Cllr Chris Whitehouse is Education Spokesman for the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council, Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy.
Sitting comfortably in the UK, where we still enjoy broad religious freedom, it can be all too easy to forget that around the world many people are still being persecuted for their faith. But a forthcoming updated edition by Aid to the Church in Need of its report, Religious Freedom in the World, should shake us out of our complacency. It highlights how Burma’s Rohinga Muslims are stripped of citizenship and left to rot; Christian churches in China are forcibly demolished in whole or part; and visitors to the Jewish Martyrs’ Memorial in Brussels are pelted with stones.
As night draws in tomorrow, to highlight the findings of this hard-hitting Report, Westminster Abbey, Westminster’s Catholic Cathedral and the Palace of Westminster will be among a number of places of worship around the country to be floodlit in red to draw attention to the ongoing persecution of religious groups around the world. The colour red has been chosen deliberately. Red is the colour of blood – so it highlights not merely global persecution but the slaughter of people around the world because of what they believe.
Red Wednesday, as it’s being called, is being organised by Aid to the Church in Need to mark the publication of its report – which looks at the state of religious groups in every country in the world, and finds that in many places religious minorities are still unable freely to practise their faith.
According to the new report, almost one in five of the world’s countries shows “unmistakable evidence of significant religious freedom violations”. The report draws particular attention to the atrocities committed by the extremist Islamist groups in the Middle East which have, according to many political bodies including our own House of Commons (dividing on a backbench Motion moved by Fiona Bruce in April this year), committed genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities.
The day before the vote in the Commons, a teenage Yazidi girl from northern Iraq met with MPs to describe the atrocities carried out by Daesh (ISIS). Her father and brother were killed in front of her when extremists attacked Sinjar, and every Yazidi girl over eight years of age was imprisoned and raped. She was not spared this cruel and inhuman treatment.
She told MPs: “Listen to me, help the girls, help those in captivity; I am pleading with you, let us come together and call this what it is: genocide. This is about human dignity. You have a responsibility. ISIS is committing genocide because they are trying to wipe us out.”
It’s not only non-state actors repressing religious groups: in many countries believers face restrictions laid down by the country’s laws. You might have hoped that since Pakistan’s legal system is based on British law, religious minorities would enjoy decent legal protection, but this is far from the case. Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, is still in jail for alleged blasphemy – one of around a thousand people in prison for defaming the Islamic Prophet Mohammed, defiling the Qur’an or insulting religious feelings.
This is being driven by an atmosphere of intolerance in the education system. In October, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore told an Foreign Office conference how his niece, who is a Christian, had to learn a short lesson by heart, requiring her to memorise that she was a Muslim and all non-Muslims were infidels. One report noted that text books in the Punjab and Sindh provinces contain more than 50 ‘hate’ references against religious minorities.
Currently, DFID supports the laudable goal of “getting more children into school” in Pakistan – with almost 30 percent of our aid budget to the country (£414,968,366 for 2016–17) going towards education. But while our compassion is commendable, we must ensure that British aid isn’t unwittingly fuelling an atmosphere of hate and discrimination for religious minority groups.
DFID is not monitoring whether or not British money is funding textbooks which ferment hate against non-Muslims. Until we do then, with the very best of intentions, we could be adding to the climate of fear being endured by members of religious minorities in Pakistan.
And what about the Middle East? The Government has failed to grasp the complexities of Syria and Iraq, which has added to the problems suffered by minorities. In Syria’s civil war, we have sided with the moderate rebels against a harsh regime – but have so far been unable to tease out the tangled mess of rebel groups allied against Assad. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the moderate rebel group being supported by the UK – has carried out military operations alongside Daesh, and throughout the conflict the FSA has worked extensively with with Al Nusra (aka Fateh al-Sham).
The massacre of 45 Christians in Sadad occurred after the town was seized by Al Nusra, and the FSA fought with Al Nusra to prevent Assad’s troops from retaking the town. This may have been a strategic military decision on part of the FSA, but they implicitly supported a group that had just orchestrated the mass killing of people because of their faith.
The election of Donald Trump as American president could signal a change in western strategy, since he has indicated an interest in abandoning support for rebel groups to focus on the fight against Daesh. While this is not without its own complexities, this could be good news for religious minorities suffering at the hands of Daesh and, if we are concerned for their plight, the UK would be well advised to join international efforts against these extremists.
As places of worship light up red to remember Pakistan, the Middle East or everywhere else religious believers are persecuted, it should be a call to the Government, under Theresa May’s leadership, to do all it can to improve the lot of those targeted simply because of what they believe.