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Religious intolerance now driving persecution of minorities across the world – new report

30 June 2010

Religious intolerance has now joined racism in many parts of the world as the leading cause of the persecution of minorities, a new global report from Minority Rights Group International reveals.

State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 reports that the rise of religious nationalism, the economic marginalization of religious minorities and the abuse of counter-terrorism laws have all led to a growing pattern of persecution against religious minorities globally.

On every continent, religious minorities are facing attack, detention, torture and the repression of their fundamental freedoms.
‘Religious intolerance is the new racism,’ says Mark Lattimer, Director of Minority Rights Group International. ‘Many communities that have faced racial discrimination for decades are now being targeted because of their religion.’

According to the report the targeting of minorities on religious grounds is now increasingly becoming a trend in most of Western Europe and in North America while in parts of Asia and Africa religion is fast overtaking race or ethnicity as the key factor driving discrimination and violent attacks against communities. In many states, from the United Kingdom to Ethiopia to Bangladesh, poverty is increasingly correlated with religion.

Minorities, particularly Muslims, across the USA and Europe, have been targets of increased state controls as well as nationalist campaigns by right-wing groups. In Switzerland, following a campaign by the ultra-conservative Swiss People’s Party, a majority of participating voters backed a referendum, which proposed a ban on the building of new minarets in mosques.

The report also finds that nearly a decade after 9/11, religious minorities across the world face increased attacks, persecution and a clampdown on their freedoms due to stringent counter-terrorism measures.

In Iraq and Pakistan, both countries at the forefront of the ‘war on terror’, attacks against religious minorities have escalated in recent years.

In Iraq, religious groups such as the Christians, Mandaeans, Baha’i and Yezidis, have become targets of violence, including murder, abduction, rape and looting of properties, since the 2003 US-led invasion. In Pakistan, partly as a backlash and response to the US and Pakistani military operations, the Taliban have targeted Christians for attack, through killings, torture, forcible conversions and burning of churches and Bibles, the report says.

In the last decade, there has also been an increase in religious profiling as part of counter-terrorism measures introduced by governments. In most cases the targets have been men believed to be Muslim or originating from a Muslim state.

In the aftermath of the Christmas Day 2009 attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit, by a Nigerian Muslim, the US authorities targeted citizens of 14 countries – 13 of them predominantly Muslim – for special scrutiny at airports. In January 2009, thousands of people protested in Uttar Pradesh, India, accusing police of arresting young Muslim boys on terrorism charges with minimal evidence.

Many religious communities also face difficulties such as lack of citizenship or being unable to adhere to their customs and practices and build places of worship due to national religious registration laws. In Egypt, the government requires all identification papers to list religious affiliation, but restricts the choice to the three officially-recognized religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The Baha’i are thus unable to obtain identification papers because they refuse to lie about their religious affiliation and are deprived of access to employment, education, medical and financial services.

Since 2001, a number of countries, including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Serbia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have either introduced or amended their religious registration laws.

‘Although these laws are sometimes presented as responses to security threats or as a means of maintaining public order, they are increasingly being used by states to monitor and control religious communities,’ says Mark Lattimer.

Notes to Editors

  • Interview opportunities:
    • London – Mark Lattimer, Executive Director, MRG International – Included with this press release is a short list of cases related to religious minorities discussed in the report.
    • For interviews with representatives of communities cited in the cases please contact the MRG Press Office.
  • Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is a non-governmental organisation working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide
  • For a copy of the report or to arrange interviews, please contact the MRG Press Office.

The following is a list of some specific cases of issues affecting religious minorities regionally and nationally. Interviewees and their contact details are listed below each case:

Rise of far right in Europe fuels spread of intolerance towards religious minorities

A rise in right-wing radicalism is fuelling the spread of xenophobia and extremist attitudes towards religious minorities in Europe. The report details a sharp rise in Islamophobia in Europe in 2009.

In May, ultra right-wing groups held an ‘anti-Islam’ rally to oppose the building of a large new mosque in Cologne, Germany. When the authorities in Denmark’s capital city Copenhagen approved the country’s first purpose-built mosque, the extreme-right Danish People’s Party launched an anti-mosque campaign in September. Following a campaign by the ultra-conservative Swiss People’s Party, most of Switzerland’s cantons and a majority of participating voters backed a referendum in November, which proposed a ban on the building of new minarets in mosques.

The report also notes an increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents against the Jewish community in Europe. The chapter also points to the global financial crisis contribution to the rise.

Kenya: Nubians – poverty, deprivation and statelessness

The Nubian community has been present in Kenya for about 100 years. Many live in harsh conditions of poverty and deprivation in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Before 2009, when Nubians were finally recognized in the national population census process, to be a Nubian and a Muslim in Kenya amounted to membership of a non-Kenyan identity. Despite this recognition, however, they continue to suffer from citizenship-based discrimination. The bulk of Nubians experience obstacles to their application for citizenship in Kenya immediately upon disclosing their names, most of which are Arab and identify them as Muslim. Such designation instantly results in more documentary evidence being required to sustain an individual’s citizenship claim.

Nigeria: violent clashes between Muslims and Christians

Nigeria’s 140 million people are nearly evenly divided between Christians, who predominate in the south, and Muslims, primarily in the north. In July 2009, four days of rioting was ignited by Boko Haram, an Islamic sect opposed to Western education, medicine and values in northern Nigeria; 800 people (mainly Boko Haram supporters and three Christian pastors) were confirmed killed. The rioting, which initially targeted police and government bases, also led to extensive property losses, including the destruction of government installations. Twenty churches, police stations and prisons were burned before police captured Boko Haram’s leader. He was later killed in detention. The attacks had been in alleged retaliation for the burning of two mosques by Christian groups. The disproportionate use of force by the Nigerian military police against Boko Haram has been criticized, however. This conflict came on the heels of another religious conflict in Jos ignited by political differences. In November 2008, more than 700 people were killed in Jos, the capital of Plateau State, when a political feud over a local election degenerated into bloody confrontation between Christians and Muslims. Violence erupted again in early 2010.

Hindus increasingly attacked and persecuted in Bangladesh

In 2009, a total of 541 incidents affecting religious minorities were reported in Bangadesh by MRG’s partner organisation Odhikar. These include assaults, land seizures and one killing. There were also 27 attacks on places of worship during the year, most of them instigated by local gangs or political leaders who acted in a climate of impunity, with police taking no action over the incidents.

One of the groups specifically targeted in the attacks is the country’s Hindu minority. According to Odhikar, in February 2009, 300 Hindus were injured and one woman raped in Maheshkhali, Chittagong, when gangs attacked a religious event. In March and April 2009, mainly Hindus were affected when gangs forced some 400 people from their homes in the Sutrapur district of Dhaka. In both places, Hindu temples were destroyed.

Supporters or members of the ruling Awami League have been accused of being involved in almost all of the attacks against Hindus. In September 2009, Awami League members fired gunshots and evicted Hindus from their homes, again in Sutrapur. In that incident and others during the month of September, a total of 14 temples were reportedly attacked.

Targeted gender violence is an integral part of the attacks against religious minorities. One of the two reported rape cases targeted against religious minority women, in 2009 involved a Hindu woman in the incident in Chittagong in February.

Counter-terrorism measures target Muslims in India

The situation for Muslims in some parts of India remains tense. Particularly since the Mumbai attacks in 2008, the Indian government has used counterterrorism measures to arrest and detain large numbers of Muslims arbitrarily. In 2009, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged India to counter suspicion against Muslims in the country and warned that anti-terrorism laws threatened human rights.

In January 2009, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the imprisonment and killing of two Muslims accused of being terrorists. The protesters were demanding a judicial investigation into the killings. Many of the protesters said that several Muslim youths had been arrested on minimal evidence in Uttar Pradesh on suspicion of terrorist links. After the Mumbai attacks, the government rushed through new laws, allowing police to hold suspects for up to 180 days without charge.

In April 2009, the Indian Supreme Court rejected a plea by a Muslim student who had been expelled from a Christian missionary school in Madhya Pradesh for refusing to shave off his beard. The presiding judge ruled that it was against India’s secularism and associated sporting a beard with terrorism and extremist values.

Americas: religious intolerance towards indigenous American earth-based belief systems

Throughout the approximately 500-year history of state formation in the Americas, religious thinking has been a key factor in the region’s evolution. European colonial expansion into the Americas was a religious project, sanctioned and directed by the Church hierarchy and highly intolerant to traditional indigenous and African belief systems. Religious communities such as Puritan Protestants were also among the first settlers in the continental United States and the eastern Caribbean. In 2009, indigenous activists in Bolivia and the United States have continued to argue that it is the workings of these doctrines and belief systems in the contemporary secular context that still constrain indigenous peoples and African descendants’ efforts to control their natural resources, and to preserve traditional cultures, lands and lives. At the December 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions, indigenous peoples’ representatives claimed that it is such contemporary practices that demonstrate a direct historical connection to the doctrines of conquest, prompting them to call collectively on religious leaders, such as Pope Benedict XVI, to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.

Canada: balancing women’s rights with freedom of religion

Sometimes the perceived importance of ensuring religious freedom is so strong it can overshadow the need to preserve other rights. For many women from religious minorities around the world, this is a common experience. Using women’s rights as a baseline indicator helps us judge whether countries are able to provide for the needs of religious minorities at a sophisticated enough level that women from religious minorities benefit equally – as both belonging to religious minorities and as women. In the last few years, Canada grappled with the question of whether and how Sharia courts can be incorporated into the laws of the land. Whilst some Muslim women may have wanted to use non-mainstream legal options such as Sharia courts to resolve their concerns, others, such as the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, organized against the introduction of Sharia law.