In recent years, the world has seen a rapid increase in the number of violent incidents that target religious believers that include acts of intolerance, discrimination, persecution, and even genocide, the likes of which have not been seen in recent memory, Tomasz Grysa, a representative for Archbishop Bernardito C. Auza, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, said in New York during a panel discussion on religious freedom.

These attacks have been somewhat unprecedented in the scope and scale when it comes to those that they target. Both in Europe and the United States, Jews have been the victims of a steady rise in acts of violent anti-Semitism by those connected to white supremacy groups and right-wing extremists, as well as by radical Islamists; while Muslims have had to endure growing intolerance and discrimination that is born out of blatant Islamophobia.

Grysa, who was speaking at the event on 1 March, which was organised by the Holy See and the UN NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, went on to add that the number of annual documented cases of targeted discrimination against Hindus, Buddhists, Samaritans, Sikhs, Falun Gong, Jehovah Witnesses, Ahmadis, and Scientologists had been recorded in each of the last several years.

That same persecution. Grysa noted, also included the acts of genocide committed against the Yazidis of Iraq and Syria by ISIS.

The 2018 report of the United Nations special reporter on freedom of religion and belief said multiple governments and non-state actors target dissenting members of majority communities and non-religious persons with severe abuses, including genocide and other mass atrocities, killings, enslavement, rape, imprisonment, forced displacement, forced conversions, intimidation, harassment, property destruction, the marginalization of women, and bans on children participating in religious activities or education.

“There was also increasingly aggressive forms of nationalism hostile to religious minorities that have led to increased systematic intimidation of religious minority groups as disloyal aliens that are dangerous to the state. There has also been, it’s noted, an upsurge in what the report terms neighbourhood terrorism throughout the world. Attacks in which non-state actors target those of particular religious beliefs,” Grysa said to the panel.

“It is clear that violations of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, go far beyond the methodical and appalling acts of terrorism, vigilantism, killings, deportations, rape, kidnapping, and enslavement of women and children,” he said, before adding that the confiscation and destruction of people’s property and attacks against converts had been encouraged by the anti-religious fervour that has gripped much of the world. That sentiment, based on Grysa’s testimony, has been encouraged by a series of anti-apostasy and anti-blasphemy laws in certain countries and bureaucratic harassments which stigmatise people as unbelievers or heretics.

While the majority of discriminatory acts against religious believers was strongest in countries with an official state religion, many of the acts have also been seen in states “where an aggressively secular mindset treats religious belief as unworthy of public dialogue in the public square, seeking to reduce freedom of religion to merely freedom of worship,” said Grysa.

Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, one of the leading figures in Sunni Islam, signed a landmark joint declaration on 4 February that is aimed at addressing many of these concerns, and which is focused on promoting the right to practice one’s religion freely.

Both figures, Grysa noted in his address, wish to address the topic of where attacks on religious freedom originate and what must be done to defend against attacks on those who wish to worship freely by identifying the origins of the hateful attitudes and hostility that fuels intolerance towards the world’s religious communities.

In their joint declaration, Pope Francis and Grand Imam al-Tayeb explicitly addressed the right to religious freedom – as guaranteed in the universal declaration of human rights, which stipulates ‘that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion’ – saying an individual must not be forced to adhere to a religion or culture that they do not accept.

“The situation is deadly in many places around the world. There are people in prison for their faith that should not be there. There is deadly violence that happens on the street and in social settings toward minority religions in way too many countries,” said Sam Brownback, the US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, who pointed to the plight of the Uighurs in western China and Myanmar’s Rohingya, both of whom are Muslim minorities, and being subjected to acts of ethnic cleansing and forced internment by oppressive regimes. Brownback also noted that more had to be done to protect the Baha’i’s, Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian communities in the Islamic Republic of Iran, an authoritarian, Shiite-dominated theocracy, while also noting that the Yazidis and Christians of Iraq remain at risk despite the demise of ISIS.

“Now is the time, and it’s my belief that we really have got some momentum moving, but you’ve got to capture the momentum to make something happen out of it. We want something new to happen to where freedom of religion can be a reality and will be a reality and I predict that it will happen in the world. That we’ll have freedom of religion for everybody, but we’ve got to make it happen to bring this iron curtain of religious persecution down globally,” said Brownback.


This content is part of the ‘Religious Freedom’ section supported by the Faith and Freedom Summit Coalition