Mar 02, 2020

Persecuted Because of Their Belief

The UNPO promotes the importance of self-determination to international cooperation and the implementation of human rights. Our report shows how those whose self-determinaton rights are violated are also vulnerable to religious persecution.

More than one-fourth of UNPO member peoples face persecution based on their religion or belief. This is true irrespective of underlying religion and belief, impacting muslim, christian, buddhist UNPO member peoples. The UNPO has catalogued the various cases of religious persecution affecting UNPO member peoples, highlighting how a lack of adequate national representation leaves them in a state of significant vulnerability, and a lack of a voice at the international level limits the response of the international community to the intimidation, violence, and discrimination that these people regularly suffer.

Paradoxically, one thing most countries that systemically violate the right to religious freedom have in common is the fact that this right is almost always enshrined in their constitutions, albeit in different forms. Despite this ostensible constitutional protection of religious freedom, these governments have tried to introduce (legal) policies through which state persecution of religious minorities has been legitimised. An important reason why some states resort to the persecution of persons based on their distinct religion or belief is that these governments – which are most often authoritarian – perceive religious or cultural differences as a threat to state control. In particular, the predominance of religious or ideological doctrine as a basis for governance has meant that minorities explicitly have fewer rights than majority groups in these countries. In other words, severe persecution of religious minority groups often follows from the inextricable link between state control and religious or ideological doctrine as a basis for governance.

As religious differences are perceived by many authoritarian states as threatening their control over society, the first main trend that can be identified from this report is the securitisation of religion. This is often particular to states that have an ideological doctrine as a basis for governance, such as China and Laos. In this sense, a government moves issues such as political dissent or expressions of a distinct religion out of the political realm by framing these issues as security threats. This is called a securitising move. The most important consequence of securitising an issue is that this allows governments to use ‘extraordinary measures’ that would not be acceptable under ‘normal circumstances’. In other words, by framing religious practices as threats to the security of a state, repressive regimes provide a justification for religious persecution or strict controls on religious practices. A commonly used securitising practice, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is the use of anti-terrorism and anti-extremist legislation to arrest, detain and even execute clerics and religious activists. Moreover, such legislation is commonly used to restrict the religious activities of minority groups by placing them under strict government control.

In Russia-occupied Crimea, the indigenous Crimean Tatars are persecuted under terrorism and extremism-related charges as part of a Russian policy that seeks to exclude non-traditional religious groups and suppress political opposition to the annexation of Crimea. In China, the independent practicing of religion by both Uyghur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists has been harshly restricted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in order to ‘sinicise’ religious belief. The persecution of Uyghur Muslims is particularly severe, as millions of Uyghurs have been forcefully imprisoned in detainment camps which the CPP defend as ‘re-education camps’ to combat extremism in the region. In Chinese-occupied Tibet, the CCP has assumed strict control over Tibetan Buddhism and introduced several counterterrorism laws which criminalise even small acts of Buddhist religious expression. The Communist government of Laos has also placed heavy restrictions on the freedom of religion. For the Hmong in Laos, their religious persecution is compounded by the fact that the Lao government has framed them as a dangerous anti-government group because of their involvement in the Vietnam War. Lastly, West Papuans in Indonesia have long been suffering from violence at the hands of state authorities, who have tried to crack down on any pro-independence sentiment in West-Papua and incentivised the migration of Muslims to the originally Christian-majority region.

A second trend that can be discerned from this report, and one that is very much related to the securitisation of religion – but not entirely similar – is the politicisation of religion. This is often particular to states that have a religious doctrine as their basis for governance, such as Pakistan and Iran. In countries where politics and religion are intertwined, certain religious communities that do not conform to the dominant or state religion are regarded as a threat to the state and society. In this sense, the dominant or state religion is used as a tool of exclusion to marginalise, isolate and discriminate against religious minority groups. By framing expressions and practices of non-recognised religious minorities as blasphemous or offensive to state religion, repressive governments legitimise persecuting these groups. This religious persecution is often legalised – and sometimes even constitutionalised – through the introduction of blasphemy and related laws.

In Pakistan, where Islam is the official state religion, non-Sunni religious groups face intersectional violence and severe persecution. In its Balochistan province, where the Pakistani government has allowed an environment conducive to hate speech and bigotry, non-Sunni minorities are targeted by sectarian violence of extremist movements. In Pakistan’s Sindh province, Hindu and Christian women and girls are often victims of forced marriages or conversions, which aggravates their already marginalised position in Pakistani society. Moreover, both in Balochistan and Sindh, persons belonging to religious minority groups are disproportionally affected by Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. Such an oppressive and discriminatory legal system can also be found in Iran, whose legal system is based on an Islamic Shi’a-dominated doctrine. As a result, minority groups who adhere to Sunnism, such as Ahwazi Arabs, Iranian Kurds and Baloch, form a disproportionate share of those detained or executed under Iran’s Islamic Penal Code (IPC). In Vietnam, although formally a secular country, the government-created Vietnam Buddhist Saga (VBS) acts as the sole representative of Vietnamese Buddhism. As a consequence, the Vietnamese government has assumed almost total control over the distinct Buddhist practices of the indigenous Khmer-Krom. Any protest against this practice has been quelled under charges of ‘anti-government activities’, which has resulted in the defrocking of numerous Khmer-Krom religious leaders. Finally, Assyrians in Iraq, Syria and Iran are also facing systemic discrimination and intersectional violence, especially in light of the former presence and current legacy of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the region.

Both the securitisation and politicisation of religion are worrying developments as they have been widely used by state and non-state actors to persecute persons based on their religion or belief with impunity. While these trends are commonly recognised by organisations and institutions that do research on religious freedom, it is also argued that the issue of religious freedom is decreasing in importance on the human rights agenda of Western governments and media. This increasing indifference is compounded by the blatant disregard many repressive regimes show to the United Nations (UN) human rights mechanisms, often deliberately manipulating UN procedures to escape punitive measures. Ultimately, the worsening situation of religious freedom for hundreds of millions around the world and the lack of support and protection of human rights defenders (inter)nationally prolongs the manifold suffering of religious minorities. Therefore, it remains imperative that religious minorities who are not adequately represented at institutions of national governance are duly protected by legislation. Having their voices heard is the most importance source of resistance against the violations of religious freedom.

Read the report here

​Photo by Roman Pilipey/EPA