Nearly 74 years after it was founded, the United Nations has finally adopted an international day to acknowledge what is perhaps the biggest threat to peace and freedom in the world today: religious terrorism.
The International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief — adopted by the General Assembly and proclaimed for August 22 — is a long overdue but welcome step for religious liberty.
The startling reality is that nearly one-third of the world’s population lives under the threat of violence because of a person’s religious identity. In fact, nearly every major conflict in the world — whether U.S.-Iran relations, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, India and Pakistan’s border tensions or the global refugee crisis — has a religious dimension to it.
Treating religion as merely a backdrop to world events, let alone ignoring its fundamental role in informing social and cultural behavior, would be a grave mistake. When we fail to identify and root out religious terrorism, violence and hostility, minorities pay the price for it.
Over the past decade we have seen Christianity nearly erased from its place of birth by ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups. In Pakistan, the number of Christians has declined due to forced conversions. It was only because of a global outcry that Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s archaic blasphemy laws, was able to escape and find refuge in the West. In India, Christians are harassed by anti-conversion laws.
Despite being collectively the largest religious group Christians also are the most persecuted faith community in the world according to Pew Research. Sadly, political correctness has prevented Christians in the West, who have the most influence, to raise their voice and protect their fellow believers in nonwestern nations. For example, the West’s colonial history in South Asia has made Western nations wary of defending Christians there.
The truth is that no matter how large its global presence, wherever a religious group is a minority it will be at the mercy of the dominant community. This is why the Hindu community in Pakistan and Bangladesh is diminishing despite being next door to nearly 1 billion Hindus in India. It’s also why over the past three decades, the Kashmiri Pandits — once numbering in the hundreds of thousands — have been reduced to a few thousand in the Kashmir Valley by Islamist militants.
In India we have observed this phenomenon play out as Muslims are beaten to death and even thrown out of moving trains for not chanting “Jai Shri Ram,” a Hindu mantra that’s been taken up by far-right extremists. Ironically, it’s believed Mahatma Gandhi muttered these same words as he lay on his deathbed after being shot by a religious extremist.
Religious freedom, the right to practice and propagate one’s faith, has to be defended by everyone, including members of different faith communities. Religious extremism equally has to be fought by everyone, especially when its target is minorities within a religion — such as the Ahmadis in Pakistan who are not allowed to call themselves Muslims — or those who are denouncing it.
The mass shooting in two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a white supremacist is a pointed reminder that religious terrorism does not belong to any particular culture. It is widespread, like a cancer across regions and religions.
The U.N. day for victims of religious violence must not become merely another lip service to the cause of freedom. There’s too much hanging in the balance. It’s untenable that nations that openly advocate for violent religious nationalism have made the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. If the U.N. wants this day to make a difference, it must take concrete steps to guarantee the right of every religion to propagate and practice their faith.
A simple first step would be hosting a forum for independent religious freedom advocates not affiliated with any particular political party or government to give a report on current trends in persecution. That way member nations can hold each other accountable.
Another step would be for free, democratic nations to insist on reciprocal religious freedoms in nations that don’t allow religious freedom for all. For example, Muslims who have migrated to free democracies where they can practice their faith should insist that Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists have the same freedom back home.
Most imminent, world leaders have an opportunity at the upcoming State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom to seek practical solutions and commitments to protect religious liberty in countries with high levels of persecution. The ministerial is a unique space as it brings together government officials, advocates, and experts who are like-minded in their purpose to promote peace and combat extremism. It could help pave the way for the U.N. observation in August.
As someone who holds on to my Christian faith, my aspiration for the U.N.’s international day for victims of religious persecution is that it will help create a world where I can see my coreligionists practice and propagate their faiths — even as I am allowed to practice and propagate my faith in the context of peace, harmony, and not hatred.
Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is widely considered one of the most influential voices of global Christianity. He is a justice and peace campaigner, civil rights advocate, interfaith peacemaker and Christian theologian. Rev. D’Souza is the founder and international president of Dignity Freedom Network, a multinational advocacy and humanitarian aid alliance dedicated to restoring human dignity to the poor, marginalized and outcastes of South Asia. Since its founding in 2001, the network has impacted an estimated 14 million people through its educational, anti-human trafficking, health care and economic development initiatives. Rev. D’Souza presides as moderator bishop and primate — or archbishop — over the Good Shepherd Church of India. He is a sought-after international speaker, participating in conferences, peace summits and civil society forums across the world and debriefing governmental bodies on religious freedom and human rights issues. He is a contributor at The Hill and The Washington Times, among others. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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