By John Pontifex, Editor-in-Chief
Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report
In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need given in early 2018, Antoine, a father-of-three, described what happened when he was seized by Islamist extremists in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. When the militants discovered he was Christian, they demanded he convert on pain of death. He was incarcerated, tortured and denied food. He woke up every day fearing it might be his last.
Such was the price that Antoine paid for the denial of religious freedom. And yet, he was lucky. One day, he seized his opportunity to make his escape. While all his captors were at prayer, he silently made his way to the prison’s main door and found the chain loose. He slipped out, scaled a high wall and ran for his life. Later that same day, he was reunited with his wife, Georgette, and three young daughters.
This personal account, along with innumerable other examples, is the raison d’être for this report. For so many other people, the experience of persecution has a far different outcome. For simply belonging to the wrong religion, countless numbers of people have been killed; many others have disappeared and still more have been imprisoned indefinitely.
So many incidents of this nature, motivated by religious hatred show the degree to which religious freedom in the world today is “an orphaned right”.
Given this, it is arguably more important than ever to arrive at a clear and workable definition of religious freedom and its ramifications for governments, the legal authorities and society as a whole. This Aid to the Church in Need Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report recognises the core tenets of religious liberty as contained in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship or observance.
Examining the two-year period up to and including June 2018, this report assesses the religious situation of every country in the world. Recognising that religious liberty cannot be adequately assessed in isolation, the country reports critique the often intricate relationship between matters of religion and other related factors – for example politics, economy, education (see Backgrounder – Not only a religious issue). 196 nations have been examined with a special focus in each case on the place of religious freedom in constitutional and other statutory documents, incidents of note and finally a projection of likely trends. From these reports, the countries have been categorised (see the table which appears on page 36-39). The table focuses on countries where violations against religious freedom go beyond comparatively mild forms of intolerance to represent a fundamental breach of human rights.
The countries where these grave violations occur have been placed into two categories – ‘Discrimination’ and ‘Persecution’. (For a full definition of both categories, visit www.religion-freedom-report.org). In these cases of discrimination and persecution, the victims typically have little or no recourse to law.
In essence, ‘Discrimination’ ordinarily involves an institutionalisation of intolerance, normally carried out by the state or its representatives at different levels, with legal and custom entrenching mistreatment of individual groups, including faith-based communities.
Whereas the ‘Discrimination’ category usually identifies the state as the oppressor, the ‘Persecution’ alternative also includes terrorist groups and non-state actors, as the focus here is on active campaigns of violence and subjugation, including murder, false detention, and forced exile as well as damage to and expropriation of property. Indeed, the state itself can often be a victim, as seen for example in Nigeria. Hence, ‘Persecution’ is a worse-offending category, as the religious freedom violations in question are more serious, and, by their nature, also tend to include forms of discrimination as a by-product.
Examining every country worldwide in turn, this report found evidence of significant religious freedom violations in 38 nations (19.3 percent). These 38 countries were examined in more detail with the following conclusions drawn: First, 21 (55 percent) were placed in the top ‘Persecution’ category and the remaining 17 (45 percent) in the less serious ‘Discrimination’ category. This means that worldwide, 11 percent of countries were ranked at the level of ‘Persecution’ and 9 percent at the level of ‘Discrimination’. Second, the situation concerning religious freedom deteriorated in 18 of the 38 (47.5 percent) countries, split roughly evenly between the ‘Persecution’ and ‘Discrimination’ categories. Third, that 18 of the 38 countries – 47.5 percent – showed no obvious sign of change between 2016 and 2018. Fourth, religious freedom conditions improved in only two of the countries (5 percent). These countries were Iraq and Syria, both top offenders in 2016. Significantly, the religious freedom situation in Russia and Kyrgyzstan deteriorated to such an extent in the two years since mid-2016 that they entered the ‘Discrimination’ category for the first time in 2018. By contrast, a sharp decline in militant Islamist violence in Tanzania (Zanzibar) and Kenya meant that in 2018 they dropped two categories, being ranked ‘Unclassified’.
While, in numerous respects, these 2018 findings were comparable to those recorded in 2016, there is one significant difference: namely, a marked increase in the number of countries with significant religious freedom violations, where the situation has clearly worsened. 2018 recorded 18 countries where the situation had declined, up four on the previous reporting period. This represented a marked deterioration. It reflected a general pattern, which shows an increasing threat to religious liberty from state actors. Examples here include Burma (Myanmar), China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Turkey. Although the threat from Islamist and other non-state actors has declined since 2016 in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Tanzania and Kenya, in many other countries the threat from Islamism was notable but not necessarily sufficient – yet – to warrant a categorisation indicating change for the worse. The evidence suggested the threat in this area was likely to increase going forward into the next decade. This same projection can more definitively be made with regard to state actors – authoritarian regimes – which, since 2016, have caused a setback for religious freedom in numerous countries, including those with both regional and global influence.
Among those countries which saw the sharpest decline in religious freedom during the period in question, India is particularly significant as it is the world’s second most populous  country with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Report after report has highlighted egregious acts of violence, each with a clearly-established motive involving religious hatred. One such example comes from Madhya Pradesh state in central India. Describing “an atmosphere of hostility against us,” Archbishop Anthony Chirayath of Sagar told how fanatic nationalists physically threatened families in his diocese and told them to leave. In his November 2017 interview, the bishop said Hindu extremists beat up eight priests and burned their vehicle outside a police station in Satna. Human rights watchdog Persecution Relief documented 736 attacks against Christians in 2017, compared with 358 in 2016. (See Case Study – INDIA: Muslim farmer killed by radical “Cow Vigilantes”.)
This violence against Christians, Muslims and other minorities – many of which belong to low-caste communities – reveals the emergence of a particularly aggressive form of nationalism evident both in India and other countries around the world. The nationalism in question not only identifies a threat to the nation state from law-abiding minority groups but carries out acts of aggression calculated to force them to forsake their distinctive identity or leave the country. Such a threat can be termed ultra-nationalism. Amid heightened concerns about alleged evangelisation among Hindu communities, minorities are accused – as one Indian MP put it – “as a threat to the unity of the country”. Such claims are indicative of a nationalist mind-set which identities the nation-state exclusively with Hinduism.
Hard-line Hindu nationalist groups are routinely held responsible for the attacks which are described as “part of an unprecedented trend to portray [minority faith groups] as acting against the state and national ethos”. Concerns have repeatedly been raised with regard to Indian security forces’ “complicity” in the violence, or at the very least their failure to act. Religious freedom observatories have noted that the sharp increase in attacks on religious minorities in India have coincided with the rise to power of the Bharaitiya Janata Party, with the violence against them now “routine”. The BJP has close ideological and organisational links to Hindu nationalist groups, including the ultra-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) The BJP’s Narendra Modi led the party to victory in the 2014 elections, becoming Prime Minister. Bishop Thomas Paulsamy told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “The BJP supports the fundamentalists. [Prime Minister Modi] does not want the constitution to apply, but rather the religious principles and values of Hinduism.”
This nationalism and its impact on minority faith groups is not confined to India. Indeed, one of the key findings of this Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report is that developments in India are typical of a rise in religious ultra-nationalism across some of the world’s leading nations, each with the common denominator that faith minorities are under attack. These religious groups are portrayed as aliens of the state, a potential, if not existing, threat to the so-called national culture, with loyalties to other countries. If such nationalism goes unchecked, the concern is that it could lead to a growing pressure – perhaps a full-scale campaign of violence – to force such minority groups to flee unless they renounce their faith.
Not that this form of nationalism invariably identifies with one particular faith at the expense of others. In China, all faith groups are at risk if they try to loosen the bonds of the increasingly authoritarian hand of the party leadership. Over the past two years, President Xi Jinping’s regime has taken renewed steps to crack down on faith groups perceived as resistant to the dominance of the Chinese communist authorities.
In north-west China’s Xinjiang province, Chen Quanguo, appointed party boss in 2016, was accused of presiding over a massive clampdown against the Uighurs, the largest Muslim group in the country. It was reported that the government was building thousands of re-education camps, and that 100,000 Uighurs were being “indefinitely detained in overcrowded re-education camps on China’s western border.” Other reports suggested the figure was far higher. One prisoner reported that he was not allowed to eat until he had thanked President Xi and the Communist Party.
With reports that “repression of religious activity has intensified”, in October 2017 at the five-yearly Chinese Communist Party Conference, President Xi gave a keynote address in which he declared that all religions must be “Chinese-oriented”. He said that the regime would not tolerate separatism under the guise of religion. Evidence of a determination to enforce this approach came in January 2018 when the Government introduced new “Regulations on Religious Affairs”, which are seen as heavily restricting faith groups, confining their activities to specific locations and blocking access to different forms of online presence. By the end of 2017, reports were coming in of Christians in some parts of the country being offered money to take down Christmas images of the infant Jesus and replace them with portraits of President Xi. In April 2018, the Bible was banned from sale online  and two state-controlled Protestant bodies announced they would be pursuing a new “secularised” version of the Bible compatible with “Sinicisation” and socialism.
Turning to Russia, we see another dimension of religious ultra-nationalism at work. Evidence produced for this report concludes that “the situation of religious freedom has dramatically worsened in the last two years”. Of core concern are laws, known as the Yarovaya Package, enacted in July 2016. Introduced as part of anti-terrorism legislation, the laws increased restrictions on acts of proselytism, including preaching and dissemination of religious material. Significantly, the main faith expressions closely identified with Russian culture and history were exempt. Faith McDonnell, director of religious liberty for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said: “This law doesn’t do that much to defend from terrorism and only prevents Christians and others who are not Orthodox from preaching and proselytising.” In the wake of the Yarovaya Package, police carried out raids on private homes and places of worship belonging to religious minorities. On 24th April 2017, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation banned the Administrative Centre of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and all 395 of their local centres on grounds of “extremism”.
The phenomenon of rising ultra-nationalism and the negative fall-out for religious minorities is pervasive, as the following examples illustrate. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nationalist agenda has asserted Sunni Islam. Formerly, the regime pledged to uphold the rights of minorities but a changing approach quickly gathered momentum in response to the failed July 2016 coup. Although the government’s clampdown focused on political dissidents, minority faith groups came under renewed pressure. The government directly blamed the Gulen Muslim movement. Alevi Muslims suffered threats of violence and incidents in which their mosques were “repurposed” as Sunni ones. The regime also closed two Shia Jaferi television stations for allegedly spreading “terrorist propaganda”. Christian groups said President Erdogan’s brand of religious nationalism “leaves [them with] little space” . Others reported increasing signs of pressure, with Christians and others claiming they are portrayed as “the enemy”  by state media organisations.
Egregious violations of religious freedom resulting from ultra-nationalism were found in other countries too. The most serious concerned North Korea, where religious freedom is comprehensively denied by the state, which perceives faith groups to be a threat to “the personal cult”  of the Kim dynasty and the regime. In Pakistan, intensifying opposition to proposed changes to the country’s controversial Blasphemy Laws, which threaten minority groups in particular, was justified by extremists determined to turn the country into a fully-fledged Islamic state. In May 2018, Ahsan Iqbal, Federal Minister of the Interior, narrowly escaped death when he was shot at, reportedly by Abid Hussain. The incident had happened just after Mr Iqbal – noted for his defence of the rights of minority faith groups – visited a Christian community in his constituency in Narowal, Punjab Province. Explaining his motives, Hussain said he had acted to defend the Blasphemy Laws. In Tajikistan, government suspicion towards so-called foreign religious influences resulted in oppressive measures, targeting Muslim communities in particular. In August 2017, a change to the law required Tajiki women to wear national garments and follow national culture. That month alone, 8,000 Muslim women were stopped for wearing an Islamic veil. Many were sent text messages telling them not to wear the veil. In an effort to limit foreign influence, imams trained abroad were replaced in November 2017 with more “amenable” clerics.
During the period under review, a major military offensive against the Rohingya Muslims by the nationalist regime in Burma (Myanmar) was headline news. Starting in September 2017 and continuing for nine more months, nearly 700,000 people fled Burma for neighbouring Bangladesh, joining the 200,000 already there. This mass exodus followed “major military offensives”  in 2016 and 2017, with 354 villages reportedly burnt down within four months. (See Case Study – BURMA (MYANMAR): Rohingya flee violence, rape and discrimination en masse) The crisis was described as a “text book ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This came as reports clearly demonstrated that, although ethnic and political factors were at work, religious hatred played a strong part in the violence against a people present in Burma for centuries.
One significant difference marks the Rohingya case out from other cases of ultra- nationalism covered earlier. While the Rohingyas received considerable – and proportionate – media attention and international government concern, the aforementioned instances failed to generate similar levels of engagement from news organisations. Although the cases in question were very different, the frequency and severity of attacks in India and the climate of renewed clampdown on minorities in China and Russia peaked dramatically, but were under-reported. When a video circulated online showing an influential Hindu nationalist leader telling Christians to leave or face being “expelled by force”, a leading Catholic publication described it as “the most overlooked story of the week”, noting how the film also records the radical cleric and 20 supporters stamping on images of Pope Francis. The impact of this apparent international indifference cannot be over-estimated, since the disengagement actively contributes to the problem, with few if any steps being taken to hold the governments in question to account. These incidents point to the emergence of a cultural divide; on the one hand, in the West, there is an ignorance and a lack of concern about religious freedom violations, and on the other, in Asia and other parts of the world, questions of religion are central and paramount. So marked is this divide that we can conclude that there is a barrier of indifference, a cultural curtain, behind which the suffering of entire communities of religious minority groups goes largely unnoticed. Hence, with notable exceptions, religious illiteracy and apathy blinds the West from the surge in ultra-nationalist violence, which is being perpetrated against minority faith groups. This blinkered indifference does not extend to racial, cultural, or gender matters, only to religion. This report calls for the suffering of ignored religious minorities to be recognised and action taken to defend their rights.
During the period under review, there were however glimmers of hope. By mid-2018, events were unfolding in northern Iraq that two years earlier were almost certainly beyond the hopes of even the most optimistic members of the religious minorities concerned. As of June 2018, reports showed that 25,650 Christians had returned to the town of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains. This represented almost 50 percent of the total number of people living in Qaraqosh in 2014, when they fled Daesh (ISIS) forces surging out of nearby Mosul, Iraq’s second city. (See Case Study – IRAQ: Defeat of extremists heralds town’s rehabilitation) At the start of the period under review – mid-2016 – there was no immediate sign that the Daesh occupation of the region was about to end and months later, when they were ejected, the devastation they left behind meant that the appetite to return was virtually non-existent among the communities displaced to Erbil, northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish capital. While the rate of return was particularly marked in Qaraqosh, as compared with many similarly affected neighbouring towns and villages, the former’s significance as the largest Christian-majority town in Iraq cannot be overstated. In any case, nearby Yazidi and Christian towns and villages including Bartela, Karamles and Teleskof had all seen considerable numbers of displaced people return, eagerly taking up residence in homes newly repaired and rebuilt by Church organisations and a very few sympathetic foreign governments. This work of rehabilitation has mainly been done by charities and Church organisations. Had they not provided this assistance, the Christian community in the region could have vanished. Western governments, to whom appeals for urgent assistance were made, badly let down the communities concerned. Christians and Yazidis were recognised as victims of genocide – self-evidently deserving of help – and events have shown that there were eminently viable means of doing so.
The rapid roll-back of territory seized by Daesh – not only in Iraq but also Syria – was mirrored by similar losses felt by other hyper-extremist  groups including Boko Haram, based in northern Nigeria. Not only had Boko Haram lost most of its territory, but it had also conceded defeat – in large part – in its homeland, Maiduguri, in the north-east of the country.
Taken as a whole, the reclamation of almost all territory held by hyper-extremist groups represented a victory for religious freedom. News media gave due scope to this development of international significance, as witnessed by coverage of the liberation of Marawi in the Philippines from Daesh in October 2017. (See Case Study – PHILIPPINES: Priest and cathedral staff abducted). That said, this Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report finds that news organisations have overlooked the growth of religious violence carried out by other militant Islamist groups, which to some extent at least filled the vacuum left by the hyper-extremists. This was certainly the case in Egypt, where Coptic Christians continued to come under attack from extremists. (See Case Study – EGYPT: Extremists kill 29 Coptic Christian pilgrims). In Nigeria militant Islamist Fulani herdsmen ransacked Christian communities in the country’s Middle Belt, massacring people, destroying their livelihood and leaving countless people in fear of their lives. Central to the Fulani violence were the herdsmen’s desperate efforts to “confiscate…arable land” to graze their cattle; ethnic issues separating them from the Christians and other groups also undoubtedly played a part. However, the nature of the violence – including attacks on Christians at prayer – underlined the growing significance of religious motives. (See Case Study – NIGERIA: Catholics murdered during Mass) Again, a core finding of this report is the failure of the international community to recognise the scale of the problem, which is compounded by the inaction of the authorities in the countries concerned. So serious was the problem that Nigeria’s bishops called on the country’s President to “consider stepping aside” while “security agencies deliberately turn a blind eye to the cries… of armless citizens who remain sitting ducks in their homes… and even in their sacred places of worship”. One bishop warned the international community: “Please don’t make the same mistake as was made with the genocide in Rwanda.”
Events in Nigeria during the period under review showed evidence not only of renewed Islamist violence but also of concerted efforts to spread extremism, by aggressive means. In Somalia, Al-Shabaab Islamists gained a foothold, imposing severe human rights violations in areas under their control including stoning. In Niger, numerous Wahhabist centres have emerged. Nigeria’s violent hotspot – the Middle Belt – is predominantly Christian, and human rights observers suggested that the militant action there is intended to achieve the imposition of Wahhabi-style Islam. Church leaders suggested that the attackers were “jihadists imported hiding under the guise of herdsmen and sponsored by people from certain quarters to achieve an [Islamist] agenda”. As evidence, commentators pointed to the swift upgrade in weaponry from bows and arrows to AK-47s and other high-tech arsenal. The Christian Association of Nigeria’s advisory chairman, the Very Reverend Otuekong Ukot, went further, implicating parts of government in the violence and saying the extremists wanted to Islamise the whole of Nigeria by 2025. He said the massacres in the Middle Belt showed the militants had “now pushed into other parts of Nigeria to meet their target”.
Elsewhere in Africa, the attempted expansion of Islamism may not have been aggressive but it was no less ambitious. Reports showed a variety of initiatives aimed at an Islamist take-over, bribing people to convert and join the extremist cause, offering people free courses in Wahhabism and other radical movements, and the mass building of mosques, irrespective of demand for them. In Madagascar, a predominantly Christian country, Cardinal Désiré Tzarahazana of Toamasina highlighted a radical shift in the nation. He warned how “extremist Islam” was being imported into Madagascar, claiming that radical groups were “buying people”, and citing plans to build more than 2,600 mosques in the country. The cardinal, who is also President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madagascar, made clear that this was not a home-grown shift towards Islamism but the work of radical groups from abroad. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, he said: “The rise of Islamism is palpable. You can see it everywhere. It is an invasion, with money from the Gulf States and from Pakistan – they buy people.”
An important finding revealed by research into militant Islam showed the degree to which women are subjected to violence as part of a process of forced conversion. Under Daesh (ISIS) and other hyper-extremist groups, there was a systematic attempt to change population demographics; Daesh set about forcing non-Muslim women to convert and marry with a view to raising more children according to their vision of Islam. In other less extreme cases, research showed periodic cases of Muslim men having children with women whom they had kidnapped, forcibly converted and then married. In this latter scenario, the motives, by contrast, were not necessarily purely religious. (See Backgrounders – Sexual violence and forced conversion of women – i) Nigeria, Syria and Iraq and II) Egypt and Pakistan)
This Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report found that the militancy of certain sections of the Muslim community is by no means only a threat to people who do not follow Islam. Evidence clearly demonstrated that the tension and violence was part of a growing conflict within Islam in which expansion and domination pitted Sunnis against Shias. Indeed, one academic said the clash is “the most deadly and unsolvable conflict in the Middle East and it is between Muslims”. To what extent the conflict stems from questions of religious dogma is open to debate. Many have pointed to economic and political exploitation and concluded that “It has not been theological differences that has led to the recent bloodshed…” That said, the expanding power struggle between the Sunni and Shia power blocs – and their international allies – is undoubtedly intensifying the clash. (See Case Study – AFGHANISTAN: Shia Muslims bombed by Sunni extremists)
The threat of militant Islam during the period under review extended far beyond Asia and Africa. The period saw an upsurge of terrorist attacks in the West, notably in Europe. The threat was more pervasive than appearances suggest because of the degree to which extremist militants were successfully stopped in their tracks by police and security services. These attacks, be they in Manchester, Berlin, Barcelona, Paris and elsewhere, demonstrated that the threat posed by extremism has now become universal, imminent and ever-present. While the motives of such attacks included political concerns – apparent revenge for the West’s military action in Syria and elsewhere – they often had a specifically religious dimension, with perpetrators expressing contempt for liberal western society and the principle of religious freedom in general. In some cases, it emerged that the perpetrators were targeting Christianity. Investigations into incidents linked to the Las Ramblas extremist attack in Barcelona in August 2017, revealed that the Islamists had planned to attack the iconic Sagrada Familia Basilica. (See Case Study – SPAIN: Islamist drives van into crowds, killing 15 people) Many of the attacks were carried out by people based in the West, radicalised online and heavily influenced by networks, which recruited people on the fringes of society. Many of them lived not far from where they carried out their atrocities. Taken as a whole, then, the period under review saw the emergence of a new phenomenon which can be described as “neighbourhood terrorism”. Some of the attacks were by militants returning to the West in large numbers following the defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Research by global security analysists at the Soufan Centre estimated that, by October 2017, as many as 425 British Daesh (ISIS) members had returned to the UK alone.
The attacks in the West and elsewhere showed another feature of neighbourhood terrorism, namely a rise in religiously-motivated violence and discrimination against Islam. On Sunday 29th January 2017, gunmen entered Quebec City Islamic Cultural Center during Evening Prayers and opened fire, killing six people and injuring 18 others in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a “terrorist attack”. Less than six months later, Darren Osborne targeted London’s Finsbury Park Mosque, reportedly shouting: “I want to kill all Muslims”. In March 2018, Paul Moore, 21, was found guilty of attempted murder in Leicester, UK; driving his car, he mounted a kerb and deliberately knocked over a headscarf-clad Muslim woman, causing serious injuries, before returning to carry out a second attack. The European Islamophobia Report 2017 reported an increase in attacks against Muslims, concluding that: “Islamophobia has become an acute problem”.
Essential to the problem was unease in the West about the influx of Muslims, especially into Europe, and the comparatively high birth rate among Muslim communities. (See Backgrounder – Crisis within Islam). Although many European countries were open to Muslim migrants, a Chatham House Survey released in February 2017 showed that on average 55 percent of respondents from 10 European states said that “all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped”. In Germany, attacks on refugees, mainly Muslims, reportedly increased from 1,031 in 2015 to more than 3,500 a year later. Taken as a whole, the rise in neighbourhood terrorism threatens to fracture societies along religious lines, potentially creating a culture of suspicion and distrust. Quite apart from the violence was a growth in concerns about discrimination against Muslims, with research in the US showing that as many as 75 percent of Muslims felt that there was “a lot of discrimination” against them in the country.
An important aspect of the concern about growing militant Islam in the West was evidence linking Muslim immigrants to a rise in anti-Semitism. In France, whose Jewish community of about 500,000 is the largest in Europe, there has been a well-documented spike in attacks (see Case Study – FRANCE: Jewish woman thrown from third-floor window) and violence carried out against Jewish cultural and religious centres. In April 2018, Le Figaro published a “manifesto” by 300 French dignitaries – many of them Jewish – denouncing a “new anti-Semitism” marked by “Islamist radicalisation”. Amid reports of a wave of migration of French Jews to Israel over recent years, the manifesto’s signatories condemned what they described as a “quiet ethnic purging” driven by rising Islamist fundamentalism especially in working class neighbourhoods.
Against this backdrop, there some evidence to suggest a small but potentially significant shift away from traditional religious faith and practice among comparatively recent arrivals to the West from the developing world. This affected a number of different faith groups; in March 2018, the Pew Research Center published research which showed that “23 percent of Americans raised as Muslims no longer identify with their faith”. Importantly, however, “most of them are silent about their faithlessness”, fearing possible social exclusion, especially from family. The evidence also seemed to suggest that the shift away from traditional Muslim practice was to be found not just in parts of the West but also in some Islamic countries too. The Council of ex-Muslims of Britain stated in March 2018 that, while 3.3 million copies of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion had been sold since 2006, “the unofficial Arabic pdf alone has been downloaded 13 million times”.The council stressed that people in Arabic-speaking and other Muslim countries were reluctant to abandon their faith publicly, or even question it. This was in reaction to what the council described as “the authoritarianism of religious rule… and the unrelenting violence” as well as apostasy which is technically punishable by death in Islam.
In summary, the period under review saw some important steps forward for religious freedom, which could scarcely have been predicted at the time of the last report, two years ago. Chief among these are developments arising from the massive losses suffered by Daesh (ISIS) and certain other extremist groups, in Iraq and Syria, north-east Nigeria and elsewhere. Not only has this brought an end to the Islamists’ extreme religious freedom violations but also it has heralded, in some cases at least, the return of minority faith groups cruelly forced out by the extremists. However, while Islamist extremism has been pushed back in some regions, in others it has expanded, with devastating consequences for parts of Africa, including Nigeria’s Middle Belt and Somalia, with Wahhabi Islam being exported to Madagascar. Militant Islamism was one of a number of factors which prompted a sharp downturn in religious freedom between 2016 and 2018, not least in Europe, which fell victim to neighbourhood terrorism. Nationalism – especially from governments – became increasingly aggressive, with profoundly disturbing consequences for minority faith groups. This development, which can be termed ultra-nationalism, is especially significant because it is now dominant in China, Russia and India, world powers with growing influence around the world. Other governments are increasingly ultra-nationalist in their hostility to minority groups, notably the regime in Burma whose violence against the Rohingya Muslims has shocked human rights observers the world over. This publicity is the exception to the prevailing trend; a cultural curtain has fallen, behind which religious minorities suffer as the religiously illiterate West turns a blind eye. In Europe and elsewhere in the West, little has been done to convert words of concern into an agenda to defend and uphold religious liberty. And it is hardly as if the countries where faith communities suffer are oblivious to religious freedom. As the country reports prepared for this Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report make clear time and again, the most egregious victimization of law-abiding faith groups takes place in nations whose articulation of the principles of religious freedom is both eloquent and ambitious. While few question the value of religious liberty in the West, it would appear to have lost ground to other rights – notably race, gender and sexuality– the advance of which are arguably perceived as hindered by religion. And yet, in a world popularized as a global village, where cultural exchange has expanded massively through huge media and technological change, mass migration and social mobility, prospects for peace and community cohesion will inevitably be held back by continuing religious illiteracy and apathy. For it remains the case that for the majority of people in the world, religion is a crucial, and often pre-eminent, driving force. The West ignores this at its peril.