This week the United Nations introduced a new International Day. August 22 will mark the “International Day on Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.” The observation of this day reflects growing recognition of just how far the nations of the world are from guaranteeing the right to religious freedom that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized more than seven decades ago.
The sheer number of victims to commemorate on this special day is sobering. Some attacks on religious groups have been well-publicized, such as those on New Zealand mosques, Sri Lankan churches and hotels, and American synagogues. As terrible as these tragedies are, they are only the tip of the iceberg.
A recent report commissioned by the UK Foreign Secretary, for example, confirms that persecution of Christians is “growing in scale and intensity.” The past few weeks alone reveal the widespread and systematic nature of this violence. From West Africa to East Asia, individuals are increasingly suffering violence because of their religious beliefs.
In Burkina Faso, gunmen entered a church in Soum and killed six people, including the pastor. Four other attacks have occurred since April.
In Pakistan, a 15-year-old girl was reportedly forced to marry a 45-year old Muslim divorcee after being raped by the same man, forced to convert to Islam, and given a new name. Her story is extraordinary, primarily because she managed to escape with the help of her would-be husband’s daughter. Escape is not the norm for the estimated 1,000 Hindu and Christian women abducted and forcibly converted to Islam every year.
In Malaysia, government officials foiled a plot by ISIS affiliates to target religious groups through carrying out attacks on Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, and Christian churches.
In Iraq, two Christian elderly women were attacked with a knife in their home in Bartella. This was another attack aimed at deterring Christians from moving back to the city after many fled during the invasion of ISIS. The violence ISIS directed against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in recent years has been widely recognized as genocide. As highlighted by the Atlantic last week, the “world may soon witness the permanent displacement” of Christians in Iraq. Although ISIS has largely been defeated, the group has kept its ability to harm the innocent.
Other religious minorities are also facing systematic and violent persecution. In Iran and Yemen, for example, the Baha’i are routinely detained and tortured for their faith. In China’s Xinjiang region, Uighur Muslims and other Muslim groups are living in what many have described as concentration camps, where they are detained and tortured for their refusal to renounce their religion.
It is time to remember those who have died or suffered for peacefully expressing their faith. But international days alone will not save lives. We must determine how to prevent the ever-increasing violence in the long term. Those who have been persecuted deserve to be honored not only by remembrance but also by action.
In July, the U.S. State Department’s second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom will take place in Washington, D.C. and is certainly an important step in the right direction. The Ministerial will bring together hundreds of religious freedom activists and government officials from around the world to discuss strategies for combating religious persecution worldwide. Complex, global threats demand a unified, sustained response.
Another positive development is the increasing prominence of governmental positions for International Religious Freedom. Denmark, Germany, and Taiwan recently founded such positions. The United States has had an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom for over twenty years and, under current Ambassador Sam Brownback’s leadership, this office has elevated religious freedom to a core foreign policy priority. Such offices provide governments with direct channels to discuss issues of international religious freedom on a high level and regular basis.
Behind the scenes diplomacy has already helped free many persecuted Christians and members of other religious minorities from prison or worse.
On August 22, nations will join together to officially commemorate the victims of religious persecution. There are signs that increasing coordinated international action to prevent such persecution is on the horizon. This new International Day is a welcome additional tool to harness and amplify the momentum.
Kelsey Zorzi, President of the UN’s NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Director of Advocacy for Global Religious Freedom for ADF International. The views expressed are the author's own.