The bi-annual Religious Freedom Report for 2016 of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reveals that religious persecution continues to rise across the world. The report, covering the period 2014-2016 demonstrates that Christianity is the most persecuted faith around the world: more than 330 million Christians live in countries where they are persecuted and a further 60 million Christians suffer various forms of discrimination.
The report by ACN – an international Catholic charity working to aid persecuted Christians – covers 196 countries worldwide and shows that while governments are often to blame for persecution, non-state actors such as fundamentalist or militant organizations are responsible for persecution of religious minorities in 12 of the 23 worst-offending countries.
The period has seen the emergence of Islamist hyper-extremism, a process of heightened radicalisation, unprecedented in its violent expression, with the territories occupied by Islamic State (ISIS) the prime example. Its characteristics are:
- Extremist creed and a radical system of law and government;
- Genocide, i.e. systematic attempts to expel or annihilate religious minorities, co-religionists who don’t share their extremist views, and those of different traditions;
- Cruel treatment of victims;
- Use of the latest social media, notably to recruit followers and to intimidate opponents by showing acts of extreme violence, such as the beheading of 20 Coptic Christians by ISIS in February 2015;
- Global impact—enabled by affiliate extremist groups (Boko Haram pledging loyalty to ISIS is one example) and well-resourced support networks.
Since mid-2014, violent Islamist attacks have taken place in one in five countries in the world, from Sweden to Australia and including 17 African nations. In parts of the Middle East, including Syria and Iraq, this hyper-extremism is eliminating all forms of religious diversity and is threatening to do so in parts of Africa and South Asia. Islamist hyper-extremism, observed in a number of countries, including Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Syria, have been a key driver in the sudden explosion of refugees which, according to UN figures for the year 2015, went up by 5.8 million to a new high of 65.3 million refugees worldwide.
In the worst-offending countries, including North Korea and Eritrea, the ongoing penalty for religious expression is the complete denial of rights and liberties, such as long-term incarceration without a fair trial, rape and murder. There has been a renewed crackdown on religious groups that refuse to follow the party line under authoritarian regimes such as China and Turkmenistan. For example, in China more than 2,000 churches have had their crosses demolished in Zheijang and nearby provinces.
While the EU has started to pay more attention to the issue of religious freedom in its foreign policy in recent years – including adopting guidelines for its External Action Service to promote religious freedom, appointing a Special Envoy for international religious freedom, and establishing a European Parliament intergroup – this very disturbing report should be a signal to the EU leadership that much more needs to be done. Many of the worst-offending countries in this report depend on the EU for aid and trade and the EU should not hesitate to use whatever tools are available to it to exercise pressure on these serial human-rights abusers.