Snapshot of religious freedom in the world

Mykolas Sotničenka

Refugee reception policies cannot be linked to a particular religion, as some countries have called for, says a new UN report, which stresses this is a principle with which the Holy See has expressed its full agreement.

Each year, the United Nations prepares a report on the experiences of religious or belief minorities during situations of conflict or insecurity. At the session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 10, representatives of the states spoke about the presented report and discussed freedom of religion and belief. All annual reports are available on the United Nations website.

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, said that the situations of conflict and insecurity in recent years have negatively affected religious communities, often becoming targets of persecution, violence, unjustified detention, expropriation, deportation, massacre, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity.

According Shaheed, digital platforms are a popular medium for creating and spreading hateful rhetoric that incites actual harm against religious or belief minorities, especially in the run-up to religious feasts. In such cases, the leaders and “influencers” of religious or belief minority communities are often attacked to weaken the community’s morale, resilience, or cohesion.

The next step is often to desecrate, occupy or raid religious sites, to destroy sacred objects, conscious of their significance to minority religious communities and impeding their ability to manifest their religion or belief. Deliberately making the situation for faith minorities more precarious during crises, some authorities introduced restrictive measures on their manifestation of religion or belief, including by restricting religious rites and access to places of worship.

In several crisis-affected regions, the State, media, and public have scapegoated faith minorities as a primary source and spreader of the COVID-19, with States deliberately shifting blame for their failures to historically vilified and vulnerable populations. Social media has proven a dangerous tool for spreading these conspiracy theories, with the “corona jihad” hashtag (#coronajihad) going viral on Twitter in India after the Government announced high infection rates in the Muslim population.

The Special Rapporteur expressed his concern at reports of States curtailing civic space by intimidating religious or belief minorities, including through surveillance – making individuals fear repercussions for expressing their faith. This was also supported by the representative of the Permanent Mission of the Holy See who stated that freedom of religion is one of the most intimate and sacred of human rights, which remains essential, especially in times of crisis and insecurity.

Hiding the faith can be encouraged even by the refugee reception situation: the Special Representative reminded that some States have constructed their asylum seeker policy based on notions about which religious or belief communities will successfully “integrate”, characterizing some as a threat while depicting others as “good refugees”. Following the European Union’s pledge to resettle and relocate additional refugees in need of protection, several Member States announced that they would favour admitting non-Muslim refugees and would prioritize Christians in their refugee resettlement program.

Although Christian refugees constitute most of those granted asylum in subsequent years, the representative of the Permanent Mission of the Holy See stated that religion itself cannot be considered a source of disturbances. The Holy See has reminded that religions should never provoke war, hate, hostility, or extreme attitudes, nor should incite violence or bloodshed.

In summing up his report, the Special Rapporteur recalls that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects people of all faiths to hold and manifest a religion or belief of one’s choice, either individually or in community with others, in public or in private. He therefore calls for an open, transparent, and regular dialogue with the Churches and religious, philosophical, and non-religious organizations, thus ensuring that the issue of persecution of Christians and other religious communities is a priority issue that is systematically debated.