Violence Against Religious Minorities
Franciscans International co-hosted a parallel event at the UN Human Rights Council on 7 March on the subject of impunity as the principal challenge to the protection of the rights of religious minorities and the right to freedom of religion and belief. Case studies of Sri Lanka, Iraq and the Indian state of Orissa provided the axes of the debate.
Key speakers included Mr. Paul Divakar Namala, General Secretary of NCDHR, India, Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak, President of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribal (SC/ST) Commission of Orissa Catholic Bishops Council, Fr. Ajaya Kumar Singh, Director of OROSA, Fr. Philippe H. Khashaba O.P., a Dominican friar from Mosul, Iraq, and Ms. Pethuru Jesuthasan, a former staff member of the National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and formerly of Caritas in the north region of Sri Lanka.
The panelists described their concerns for religious freedom within different regions of the world. Mr. Paul Divakar Namala, Fr. Ajaya Kumar Singh, and Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak discussed the complex interplay in Indian society between the caste system and religious tensions which date back to the pre-colonial period and are ‘the most inflammatory causes of violence in India.’ This is exacerbated by a culture of impunity which serves to sustain religious violence.
Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak maintained that there is a clear state bias against certain religions in India. Sikhs, for example, are subjected to systemic and systematic violence and discrimination, and victims of religious violence are often denied justice. Fr. Ajaya Kumar Singh described the brutal and widespread violence against Christians by Hindu extremists in the district of Kandamahal in 2007. He recounted the horrific experiences of one of his colleagues, Sr. Meena Barwa, who was gang-raped and publicly paraded naked after a crowd of 400 people attacked their office. Her struggle for justice has, as yet, been unsuccessful. Of the thousands of cases that victims have attempted to have legally tried, the vast majority have been rejected.
Fr. Phillipe Kashaba described similar obstacles to the enjoyment of freedom of religion in Iraq. Growing fundamentalism among young people is a grave concern. There are deepening divisions among the Iraqi people which have been manipulated for political purposes since 2003. Christians, a tiny minority of less than 1% of the population, live in fear of religious violence. The massacres of Christians in Baghdad and parts of northern Iraq in recent years have gone unpunished and the government, Fr. Kashaba maintains, makes no efforts to protect the Christian community.
Ms. Pethuru Jesuthasan reflected on the Sri Lankan government’s attempts to curb the religious freedom of the Tamil population through ‘militarisation, Buddhisation and Sinhalisation’. This triggered a lively debate between participants who shared the views of the current government and those who were critical of such policies.