bullet holes.  Nonetheless, the community is healing and moving forward.

The Peace Committee, set up in 2013, is comprised of local men and women and divided into sub committees that address issues in the community. One such committee engages with local youths to encourage unity, awareness and cooperation though arranging seminars run by liberal Muslims, emphasising that Pakistan belongs to all Pakistanis. Other programs include sporting activities such as inter-faith cricket matches between Christians and Muslims, and helping bomb victims find new employment.  Another committee is working with the media to change the negative bias surrounding the events in Youhanabad.

 We have taken it all

The Christian community in Pakistan, among other religious minorities, continues to suffer widespread violence and discrimination. There have been numerous attacks on Christians from the burning of Joseph Colony to the tragic killing of Shama Bibi and Shehzad Masih, the couple burnt alive in a brick kiln. The environment is tense. Christians are affected by misused blasphemy laws which are disproportionately used to settle personal scores or in business rivalry. Christian girls are abducted, forced to marry Muslim men and convert against their will. The climate is troubled further by heightened terrorist and extremist threats and security issues, and the lack of resolve by both politicians and police to adequately protect Christians continues to persist.

We have taken everything that was thrown against us. You can pick up the history of this country, you will never find that the Christians have instigated violence or something so brutal at such a large scale.’

This is our land and this is our spirit

In the past year the community in Youhanabad has organised over 15 youth seminars that teach young people life skills, give them an understanding of their rights and instil courage. A recent training programme including Christian activists from Youhanabad has equipped participants with the techniques of social media activism, on digital rights, how to protest peacefully and on engaging with law enforcement agencies.

Despite doubts about the commitment of local Christian politicians, the community is determined to make their own success stories. Local residents told me of their patriotism and their interest in self-development. There is a hunger for education and to educate and counsel people.

‘We want to arrange seminars where you can educate us and we will make the change, change is already here… we are working and on the way change will grow.’

As the city prepares to commemorate those who died preparations are underway for church services and candle lit vigils in the streets of Youhanabad to mourn, to remember and to pray such tragedy never happens again.

By CSW’s Pakistan Desk Officer

Casto’s Choice: Forced Conversion or Forced Displacement

Casto sat at the table with other Christian leaders from the Huasteca region of Mexico. In April he had been talkative and his face had been animated. Now, in October, he was quiet and rarely looked up. One of the other leaders approached me privately and expressed concern about him. During the five-hour road trip to attend the workshop, he had told the other participants that he was so depressed that he hadn’t been able to attend church in a month.

This was the same man who, seven months earlier, had energetically defended his right to practice his religious beliefs at great cost. In March, he was summoned from his fields to appear at his community assembly in the village of Chichiltepec. Casto stopped his work and went to the assembly, accompanied by his cousin Juan. There, the village delegate (leader), Jesús Domínguez Hernández, told him to sign a document obligating him to renounce his Protestant beliefs – in violation of Mexico’s constitution, which protects freedom of religion or belief, and its international obligations, including the Inter-American Covenant on Human Rights which explicitly upholds the right to maintain or change ones religious beliefs.

Casto refused and Juan stood with him. The community assembly took the two young men by force and put them in a rustic jail cell carved into the side of a hill, with the bars of the door open to the chilly and damp weather. The two men were held there, with no sanitary facilities, for 30 hours. Casto was removed periodically to see if he would sign the document. He continued to refuse.  Finally the village delegate realised their pressure tactics were not going to work, released the men,  and gave Casto eighteen hours to leave the village – declaring it to be a ‘Catholic-only village’.

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