09 February 2024, The Tablet

Leaders warned of varied threats to religious freedom

Peter Jacob, the former head of the Pakistani Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, was awarded the US Religious Freedom Award.

Leaders warned of varied threats to religious freedom

Speakers at the 2024 International Religious Freedom summit.
Latter-day Life Hacker / Youtube screenshot

Threats to religious minorities and the global rise in antisemitism were central themes at the fourth International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC at the end of January.

Speakers addressed the persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran, Muslims in India, and the Uyghur people of China, as well as the repeated massacres which have killed more than 50,000 Christians in Nigeria since 2010, during the conference on 30-31 January.

A Nicaraguan priest, whose identity was hidden to protect him from the Nicaraguan regime which had arrested him, spoke on President Daniel Ortega’s crackdown on Catholic clergy and schools. 

“I pray to the Lord that the voice of this summit on human rights and religious freedom be raised and heard by Christians around the world,” he said.

In a separate event, the US State Department awarded the former head of the Pakistani Catholic bishops’ National Justice and Peace Commission the US Religious Freedom Award. Peter Jacob is a leading critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, and has compiled a comprehensive database of more than 2,000 cases since 1987 to show its exploitation to target minorities.

On 29 January, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore told a parliamentary in event in the UK that during violence against Christians in Punjab last August, police failed to respond adequately and “a lot more could have been done”. However, he emphasised that many Muslims helped their Christian neighbours as the violence unfolded.  

Archbishop Shaw, a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said that it was vital for Christians and Muslims to work together to promote a peaceful coexistence.

Recent military conflicts have also seen a sharp increase in religious persecution, with particular concern for the future of Christianity in the territory of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, since it was seized from Armenia by Azerbaijan last year.

In Ukraine, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has accused Russia of being “the real enemy of any human freedom, specifically religious freedom”. 

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said in a message on 29 January that Russian forces had made deliberate attacks on churches, citing a report that claimed 600 places of worship had been destroyed by their operations.

Elsewhere, a new report has warned of the “collapse of religious freedom” in Hong Kong under the national security law. 

“Hostile Takeover: The CCP and Hong Kong’s Religious Communities” from the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation warns that the “sinicisation” of religion gives the Chines Communist Party control over worshippers’ lives, and alleges that the Catholic Church in the territory “is suppressing information on religious persecution in China”.

The report appeals for stronger international action by the US, the Vatican and others to defend religious freedom in China. It also notes the national security trial of the Catholic publisher Jimmy Lai, which several Catholic bishops have condemned.

Alice Jill Edwards, the UN special rapporteur on torture, has written to authorities in China, following claims that evidence of a key prosecution witness in the trial was obtained through torture.  

She said she was “deeply concerned” about the allegations of “torture or other unlawful treatment”, and that an investigation “must be conducted immediately, before any evidence is admitted into these present proceedings”.

The key prosecution witness may have been tortured during his detention in Shenzhen prison in mainland China during 2020-21.

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