LEICESTER, United Kingdom – The British government is being called on to assist religious minorities around the world who are facing further hardship due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID-19 is adding to the pressures already felt by religious minorities, is making them more vulnerable, and their situation even more challenging,” said a letter sent to Lord Tariq Ahmad, who head the Commonwealth and United Nations section of the UK’s Foreign Office.
The letter was signed by several members of Parliament, religious leaders, and human rights groups, including Lord David Alton, Anglican Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro, Coptic Orthodox Archbishop Angaelos of London, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Aid to the Church in Need UK.
Mounstephen headed an independent government inquiry into the persecution of Christians around the world last year.
In the letter, the signatories note that the persecution of religious minorities “is not a new phenomenon.”
“Indeed, religious minorities have long been subjected to acts of intimidation, discrimination, harassment, marginalization, and violence, with such acts varying in their severity and frequency. However, recent months have seen new trends developing that are closely related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter says.
The letter then sites Sam Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, who has identified at least five specific COVID-19 related trends are emerging.
1) Some governments are using the pandemic to further repress religious minorities.
2) Religious minorities are often being discriminated against in the provision of food aid and healthcare.
3) Some religious minorities are being blamed for the spread of COVID-19 and targeted as a result.
4) Online propaganda campaigns are targeting religious minorities, spreading misinformation and inciting violence.
5) Technology is being misused to further repress, discriminate, or surveil religious minorities.
The letter to Ahmad – who served as the UK Prime Minister’s first Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief from 2018-2019 – cited several troubling examples of religious minorities suffering additional discrimination and persecution during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In China, many Uyghurs and members of other Muslim-majority ethnic groups who were moved from the so-called ‘re-education camps’ are subjected to forced labor, including forced transfer to other cities and regions, exposing them to the threat of contracting COVID-19. In Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims and Kachin Christians are displaced as a result of military attacks involving mass atrocities and are often denied access to adequate medical care both as a consequence of their displacement and as a result of restrictions on movement and other basic freedoms,” the letter says.
In Nigeria, heavily-armed men of Fulani ethnicity specifically target religious minority communities in central Nigeria and are taking advantage of COVID-19 lockdowns to intensify attacks on villages, killing or driving out inhabitants, and looting the areas. Similarly, in Iraq, Daesh, the terror group that unleashed genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and other religious minorities, is once more growing in power and is posing a renewed threat to religious minorities,” the religious leaders continue.
Turning to South Asia, the letter notes that in India, Muslims are blamed for the spread of COVID-19 and are being targeted further as a result.
Meanwhile, In Pakistan several incidents have been reported of Christians and Hindus being unfairly treated, including being denied food aid packages.
“Additionally, frontline sanitary workers, who are predominantly from the Christian community, are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 as they are not equipped with protective gear. In addition, Pakistan’s failure to create an autonomous National Commission for Minorities through an Act of Parliament raises serious questions regarding whether the concerns of minorities will be fairly addressed. The composition of the new mechanism is arbitrary: religious minorities are insufficiently represented; Ahmadis [a minority Muslim community shunned by other Muslims] are excluded entirely, and it does not have the independence which would enable it to function effectively as a watchdog,” the letter states.
The signatories say these human rights violations require a comprehensive response that not only assists with the urgent needs of the affected communities but also addresses the pre-existing situation of religious minorities.
“We are therefore calling on the UK Government to create a special budget to assist religious minorities uniquely affected by COVID-19. We further call on the UK Government to engage in dialogues with governments of countries where COVID-19-related violations of freedom of religion or belief are occurring and seek their assurances that they will address these violations, including thorough investigations and prosecutions of perpetrators,” the letter concludes.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome