ROME – While lofty ideals about religious freedom can capture hearts and minds, it’s usually first-person accounts of what happens when those ideals break down, often in the most brutal fashion possible, which generally deliver the most powerful punch to the gut.
Such was the case at a Rome conference on Monday, where ambassadors, Vatican officials and leaders of global movements all laid out cases for greater respect for religious freedom around the world, but the most emotionally charged moments came when a Yazidi woman, a spokesperson for the Rohingya cause and a Pakistani cardinal-to-be all issued their own impassioned cris de coeur.
“I wish I could talk to you today about a happier subject but we have nothing beautiful in our lives to discuss, only a black history of the genocides that have plagued us throughout history,” said Salwa Khalaf Rasho, a Yazidi community activist.
The Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority that speaks Kurdish and has a large presence in northern Iraq, have been officially designated by the U.S. government and other global actors as victims of genocide along with Christians at the hands of the Islamic State.
“In August 2014, ISIS attacked our region and committed horrendous atrocities against my people,” Rasho said.
“About 60 mass graves have been found in my town Sinjar,” she said. “More than 6,000 women and girls were kidnapped, including me and many of my relatives. We have been subjected to all types of sexual and physical abuse and violence.”
Rasho herself was one of those kidnapped women, saying she had been “subjected to unthinkable practices.”
“More than 3,000 of [these women and girls] are still missing, enduring a fate of daily rape and torture which has constituted their lives for the past four years,” Rasho said.
She ticked off a six-point action plan for the international community.
- The reconstruction and de-mining of our homeland, and the provision of the necessary services for those who are willing to return to their homes.
- Uncovering the fate of more than 3,000 Yazidis still in Islamic state captivity.
- Taking urgent steps to protect more than 60 mass graves in Sinjar area to preserve the evidence prepared for opening an international investigation into these crimes.
- Bringing minority areas in Iraq and Syria under international protection.
- Aiding the international investigation team set up by the United Nations under UN Security Council Resolution 2379 to investigate Islamic State crimes in Iraq.
- Opening the door for Yazidi refugees and other minorities facing persecution in Iraq and Syria.
“These steps are the only way of preserving the existence of minorities in the region, especially Yazidi and Christians,” Rasho said. “If this action is not taken, our existence, identity and culture will be wiped out – fulfilling the aim of the Islamic State.”
Such accounts illustrate why U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich told the Rome gathering that today “is a dangerous time to be a person of faith.”
“We are at a critical moment,” she said. “We can and must do more.”
She was speaking at a conference titled “Defending International Religious Freedom: Partnership and Action,” hosted by Gingrich’s embassy and co-sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need, a papal foundation supporting persecuted Christians around the world, and Sant’Egidio, one of the new movements in Catholic life that has a special commitment to the new Christian martyrs.
Ziear Khan, a community activist for the Rohingya people, was equally urgent in his tone.
“They’ve been described as the most persecuted group in the world right now,” Khan said. “I’ve seen first-hand the horrific trauma they’ve been put through.”
The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, which has suffered tremendous persecution since a series of uprisings that began in 2012.
Khan described meeting a 12-year-old boy walking along a street, who mentioned that both his father and brother had been killed in front of him. He said he met a woman in the eighth month of pregnancy with her four children, and, when he asked where her husband was, she said his throat had been cut, his body dragged through town and then hanged.
“I think about the lessons we need to learn,” Khan said. “I think about Rwanda and the Holocaust. I think about the day when I will be questioned by my Lord about what we did when thousands of people were killed.”
Among other things, Khan suggested that perhaps a trade embargo on Myanmar should be imposed until targeted killings of Rohingya are halted.
“There are clear signs this is ethnic cleansing, that this is genocide,” he said. “We want to make sure we take action and spread the word, not only about the plight of the Rohingya but also Christians and Yazidis. They need our voice and support.”
Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches, said that the Catholic Church’s defense of religious freedom isn’t just a matter of taking care of its own.
“It’s not just a call to protect its own sons from persecution and restrictions in various parts of the world, but a real and true service to all of suffering humanity,” Sandri said.
Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, Pakistan, who will be named a cardinal by Pope Francis later this week, added his voice to the chorus, saying that the initial promise of religious freedom in his country after independence in 1947 is being “eroded.”
“There are forces at work within society, Islamic groups and others, with the idea that Pakistan should be an Islamic state with Islamic laws, a theocratic state like Saudi Arabia,” Coutts said.
Coutts pointed among other things to the deletion of a right to “propagate” non-Muslim religions from the national constitution under the country’s military regime in the 1970s, and the introduction of so-called “blasphemy laws” that criminalize insulting the prophet Muhammad or desecrating the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book.
“What’s happening is that the law is very easily misused,” Coutts said. “It’s enough to accuse somebody and you’re finished. It’s causing a lot of problems right now … people have been killed, even lynched, and the person is not in a position to defend himself because of emotionalism.”
Coutts cited the case of Asia Bibi, an illiterate mother and farm worker from the Punjab, and a Catholic, who was accused of blasphemy and is currently on Pakistan’s death row.
“Most people know this is probably a cooked-up case,” Coutts said, “but the government is afraid to take it forward because they’re afraid of an emotional reaction … Our government is not strong enough to control the kind of extremism that’s developing in the country.”
Surveying the landscape described during the conference, Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, an official of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, attempted to outline what it would take to turn such situations around.
Religious freedom, Akasheh said, needs to be seen “not as a threat to the peace and harmony of society, but as a necessary condition for true well-being based on effective respect for persons and their rights.”
It’s a noble sentiment, to be sure – and, judging by the descriptions offered on Monday, one often honored more in the breach than the observance.