Faith Matters

Religious Freedom in the World Report 2016

Examining the two-year period up to June 2016, the Religious Freedom in the World 2016 report assesses the religious situation of every country in the world. Here, Bishop John McAreavy welcomes its publication.

Bishop of Dromore John McAreavey. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

I WOULD like to begin with the words of Father Jacques Mourad, a Syriac-Catholic priest who was held by ISIS for five months.

Father Mourad states in the foreword to this report that: "If religion teaches us anything it is the value of the human person, the need to respect each other as a gift from God. So surely it must be possible both to have a passionate faith in one's religious beliefs as well as to respect the right of others to follow their conscience, to live out their own response to the love of God who made us all."

Father Mourad's words and indeed this report as a whole, encapsulate a foundational aspect of Christian teaching - a deep and deliberate love for all human beings - regardless of differences in social position, racial background or religious faith. Indeed Father Mourad's phrase - "the love of God who made us all" - could be the defining phrase of this report.

Jesus used these words to describe two reactions to human conflict: "You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matt 5:43-48)

This impressive report, far from being a selective piece of research concerned only with our own Christian family, is imbued with a concern and love for the entire human family. It provides a rounded overview of religious freedom around the world by assessing the situation of many faith communities who are under attack, including Yazidis, Jews, Ahmadiyya Muslims and of course, Christians.

The report is a comprehensive piece of work. It covers 196 countries, and highlights 38 states where there is evidence of `significant' violations of religious freedom. Within this group, 23 countries were assessed as being in the most serious `persecution' category; while the remaining 15 were placed in the `discrimination' category. Since the last Religious Freedom in the World report was released two years ago, the situation regarding religious freedom has clearly worsened in the case of 14 states (37 percent); while the situation in 21 states (55 percent) has shown no signs of obvious change.

The report authors and indeed Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) must be commended for their service to the Church for producing this meticulous report.

To my mind this report serves three critical functions for which we are indebted.

First and foremost, it calls on us to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are suffering for their Christian faith in various parts of the world, most notably in the Middle East. This means engaging with our political leaders to advocate on behalf of Christians in need, on all appropriate national and international forums. `Solidarity' likewise means engaging with the campaigns of ACN, donating to their various projects and of course, praying for the needs of these communities. All of these campaigns are outlined in detail on ACN's website.

Secondly, this report through its sensitive handling of the issues of religious freedom and inter-religious hostility echoes a sentiment expressed by His Holiness Pope Francis in April 2016 when discussing Islamic-Christian relations - "Christianity's contribution to a culture is that of Christ in the washing of the feet. In other words, service and the gift of life. It must not become a colonial enterprise".

The nuanced approach of this report shows how misguided and hateful are any superficial descriptions of the suffering of Christians and other faith communities in majority Muslim countries as a `battle of religions'. The cruelty inflicted on the faithful which is recorded in these pages is quite simply a rejection of the God of love. This report, to recall the words of Pope Francis, is a `washing of the feet' - a tending to those who have suffered and continue to suffer.

Thirdly, this report serves a very simple but powerful role: it is a plaintive statement of wrongdoing. It is a raising of our voices for those who have no voice. It seems to me that without first identifying exactly the nature and the extent of wrongdoing, one can never fully address that wrongdoing. Strangely, this report gives us hope by allowing us to examine the extent and full horror of those who suffer for their faith across the world. Our work now - thanks to the efforts of ACN - must surely be to challenge religious intolerance and persecution as a fundamental breach of human rights.

I commend the efforts of ACN and salute the work of the report's authors. They have achieved much in bringing these issues yet again to the attention of the public in Ireland.

Father Jacques Mourad, again in his foreword, stated that: "If we are to break the cycle of violence threatening to engulf our world, we need to replace war with peace. In this day and age more than ever, it is time to cast aside religious hatred and personal interests and learn to love one another as our faiths call us to do."

This report is an important tool for breaking the cycle of violence that threatens to engulf our world. Let us make sure we respond accordingly.

:: Taken from an address by Bishop John McAreavey at the launch of Aid to the Church in Need's Religious Freedom in the World Report 2016. For further information visit http://religion-freedom-report.org.uk/.

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