According to experts gathered in Rome this week for a conference organized by the University of Notre Dame, religious freedom is under attack all over the world.
“Religious violence has risen to historic levels over the past decade affecting nearly all religious groups,” said Samah Norquist, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
“Believers of nearly all faiths — Christians, Muslims and Jews, Buddhists, Yazidis, Baha’i — have faced discrimination, harassment, repression, and, of course, persecution by state and non-state actors, as well as ideological movements,” Norquist said.
This allegation was backed by Nury Turkel, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan, independent advisory body that monitors religious freedom abroad.
Turkel sounded the alarm on the deterioration of religious freedom in China, where the government continued to “vigorously implement its ‘Sinicization of religion’ policy” and demanded that religious groups and adherents support the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule and ideology.
Although China recognizes Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Taoism, adherents of religions with perceived foreign influence — such as Christianity, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism — and those from other religious movements, are especially vulnerable to persecution, said Turkel, a Uyghur American attorney.
Throughout 2021, Xinjiang authorities continued to detain Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims arbitrarily in internment camps and prison-like facilities for a variety of religiously related reasons.
Over one million Uyghurs have been placed into concentration camps for no other crime than the fact that they worship Allah rather than Xi Xinping. They have been victims of many abuses, including torture, rape, forced labor, and murder.
“Religion poses a unique threat to the Party because it provides a compelling and empowering alternative to its own ideology and cult of personality,” he said. “The only worship the Party is truly comfortable with is its own adulation and policies.”
The “worst nightmare” for the CCP, he said, are communities that care for human rights and human decency. An engaged religious population, Turkel argued, is also a threat for the Chinese government because its authoritarian rule is incompatible with religious freedom.
Their reflections came during a panel discussion organized by the University of Notre Dame’s Religious Liberty Initiative, which is currently being held in Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.
Both during his presentation and during the Q&A portion of the panel, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stressed the importance of not letting abuses against religious freedom go unchallenged, whether caused by government action — as in the case of China — or inaction, as in countries such as Nigeria, where religiously motivated persecution continues to increase.
“Research has found that countries that uphold religious freedom have more vibrant and democratic political institutions, rising economic and social well-being, diminished tension and violence, and greater stability,” he said. “Nations that trample on or fail to protect fundamental human rights, including religious freedom, provide fertile ground for poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical movements and activities.”
Also on the panel was Pakistani Farahnaz Ispahani from the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, who said it is “of paramount importance” to create local and global partnerships between religious and secular human rights advocates.
As she pointed out, religious freedom has long been threatened in her country, particularly for non-Muslim minorities, with a systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya (a variant of Islam) laws. The authorities ignore forced conversions of religious minorities — Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs — to Islam.
Farahnaz also denounced that in her country, and increasingly throughout South Asia, the curricula of public and private schools demonizes other faiths, reinforcing in children a hatred or indifference toward children of other faiths; spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories, helped along by clerics and politicians; and mob violence against members of unarmed minority populations and attacks, including bombings that target places of worship.
“People need to feel the need for religious liberty and should support it just as they do other human rights,” said the former member of Pakistan’s parliament. “Just like someone need not have suffered torture themselves to feel repugnance towards it, people should not only care about the rights of their co-religionists; they should care about the principle of religious liberty.”
Marcus Cole, dean of Notre Dame’s law school and founder of the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative, upon opening the July 20-22 summit, said, the city of Rome serves as a reminder that no empire or entity is “impervious to the truth.” For this reason, he and his cohorts are committed to continue to speak out against the violations of religious freedoms committed both in the United States and abroad.
“We sit here in the capital of the most powerful empire the world has ever known,” he said. “The ruins of that empire are all around us.”
Quoting the Book of Matthew, he pointed out that Jesus once said: “Do you see all of these buildings? Truly I tell you that they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another.”
Being in Rome, Cole said, allows one to be a witness to the truth in Jesus’ words, seeing how the once great Roman empire was conquered by “an idea,” and that idea “was a faith.”
“The Romans laughed at a faith, but in the end, their laughter ended,” he said. “So, the enemies of religious freedom can laugh at us now, but we will not go away. We will continue to fight for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion until it is enjoyed by all.”