A papal charity says that at least two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where religious freedom is not upheld, and the most persecuted religious group are Christians.

The 2021 Religious Freedom Report by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) found that around 5.2 billion people live in countries where there are grave violations to religious freedom, including three of the world’s most populous countries: China, India and Pakistan. In most of these countries, religious minorities are the most targeted, and in recent years, the faith-based persecution by authoritarian governments has intensified.

The report also highlights and denounces the increase of sexual violence used as a weapon against religious minorities – crimes against women and girls who are abducted, raped and forced to convert to another religion.

The promotion of ethnic and religious supremacy in some Hindu and Buddhist majority countries in Asia has led to further oppression of minorities, often reducing their members to de facto second-class citizenship. According to the report, India is the most extreme example, but similar policies apply in Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and others.

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the international president ACN defended the importance of religious freedom as an inherent aspect of human dignity, insisting that “it cannot be trampled upon for any reason, neither by any government, nor by any political policy or any particular agenda.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s release of the report, he said that religious freedom contains within itself “the nucleus of all freedoms, since it relates to the human conscience and is thus linked to the dignity of every individual human being”. Consequently, it may not be violated in any way.”

“Regrettably, however, despite the – albeit important – UN initiatives, and the staffing of religious freedom ambassadorships, to date the international community’s response to violence based on religion, and religious persecution in general, can be categorized as too little too late,” writes Thomas Heine-Geldern, Executive President of Aid to the Church in Need International.

“Behind the violent conflicts, whether in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, the Central African Republic or Mozambique – to mention only a few countries – are those in the shadows who, manipulating the deepest convictions of humanity, have instrumentalized religion in the search for power,” he writes in the report’s introduction.

The report found that the most persecuted religion was Christianity.

The 2021 report is the 15th edition of Aid to the Church in Need’s Religious Freedom in the World Report, produced every two years. It is published in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. With over 800 pages, the publication has changed much since it was first published as a booklet in 1999.

The report includes case studies that put faces to the statistics such as Chile: The burning of the churches; Nigeria: The mass abduction of schoolchildren; Pakistan: Sexual violence and forced conversion.

Among the many findings of the report is the radicalization of the African continent, especially in Sub-Saharan and Eastern Africa, where there has been a dramatic increase in the presence of jihadist groups. Violations of religious freedom – including extreme persecution such as mass killings – are now occurring in 42 percent of all African countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and Mozambique.

Yet this radicalization affects not only the African continent: The report tracks a rise of transnational Islamist networks stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Comoros in the Indian Ocean, and to the Philippines in the South China Sea, with the aim of creating a so-called “transcontinental caliphate.”

“So-called Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, with ideological and material patronage from the Middle East, affiliate with, and further radicalize, local armed militias to establish ‘caliphate provinces’ along the Equator; a crescent of jihadist violence stretches from Mali to Mozambique in Sub-Saharan Africa, to the Comoros in the Indian Ocean, and to the Philippines in the South China Sea,” the report found.

In addition, it speaks of a “cyber-caliphate,” with a global outreach, that has become a tool for online recruitment and radicalization in the West, with terrorists employing digital technologies to recruit, radicalize and attack.

In this file photo, Pope Francis, left, and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, exchange a joint statement on “human fraternity” after an interfaith meeting at the Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. (Andrew Medichini/AP via Crux)

Among the “main findings” listed in the report, there are three that particularly stand out. First, the West has “jettisoned tools that reduce radicalization,” such as discontinuing religious education in many countries, despite governments acknowledging that teaching world religions reduces radicalization as it increases religious understanding among young people.

Second, there’s an increase “polite persecution,” or what Pope Francis calls the rise of new cultural norms that consign religions “to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or relegates them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques.” These new laws, the report argues, lead to an individual’s rights to freedom of conscience and religion to conflict with the obligation to comply with the legislation. According to the report, this polite persecution is a reality in several Western countries, where the right to conscientious objection on religious grounds for health care professionals in relation to issues concerning abortion and euthanasia is no longer meaningfully protected in law, and where graduates from particular confessional universities are increasingly denied access to certain professions. Similarly, it’s increasingly hard for religious schools to follow their own religious ethos.

Third, the report highlights the Vatican’s renewed impetus to foster interreligious dialogue, an initiative spearheaded by Pope Francis, who back in 2019 co-signed the declaration on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” with the Grand Imam Ahamad Al-Tayyib of Al-Azar, the leader of the Sunni Muslim world.

Persecution by region

When it comes to Africa, the question is not whether the continent is the next battleground against Islamist militants, but rather when will sufficient lives be lost and families displaced to move the international community to action? Already the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands killed, and millions displaced.

According to the 2021 report, Sub-Saharan Africa is ripe for the infiltration of Islamist ideologies.

“On account of generations of poverty, corruption, pre-existing intercommunal violence between herders and farmers over land rights (exacerbated by the consequences of climate change) and weak state structures, this area has become a breeding ground for marginalized and frustrated young men,” the report notes. “This in turn has become a recruitment opportunity for extremists who prey on them with promises of wealth, power, and the ousting of corrupt authorities.”

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the predominance of Christianity is no guarantee that religious freedom is upheld. The greatest violations of religious freedom occurred in nations with questionable records of respect for human rights and democracy, including Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

“These governments expressed hostility and aggression towards Christian Churches – both Catholic and non-Catholic – when religious leaders denounced corruption, and social and political policies understood to be detrimental to the common good,” the report argues.

A priest and nun pray in the Blood of Christ Chapel at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua, July 31, 2020, after the chapel was destroyed in an arson attack. (Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters via CNS)

The Middle East-North Africa region goes from Pakistan in South Asia to Morocco in northwest Africa. This transcontinental region is home to over 6 percent of the world’s population, encompassing a variety of cultural and ethnic groups.

The birthplace of the world’s great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — these countries include more than 20 percent of the world’s Muslims and 60 percent of world’s oil reserves: Two facts that, according to the report, make this a region of powerful global influence in politics and religion.

“Several countries in this area have experienced positive political and societal changes during the period under review, but have stopped short of furthering the promotion and protection of human rights,” the report notes. “The legal and societal environment shows a reluctance to change, as discriminatory laws and practices, mainly against non-Muslims, continue.”

The Islamic State terrorist organization, the report notes, is currently weakened but not destroyed, and even though heinous crimes committed by jihadist groups were less numerous in the past two years, armed Islamist fanaticism remains a major military concern.