Following an unprecedented increase of violence against religious communities and people belonging to religious minorities, in 2019 the UN General Assembly proclaimed August 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. But according to the international foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), on the eve of the one-year anniversary, the situation has only become worse. The charity warns about the growth of international religion-based terrorism, and an alarming trend attacking religious buildings and symbols to draw attention to other legitimate social rights and injustice issues.
“Ever present news about acts of violence and harassment based on religion in countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria or India continue to give ACN great cause for concern. Although social and ethnic motives are often involved, we cannot close our eyes to this reality,” states Thomas Heine-Geldern, ACN Executive President.
Heine-Geldern draws particular attention to the imminent dangers facing the African continent with the rapid spread of Islamist militant groups, calling for a better coordinated and faster response by international organizations: “How can it be that there is no global response to the long unheeded warnings of Islamic State terror cells operating in Mozambique, most recently resulting in the August 12 ISIS capture of the Mocimboa da Praia port in the north of the country? We recognize in their methods the same intention to eliminate the cultural and religious plurality of the country, as they have done in other countries like Iraq. To date more than 200,000 people have had to flee. What are we waiting for?” asks the ACN Executive President.
“The effects of international religious-based terrorism are devastating, preventing the victims from exercising their fundamental human rights, and affecting their stability and security for generations long after the immediate danger seems to have disappeared. We need only look to the Christian and Yazidi faith groups in Iraq, those who have suffered horrendous persecution in recent years and who continue to be threatened in their existence. Persecution of Iraqi Christians alone has decimated the pre-2003 population of 1.2 million to less than 100,000 today.”
But it is not just about denunciation; August 22 is also about remembering and honouring those victims of religious persecution who have been forgotten. “This year among others, we remember the seminarian Michael Nnadi, murdered on February 1 in Nigeria, we remember Philippe Yarga, a catechist from Pansi in Burkina Faso, killed on February 16 along with 24 others, and we remember Joseph Nadeem, a Pakistani Christian who died on June 29, assassinated by a neighbor purely out of religious and social contempt. But we also remember the victims of religious persecution who are still alive, especially those who are kidnapped like Sister Gloria Narvaez in Mali, or the young girl Leah Sharibu in Nigeria,” said Heine-Geldern.
“Regrettably we see a new and alarming trend in many countries, where religious buildings and symbols are attacked and destroyed to draw attention to other legitimate social rights and injustices” states Heine-Geldern. As examples, he highlights the case of Chile where during the social and political upheavals at the end of 2019 more than 57 Christian churches and places of worship were attacked and burned, and in the United States, up until 16 July, more than 60 attacks against Catholic churches due to protests against racial discrimination have been registered. “It is not justice to draw attention to valid social, racial or economic injustices by attacking the faith and beliefs of others. Unchecked hatred against religious groups engenders violence and destruction and should be publically repudiated. Violence is never a solution and governments have an obligation to protect the victims and prosecute those who commit acts of violence.”
The ACN Executive President also insists on the vital importance of interreligious dialogue to prevent religious fanaticism. “Religious leaders must play a crucial role in nation-building, oriented toward peace and justice. We must put an end to social prejudices and, through dialogue, put an end to the fears of those who are different. As a charity, we work with several project partners towards this intent, while at the same time we seek to remind the international institutions and organizations that it is their duty to guarantee the fundamental right of religious freedom”.
“The International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion is a milestone in the right direction, but we have to acknowledge that the situation worldwide is not improving. We encourage the UN to take further steps to combat hate crimes and acts of religion-based violence. We would welcome if next year we had fewer victims to remember.”