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Protecting the rights of religious minorities

Duration: July 2019 – July 2023

Countries: Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran, Syria

Communities: Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Armenian Christians, Yezidis, Baha’i, Christians, Buddhists, Atheists, Shi’a, Ahmadis, Muslims, Animists, Gafatar, etc.

What was this programme about?

This programme supported minority activists and organizations that are working towards strengthening the rights of minorities of faith and belief, in regions where the need to act on these issues is the greatest: Middle East and North Africa, and South and South East Asia.

This programme targeted up to 14 countries: Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran, Syria. At the heart of the programme was building the capacity of local civil society and offering activists the opportunities to join forces and become the voices of their communities.

The ultimate goal was to ensure that the human rights of religious minorities were respected and that these communities were protected from persecution and discrimination.

Who did we target?

Under this programme, we mainly targeted civil society and activists representing religious minority and indigenous communities from two regions of the world where religious minorities are suffering from serious human rights violations, widespread discrimination and marginalization:

  1. The MENA region: Minorities including Chaldo-Assyrian and Armenian Christians, Yezidis, Baha’i, and many other religious communities across the region.
  2. South/South East Asia: Religious minorities, which varies depending on the country context including for example, Christians, Buddhists, Atheists, Shi’a, Ahmadis (Bangladesh) Christians, Muslims, Animists (Myanmar), Ahmadis, Gafatar, atheists, Animists (Indonesia), etc.

What did we aim to achieve?

  • Strengthened capacities and protection of religious minority activists/CSOs to monitor, document and report rights violations, and design and implement targeted approaches to address discrimination and human rights violations.
  • Greater collaboration within civil society at national and regional levels across Asia and MENA on identifying, preventing and challenging religious persecution and discrimination, and on building inter-faith understanding.
  • Improved systems for collecting and reporting religious minority rights violations are established and supported in target countries. This ensures that reliable information on violations can be communicated to key advocacy targets, and that civilians and local activists in countries at risk can themselves have a voice in defending their rights.
  • Increased attention by local /national authorities, regional bodies and UN human rights mechanisms and/or other actors to religious persecution and discrimination and increased willingness to take active steps to prevent and combat violations and discrimination.
  • Publication and wide dissemination of high quality, up to date information on the abuses, rights’ denial and discrimination faced by religious minorities, to address the information gap that exists between key stakeholders at the local, national, regional, and international levels, and the situation regarding FoRB and religious minority on the ground in the target regions.

Last but not least, this programme had a specific strand of challenging discrimination and prejudice and promoting inter-faith understanding. This work encompassed different efforts, notably:

  1. The development of a digital learning resource aiming for diversity and inter-faith understanding through education
  2. Provision of sub-grants for civil society to implement small projects promoting inter-faith understanding possibly through the use of the arts.

What have some of our results been?

A 7-week online course called ‘Minority Rights Advocacy Toolkit’ was designed to facilitate an understanding of minority rights concepts and how to apply minority rights mechanism to protect the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Learn more about the course >

Those who excelled in this course are invited to a 3-day intensive training to solidify and expand on knowledge learned in the course, expose them to other minority rights defenders (MRDs), and prepare for interventions to be made at the UN Forum on Minority Issues.

A series of regional meetings, both in-person and virtually, have been arranged for MENA and Asia. In 2020, 24 HRDs met in Sri Lanka to discuss issues surrounding increasing restrictions on the free functioning of civil society, its impact on minorities and FoRB rights; to discuss and share research plans, priorities, and challenges; and increase skills around research and advocacy related to FoRB.

A series of annual reports were released under this programme. In 2020, a report titled ‘South Asia State of Minorities: Minorities and Shrinking Civic Space‘ was published, which focused on the status of civic space in South Asia, including social movements, national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations (CSOs), the media, academics, and activists, among others. Read the press release here and watch the launch webinar here.

Minority Rights Group releases an annual Peoples under Threat Index which is an early warning system to identify locations and peoples that are at threat of genocide and mass killings. The 2020 Peoples under Threat survey and online map, a joint project with the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights draws on scholarly research into the genocides and mass violence of the 1990’s, identifying key common characteristics of countries where these have taken place. In 2020, we decided to focus on the threat posed by the Covid-19 virus to the populations at risk of mass violence. The top five countries are: Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

The 2021 Peoples under Threat index underscores the ways in which authoritarian actions cause greater threat and insecurity for minority and indigenous communities, from repressive nationalistic security practices and power conflicts to heightened surveillance, violent enforcement and weaponization of migration, often facilitated by external support.

Our partner Ceasefire produced two significant reports: one, ‘They Are in Control’: The rise of paramilitary forces and the security of minorities in Iraq’s disputed territories, which investigates the newly empowered role of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq’s ethnically and religiously diverse disputed territories. The report looks at the situation in the Ninewa plain, Tal Afar, Sinjar and Kirkuk since the end of the conflict with ISIS. The second is In the Name of Protection: Minorities and identity in the Syrian conflict, which draws on in-depth interviews with Syrian activists and civilians of diverse religious minority backgrounds to explore the multifaceted and layered experiences of minorities during the conflict. Their testimonies challenge and complicate widespread assumptions made about religious minorities in Syria.

In addition, 3 biannual bulletins have been released:

Under international advocacy, due to a lack of inclusion of minority rights issues during country UPR Reviews, MRG has completed the production and submission of three UPR shadow reports that were submitted to be included in the national review sessions.

  • Lebanon UPR review: The Working Group’s Summary of Stakeholders’ submissions cited our information six times in the report. Questions submitted in advance of the review meeting included those presented by the United States regarding discrimination against persons with disabilities, particularly in access to education, and continuing criminalisation of LGBT persons, as outlined in our report.
  • Myanmar UPR review: The Working Group’s Summary of Stakeholders’ submissions cited our information seven times in the report. Questions submitted in advance of the review meeting included those presented by the United States and the United Kingdom regarding the Race and Religion laws, as outlined in the report.
  • India UPR review: One minority-focused joint submission with a coalition of INGOs and diaspora groups has been submitted.

Ceasefire and Asuda submitted an alternative report on Iraq to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Two recommendations made under that report were adopted in by the Committee in their Concluding Observations.

Our partner Norwegian Centre for Holocaust and Minority Studies (HL-senteret) produced and published one short documentary film, ‘Co-existence in Iraqi Kurdistan‘, and a pilot manual for a web narrative to be used in online education on inter-faith coexistence. The film gives decision-makers, educators, pupils and civil society actors insight into different minority religions, their history in the region and examples of co-existence that may be of inspiration also to others beyond Iraqi Kurdistan and the city of Bashiqa in Iraq that also has long traditions for co-existence.

Our partner Ceasefire provided a secure online reporting tool and formation of monitor’s network. A three-day online training focused on International Humanitarian Law and human rights frameworks in relation to FoRB, was held with participants from Syria and Lebanon. Ceasefire’s online reporting tool helped create a more accurate and up-to-date picture of the situation of religious minorities in the region, to be collected and analysed for use in reports for advocacy.


We also distributed over 50 subgrants to countries including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and Thailand. The projects covered a range of topics, a few examples of which are below:

Verité Research: ‘Promoting ethical reporting, especially on ethnoreligious minorities, to foster better journalism and inter-community relations via Ethics Eye’ (2021) – Sri Lanka

Ethics Eye, a platform managed by Verité Media, undertook the following activities to advance media accountability and boost media literacy pertaining to reporting on minorities. The Ethics Eye team identified three target groups for its intervention: media organizations, advocacy-based groups, and the wider public. Some decision-makers, including members of the Sri Lankan parliament and journalists, engaged with Ethics Eye’s intervention. After the training, it was reported that participants better understood what constituted ethical reporting on minorities. Download the output >

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative: ‘The Media and Discrimination at a Time of the Pandemic’ (2020) – India

The project has produced a report documenting and analyzing the news coverage and government responses to racial discrimination faced by ethnic minorities from India’s Northeast and the specific targeting of the Muslim community to paint them as responsible for spreading the virus during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is proposed that the report be disseminated electronically to the Press Council of India, Press Clubs, Editors Guild, schools of journalism, media as well as on social media. It is to be disseminated to key stakeholders and oversight bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Minorities. Download the output >

Indigenous Peoples Development Services (IPDS): ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Context Assessment and Monitoring’ (2020) – Bangladesh

This project collected data regarding the Covid-19 situation facing 1,205 indigenous peoples both in and around Dhaka. They made a report which was launched at a press conference with national media. Indigenous community leaders from two divisions gave comments and recommendations. These five daily newspapers published the report with top emphasis in both printed version and online version. The report received good local media coverage in 5 different publications. Download the output >

Khwendo Kor: ‘Resilient Communities for Inclusive Societies’ (2021) – Pakistan

The overall goal of the project was ‘To promote social cohesion, religious harmony with a special focus on access of minority to their basic rights in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan’. To achieve this, the focus was on two main areas: advocacy on the rights of minorities, strengthening of the Council of Communal Harmony-Network (CCH). A study was carried out by a male and a female consultant belonging to Hindu and Bahai faith respectively to identify the core issues of minority populations living in Peshawar. Radio programs were held to advocate for the rights of minorities, because of which, listeners gained knowledge on Local Government Act 2013. A program was also aired to increase acceptance for transgender as members of our society who are otherwise excluded from the mainstream society. A strategy development workshop was also conducted. Download the output >

To Belong: An intimate self-portrait of the life of a Dalit in Nepal (2022) – Nepal

‘Do the gods also discriminate?’, asks Kumar Darnal in ‘To Belong‘. The film is an intimate self-portrait of the life of a Dalit in Nepal. Dalits or ‘untouchables’ are members of the lowest level of the Hindu caste system, which, despite being legally prohibited in Nepal, continues to affect the daily lives and structural socioeconomic advantage of Dalits. Watch the film >

A substantially higher number of results and grant projects were produced under the projects but are not publicly available for security reasons.

What we have learned

The final evaluation of this programme has been completed. The outstanding recommendation is that NORAD and MRG scale up the amount, timescale, and predictability of their support through existing partners and liaise with other donors to do so.

Other recommendations included:

  • Engagement with partners in preparing for government-to-government advocacy in the case of human rights abuses by partners or trainees.
  • Greater visibility and fundraising: more training and an expanded small grants programme.
  • More details will be provided in future programme design documents, including clear log frames.
  • Expanded support for rural trainees with phone-based, open-source online content and training on how to navigate online courses.
  • Opening the management of future programmes to CSO partners from the Global South.

Who were our partners?

Our partners were:

  • The Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies is a research, education and documentation centre in Oslo focusing on the Holocaust, other genocides, extremism, anti-Semitism, hate speech, and the situation of minorities in contemporary societies.
  • The Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights is an international initiative to develop civilian-led monitoring of violations of international humanitarian law or human rights, to secure accountability and reparation for those violations, and to develop the practice of civilian rights.

Who funded this programme?

This programme was funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).

Indigenous Benet women attending a meeting with journalists and MRG Africa staff in Kwosir sub-county, Kween district in eastern Uganda. Credit: Billy Rwothungeyo / MRG.