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Religious freedom. ACN: “Almost 300 million Christians living in lands of persecution”

“Persecuted more than ever. Focus on anti-Christian persecution in the period 2017-2019" is the title of the research conducted by the Pontifical Foundation of the Catholic Church "Aid to the Church in Need" (ACN), presented on Thursday 24 October in Rome, in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island, the shrine of the new 20th and 21st century martyrs. The research shows that “almost 300 million Christians live in lands of persecution”

“Awareness initiatives and condemnations are steadily increasing, but anti-Christian persecution continues to spread, with different forms and new perpetrators. Almost 300 million Christians live in lands of persecution. These are the findings of the research conducted by the Pontifical Foundation of the Catholic Church “Aid to the Church in Need” (ACN), titled “Persecuted more than ever. Focus on the anti-Christian persecution between 2017 and 2019”, presented today in Rome. The report examines the most dramatic incidents in 20 countries in which Christians have been the victims of human rights violations (Saudi Arabia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, North Korea, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Niger Nigeria, Pakistan, Central African Republic, Syria, Sri Lanka, Sudan).  “The axis of Islamic fundamentalism – states the Report – is increasingly shifting from the Middle East to Africa and to South and East Asia” posing a risk to Christians and other minorities in these countries. The Pontifical Foundation firmly believes that

“guaranteeing religious minorities the right to live in their own country would contain forced migration, while at the same time reducing the social tensions that afflict the countries receiving migrants into their territory, especially Italy.”

ACN “is in direct contact with persecuted Christians, who constantly express the wish to remain in their homeland and ask to be helped in order to avoid forced emigration.”

Africa. According to the Report, “in Africa we find the new front of Islamic fundamentalism: of the 18 priests and one nun killed in the world in 2019, as many as 15 were killed in this continent.” In Nigeria, in addition to the violence of Boko Haram against Christians, there is an intensification of Islamic extremists’ violence among the Fulani herdsmen. In Burkina Faso, only in the first six months of 2019, 20 Christians were killed, including three priests and a pastor. The situation in Niger is dramatic. The country is surrounded by Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali, ISIS in Libya, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Fulani groups in Mali and Burkina Faso. Oppression, discrimination and the killing of religious, priests and Christian faithful have been reported in the Central African Republic, while in Sudan and Eritrea Christians are targeted by the State with the confiscation and closure of hospitals and schools.

Asia. “The numerous attacks occurred during the period under review (2017-2019) show that, as in sub-Saharan Africa, southern and eastern Asia today are the new jihadist hotbeds”, ACN denounces. North Korea is the most dangerous place in the world for members of religious groups, especially for Christians (70,000) interned in labour camps. The life of Christians in China became harder after the new Regulation on Religious Affairs came into force on 1 February 2018, which further restricted freedom of faith. Attacks resulting in the death of dozens of Christians occurred in Indonesia, in the Philippines, where the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf is present. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Day 2019 (21 April) with 258 victims. It was the most horrific attack on Christians during the period under review. In Pakistan, the acquittal of Asia Bibi by the Supreme Court on 31 October 2018 did not change the conditions of religious minorities. 25 Christians still remain in prison on charges of blasphemy, six of whom have been sentenced to death. Every year hundreds of girls and adolescents are kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam. The same happens to young Christian women of the Kachin ethnic group in Myanmar (Burma). In the Burmese state, the military continues to use Christians to “clean up” areas littered with anti-personnel mines. Finally, in India, Christians are targeted by Hindu fundamentalists. More than 1,000 attacks on Christians were reported between the beginning of 2017 and the end of March 2019. In 2018, more than 100 churches were closed as a result of attacks by Hindu extremists or the intervention of the authorities.

Middle East. The situation of Christians in the Middle East is increasingly critical. In Iraq and Syria, despite the defeat of the Islamic State, the dramatic impact of the genocide carried out by the jihadists became manifest during the period under review.

There were one and a half million Christians in Iraq before 2003, while in the summer of 2019 their number dropped to “less than” 150,000 (-90%). In Syria, by mid-2017 Christians were estimated at less than 500,000, compared to one and a half million before the conflict (2011).

Christians are also the target of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, which pursues a “Kurdization” activity aimed at the cancellation of the Christian presence, with the closure of several Christian schools. In Iran 142 Christians were arrested between November and December 2018 for allegedly belonging to a “sect of Zionists” who tried to “weaken Islam and the Islamic Republic.” The situation is “better” in Egypt, where the decline in anti-Christian attacks seems to reflect the effectiveness of the measures taken by al-Sisi against the Islamic State. However, in November 2018, seven people were killed and 19 injured during an Islamist terrorist attack on three buses on which Christian pilgrims travelled.

Positive note. The only positive finding in the period under review is an increasing awareness of the scourge of anti-Christian persecution on the part of the international community. In addition to numerous awareness-raising initiatives – including the Colosseum lit red on the initiative of Aid to the Church in Need on 24 February 2018 – some governments have made a concrete contribution as reparations for the genocide committed against Christians by the Islamic State in Iraq. On October 16, 2018, the United States allocated over $178 million to support religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq, totalling almost $300 million since 2017. The German government earmarked 35 million Euros for the reconstruction of 900 houses destroyed by ISIS in the Nineveh Plain. Hungary has donated €15 million (of which €4 million exclusively to the Chaldean and Syriac Catholic Churches) and has set up an Undersecretariat in support of persecuted Christians. Italy and the Netherlands have allocated €2 million each, Austria €1 million, to alleviate the suffering of Christians in Iraq and improve their living conditions. Tonight, from 6 p.m. to midnight, the Roman basilica of St Bartholomew on the Island will be lit up in red, as was the case with the Colosseum and other Italian and foreign historical monuments, as a reminder of the suffering of the Christians persecuted.

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