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Religious freedom is an ongoing struggle

By Michael Swan

The Catholic Register

02/07/2018

TORONTO (CCN) - There has been some positive news on the global religious freedom front over the last two years, but it is still far from peaceful.

"It's not getting better. Year after year, the situation is deteriorating," Aid to the Church in Need Canada (ACN) national director Marie-Claude Lalonde told The Catholic Register.

While the ACN's biannual global report Persecuted and Forgotten? is "qualitative" rather than "quantitative," the organization's monitoring of religious freedom issues and persecution of Christians gives the organization a solid basis for concluding that Christians across a wide swath of the world, from North Africa to China, are more oppressed today than they were two years ago, Lalonde said.

And in spite of improvements in countries like Iraq, violence against Christians has shot up in other areas, particularly India.

"We've seen the situation getting worse through the (ACN's annual) Religious Freedom Report. The information in the past year doesn't tell us it has changed dramatically," she said. "I think we can still conclude it's not getting better."

While Christians still suffer massively in the Middle East, ACN acknowledges the picture is brighter.

"Fears that the Christians in Iraq are on the verge of extinction were, to some extent, alleviated at the end of the reporting period by news of thousands of families returning to their homes on the Nineveh Plains following the defeat of Daesh (ISIS)," reads the report.

ACN notes that the Iraqi Christian population dropped from 275,000 in mid-2015 to below 200,000 in 2017. The report quotes Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo claiming that Syria's Christian population had declined by two-thirds over five years, to around 500,000 in 2016.

Aid to the Church in Need has shifted some of its focus to the plight of Christians in South and Southwest Asia, especially India.

The most recent U.S. State Department report on international religious freedom highlights a case of30 youth armed with sticks and batons who beat a group of 20 Catholics (mostly women and children) in late 2016.

Since the rise of the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party - now both the largest party in India's parliament and the party of President Narendra Modi - a strong, populist, right-wing movement has called for India to become an officially Hindu country.

"Seen from abroad, the foundations of Indian democracy and respect for minority rights seem seriously threatened by the backers of Hindutva ideology, who are currently in power," reads the American religious freedom report. The ideology is a major challenge for India's bishops, said Lalonde, who travelled to India to witness the situation first-hand.

"The bishops, I can tell you, avoid politics. They definitely don't want to be on that ground," Lalonde said. "The idea is not to try to convince them that India shouldn't be fully Hindu. They don't even go to that extent, because it would create more problems."

ACN relays the report of India's Catholic Secular Forum, which recorded 365 serious anti-Christian incidents across India in 2016 - incidents that included 10 people killed and more than 500 clergy and lay leaders attacked for their faith. The problem is compounded by a government and judiciary that will not reign in extremist, religious vigilantes behind incidents such as the 2016 gang-rape and murder of a 14-year-old Christian schoolgirl in Chhattisgarh State, 1,200 kilometres south of New Delhi.

The 2016 record of violent incidents against India's Christians was matched in the first five months of 2017, with 316 attacks. The ACN's plan for India is to continue funding interfaith dialogue efforts spearheaded by Indian Catholics. The ACN's full report is posted at acn-canada.org.

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