“We must derive inspiration from the champions of the fight for religious freedom. Above all, we must try to create a culture in which mutual reverence, solidarity and fraternity remain.” —Msgr. Fredrik Hansen.
In November, survivors and representatives of permanent missions to the United Nations spoke with a sense of urgency about the plight of religious minorities, specifically focusing on Christians—now the most persecuted religion in the world.
While recent statistics show attacks against Jews and Muslims are also on the rise, eight out of ten victims of religious persecutions are Christians. However, according to Father Roger Landry of the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations, mainstream media are quick to call attacks against Jews and Muslims, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, but not as quick when it comes to attacks on Christians.
He described the situation as “dire.”
“We called this event to hear from the survivors of religious persecution across the globe so that the U.N. could be informed and, from this major pulpit, start to echo throughout the globe,” Landry said.
According to the U.N, the event was meant to:
“Provide an occasion to keep up the focus on translating verbal commitments into action. It will hear from representatives of States, leaders in the fight to defend religious freedom and protect religious believers from violence on account of their living out their faith, as well as hear from survivors of anti-religious violence about what they believe must be done at the grassroots level to prevent and redress it.”
Some of the more notable speakers included: Msgr. Fredrik Hansen, Chargé d’affairs, a.i., Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, Mr. George Marlin, Chairman, Aid to the Church in Need USA, Sister Ghazia Akbar, FSP, from Pakistan, Father Neville Fernando, TOR, from Sri Lanka and Father Romeo Saniel, OMI, Vicariate of Jolo, Philippines.
Here are some sobering moments from the many heartbreaking testimonies:
The Easter Bombings
The Easter bombings last April in Sri Lanka brought death, sorrow and destruction to Christians on one of their holiest days of the year—259 Christians were killed and at least 500 injured.
Father Neville Fernando was present at the bombing and shared a harrowing account of the day’s events:
“I entered through the main gate of the church and suddenly I heard the explosion. I ran towards the church and saw dead bodies strewn across the floor. There were many body parts… hands, heads, legs and hands, moistening church floor with blood. There was lamentation and screaming of the people looking for loved ones. Such a horrible sight.”
The ISIS-Inspired Attack on Mount Carmel Cathedral
A few months before the Easter bombing, an ISIS-inspired attack on Mount Carmel Cathedral in the southern Philippines left 20 dead and more than 100 injured.
Rev. Ricky Bacolcol, the celebrant of that morning’s Mass, told his story to Monsignor Romeo Saniel, who shared his short but haunting account with the UN— “I blessed charred bodies of people I personally knew for 20 years.”
The 2014 Attack Against the Parents of Three Children Who Worked as Bonded Laborers
Sister Ghazia Akhbar, a nun from Lahore, Pakistan, was only able to send a video to the conference but took the opportunity to describe a 2014 attack against the Christian parents of three children who worked as bonded laborers.
“Co-workers had falsely accused them of burning pages of the Koran,” she said. “After being almost beaten to death, they were burned alive in an industrial kiln in Punjab province. In 2016, five of the perpetrators were sentenced to death, but just last year, 20 of the assailants were acquitted. Among those acquitted was a local imam who had spurred on the mob through a loudspeaker at a mosque.”
The Plight of Pakistani Christians and Forced Conversion of Christian and Hindu Girls
Sister Ghazia Akhbar also addressed the kidnapping and forced conversion of Christian and Hindu girls ages nine to 15, a reality that is “getting worse by the day.” In Punjab Province, 700 girls have been abducted just in one year.
“Culturally, politically and legally, Pakistani Christians are regularly treated like second-class citizens,” Sister Ghazia Akhbar shared. She explained that minorities have been ostracized and banished to society’s lower rungs, often discriminated against in employment, education and housing. Those who speak against the status quo risk paying a high price, such as Pakistan’s former Minister for Minority Affairs, Shabaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet at the time, who was assassinated after seeking reform of the blasphemy law.
Despite this, Sr. Ghazia remains deeply patriotic and loyal, adding that “we Christians love our country, our mother soil, with a true spirit of patriotism marked by a spirit of love, loyalty, sincerity, and purity. We are working for Pakistan’s development, for the betterment of the country, and are willing to sacrifice our lives.”
The U.S Response
In response to the heartbreaking accounts shared during the event, Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet, Chargé d’Affaires a.i., of the Permanent Mission of the United States to the UN, took the opportunity to emphasize the commitment of the United States to the promotion of religious freedom and to the protection of those whose religious freedom is not respected.
The United States believes that there is no true freedom without religious freedom. We are here today fighting for the same cause, that each person should be free to believe, free to assemble and free to speak in accordance with his or her conscience.
Chalet also noted the efforts to make the conversation about religious freedom at the UN more inclusive, with greater recognition of the persecution of Christians and other minorities.
Speaking directly to the survivors, she reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to them and thanked them for their testimonies stating, “We are greatly inspired by your bravery, strength and resilience. America’s commitment to religious freedom will never waver. We stand with you and for you.”
Click here to watch Listening to Survivors of Religious Persecution: The Call for Religious Freedom in full.