The West Cannot Shrink Back from Increasing Violence against Christians Worldwide
August 22 is the United Nations International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. Despite the increasing prominence of the international religious freedom movement over the past four years, violence against believers is getting worse in many regions of the world. International efforts to combat this violence unfortunately are falling into a pattern of one-step-forward, one-step-back. Instead, we need consistent and zealous advocacy for these most persecuted people on earth.
Take Nigeria for example. More Christians are murdered for their faith each year in Nigeria than all other countries in the world combined. Groups like Boko Haram, the Islamic State-West Africa Province, and Fulani militias have terrorized and razed entire villages for years, disproportionately targeting Christians while also attacking Muslims who do not share their radical Islamist visions. The government’s response is to do the bare minimum to keep them off the radar of the international community rather than fully working to secure the country.
In 2020, the United States finally took action to stand up for Nigerians’ fundamental rights by designating Nigeria as one of the worst abusers of religious freedom. This only occurred because of years of concerted advocacy by dozens of NGOs, a nearly unanimous consensus amongst religious freedom supporters, and the undeniable and heartrending witness of Nigerians telling their stories.
Inexplicably, just one year later in late 2021, Secretary Blinken removed that designation. What followed was a predictable surge in violence against Christians. Two horrifying incidents received international attention. First, in March 2022 there was the stoning to death and burning of Christian college student Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu for “blasphemy” by radicalized Muslim students in Sokoto after she had thanked Jesus on social media for helping her do well on her exams. Then, on Pentecost Sunday, terrorists attacked a Catholic Church in Owo, Nigeria, killing roughly 50 Christians.
It took nearly a week for the US to even comment on the death of Deborah Emmanuel. And at the European Parliament, MEPs shouted “shame on you” when a vote to condemn persecution against Christians and the attack on Deborah Emmanuel failed. These high-profile attacks illustrate the everyday violence and discrimination occurring against Christians in Nigeria, and only confirm the grave mistake the US and EU have made in ignoring the state of religious freedom in the country.
But this pattern of small movements of progress on policy, followed by abandonment of any follow-through once the news moves on, is happening far too regularly.
In Pakistan, the threat of mob violence based on blasphemy accusations has been real for decades, helped along by a legal system and unaccountable law enforcement that encourages violence against religious minorities. Shagufta Kausar and her husband, Shafqat Emmanuel, were arrested and charged with blasphemy in June 2013, tortured into a confession, and sentenced to death by hanging in 2014. They languished in prison until June 2021, when the Lahore High Court acquitted them.
But the threat of mob violence against them was so great that Shagufta and Shafqat could not remain in the country. With the support of ADF International, they were able to safely reach Europe and tell their story at the European Parliament in May 2022. But the same month that these Pakistani Christians spoke about their harrowing ordeal, the EU released a report on religious persecution that contained only one reference to Christians and was actively hostile to religious believers in many respects.
Christians and other persecuted religious minorities rely on the international community to take their struggles seriously and act without regard to ideological biases. Persecuting governments are emboldened when the international community looks the other way.
In Vietnam in June of this year, multiple Montagnard Christian house churches in Dak Lok province were harassed and fined by police in large part because they had publicly honored the 2021 UN Day for victims of religiously-based violence.
Pastor A Dao, the head of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ, was previously imprisoned and tortured by the Vietnamese government, but released in 2021 after concerted international pressure. Now, though, he is experiencing around-the-clock police monitoring after being denied the ability to travel to the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., in June.
Yet Vietnam rarely is called out by the international community for its severe religious freedom violations even as they regularly engage in these direct affronts to the international human rights system. Haphazard international advocacy only assures bad actors like the Vietnamese government that they can get away with most anything.
The bravery of these individuals who stand up for their faith in the face of intense violence and persecution cannot be understated. We need an assertive international response that consistently supports these individuals and communities, not one that shrinks back because of ideological discomfort with religion.
On this International Day for victims of religious-based violence, we must commit to standing firmly with the persecuted.