Hateful rhetoric is a powerful weapon to create harmful realities for minorities in fragile settings. Religious minorities are singled out for attacks both by authorities and private citizens in several countries.
A rise in the number of conflicts globally in recent years has deprived many religious communities of their fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief. This is documented in the recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The 22-page report is entitled “Rights of persons belonging to religious or belief minorities in situations of conflict or insecurity”.
In 2020, a total of 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced, representing more than one percent of the global population. This situation is compounded by the refugee crisis resulting from the war in Ukraine.
The report points out that hate speech can “foster an environment where discrimination is not just tolerated but sanctioned by political leaders” (p. 5). In situations of conflict, religious minorities are often labeled as “foreigners”, leaving them exposed to violence. The report cites several examples of such behavior. One example relates to the war in Ukraine: “In the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, de facto authorities regularly accuse ‘non-traditional’ Christian denominations like the Church of Latter-Day Saints and Jehovah Witnesses of being spies for Ukraine and ‘Western interests.’"
The hateful rhetoric is evidenced in social media and even in educational curricula, “influencing future generations”. In Yemen, leaders of Houthi-held areas are changing the curriculum to reflect their understanding of Islam.
Through violence, intimidation, and discriminatory legislation, states try to restrict the human rights of religious minorities or eradicate such communities. “Myanmar is allegedly committing genocide against the Rohingya through a systematic campaign to extinguish or expel their communities from Rakhine State, inflicting widespread and often indiscriminate violence” (p. 6). It was reported that thirty-four Christian churches and three Islamic religious sites were destroyed in Myanmar in a ten-month period in 2021.
The report is a long list of human rights violations experienced by religious minorities during conflict. Forced conversions are one form of human rights violations. The goal of forced conversions is to have religious minorities abandon their faith identity and become assimilated into the main culture. “Evidence suggests that forced conversions of minorities have occurred in Nigeria, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan” (p. 7).
Sexual and gender-based violence is yet another form of oppression used to destroy minority communities. The harrowing stories of Yezidi women in Iraq who were sexually assaulted and enslaved by ISIL soldiers is one example. The plight of Christian women in Northern Nigeria is another example.
Conflict As an Excuse for Human Rights Violations
The UN Special Rapporteur notes that “several State authorities have invoked situations of conflict or insecurity as either politically convenient justifications for their failure to fulfil their human rights obligations or to instrumentalize fragility of certain communities to further their political goals” (p. 9). The treatment of Uigurs in China, Palestinians in Israel, and Sri Lanka’s counterterrorism measures are cited.
COVID-19 restrictions have, in several instances, been used to justify restrictions on the rights of religious or belief minority communities. In Sri Lanka, India, and Myanmar, Muslims have been accused of importing the virus or increasing the rates of infection. Some areas have seen a “corona jihad” on social media.
There is evidence that authorities in some countries have actively worked to prevent religious minorities from receiving humanitarian aid. The report points out the obligations of humanitarian representatives to pay attention to affected communities’ religious beliefs.
Repeal Anti-conversion Laws
The report by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief concludes with lists of recommendations. The first of 12 recommendations for states is to “promote and protect freedom of religion or belief for minorities by repealing anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws…” (p. 20).
The primary recommendation for the United Nations and the donor community is to “avoid broad generalizations about the relationship between religion and conflict” (p. 21). The report has a recommendation for civil society representatives: “Faith-based leaders and influencers should use their authority to promote inclusive, peaceful and just conflict resolutions and to prevent tensions arising, particularly where conducted in the name of religion or belief” (p. 22).