With religious persecution on the rise in many parts of the world, Church leaders and diplomats called for legal and cultural solutions to protect religious minorities.
Msgr. Khaled Akaseh, an official of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said at a June 25 conference in Rome that religious freedom is the “cornerstone of human rights.” Defending this freedom, he said, will require a change in mentality from oppressive groups and governments who deny the inherent dignity of those who practice different religions.
At the conference, a representative from the Lebanese embassy to the Holy See stressed the need to protect minorities in their home countries rather than allowing a diaspora of religious minorities who flee persecution in the Middle East to start new lives abroad.
“The West doesn't need our minorities, we need them,” he said, adding that the focus “should be keeping minorities where they are” while also trying to make the life of refugees better. The solution, he said, “is not in the West, it's in the East.”
In comments to journalists, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Oriental Churches, sympathized with the need for greater protections for religious minorities at home.
In some cases, “you can't get certain positions at work, you can't have certain positions because you are not from the majority,” he said. To counter this, “minorities should be recognized and respected” through equal citizenship before the law, not treated as second-class citizens.
Sandri spoke at a half-day symposium titled “Defending International Religious Freedom: Partnership and Action,” which was organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See in collaboration with papal charity organization Aid to the Church in Need and the community of Sant'Egidio, an ecclesial movement known for its work with migrants and refugees.
In remarks during the event, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich pointed to instances of religious persecution happening around the world, saying “it’s a dangerous time to be a person of faith.”
“We are at a critical moment. We can and must do more,” she said, and voiced the need for greater cooperation on the part of international leaders, saying “governments, civil society, faith groups, and individuals must work together to advance religious freedom and to strengthen peace, stability, and security throughout the world.”
“Global crises require global solutions. We must come together to confront and counter those who practice, enable, or export religious persecution or violent extremism,” she said, adding that only through cooperation and understanding will it be possible to “safeguard the human right of religious freedom for all those seeking to live their lives freely and in accordance with their faith.”
Cardinal-elect Joseph Coutts of Karachi, Pakistan, warned that although religious freedom was enshrined in his country’s 1947 founding documents, it has slowly been eroded and replaced with strict restrictions on religion.
He pointed to the nation’s harsh anti-blasphemy law, which imposes strict punishment — typically the death penalty — on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult Muhammad.
The law is misused, he said, in cases such as that of Asia Bibi, a mother of five who was accused by a neighbor of insulting the prophet Mohammed in 2009, and is currently on death row.
Most people know “this is a cooked-up case,” Coutts said, but they are afraid to take action because religious emotion runs so high, and many people who have defended Christians have ended up dead.
He also cautioned that a new form of Islam has crept into Pakistan, justifying practices forbidden by traditional Islam, such as suicide bombings.
“Our government is not strong enough to control the kind of extremism that has developed in our country,” he said, noting that both Christians and Muslims who do not share the extremist interpretation of Islam are suffering.
Salwa Kahalaf Rasho, a Yazidi woman from Iraq, shared her story of capture and abuse during the 2014 ISIS attacks against the Yazidi people in the country — the latest of more than 70 “genocidal campaigns” her people have suffered throughout their history.
“They [ISIS fighters] killed thousands of Yazidi men in the most horrific ways. As a result, about 60 mass graves of has been found in my hometown Sinjar. More than 6000 women and girls were kidnapped, including me and many of my relatives,” Rasho said.
“We have been subjected to all types of sexual and physical abuse and violence. We were sold in slave markets. We were objects to be bought and purchased, alongside enduring continuous beatings and torture.”
After eight months of captivity, Rasho escaped and was able to move to Germany. But there are still some 3,000 Yazidi women missing, she said, stressing the need for international efforts to rescue these women.
She also called for the protection of Yazidi refugees and of minority areas in Iraq and Syria, the preservation of mass graves in Sinjar as evidence of genocide, cooperation with the U.N. team investigating Islamic State crimes in Iraq, and reconstruction efforts aimed at helping people return to their homes.
“These steps are the only way of preserving the existence of minorities in the region, especially Yazidi and Christians,” she said. “If this action is not taken, our existence, identity and culture will be wiped out- fulfilling the aim of the Islamic State.”
Support should also be given to the displaced, she said, noting that refugees often face both physical and mental health risks, and “suicide rates are on the rise.”
Also offering a testimony was aid worker Ziear Khan, who has worked with Rohingya Muslims in Burma since 2008 through the British development and relief charity Human Appeal.
The Rohingya, an ethnic minority in Burma, are not recognized by the state and have faced increased persecution in their homeland since 2012. They have been described “as the most persecuted group in the world right now,” Khan said.
He recounted the stories of women and children whose family members were brutally killed before their eyes, leaving them abandoned and traumatized.
Khan also called for action, specifically sanctions on trade with Burma until the crisis is addressed.
“I think about the lessons we need to learn. I think about Rwanda, I think of Bosnia and the Holocaust,” he said, adding that “I would hate to be silent on the day I'm questioned by my Lord when these atrocities were taking place, when all these people were being killed.”