Freedom of Religion and the Persecution of Religions
Address by Hon. David Kilgour, M.P.
Freedom, Forgiveness and Victory Conference
November 19, 2005
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow me to begin with two poignant anecdotes on religious persecution.
The human rights group, International Christian Concern recently reported an attack on young Christian girls in Central Sulawesi. Two girls aged 17 were shot in the village of Poso near a Pentecostal church. One died; the other is in serious condition. This act of brutality follows gruesome beheadings of three Christian high school students in the same town. The current violence comes on the heels of a number of attacks on Christian communities in Indonesia, including shootings, killings and bombing of churches.
Some who have recently returned from Indonesia say they have witnessed increasing persecution of Christians. The perpetrators of these violent acts are usually arrested, but many are subsequently released with scarcely a trial, confirming that these acts are carried out with the apparent support and encouragement from elements within governments. The US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2004 asserts that “on some occasions, the government tolerated the abuse of religious freedom by private groups or failed to punish perpetrators.”
The other is a letter I recently received from a Chinese Canadian who came to Canada in 2002 after spending two years in a Chinese labor camp for practising Falun Gong. He wrote to me: “In the jail, each and every day, I was punished to sit on the small wooden stool; sometimes they turned the four legs of the stool upside down and forced me to sit on it. The police beat me up, cursed me, pierced me with needles, lashed me with a leather belt and force-fed me. My body was tortured to the extreme of human tolerance. Every single minute was so unbearable. Now when I look back, it is still such a horror. Without your help and the rescue of the Canadian government, I may not have been able to survive till today….in Canada, I can feel free to follow the belief of ‘Truthfulness, Compassion, Tolerance’ and practice Falun Gong. However people who do the same practice are jailed in China.”
20th Century record
The 20th century was undoubtedly the worst in history in terms of violence directed at believers of all faiths. It has been asserted that more Christians were killed in the last century than in the previous nineteen combined.
One estimate of the number of human beings of all nationalities who died prematurely for their faith between 1900 and 2000 is a dismaying 169 million, including: 70 million Muslims; 35 million Christians; 11 million Hindus; 9 million Jews; 4 million Buddhists; 2 million Sikhs and 1 million Baha’is. What a commentary on the so-called modern times!
Freedom of religion
The term 'religious persecution' means any violation of the internationally recognized right to freedom of religion, as defined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In Canada, we have the right to exercise religious freedom, regardless of our beliefs. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that everyone has the fundamental freedom of conscience and religion. This freedom to worship, or the liberty to choose not to worship, is one of the cornerstones of Canada’s appeal to many people from other lands who come to Canada to pursue more fulfilled lives.
Canada is not alone in this commitment. Religious freedom is a universal value, and almost all of the world’s nations have signed some sort of international agreement committing them to respect – at least in theory - individual freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Many people, however, in may lands, continue to suffer for the belief or practice of their faith, and many governments refuse to recognize or protect this natural and universal right.
Persecution of religions
Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes seek to control religious thought and expression. They regard some or all religious groups as enemies of the state because of their religious content. The practice of religion is often seen as a threat to a state’s ideology or the government’s power. Often, governments suppress religions based on the ethnic character of the religious groups.
Most of the persecution of Christian and other faith communities during the 1900s came from totalitarian regimes, which, demanding that all authority be vested in themselves, detested all religions essentially because their practitioners’ deepest loyalties were elsewhere. The dictatorships remaining in Burma, China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Tibet, Sudan and Vietnam continue to persecute Christians and many other faith communities with various degrees of severity. If you enter "persecution of Christians in China” on Google, you will be dismayed by some of the cases mentioned.
The Chinese Communist Party purports to ensure religious freedom and freedom of expression by Article 36 of the PRC Constitution. Many faith communities, of course, continue to suffer discrimination. No one under 18 years of age is allowed to practise any religion. Those who wish to attend Catholic churches must attend state-sanctioned ones, where the bishop pledges loyalty to Beijing alone. The campaign against the Falun Gong has spilled over into persecution of unregistered Catholic churches, temples and mosques. In one southeastern province of China alone, in November of 2000, authorities reportedly confiscated or destroyed up to 3,000 unregistered church buildings and Buddhist shrines.
There are credible reports that a campaign is now underway to persecute members of unregistered Christian churches across China. The official suppression of religion makes use of welfare reduction, arbitrary fines and imprisonment, the latter which can lead to intensive interrogation and physical abuse. Such methods are used against those who are found to be “believing in a religion,” “engaging in an illegal religious gathering,” or even “attending a religious black hole.” Try to purchase a Bible in any book store across China.
In Sudan, the Government continues to engage in severe violations of religious freedom. There are many restrictions on non-Arab Muslims in the Darfur region of Western Sudan and Christians in Southern Sudan. Countless non-Muslims state they are treated as second-class citizens and discriminated against in many social, economic and political aspects. Some Muslims received preferential treatment regarding limited government services, such as access to medical care, and preferential treatment in court cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims. In the Darfur region, a war between government-supported Arab Muslim militias, known as the Janjaweed, and African Muslims is savagely continuing as we speak, resulting in ethnic cleansing and redistribution of African Muslim populations in the region.
But it's more than that – it’s a genocide in Darfur against African Muslims, and in the South against Christians. Though the conflict in Darfur is primarily an ethnic and racial one, religious persecution is inherently linked with ethnicity, and has only served to exacerbate the violence. Eric Reeves, the leading American scholar on Darfur, recently noted there are currently about 3.5 million people affected by this conflict, with about 10,000 dying per month from various unnatural causes. An estimated 400,000 people have already perished.
Marc Gopin, a senior researcher at Tufts University’s Institute for Human Security, writing five years ago, mentions the then increasing attacks by Hindu militants upon Christians in parts of India. Fortunately, the numerous educational institutions and other works done by Christians in India over the generations, along with the commitment of most Indians to religious pluralism, makes it hard to sustain persecution against Christians.
The most dangerous friction is between Hindu and Muslim. I agree fully with Gopin that Gandhians across India, both Hindu and Muslim, should rekindle a movement towards conflict resolution and reconciliation that has not been attempted on a large scale since the days of Gandhi himself. Indian Christians could play a constructive role here as well.
A major lesson for all faith communities is clear: If we stand shoulder-to-shoulder when anyone in our own or another religion is being persecuted anywhere, many lives could be saved. In Canada, we have been fortunate in that we are able to contribute even in a small way. For example, several years ago hundreds of Edmontonians of many religions demonstrated at city hall concerning the brutal and murderous persecution of Muslims in Bosnia. Later, many of us did the same at the legislative assembly over the severe persecution of Christians in Pakistan.
Developments in the post 9/11 period brought about another test of our resolve. One of the immediate consequences to 9/11 was an increase in hate crimes against Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs and Jews across this country and the world. The Samaj Temple of Hamilton, a place of Hindu worship, was burnedown four days after September 11th by arsonists. This act of vengeful ignorance was roundedly condemned by a vast majority of people in Canada, who were horrified by this attack and many came forth to offer support. In September, I was present when, with the help and cooperation of many Canadians, the temple reopened fully restored to its original grandiose form.
It is only through mutual respect, understanding and support that we can create a Canada and a world which all peoples, religions and cultures can genuinely call their own. In this new century, perhaps more than ever in world history, only if our rapidly growing faith communities can cooperate, will peace across this shrunken earth be feasible.
I would like to conclude by quoting a thought-provoking paragraph from the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report in 2004: “And so religious freedom endures as an ideal, even while threats to it never cease. Though naturally endowed in all people, freedom does not occur naturally in the world. History bears abundant witness to the enduring tension between freedom’s resilience as a natural aspiration of the human heart, and freedom’s fragility in the reality of human life. While the number of people living in freedom around the world today is strong and growing, too many others still suffer under oppressive regimes, authoritarian rulers, and intolerant systems. Freedom may be a reality for many, but it remains still only a dream for too many others.”
Thank you and God Bless all of you.