Religious freedom in many countries already known for violations has deteriorated even further during the past two years, according to a new worldwide survey from Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

ACN’s Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report also found that “aggressive nationalism” in some countries generally seen as hostile to religious minorities has worsened to the degree that the phenomena can now be termed “ultra-nationalism”. In addition, it says there is increasing evidence of a “curtain of indifference” behind which vulnerable communities suffer as an “increasingly religiously illiterate West” ignores their plight.

ACN graphic1

A map showing religious freedom hotspots around the world. PICTURE: Via Aid to the Church in Need.

Released ahead of ‘Red Wednesday’ on 28th November – an annual day in which various high profile buildings around the world are lit with red light to highlight the persecution of people for their religious belief, the report showed that 38 countries of the world's 196 countries were found to have been the location of significant religious freedom violations in the two years to June.

It also showed that in almost half of those 38 countries (18) where religious freedom violations had occurred, the situation for minority faith groups had deteriorated in the two years to June.

“In the eyes of Western governments and the media, religious freedom is slipping down the human rights priority rankings, being eclipsed by issues of gender, sexuality and race."

- Religious Freedom in the World report.

“Especially serious decline was noted in China and India," said the report, the 14th the group has released. "In many of the others – including North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Eritrea – the situation was already so bad, it could scarcely get any worse."

The report also found that many Western governments had "failed to provide urgently needed assistance to minority faith groups, especially displaced communities wishing to return home”.

“In the eyes of Western governments and the media, religious freedom is slipping down the human rights priority rankings, being eclipsed by issues of gender, sexuality and race. “

The report estimates that some 327 million Christians live in countries where they face religious persecution and 178 million live in countries where there is discrimination on religious grounds.

Those countries where there was persecution of people for their religious belief – defined as “an active programme or campaign to exterminate, drive away or subjugate people on membership of a religious group” by state and non-state actors - included Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan,  Uzbekistan and Yemen.

In a couple of these nations – Iraq and Syria - the level of persecution had lessened since June, 2016, a shift due to the military defeat of the so-called Islamic State in those nations. But the report found that in all the other nations listed, the situation with regard to religious freedom was as bad as previously or had worsened.

The report also listed countries where religious minority groups faced discrimination – defined as when laws or rules, such as those around the issue of blasphemy, apply to specific groups.  These nations included Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Brunei, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar, Tajikstan, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam. For the first time in 19 years, two new countries – Kyrgyzstan and Russia – were added to this category.

In only two countries – Kenya and Tanzania – the situation with regard to religious freedom had improved so much that, previously having both been defined as countries where persecution had occurred, they were now no longer defined as places of persecution or discrimination. The report attributed this improvement to the sharp decline in violence in those nations caused by Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab.

The report said that Islamic extremism remains the root cause of religious freedom violations in more than half – 22 – of the 38 countries listed including numerous countries in Africa’s middle-belt.

In the 16 other countries, the dominant drivers can be found in authoritarian regimes and their pursuit of policies of extreme nationalism. This latter group – which includes the likes of North Korea, Myanmar, China and India – accounts for some three billion people worldwide.

John Pontifex, editor-in-chief of the report, said that “aggressive ultra-nationalism” by hardline governments or violent extremist groups has left many minority faith groups feeling like “aliens in their own country”. 

“They are easy targets in a new era of ignorance and intolerance,” he says. “True, there are some like the Rohingya Muslims, whose plight has received due attention in the West, but so many others – such as Christians in Nigeria, Ahmadis in Pakistan and Baha’is in Iran – feel abandoned by the West where religious freedom has slipped down the human rights priority rankings.”

Elsewhere, the report – which includes a country-by-country breakdown of religious freedom in every nation - also noted the upsurge in extremist attacks in Europe and elsewhere in the West, “motivated in part by religious hatred”. 

“The attacks suggest that the threat of militant extremism is now becoming universal, imminent and ever-present. As such, this threat can be called neighbourhood terrorism.”

“[U]nfortunately, a perceptible improvement in religious freedom is still far off”.

Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of ACN.

It also said Islamaphobia had increased in the West, in part as a result of the ongoing migrant crisis, and that there is evidence of worsening anti-Semitism which has led to a rise in the number of Jewish migrants to Israel. 

With one in five Christians around the world facing persecution, Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of ACN, concluded in comments released with the report that “unfortunately, a perceptible improvement in religious freedom is still far off”.

“Therefore, even this 14th report on religious freedom will not be the last one that our ACN Foundation will have to prepare in fulfilling its mission of information," he said.

Earlier this month, various buildings in the Italian city of Venice - including the Rialto Bridge and the waters of the Grand Canal - were illuminated with red light to draw attention to the plight of Christian women like Pakistani mother Asia Bibi, acquitted of blasphemy recently after spending eight years on death row, and women of other faiths around the world who suffer because of their religious convictions. 

This week, on 28th November, numerous buildings across the world are expected to lit in red lights to draw attention to the plight of persecuted believers of all faiths in an event known as 'Red Wednesday'.