August 22: day to remember victims of religiously motivated violence

ON AUG. 22, THE INTERNATIONAL UN DAY TO COMMEMORATE THE VICTIMS OF ACTS OF VIOLENCE BASED ON RELIGION OR BELIEFS, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a Catholic organization that supports persecuted and suffering Christians in more than 140 countries, highlights several important issues to remember on this occasion:

1.            Lack of international response to the myriad Islamic terrorist cells in Africa. The rapid growth of militant jihadist groups in the Sahel region, and neighboring countries, but also in southwest of the continent, is one of the most serious issues that the world faces. Amid international concerns regarding the myriad of geopolitical conflicts in other places, climate change, and environmental catastrophes, ACN regrets that the victims of religiously motivated violence in Africa are too often forgotten.

2.            The threat to religious freedom in the Sahel region has severe consequences, not just for the members of the threatened religious groups, but for the growth and development of whole nations. A clear example is Burkina Faso, where for decades the Catholic Church has had tremendous impact on civil society through its important work in the fields of social development, education, and health, but it is currently almost unable to conduct any social, educational, humanitarian, or pastoral work outside of the capital.  Around 80 percent of the country is inaccessible due to the presence of jihadist groups.

3.            A spiral of violence in Nigeria. The country with the largest population in Africa is experiencing an unprecedented scale of religious based violence which ACN warns could get even worse unless the international community unites to address and seek solutions to the issues. The list of recent cases of violence goes on and on. In June over 40 innocent people were massacred in a Catholic Church and at least 18 priests were kidnapped in 2022, four of whom were murdered. May saw the killing of Deborah, a university student in Sokoto who was stoned and set on fire by her colleagues for allegedly having sent offensive messages about Mohammed. Recently terrorists launched several attacks in Abuja, the capital. It must be stated that the violence is often caused by struggles over resources, or ethnic rivalries, nonetheless, the religious motivation of the attacks by extremist groups is clearly an ever-increasing factor.

4.            Millions of displaced people and refugees. Many of the victims of violence provoked by religious extremists have had to flee their ancestral homes. ACN estimates that more than 15 million people are currently displaced in the 12 African countries identified in the ACN 2021 Religious Freedom in the World Report as being subject to severe religious persecution.

5.            A disturbing rise in the use of sexual violence against minority religious groups, including kidnapping and forced marriages and conversions in countries such as Pakistan and Egypt, represents a serious and growing problem that the world must not ignore. The great majority of the victims are underage women.

6.            An alarming rise of religious attacks in Latin America, headed by Nicaragua, where in less than four years the Catholic Church has suffered over 190 attacks and desecrations, including arson in the Cathedral of Managua, assaults on clergy, the closure of Catholic media, and the expulsion of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. In countries like Mexico and Colombia, as well as in Argentina and Chile, extremist groups seek to silence the voices of Church leadership and restrict the free expression of faith groups in the public square.

7.            Imposition of new aggressive secular ideologies. In certain liberal democracies there is a growing limitation on the expressions of religious beliefs in public spaces through number of cases of intolerance and discrimination against religious groups, predominately Christians, and attempts to criminalize traditional religious views where these contradict new aggressive secular ideologies.

“You don’t have to be murdered to be a victim; it is enough to have your basic freedoms restricted. Christians in Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, to name just a few, live practically in ghettos, and practice their faith underground, warns Thomas Heine-Geldern, Executive President of ACN.

“The greatest tragedy of all is the indifference of so many in the face of religious persecution. We cannot be silent in this situation”, declares Heine-Geldern. 

“On 22 August we should remember not only those who lost their lives, but also all those who are victims of discrimination and who suffer the immediate consequences of violence, as well as the displaced, those who are left traumatized and all those who are kidnapped, including some whose whereabouts remain unknown, “he says.

“Besides two priests in Burkina Faso and two in Nigeria, more than 10 priests remain missing in China, some of whom have been gone for months, others, years. Let us not forget them,” states Heine-Geldern.

“ACN insists on the vital importance of inter-religious dialogue to counter religious fundamentalism, and calls on religious leaders, politicians, and media to play a crucial role in building up communities centered on peace and justice. International organizations and institutions are also asked to commit to guarantee the right to religious freedom,” states the executive president.

—Maria Lozano