Parliamentarians have been told the findings of a report warning of worsening religious persecution which threatens to wipe out the presence of minorities in parts of the Middle East and other centres of conflict around the world.
The report, released yesterday (Thursday, 24th November) in the House of Commons, describes the impact of Islamist “hyper-extremism” and how it has unleashed a wave of violence and exodus, prompting record-breaking numbers of refugees and threatening the survival of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the world.
Later that day, a copy of the Religious Freedom in the World 2016 Report, produced by Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), was presented to HRH The Prince of Wales at Clarence House, London.
Present at the meeting were religious leaders who had spoken at the parliamentary launch event and senior ACN staff.
The Prince – who had given a video statement at the launch of the Religious Freedom in the World 2014 Report – met Shaykh Dr Umar Al-Qadri, Chair of the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council, Jesuit Father Ziad Hilal from Aleppo, Syria, Dr Sarah Bernstein, Director-General of the Jerusalem Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations and Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director of Aid to the Church in Need (UK).
Also present were Sister Helen Haigh, Provincial of Europe of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary, four of whom are Syrians providing emergency relief in the country, Lebanese Christian Jacques Kallassi, John Pontifex, Editor-in-Chief of the Religious Freedom in the World 2016 Report and report researcher and production editor Dr John Newton.
The previous day (Wednesday, 23rd November), the launch of the report was marked by Red Wednesday, an initiative in which buildings all over the country were lit up in red including London’s iconic House of Parliament, Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey as well as the London Eye and Lambeth Palace.
Other buildings lit up in red included the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, London, Bolton Town Hall, Birmingham University’s “Old Joe” Clock Tower, Liverpool Hope University and Brentwood Cathedral.
The colour red, symbolising blood, was chosen to bring attention to those who are persecuted or killed for their faith.
The Religious Freedom in the World 2016 Report, highlighted by the Red Wednesday event, revealed that over the period covered (June 2014-16) what it calls “Islamist hyper-extremism” has been one of the main drivers of religious minorities being targeted including “systematic attempts to annihilate or drive out all groups who do not conform to their outlook including co-religionists – moderates and those of different traditions”.
It notes that violent Islamist attacks have taken place in one in five countries worldwide.
Addressing the meeting His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, head of the Syriac-Orthodox Church, who had flown in from Syria to address the meeting, described the problems facing minority communities in the country where Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusra and other extremist groups have targeted them.
“The Middle East remains [the region] where the most persecution based on religious affiliation occurs – especially against Christians…
“It continues with the systematic targeting of Christians on the Nineveh Plains in Iraq and the Khabur villages and various other villages in Syria.”
He stressed that Daesh is also targeting Muslims who do not believe in the extremist’s interpretation of Islamic religious texts, including Shi‘a Muslims.
The Patriarch added: “We thank God that atrocities by Daesh against Christians and other minorities were recognised as acts of genocide by the United Nations and other bodies such as the British House of Commons.”
Shaykh Dr Umar Al-Qadri spoke at the event about the Islamic tradition of inter-faith co-existence and condemned extremist acts carried out in the name of Islam.
He said: “I get upset when I see the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo – of course I do, this hurts me greatly – but I get even more upset when I see Daesh, Al-Nusra and Al-Shabab committing atrocities.”
Speaking to MPs and others, Dr Sarah Bernstein, Director-General of the Jerusalem Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, similarly stressed the need for interfaith harmony.
She said “I do not believe that God commands we kill each other in his name” – adding that inter-religious literacy and education was needed to promote tolerance in today’s world.
Concluding her talk, Dr Bernstein said: “Let us move from religious violence to religious freedom, from exclusivism to inclusivism, from hatred to hope.”
The Religious Freedom in the World 2016 Report identifies other factors endangering religious liberty, finding that “the ongoing penalty of religious expression is the complete denial of long-term incarceration without fair trial, rape and murder” in countries including North Korea and Eritrea.
The report also highlighted a renewed crackdown by state authorities in countries such as China and Turkmenistan.
The Religious Freedom in the World 2016 Report is available at www.religion-freedom-report.org