AUDREY RUANO: Hello, everyone. I will be reciting “An International Response to a Global Crisis” by Sayeeda Warsi.
“Our world has, at various points, been divided into empires, carved into countries, and separated by ethnicities. Conflict has taken many forms, but today I want to focus on a dangerous and rising phenomenon. One where we see religion turning on religion, sect upon sect. In other words, where faith is forming the fault lines.
According to this worldview– and it’s the view of many– my ally and my enemy are determined not by geography or politics or color, but more and more so by religion. The fundamental tenets of the major faiths don’t lend themselves to this. They are not intrinsically on some collision course. However, religion is being used by some as a means of division, segregation, discrimination, and persecution. And that persecution, I believe, is the biggest challenge we face in this young century. It has become a global crisis.
Across the world, people are being singled out and hounded out simply for the faith they follow or the beliefs they hold. Baha’is, Shias, Sunnis, and Alawites–Hindus, Sikhs, atheists– I could go on. All are falling victim to the new sectarianism that is breaking out across continents.
But today I want to focus on a religion which is suffering particularly in the wake of changes to the Middle East–Christianity. Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and others are the victims of this type of militant sectarianism. These communities have lived in these regions for centuries, in places where their faith was born. Yet some are portrayed as newcomers. Many are rooted in their societies, adopting and even shaping local customs. Yet they are increasingly treated as newcomers.
These minority populations have co-existed with the majority for generations. Yet mass exodus is taking place, on a Biblical scale. In some places, there is real danger that Christianity will become extinct. And one of the most disheartening visits for me was to churches in the Holy Land and seeing a deserted Bethlehem.
Of course, this sectarianism can take different forms, from ostracism, discrimination, and abuse, to forced conversion, torture, and even murder. The perpetrators range from states to militant groups, and even to a person’s own family. And there are countless causes– turf wars, social unrest, and corruption; political transition, authoritarianism, and terrorism; and, very often, faith is used as a proxy for other divisions. But what links many of these cases is that they are examples of collective punishment– a person being held responsible for the alleged crimes, connections, or connotations of their coreligionists.
Now of course, this isn’t to say the persecution of religious minorities is new. Sadly, this fact is woven into the history of most of our faiths. But these religious fault lines are being ever more exploited by those who wish to cause division. In an increasingly connected world, people lash out against minorities in response to events happening many miles away. And sometimes, a person of another faith is just a convenient other, a scapegoat.
First, let’s look at Syria, home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and one of the largest in the Middle East. A country where too many have suffered for too long, and continue to do so. The ongoing, widespread bloodshed there masks another huge change—the rapid hemorrhaging of the Christian population. Many have already fled the country. Now, Christians fear that a country which is the setting for many Biblical stories may lose its Christian character.
The fate of the Christian-majority town Maaloula gives an insight into this tragedy. Just months ago the Lord’s Prayer could be heard recited in Jesus’ language, Aramaic. But savage fighting there in September threatened to destroy that treasured culture. And it gave rise to wider questions about the targeting of minorities such as Christians; collective punishment for being associated with the regime and the West; and masking the fact that the vast majority of Syrians, whatever their faith, want a peaceful, democratic future.
Second, look at Pakistan, where the worshipers at Peshawar’s All Saints Church were recently targeted by militants who vowed to kill all non-Muslims. Two suicide bombers carried out an appalling attack outside the church after a Sunday service. Scores of people died. The attackers’ illogical logic being that because America is a Christian nation, to attack local Christians is somehow retaliation–again an example of collective punishment being meted out by extremist groups. And again, not reflecting the fact that the vast majority of Pakistanis want to get on with their lives, and live alongside their neighbors, as they have done for generations.
Third, look at Iran. In the last three years hundreds of Christians have been arrested here. At this moment many languish in jail, including Pastor Abedini, who was imprisoned. You’re setting up house churches.
But in each of these countries, it’s not just Christians who are suffering. In Syria, all communities, of all faiths, are suffering from the cycle of violence that we have seen occur over the last two years. In Pakistan, the violence suffered by Christians is well known by the country’s Shia communities, who have been subjected to attacks for many years. And in Iran, Baha’is have been enduring discrimination and persecution for years.
When it comes to persecution, the world is beginning to take note. As the faithful come together at Friday prayers, at Synagogue on Saturday, at Church on Sunday, sermons ring out about the plight of the persecuted. Politicians, policymakers, academics, journalists– agonize over the problem. And there are countless charities and groups bravely, painstakingly monitoring the fragile situations.
And yes, there are laws in place. But laws mean little when you consider that some of the most oppressive states in the world theoretically guarantee religious freedom in their constitutions. In fact, 83% of countries with populations over two million protect freedom of religion by law. But a great many of those do not put this into practice, often doing quite the opposite. And internationally, too, religious freedom is guaranteed. Article 18 is the most translated article in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but I believe it is one of the least heeded.
So this is a global crisis, and it needs an international response. Statutes and sanctions, aid and ambassadors– none of these will make a material difference. What we must do is make religious freedom a priority, change the way we approach this global crisis, and ensure we tackle it together.”