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Human dignity is indivisible

By David Kilgour, Ottawa Citizen
November 06, 2009

One dismaying estimate of the number of people who died violently because of their religion between 1900 and 2000 includes 70 million Muslims; 35 million Christians; 11 million Hindus; nine million Jews; four million Buddhists; two million Sikhs and one million Baha'is.

What can be done to reduce the persecution of religions globally?

A first step is universal recognition that human dignity is ultimately indivisible in today's shrunken world and all groups must thus stand together. As Pastor Martin Niemöller poignantly said of the Nazis, "Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak out for me."

Religious intolerance by governments breeds violence. Journalist Geoffrey Johnston notes, "Those countries that do not actively protect religious minorities or prosecute the perpetrators of religiously motivated violence are ultimately undermining their own security. A climate of impunity tends to embolden militants, who eventually turn against the state, using violence to advance their agenda. Pakistan and Nigeria are prime examples of governments that have allowed extremist groups to attack religious minority communities before they themselves became the targets of terror strikes."

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. Like Canada, most nations have signed agreements committing them to respect individual freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Yet, in too many countries, nationals continue to suffer for practising their faiths and it is of no little consequence that most of the persecution during the early 1900s was committed by regimes which detested all religions. Four differing situations follow.

In China, those who practise targeted faiths face inhuman brutality. In 2005, Gao Zhisheng, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and one of China's top human rights lawyers, began lobbying the government to end persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual community. Shortly thereafter, his own torment began, starting with the revocation of his permit to practise law and the closing down of his law firm, and continuing with attacks on his wife and daughter. After repeated legal and illegal brutalities, he was again incarcerated and is "being held incommunicado at an unknown location," according to Amnesty International.

In Iran, freedom of religion is permitted only to Shia Muslims, with practitioners of most other faiths facing brutal persecution at the hands of the clerical regime. Baha'i practitioners, for example, have no protection since their faith has been declared un-Islamic and therefore illegal. Any attempt to convert from Islam is punishable by death.

In Sudan, the consequences of religious intolerance are clear, although the main cause of death today is racial persecution. It is estimated that more than 400,000 African Darfuris have been slaughtered, with six times as many having been expelled from bombed-out and raided villages. The figures are even higher in the predominantly Christian and animist south, where it is believed that two million have been killed and even more displaced.

In India, the commitment of most nationals to religious pluralism, the rule of law and democratic norms has made it difficult to sustain persecution against faith communities. The most dangerous friction in India remains that between Hindus and Muslims. But just over a year ago, the city of Orissa was seized for weeks by anti-Christian violence after a Hindu leader was killed. An estimated 70 Christians were murdered, with hundreds more displaced.

The events motivated the Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance to issue a report just prior to India's national elections. The report prompted several Canadian MPs to write to the national government of India. Its Supreme Court ruled that the national government was responsible for maintaining peace in Orissa and could not allow the state and local governments to ignore the illegal local persecution of minorities.

Numerous suggestions on what we can all do to reduce religious persecution can be found in Daniel Goldhagen's book, Worse than War (2009). These include developing an anti-eliminationist discourse (as mass murder and eliminationist politics are humanity's scourge, they should receive more news coverage than, say, house fires) and referring to mass murderers by their real names (i.e., "Sudanese mass murderer al-Bashir," instead of "President al-Bashir of Sudan").

In short, if faith communities stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of religious persecution, lives can be saved. Mutual respect can build a better, more peaceful, world.

David Kilgour is a former member of Parliament. In the 38th parliament, he and Ottawa Rabbi Reuven Bulka were co-founders of the all-party and multi-faith committee on religious and cultural harmony.

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