With global religious persecution increasingly thrust into the international spotlight, members of several Christian communities suffering violence and discrimination have said promises are no longer enough, but action is needed from political leaders.
Typically seen as a political non-priority, religious persecution, and anti-Christian persecution in particular, has been getting more attention since the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights was marked in December 2018.
The Declaration, written in the aftermath of World War II, includes the right to freely practice one’s religion.
Earlier this month, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt presented the final report of an independent inquiry into worldwide anti-Christian persecution.
During the July 15 launch of the report in Rome, sponsored by the UK Embassy to the Holy See, Pakistani priest Father Boniface Mendez said, “we have been waiting for 42 years for Her Majesty to pay attention to the persecution of Christians in Pakistan.”
“It has happened at last,” he said, adding, “we now hope that we can go forward with this attention.”
However, for many representatives and leaders of persecuted Christian communities, agreements and commitments on paper are not enough.
For Cardinal Luis Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, it’s time for world leaders to put meaning behind their words and take concrete action.
Referring to the inquiry’s recommendation that a U.N. resolution on the protection of Christians in the Middle East be drafted, Sako said that while a step in the right direction, the resolution would mean “nothing” to Christians in the Middle East without follow-up.
“We need actions, not only speeches,” he told Crux, adding that government leaders in countries such as Iraq need “pressure but also actions” for progress to be made.
Part of the pressure on the government, he said, ought to come in the form of sanctions until laws and constitutions are reformed, ensuring full citizenship and equality for all citizens, and for the protection for minorities, because at least in Iraq, the bulk of the problems stem from corruption and militia violence.
He also voiced hope for a papal visit, saying in remarks to attendees that, “we all should work to end persecution of all religion, this should be our mission. We don’t have to kill someone because he is of a different religion, this is really a shame.”
Sako pointed to the fact that Pope Francis in February signed a joint declaration on fraternity with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, considered by many to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam, during the papal visit to the United Arab Emirates.
“I hope, I really hope that when the pope will come to Iraq, he will sign a new document, or the same document, with Shiite authorities,” Sako said.
Similarly, Sister Monica Chikwe of the Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy told Crux that in her home country of Nigeria, intervention is needed in order to stop the slaughter of Christians.
The country is almost evenly divided between a Muslim north and a Christian south, with a “Middle Belt” where the two religions are more evenly divided.
Even though Christians are not a minority in Nigeria, they face harsh persecution on multiple fronts, primarily from Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram and Fulani herdsman, the majority of whom are Muslim, who have attacked Christian villages on grounds that they are searching for grazing territory for their cows.
“Christians, we always believe and trust in God. So you don’t see Christians going around with weapons or AK45s, but you can see a Fulani herdsman with an AK45 roaming around,” Chikwe said, calling on the international community to “intervene powerfully in compelling the Nigerian government to comply with the universal (declaration on) human rights, because no human rights law is observed in Nigeria.”
Though Nigeria is a member of the United Nations and has signed the declaration as well as several anti-terrorism conventions, Chikwe said these have not been implemented, and she would like to see “pressure” on the government to put them into practice.
Speaking to attendees of the Rome launch of the inquiry, which found that Christians make up 80 percent of those affected by religious persecution, amounting to some 245 million people, British Ambassador to the Holy See Sally Axworthy said the final report was “constructively critical” of the UK’s efforts thus far to prevent anti-Christian persecution.
“How Christians are treated is a bellwether for how all minorities are treated,” she said, explaining why the report focused solely on Christians, as opposed to other religions. She said the inquiry was also made due to a perception that the UK is “indifferent” to anti-Christian persecution given that it is a western religion, and out of a sense of “post-colonial guilt.”
In comments to Crux, Axworthy said she believes all recommendations in the inquiry will be accepted, including the proposal to establish the U.N. resolution on the protection of Christians in the Middle East, though she insisted that “whether it’s feasible” and actually of help to Christians in the region must be evaluated.
Priorities for the UK government going forward, she said, at least for the Foreign Office, will likely be to further practical support through existing aid programs, as well as helping to ensure security and “good governance” so people feel safe and that they are able to stay in Iraq.
“That’s something that the international community can make an enormous contribution to,” she said, explaining that it’s too soon to know what concrete actions might be taken in this regard, but “when the scale of the persecution of Christians is so great, that’s definitely something we will be focusing on more.”
A joint statement issued July 15 by Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, the point man for international affairs in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and Bishop Christopher Chessun of Southwark, in charge of international affairs for the Church of England, said they are grateful for the inquiry.
The final report, they said, “has grounded its analysis and recommendations in a human rights framework and in a way that will benefit all those that face the risk or reality of restriction, hostility, violence or death, either on an individual or communal basis, because of the beliefs they hold or as a result of their religious identities.”
They said the report took many of their recommendations into consideration and voiced gratitude, saying “such practical steps should now be a priority for the UK government, rather than creating new definitions of persecution.”
Simply crating new definitions, they said, “risks both oversimplifying the complex local challenges that vary between different countries and also diverting efforts from further developing the framework of international human rights protection. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by encouraging a competition for ‘victim status.’”
In her closing remarks, Axworthy said the British Foreign Office will study the recommendations in the inquiry and find ways to “implement them.”
“It’s important that we talk about this openly,” not merely as “a policy exercise,” but as a genuine conversation that can lead to a “policy response,” she said, voicing gratitude for the embassy’s partnership with the Holy See in fighting anti-Christian persecution.