ROME — Religious freedom is at risk in 60 percent of the world’s countries, and the rising tide of anti-Christian persecution in various parts of the world is “catastrophic,” according to a new report by an international Catholic charity organization.
The report by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), released Tuesday, comes amid global concern over religiously inspired violence by the Islamic State in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Africa.
With an analysis of 196 nations, the ACN “Global Report on Religious Freedom” is considered one of the most comprehensive of its kind. According to the Germany-based group, this year’s edition is “expected to send out a signal to governments and religious leaders that this is an issue that can no longer be ignored.”
The report, which covers the period autumn 2012 to summer 2014 and was compiled by in-country experts, says that religious freedom is compromised in 116 countries where members of minority groups experience persecution, violence, and systematic discrimination.
According to a summary presented at a Rome news conference, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria are the worst offenders when it comes to religious freedom, while the United States, Ireland, Poland, and Argentina are the most tolerant.
Only a handful of countries, such as Taiwan, Cuba, and Zimbawe, improved from a previous study, but in most of these nations, the situation is still alarming.
Johannes Heereman von Zuydtwyck, international executive president of ACN, said that for safety reasons, many of the names of those who helped prepare the report cannot be revealed because their lives would be endangered.
The study analyzed the situation of all religious groups, but von Zydtwyck said Christian persecution in particular “has become a catastrophe that we can no longer overlook.”
He said the report highlights the gap between what the United Nations Human Rights Declaration portrays as religious freedom, and the reality in many of the countries that have signed that declaration.
Pascale Warda, the founder of the Iraqi Society for Human Rights who attended the news conference, said the actions of the self-proclaimed Islamist State is genocide, and that international recognition of this should be a priority.
She said this reign of terror actually started before ISIS sprung up. “It began with the military regime of Saddam Hussein that constantly targeted us Christians for our faith,” she said.
Austrian historian Martin Kugler, a member of the Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, pointed out that religious freedom should also be a concern for Western countries.
“Every five minutes a Christian dies,” he said — a number that existed also before the Islamic State started.
Kugler denounced what he called a Western prejudice that leads to a refusal to perceive Christians as victims. Religion, he said, is often portrayed as a source of violence.
He also referenced the culture wars roiling in the US and parts of western Europe, saying that efforts to require Christian hospitals to offer medical services they don’t agree with — such as contraceptives and abortions — represent growing restrictions on freedom of consciousness.
Kugler claimed that those efforts are generally spurred by radical feminists, radical secularists, or gay-rights groups.
“Current laws state that no one should be discriminated for religious reasons or sexual orientation,” he said. “And there’s a reason for this. But what happens in the cases in which these laws, when applied to the service industry, violate personal autonomy or the freedom of conscience?”
“Christians are usually the one who suffer,” Kugler said.
But the news isn’t all bad. Peter Sefton-Williams, head of the report’s redaction committee, said the vast majority of countries in Africa and Latin America could be considered models for the rest of the world.
“In Africa, there are some very bad stories, like the abduction of the 200 girls by Boko Haram,” he acknowledged. “But extremists aside, most of the inhabitants can live their religions freely.”
It’s similar in Latin America: “With the exception of Venezuela and Cuba,” he said, “there are countries such as Argentina, where a large community of Muslims lives freely in a country that in its majority is Catholic.”