Around the world, religious institutions bore the brunt of coronavirus rules. We can’t let this happen again.
In Ireland, you can face six months behind bars for forging a drug prescription. Or for stealing€20,000 from your employer for luxury holidays. Or, until recently, for attending church.
Even in a year that has turned societal norms on its head, it’s surely a surprise that the Emerald Isle, once a home away from Rome for Europe’s Catholics, got into this state. There are few places more steeped in Church tradition.
Ireland, of all places, enforced some of the most draconian restrictions on religious freedom in the world during the pandemic. Authorities didn’t just close places of worship; they criminalized anyone who would attend a service or a Mass, regardless of their willingness to mask and distance. When a rural priest from County Cavan tried to hold a service, police set up checkpoints surrounding the building and fined him for daring to bid parishioners to come to a large, airy church. Meanwhile, dry cleaners, supermarkets, and even liquor stores stayed open for business. It was considered safer to pick up a cheap merlot outside a corner off-license than to take bread and wine in a socially distanced Communion service with holy God.
The European Parliament is due to vote on an “extreme” report calling on all European Union member states to allow access to abortion.
The report, presented by Croatian politician Predrag Fred Matić, also seeks the recognition of a “right to abortion” and the redefinition of conscientious objection as a “denial of medical care.”
The report was tabled May 25 for a vote at the next plenary session of the European Parliament, the EU’s law-making body, in Strasbourg, France, on June 7-10.
Pro-life groups have expressed alarm at the report, which they say violates the established principle that abortion laws fall within the competence of member states, rather than EU institutions.
Most of the EU’s 27 member states permit abortion on demand or on broad social grounds, except Malta and Poland, which have strong pro-life laws.
The Parliamentary Network for Critical Issues (PNCI), based in Washington, D.C., described the report as “extreme” and “radical.”
The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), an NGO based in Strasbourg, suggested that supporters of the draft resolution were seeking “to introduce a new norm without it appearing at first sight to be imposed.”
It said: “The choice of the institution in this strategy is not to be underestimated, because although the resolutions of the European Parliament have no binding legal value, they are the expression of an opinion that the Parliament wishes to make known.”
“A resolution may subsequently serve to politically legitimize action by the member states or the institutions; it is intended to produce practical effects.”
“More importantly, it can express a pre-legislative intention that can later be used to justify binding acts. There is, therefore, no doubt that an act of the European Parliament represents the gateway to the heart of the normative system.”
The “Report on the situation of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health” was adopted by the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality on May 11.
An accompanying “explanatory statement” claimed that the report “comes at a crucial moment in the EU, with backlash and regression in women’s rights gaining momentum and contributing to the erosion of acquired rights and endangering the health of women.”
Two Members of the European Parliament, Margarita de la Pisa Carrión and Jadwiga Wiśniewska, set out a “minority position,” arguing that the report had “no legal or formal rigor.”
“It goes beyond its remit in addressing issues such as health, sexual education, and reproduction, as well as abortion and education, which are legislative powers belonging to the member states,” they wrote.
“It treats abortion as a purported human right that does not exist in international law. This is a breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the main binding treaties, as well as of the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union.”
The European Parliament passed a resolution last November lamenting what it called a “de facto ban on the right to abortion in Poland.”
It backed the resolution by 455 votes to 145 after Poland’s top court ruled that a 1993 law permitting abortion for fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional.
Catholic bishops across Europe criticized the resolution. In a letterreleased in February, they said that it would have “a very negative impact” on the way the EU is seen by its member states.
A bill seeking to decriminalize abortion was introduced in Malta’s parliament May 12. The bill is the first of its kind in the Mediterranean country. Malta’s President George Vella has said that he would rather resign than sign the bill.
The ECLJ highlighted the new report’s threat to conscientious objection to abortion.
Noting that many EU member states recognize healthcare professionals’ right to refuse to participate in activities that would violate their consciences, the report said: “Moving forward it should be addressed as denial of medical care rather than the so-called conscientious objection.”
The ECLJ pointed out that the right to freedom of conscience is guaranteed by international and European law.
“The fundamental nature of this freedom no longer needs to be proven; it is even described by the European Court [of Human Rights] as the foundation of democratic society,” it commented.
In their message, the Austrian bishops said: “We know from countless encounters with the dying that the last phase of life, in particular, can be a blessing. In many cases, important encounters and moments of reconciliation are still possible.”
VIENNA, Austria —Austria’s Catholic bishops urged the authorities on Tuesday to offer people “assistance to live,” rather than assistance to suicide.
The bishops issued a statement June 1 in the wake of a ruling by the country’s top court that assisted suicide should no longer be a criminal offense.
“Dying is a part of life, but not killing. Assisted suicide must therefore never be understood as a medical service or otherwise a service of a healthcare profession,” the bishops wrote in the five-page message marking the Austrian Church’s Day for Life.
The constitutional court argued in its Dec. 11 judgment that the country’s criminal code is unconstitutional because its ban on assisted suicide violates the right to self-determination. It ordered the government to lift the ban in 2021.
Assisted suicide is currently punishable by up to five years in prison.
At the time of the ruling, Archbishop Franz Lackner, the president of Austria’s Catholic bishops’ conference, said that the judgment marked a fundamental “cultural breach.”
CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, reported that the bishops urged legislators on Tuesday to take a number of steps to safeguard citizens, including expanding suicide prevention efforts, limiting the possibility of pressure from third parties, and guaranteeing conscientious objection.
“The limits of self-determination become apparent in life crises, in the event of a serious experience of suffering or in the face of a death that is becoming tangible,” the bishops wrote.
“It is an illusion to believe that we can determine ourselves completely and independently at any moment. As the constitutional court also admits, experience teaches us different things: We need each other! Man is a social being, always dependent and receptive to the expectations and valuations of the people around him.”
Austria is a country of almost nine million people bordered by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Germany.
In September 2020, the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation reaffirmed the Church’s perennial teaching on the sinfulness of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Since then, supporters of the practices have made gains in several European countries.
In February, Portugal’s parliament backed a bill approving euthanasia. But President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa vetoed the bill.
Also in February, Catholic leaders and human rights advocates expressed concernover a bill seeking to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Ireland.
In the same month, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled that a provision in the German Criminal Code criminalizing commercial assisted suicide is unconstitutional.
In March, Spain’s legislature passed a law legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, making Spain the fourth country in Europe to legalize the practice, after the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
Meanwhile, a peer in the House of Lords, the U.K. parliament’s second chamber, recently put forward a proposal to revisit the legalization of assisted suicide.
In their message, the Austrian bishops said: “We know from countless encounters with the dying that the last phase of life, in particular, can be a blessing. In many cases, important encounters and moments of reconciliation are still possible.”
“In addition, a widely publicized option to commit suicide puts pressure on all those who face life until natural death and are dependent on the help of others to do so.”
The bishops added, “According to the dangerous logic of euthanasia, they too would have the possibility to end their lives ‘autonomously.’”
Law professors and scholars are calling on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to pressure the State Department to sanction Finland’s prosecutor general for prosecuting a Christian politician who shared her biblical beliefs on sexuality and marriage.
In an open letter published by Real Clear Politics last Friday, professors from Ivy League institutions like Harvard University, Yale University and Princeton University spoke out in defense of Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola. They both face criminal charges related to Räsänen expressing her Christian views on marriage.
Räsänen, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, could face up to six years in prison after being charged with three counts of ethnic agitation related to statements she made expressing her beliefs pertaining to human sexuality and marriage.
Räsänen is the former chair of the Christian Democrats and a former interior minister who has served in Parliament for seven terms. The mother of five, who is married to a pastor and Bible college principal, has been under police investigation since June 2019.
She publicly voiced her opinion on marriage in a 2004 booklet on sexual ethics, describing marriage as between one man and one woman. She also expressed her views on a 2019 radio show and tweeted church leadership on the matter.
Prosecutors determined that her previous statements disparage and discriminate against LGBT individuals and foment intolerance and defamation. The mother of five is adamant that her expressions are “legal and should not be censored.”
In their open letter, the professors argue that the prosecution of the politician for her remarks could “compel Finland’s clergy and lay religious believers to choose between prison and abandoning teachings of their various faiths.”
“The charges against Dr. Räsänen stem from her authorship of a 2004 booklet entitled, Male and Female He Created Them: Homosexual Relationships Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity, published by the Luther Foundation,” they wrote. “In the booklet, Dr. Räsänen argues that homosexual activity should be recognized by the church as sinful based on the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and Christian scripture.”
“Second, the Prosecutor General has charged the Bishop-Elect of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola, with one count of ethnic agitation for publishing Dr. Räsänen’s booklet,” the letter continues.
“The Prosecutor General’s pursuit of these charges against a prominent legislator and bishop sends an unmistakable message to Finns of every rank and station: no one who holds to the traditional teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and several other religions on questions of marriage and sexual morality will be safe from state harassment should they, like Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen, express their moral and religious convictions.”
The letter argues that the prosecutions “constitute serious human rights abuses” because they violate Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 10 of the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights. Those documents affirm the right of an individual “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching.”
The professors urged commissioners serving on the congressionally-mandated independent commission tasked with advising the U.S. government on international religious freedom matters to urge Secretary of State Antony Blinken to sanction Finland Prosecutor General Raija Toiviainen because of “a gross violation of human rights.”
The letter’s signatories include Princeton University law professor Robert P. George, Harvard University’s Learned Hand Professor of Law Emerita Mary Ann Glendon and Harvard constitutional law professor Adrian Vermeule.
Other signatories include: Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; Middlebury College political science professor Keegan Callanan; Yale University history and religious studies professor Carlos Eire; Princeton University math professor Sergiu Klainerman; Princeton University international studies professor John B. Londregan; Harvard University African American studies lecturer Jacqueline C. Rivers; and attorney David Rivkin of the law firm BakerHostetler.
The signatories argue that Räsänen’s prosecution isn’t merely “mundane applications of a European-style ‘hate speech’ law.”
“No reasonable balance of the goods of public order, civil equality, and religious liberty can ever support this suppression of the right to believe and express one’s beliefs. The prosecutions are straightforward acts of oppression,” they write.
“To uphold the internationally recognized rights of freedom of expression and religious liberty, the United States must now respond to the abuses in Finland as it has recently responded to other violations of religious liberty in non-western nations.”
The letter points to how the U.S. government designated a Chinese government official as a human rights abuser for “his involvement in the detention and interrogation of Falun Gong practitioners for practicing their beliefs.”
“Prosecutor General Toiviainen’s status as a European official must not shield her from sanctions for her abuse of traditionalist Christians in Finland,” the letter argues.
In addition, the letter urges USCIRF to pressure Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to designate Toiviainen for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows for sanctions to be placed on foreign officials believed to be responsible or complicit in severe human rights abuse.
“Prosecutor General Toiviainen and any line prosecutors who choose to assist her plainly meet this description,” the professors argue.
The letter contends that there is “no statue of limitations on human rights violations of this magnitude.”
“Should calls by USCIRF to designate and sanction Prosecutor General Toiviainen and her accomplices fall on deaf ears, we respectfully request that USCIRF not simply let the matter drop,” they conclude.
Räsänen is represented by ADF International, which argues that her case is about the freedom to express religious beliefs in the public square without the fear of government investigation.
In a March statement, Räsänen said that she did not threaten, slander or insult anyone and that her comments were all “based on the Bible’s teachings on marriage and sexuality.” She vowed to defend her right to “confess” her faith.
“The more Christians keep silent on controversial themes, the narrower the space for freedom of speech gets,” she said.
Earlier this month, the European Evangelical Alliance voiced its support for Räsänen, asking if the prosecutor is “attempting to redefine human rights law.”
“Freedom of expression gives the right for anyone to share their opinion,” EEA General Secretary Thomas Bucher wrote in a statement. “The right to freedom of expression exists to legally protect those that express views which may offend, shock or disturb others.”
Suspected jihadists ambushed a baptism ceremony where they killed 15 Christians in northern Burkina Faso’s Oudalan province near the Mali border, according to a report.
The attack occurred in the Adjarara area, about 4 miles from Tin-Akoff, on Tuesday, the Sahel region’s governor, Col. Salfo Kabor, confirmed in a statement, the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern reported Friday.
“People are shocked and many are running,” Moha A.G. Agraz, a Tin-Akoff native, was quoted as saying.
The al-Qaeda and Islamic State terror groups have been launching attacks in West Africa since January, but no group has claimed responsibility for the latest attack.
Last May, 58 people, including children, were killed within 24 hours in three separate attacks in the provinces of Loroum, Kompienga and Sanmatenga by armed Islamic militants who were targeting Christians, the U.K.-based aid agency Barnabus Fund reported at the time.
Burkina Faso, one of the most impoverished countries in the world, has been fighting armed groups with links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State for about five years.
Since 2016, extremist groups including the Islamic State West Africa Province and Ansaroul Islam have carried out hundreds of attacks throughout the Sahel region of West Africa. But attacks increased in 2019 — deaths rose from 80 in 2016 to 1,800 in 2019.
“Attacks on both Muslim and Christian houses of worship and religious leaders have spiked as jihadist and other militia groups expand their area of influence throughout the country,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a report last year. “The government is struggling to rein in the violence, and poor performance and misconduct by government-affiliated forces are exacerbating the situation.”
“Analysts posit that the selection of religious targets, even by fighters with jihadist-affiliated armed groups, may not always be religiously motivated. Attacks against religious leaders and houses of worship resemble other attacks on local authorities and symbols of foreign influence, as these groups attempt to establish control over certain areas for political and economic gain,” the report added.
USCIRF explained that many jihadists fled to the border region of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, where they regrouped after the French defeat of insurgents and jihadists in northern Mali in 2012 and 2013. “Since 2016, both al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates have expanded their reach deep into the Burkinabe territory, aggravating other local tensions and triggering a security crisis.”
Jihadist violence has spread from the country’s north to the western Boucle du Mouhoun region where rice and maize are produced and transported to other areas, resulting in a food shortage and might cut off food for millions more in the region, The Associated Press reported earlier.
It is feared that the COVID-19 pandemic might exacerbate the situation at a time when 2 million people in the country are already facing food insecurity.
I used to write a lot about sex and gender here. I don’t do so quite as much these days for a few reasons, one of which is that the issues involved are now better recognised and better handled by people whose job it is to deal with the complexities of policies and conflicts of rights and arguments.
An example of that came at the weekend when Baroness Falkner, the new chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, told the Times that women should not be penalised or abused if they believe that transgender women do not become female by dint of their professed identity.
‘Someone can believe that people who self-identify as a different sex are not the different sex that they self-identify,’ she said. ‘A lot of people would find this an entirely reasonable belief.’
In other words, the UK’s human rights authority says you don’t have to accept that trans women are female. That’s a big deal, as anyone who has followed this debate will know. It’s also a sign that it’s getting easier to debate the implications of policy and practice around sex and gender, which is a good thing for all concerned. Policies that are properly debated can gain public confidence in a way that is impossible for policies that are implemented quietly and without open discussion.
When I started writing about these issues, it was partly because I was worried that politics was failing to facilitate those discussions. In a few months in 2018, I collected dozens of private accounts from serving parliamentarians from several parties, who said they believed that some policies and practices aimed at benefiting trans people could have adverse effects on other people’s rights, status and services, especially women. Yet almost none of those politicians would say so publicly, because they felt the climate around the issue was simply too hostile and toxic.
That worried me, and in some cases annoyed me. I fully understand that politicians are human and don’t relish jumping into a vipers’ nest of anger and abuse, but it’s also the job of politicians to lead, even when that’s difficult. That means finding ways to drain the poison from the public debate and having the courage to discuss complicated, contentious things, even if doing so makes some people unhappy.
So, having been a bit rude about politicians and their failure to debate sex, gender and public policy, I feel like I should be nice about those who do their job and discuss these things. Which is why most of the rest of this column is the text of a short speech by Tonia Antoniazzi, the Labour MP for Gower.
She was speaking in the House of Commons in a debate about crime and ‘safe streets for all’.
Her speech, which deserves to be read in full, is here:
“‘To find effective solutions we must fully understand the problem, and accurate data is key in tackling the causes of crime, protecting the public, providing justice to victims, and rehabilitating offenders. Data must be accurately sex-disaggregated in order to fully understand the impact of all crimes on women and girls. In order to combat sexism, we need to count sex, and in order to combat discrimination against other groups, there is a need to record separate and additional data. The offending patterns of men and of women show the highest differential of all, so we need to monitor the sex of victims and of perpetrators of all crimes. For example, the proportion of women among those prosecuted in 2019 was 2 per cent for sexual offences, 8 per cent for robbery, and 7 per cent for possession of a weapon.
‘We all want to live in a society that is respectful and tolerant and strives for equality. Gender reassignment is rightly a protected characteristic and we must respect the privacy of transgender people, but in order to protect everyone when it comes to official records of offences, particularly against women and girls, we need accurate records of the biological sex of the victims and the perpetrators of crime, in addition to data on the gender identity of victims and perpetrators. Why then are police forces recording the self-identified gender of victims of suspected offenders and not their biological sex?
‘I understand that at least 16 regional police forces now record suspects’ sex on the basis of gender identity, following the advice of the National Police Chiefs’ Council. Data based only on self-identified gender does not give accurate data on which to build a violence against women and girls strategy, nor to effectively plan services that support all victims and target all perpetrators whatever their sex or however they identify.
‘If police records are not robust and correctly disaggregated by sex, we end up with unreliable and potentially misleading data in reporting. For example, the BBC asked 45 regional police forces in the UK for data on reported cases of female perpetrators’ child sex abuse from 2015 to 2019. The data received indicated that there was an increase of 84 per cent. Data corruption means that we cannot tell whether this large increase is due to an increase in female offenders or those identifying as women, and that detail matters.
‘Women make up 3 per cent of the arrests for all sexual offences. The number of women convicted for these crimes is so low that the mis-recording of the sex of the perpetrator skews the data very quickly. Where offence categories are very rarely committed by women, the addition of just one or two people can have a significant impact on data. For example, a biological man convicted of attempted murder and other offences at Birmingham Crown court in 2017 was recorded as female, thus falsely elevating the number of females convicted of attempted murder that year in England and Wales by around 20 per cent. We need to know what action the Government will take to ensure correct police record keeping and prevent the potential corruption of data on crimes and their impact on women and girls.’
Antoniazzi is asking serious and important questions there. In that, she’s drawing on the research of organisations such as Fair Play For Women and echoing the concerns about sex, gender and data raised by academics such as Professor Alice Sullivan of UCL. (For what it’s worth, I’ve written a bit about this too.)
Sex and gender isn’t a linguistic game or an online debating point. As that speech demonstrates, this stuff matters. Policy and politics should always be based on facts; official data should illuminate, not obscure. It’s an open question as to whether by allowing self-described gender identity to eclipse biological sex, police forces and other public bodies are creating the misleading impression of increasing female involvement in serious crime. These are things that should be debated in Parliament.
The fact that an MP is doing so is a good thing, a sign that the debate about sex and gender is becoming easier and more normal. But Tonia Antoniazzi still deserves praise for asking those questions. She also deserves answers.
DUBLIN (7 May 2021) – People of faith are signing an open letter, addressed to the Irish Prime Minister, Micheál Martin TD, demanding a commitment never to ban church worship in Ireland again.
Church doors will open once again on Monday, after public worship was forbidden for almost a full year, with criminal penalties imposed on those who left their homes to attend services and masses. Despite commercial public venues such as dry cleaners and off-licenses being allowed to open with safety measures in place, worship in church was strictly prohibited.
“There is no clear reason as to why the Irish government prevented places of worship from opening for so long. Other European countries allowed religious worship to continue with safety precautions which protect both the public at religious services and the wider community,” said Lorcán Price, Irish barrister and Legal Counsel for ADF International.
The letter, launched this week, makes three concrete asks of the leader of the Irish government.
First, the letter asks that the Taoiseach affirm respect for the fundamental right to freedom of religion, which is enshrined in Article 44 of the Constitution and protected in international human rights law.
Second, it demands that he recognize that churches are an essential part of society, and finally, that he commits that his government will never again impose a blanket ban on public worship.
“In Scotland, we saw the same disproportionate measures struck down by the top civil court as “unlawful”. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right, protected by the Irish Constitution, and it’s vital that the Irish government recognise this. Irish people of faith were deprived of worship, of the sacraments, and of the hope that the church can offer at a time when they were most needed – at a time of crisis. The Irish government must show that it understands that communal worship is essential for many Irish people, and commit to never again imposing such a draconian ban,” continued Price.
Legal challenge to blanket worship ban pending before courts
Declan Ganley, who filed a legal challenge after seeing the impact on all faith communities, is redoubling his efforts to ensure that the blanket ban on worship will never be imposed again and to hold the government to account.
The businessman’s claim for a judicial review into the disproportionate ban mirrors that of Canon Tom White in Scotland. In March, the Glasgow priest joined with 27 other faith leaders to successfully have the Scottish government’s blanket ban on worship ruled unlawful and struck down.
Ganley is hopeful for a similar decision from the Irish court.
“I welcome the steps that the government is taking to reopen churches. However, this does not reverse the fact that for most of the past year, churches have been subjected to unfair treatment in comparison to places of commerce,” said Ganley, in response to the news that the government would allow services to resume this weekend.
“There is no clear explanation as to why the Irish people should have been deprived of an essential source of comfort and hope in such a time of national grief. There’s no clear logic as to why an airy, open church, with plenty of space, should be considered somehow more dangerous than a bicycle shop. Are people of faith really more contagious than others?” he continued.
“We know from the case of Canon Tom White in Scotland that the decision to completely ban public worship is an unlawful one. While I am very thankful that church doors will once again open in Ireland, this case remains important. Now more than ever, we need a clear decision from the court as to whether this draconian ban was ever justified in the first place. And it is also a critical moment for the future of faith in Ireland. The courts now have the opportunity to ensure that the community is never again deprived access to a place to meet with God and minister to the suffering at a time of need.”
China today faces the worst human rights crisis since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and the most severe crackdown on religious freedom since the Cultural Revolution. While the Chinese Communist Party regime has always been repressive, today it stands accused of genocide, forced organ harvesting, repeated breaches of international treaties, an all-out assault on all forms of dissent, civil society activism or independent media and a war on faith.
Last month, the British House of Commons voted unanimously to recognise the atrocities perpetrated against the predominantly Muslim Uyghur people as a genocide. This follows similar motions by the Canadian and Dutch parliaments, an official decision by both the previous and current United States administrations, and a growing body of opinion from legal experts and scholars.
At the same time Hong Kong’s promised freedoms, rule of law and autonomy have been rapidly dismantled, in flagrant violation of the Sino-British joint declaration and the city’s own mini-constitution, known as the “basic law”. Hong Kong’s jails are now filling up with political prisoners. Most recently, some of Hong Kong’s most prominent, most senior, most mainstream and most internationally respected pro-democracy campaigners, including Catholics such as media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, student leader Agnes Chow and trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, have been jailed. Others – such as the “father of the democracy movement”, devout Catholic Martin Lee and fellow barrister Margaret Ng – received suspended sentences. For what? For having participated in a peaceful protest in 2019.
Meanwhile repression in Tibet intensifies, practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement continue to be targeted and Christians in mainland China – Catholic and Protestant – face intensifying persecution. Thousands of crosses have been destroyed in recent years, while churches have been closed or in some cases destroyed. In state-controlled churches, images of China’s ruler Xi Jinping and Chinese Communist Party propaganda banners are displayed alongside – or sometimes instead of – religious images. Surveillance cameras are erected at the altar, and young people under the age of 18 are banned from all churches, receiving the sacraments, and attending Bible studies. With these severe restrictions, perpetuating the faith and attracting new religious vocations among the next generation will prove difficult.
The Bible and other Christian texts are being censored from the Chinese Internet.Unauthorised possession of bibles results in bible burnings. The regime is currently retranslating and reinterpreting the Bible and is expected to do so in ways that serve thegoals of the Communist Party, such as occurred in the retelling of John’s Gospel in a 2020 state-sponsored textbook, which depicted the adulterous woman being stoned to death by Jesus.
New rules on the selection of Catholic bishops in China make no provision for any papal role in the process, in complete disregard for the recently renewed Sino-Vatican agreement of 2018. Bishops, who are essential to the life of the Catholic Church, are needed to fill dozens of vacant diocesan posts throughout China.
Catholic and Protestant clergy who refuse to join the state-approved churches face the risk of arrest and imprisonment. The Catholic bishop of Baoding diocese in Hebei province, Bishop James Su Zhimin, has become one of the world’s longest-serving prisoners of conscience. While leading a religious procession in 1996, Bishop Su was taken into police custody and has not been heard of since. He had already been imprisoned for 26 years and severely tortured under Mao Zedong’s rule. The 70-year old Catholic bishop Augustine Cui Tai, ofXuanhua Diocese, Hebei province, has been in detention without due process for most of the last 13 years. Bishop Cui Tai was mostly recently taken into detention on 19 June 2020.
Among Protestants, Pastor Wang Yi, one of China’s most prominent Christian voices and founder of the underground Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, was sentenced in December 2019 to a nine-year prison term.
It is for all these reasons that Asia’s most senior cleric, Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, has called for a “Week of Prayer for the Church and Peoples of China” from 23-30 May this year. In his capacity as President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Cardinal Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, issued a statement on 14 March urging the faithful to extend the annual Worldwide Day of Prayer for the Church in China, designated in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI as 24 May – the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians – to a week of prayer.
Cardinal Bo emphasised the need to pray both for the Church specifically, and for all the peoples of China, saying: “Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the peoples of China have faced increasing challenges, which impact us all. It is right that we should pray not only for the Church but for all persons in the People’s Republic of China. We should ask Our Lady of Sheshan to protect all humanity and therefore the dignity of each and every person in China.”
He added: “In proposing this Week of Prayer I am expressing my love for the peoples of China, my respect for their ancient civilisation and extraordinary economic growth, and my hopes that as it continues to rise as a global power, it may become a force for good and a protector of the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized in the world. Pope Francis rightly reminds us that “there is also a deeper hunger, the hunger for a happiness that only God can satisfy, the hunger for dignity. I am calling for prayer for each person in China that they may seek and realize the full measure of happiness that our Creator has given to them.”
Writing six weeks after a military coup plunged his own country into turmoil, Cardinal Bo said: “Many parts of the world are currently challenged, including my own country of Myanmar at this time, but in a spirit of solidarity it is right to focus not only on our own challenges but to pray also for others, in the clear knowledge that their well-being is closely linked to ours.”
In response to Cardinal Bo’s call, a website – GlobalPrayerforChina.org – was launched last week by an informal coalition of lay Christians from six continents who have joined together to facilitate the Global Week of Prayer.
The website features resources for parishes and individuals, including up-to-date information on the persecution of Christians in China, as well as the genocide of the Uyghurs, repression in Tibet, the dismantling of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong and other injustices and threats to human dignity throughout China. It includes profiles of individual prisoners of conscience, and pastoral resources for prayers and homilies.
Cardinal Bo’s call is right, courageous and timely. It must not fall on deaf ears. In two weeks’ time, I hope that Catholics – and Christians more broadly – around the world will take up his request and devote time to praying for China, individually and collectively. Individuals can do so throughout the week in their personal, private prayers, and parishes can do so collectively during Mass.
After a year in which the world has been plunged into crisis by a pandemic, evidence of a new genocide is mounting. A place that was until recently one of Asia’s most open cities has become a closed and repressed territory of fear. And the Church faces a level of persecution not seen for decades. It is right to pray for the Church and peoples suffering under the regime responsible for these acts of inhumanity and mendacity. It is right to pray for China.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom annual report denounces that “the pandemic fostered misinformation targeting religious minorities”.
Persecution of religious minorities has intensified with the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the latest USCIRF annual report. / Photo: Open Doors.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released a new edition of its annual report on religious persecution worldwide, focusing on the effect of the public health measures put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The commission’s chair, Gayle Manchin, pointed out that “this past year was challenging for most nations trying to balance public health concerns alongside the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief”.
As in previous editions, the USCIRF divides the document into several sections including a list of fourteen countries that it recommends the US State Department to consider as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), and twelve more nations that “should be placed on the State Department’s Special Watch List(SWL)”.
Furthermore, the commission presented a series of recommendations to the government and reviews whether those from the last report have been implemented, such as increasing aid to support religious minorities and religious freedom, increase the sanctions against those who violate this right, and designating the reality of the Uyghur people as genocide.
Changes in the Special Watch countries List
The CPCs are those where “their governments engage in or tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations” of the religious freedom rights. These include Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
For the first time ever, the State Department designated Nigeriaas a CPC in 2020, something that USCIRF “had been recommending since 2009”.
In its list of SWL countries, USCIRF mentions Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey and Uzbekistan, as well as Cuba and Nicaragua, after the State Department previously did so in December 2020.
The Central African Republic, Bahrain and Sudan are no longer on the list, because “although religious freedom concerns remain in all three countries, conditions last year did not meet the high threshold required to recommend SWL status”, explained USCIRF.
“The pandemic fostered misinformation targeting religious minorities”
As Open Doors did in its annual World Watch List, the USCIRF also warns that persecution has worsened during the pandemic.
“USCIRF’s 2021 Annual Report documents both the deepening of religious divides, and intensified religious persecution and violence during the global pandemics”, said USCIRF Vice Chair Anurima Bhargava.
But it also insists on “the swift and significant progress that can and has been made, as in Sudan, to support and strengthen religious communities of all faiths”.
According to the report, “while many of these restrictions were justifiable under public health exceptions defined in international law, some restrictions harmed religious minorities or otherwise violated freedom of religion or belief”.
“The pandemic also fostered a wave of misinformation targeting religious minorities”, underlines the document, which also stresses that “despite being obliged by international law, many governments have failed to respond adequately to that misinformation”.
“We urge the Biden administration and Congress to champion religious freedom and to center the safety and dignity of religious communities as foreign policy priorities”, reads the USCIRF report.
They also call on the Administration to “maintain the United States’ leadership roles in the Alliance and the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief […] and to review US policy toward the CPC countries, to demonstrate meaningful consequences and encourage positive change”.
Furthermore, they call on the Congress to join other entities in promoting religious freedom, and to adopt a resolution to establish a Senate Human Rights Commission to monitor violations of religious freedom and freedom of conscience, among other abuses.
Washington D.C., May 6, 2021 / 19:00 pm America/Denver (CNA).
A bipartisan group of members of Congress asked President Biden this week to prioritize responding to global religious persecution.
“Religious freedom, one of the most basic human rights for all people, has historically been an area of sincere bipartisan support and agreement in American foreign policy,” stated a May 4 letter by members of both the House and Senate to President Biden.
The May 4 letter was led by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.). The members were joined by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), as well as Reps. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas).
“The United States is a beacon of hope and freedom, and we must continue to be a leader in calling attention and responding to religious persecution wherever it occurs,” they stated.
Citing the Pew Research Center’s annual study of global religious restrictions and persecution, the legislators called the current state of international religious persecution a “crisis.”
They noted persecution of “the Rohingya in Burma, mass imprisonment and exploitation of Uyghurs and other faith groups by the Chinese government, and the ISIS genocide against Yazidis and Christians in Syria and Iraq” to emphasize the urgency of promoting religious freedom abroad.
The members called on Biden to fill vacant positions in his administration that are charged with promoting international religious freedom.
In particular, they urged Biden to appoint an “experienced, well-qualified Ambassador-at-Large leading the International Religious Freedom office within the State Department.”
Such an appointment, they said, “is vital” to the agency’s “success” in promoting international religious freedom, countering religious persecution, and engaging with governments, religious leaders, NGOs, and civil society.
The coalition of legislators also asked Biden to appoint a Director of International Religious Freedom within the National Security Council.
“Having a designated point person to coordinate among all components of the U.S. Government that work to advance religious freedom abroad is vital to the success of these initiatives,” they stated.
In addition to filling the new positions, the legislators recommended the Biden administration pursue initiatives and actions to work with global allies on issues on religious freedom.
The members urged the administration to lead coalitions of actors in government, civil society, and foreign nations to create initiatives that protect religious freedom.
The letter said that because of China’s hostility towards religious groups in particular, the U.S. has an obligation to respond.
“China’s hostility toward religion and people of faith extends to Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and Christians, some of whom are unjustly imprisoned for their faith, such as Pastor John Cao,” the letter said.
The members argued that U.S. engagement was integral to the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey for more than two years. The legislators added that because of the prioritization of religious freedom, the U.S. has been able to “defend Coptic Christians in Egypt, denounce anti-conversion laws in India, and draw attention to the alarming rise in anti-Semitism in Europe.”
The coalition of legislators said they hope the administration “will work on a bipartisan basis with Congress to advance these policy items and prioritize the right of all people to have a faith, live their faith, change their faith or have no faith at all.”