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Strengthening Human Rights Advocacy for Freedom of Religion and Belief in the Middle East and North Africa

Duration: April 2016 – April 2019

Countries: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq

Communities: Armenian Christians, Baha’i, Black Iraqis, Chaldo-Assyrians, Faili Kurds, Kaka’i, Sabean-Mandaeans, Shabak, Roma, Turkmen, Yezidi

What was this programme about?

This programme promoted minority protection and religious freedom in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The programme approached the issue of freedom of religion in a way that is sensitive and inclusive – protecting both non-Muslim and Muslim religious minorities.

The programme increased understanding of the specific vulnerabilities facing religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa region, and strengthened the capacity and commitment to address these issues among human rights activists, and among decision-makers locally, nationally and internationally.

Why did we deliver this programme?

Since 2011, following the Arab spring, the MENA region has witnessed extreme levels of turmoil, including wars on many fronts and the emergence of political and societal challenges, most notably the growth of religious extremism and sectarianism. The scenario for religious minorities in all countries across the region is precarious – although to varying degrees – and continues to drive large-scale forced migration.

Most critically, civil war and the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria have led to gross human rights violations. Iraq’s religious minorities – including Armenian Christians, Baha’i, Black Iraqis, Chaldo-Assyrians, Faili Kurds, Kaka’i, Sabean-Mandaeans, Shabak, Roma, Turkmen, Yezidi – are facing a situation of unfolding catastrophe.

Yezidi have suffered especially egregious and large-scale abuses at the hands of ISIS. In other MENA countries – Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia – ISIS offshoots are also now active, and religious minorities are increasingly under threat. In Eqypt, while freedom of religion is constitutionally protected, serious levels of harassment are an ongoing challenge, including attacks on Coptic Churches and Sufi shrines.

Civil society organizations fighting for freedom of religion and belief, and representing religious minorities in the MENA region have limited capacities and influence at this time. The programme focused on developing high-quality local skills and capacities to promote international standards on freedom of religion, and support these activists to effectively present their cases internationally at the UN and EU, increasing international support and pressure for freedom of religion in MENA.

What did we do?

  • Trained 90 human rights activists on freedom of religious belief, protecting religious minorities and promoting tolerance through online tutored learning package.
  • Organised two-day ‘Training of Trainer’ workshops for a total of 36 past and current graduates of the online training on freedom of religion and belief and minority rights.
  • 22 small grants for past and ongoing trainees to conduct local and national advocacy campaigns and/or interfaith joint programmes.
  • Regional thematic meetings for activists engaged in the programme to share experiences and developed shared responses on key thematic issues such as, the role of faith leaders in combating hate speech, and opportunities for protecting religious minorities in the context of ISIS.
  • 12 small grants to past and ongoing trainees, for researching, submitting and advocating around reports to raise priority human rights violations relating to religious minorities in MENA at relevant international forums and events, including in a range of United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms.
  • Supported 40 local and national activists working to protect the rights of religious minorities to attend and advocate at the United Nations and European Union utilizing the skills and knowledge gained, research conducted (briefing papers and reports), and shared positions developed, through the project to increase international support to religious minorities in the MENA region.

See also our previous project Middle East and North Africa: Protecting minorities and freedom of religion.