Various countries that include China and Iraq are disproportionately using the death penalty against people from religious minorities, not for any criminal misdeeds, but merely based on their faith and religious beliefs, according to Raphael Chenuil-Hazan, the Executive Director of Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort (Together Against the Death Penalty), a French NGO that aims to abolish capital punishment around the world.
The list of communities who have been victimised by the crackdown includes Tibetan Buddhists, the Uighurs (the Turkic-speaking minority in China’s western Xinjiang province and who are Sunni Muslims with close ethnic and cultural ties to Central Asia), and Chinese Christians. Each of the communities has seen a number of their followers sentenced to death solely for their religious identities.
“It’s a disgrace that some regimes, including China, Iraq, and Iran, are using the death penalty against people from religious groups who are condemned merely for their religious beliefs…This cannot be allowed to continue,” said Chenuil-Hazan, who added, “These people have been condemned not because of any criminal wrongdoing or misdeeds, but because they believe in something that a particular regime does not agree with. They are being targeted for their beliefs and the international community needs to wake up to what is going on and take appropriate action.”
According to Chenuil-Hazan, the security services’ crackdown on religious minorities has now extended to their legal representatives, who are also often imprisoned and tortured for having taken on cases dedicated to human rights.
Recently in China, up to 500 lawyers representing human rights activists were detained for acting as legal counsel to individuals who have been targeted by their respective governments.
“They are still in prison and we know little or nothing about their whereabouts or their welfare,” Chenuil-Hazan said, adding, “We have to be brave enough to raise these issues so that the wider community knows what is going on.”
Chenuil-Hazan made his comments while speaking at the seventh World Congress Against the Death Penalty, which is co-hosted by the European Union and the Kingdom of Belgium. Held every three years, the four-day event brings together prominent activists, both public and private, who are actively attempting to have capital punishment banned across the globe.
Among those voicing their concern for the plight of the religious minorities was Audun Halvorsen, the State Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, who said that “even in 2019, people can be sentenced to death because of who they love, because of their faith, their sexual orientation. This is not acceptable.”
The congress heard that support for the death penalty was lowest among Hispanic (24%) and Black Protestants (25%), 68% of each preferred handing out life sentences without the chance of parole. The two communities’ views on capital punishment were backed by their fellow Christians in the Catholic Church, as well as by Jews, other non-Christian religions, and those who identify as religiously unaffiliated.
Pope Francis has spoken more forcibly about the issue, saying that life imprisonment is a form of torture and “a hidden (form of the) death penalty”. The Holy See’s abhorrence of the capital punishment is rooted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which proclaims that “in the light of the Gospel” the death penalty is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”.
Religious faith and capital punishment have always been intertwined. Christianity’s primordial event was the execution of its founder, and the same fate was suffered by many of its early teachers.
At the same time, putting “wrong thinkers” to death has generally been presented – and remains to be – a sacred necessity that began with the Inquisition in 15th century Europe and continues to this day through the actions of terrorist groups and radical Islamist movements that include ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Afghan Taliban.