Statement by Foreign Ministry Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law Konstantin Dolgov at the conference, The Role of Religion in the Modern World
In recent years, the growth of uncertainty and instability, and the danger of ever-deepening intercivilisational, intercultural and interfaith rifts has become more evident than ever to the world community. The problem of the violation of human rights on the basis of faith has become sharply strained. Experts classify it among the main challenges to international stability and security.
According to human rights activists, systemic outbreaks of Christianophobia have been reported in 139 countries, and of Islamophobia, in 121. It appears that Europe and the United States underestimate the crucial importance of respect for religion and observance of religious freedoms to normal community development and prosperity. According to experts of the US-based Open Doors mission, no less than 322 instances of Christians being killed on religious grounds are registered in the world every month, alongside 214 Christian churches being damaged and 772 instances of Christians being attacked. The mission describes 2014 as an unprecedented year in the world for the scope of anti-Christian persecution, and says 2015 was even worse.
This alarming situation appears to be largely conditioned by the irresponsible attempts of certain world actors to manipulate the religious factor and use it as a tool to materialise their geopolitical concepts on a transnational scale, and establish quasi-democracies. These activities are cynically masked by populist catchphrases on the defence of human rights and freedoms, by dividing nations into exemplary and second-rate ones, the brazen use of double standards and politicising human rights-related themes.
Currently, believers’ rights are being trampled upon most blatantly in the Middle East and North Africa. It is no exaggeration to say that the so-called Arab Spring and the processes it launched brought a critical situation in their wake. Inspired by ideology of hatred, radical extremists receive formidable financial and other support from without to massacre all who do not share their perverted views. They blow up schools, kindergartens, mosques and churches, evict people from their homes, sell them into slavery and burn them at the stake. They demolish historical and cultural monuments. Non-Muslim religionists and community members are victim to especially heinous violence and inhuman treatment. Extremists’ barbaric acts certainly possess all the characteristics of genocide according to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted in 1948.
The situation of Syrian and Iraqi Christians remains extremely complicated. Syria’s Christian population has shrunken from 2.2 million to 1.2 million since the armed conflict broke out, and the Christian population of Iraq by 90 percent, from 1.5 million to 150,000, since the US invasion in 2003, followed by the appearance of ISIS. Christian enclaves in Iraq are on the verge of being wiped out. Mosul and some other cities are now almost fully devoid of their thousand-year-old Christian presence. ISIS demolished one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the Iraqi north in January 2016.
Before the Syrian ceasefire entered into force on February 27, illegal armed bands regularly shelled Bab Tuma, Bab Sharqi, Al Qusur and Jaraman, Christian districts and suburbs of Damascus. Though terrorist activities are subsiding, extremist attacks on Christians persist in the Aleppo and Homs provinces. The Christians of Homs have set up armed units to defend Sadad, a small town 50 kilometres southeast of Homs, which ISIS is attacking nonstop.
ISIS levies a $500 annual tax on Christians in the Iraqi areas it controls, and bans church construction and repairs, as well as the display and use of religious symbols. In January 2016, it demolished St Elijah’s Monastery near Mosul, founded in the 6th century, one of the oldest Christian shrines.
The plight of the small Yemeni Christian community has drastically deteriorated, as terrorists of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS are growing more active in the country’s south. They go on demolishing sanctuaries that are outside of what they consider “pure Islam”, and perpetrate anti-Christian violence. From January through March 2016, they demolished two churches and desecrated a Christian cemetery in Aden, and stormed a Catholic retirement home, where they killed four nuns and kidnapped a priest.
Libyan Christians remain in a difficult plight due to ISIS activities. Christian expats are being taken hostage in Tunisia, Ethiopia and Egypt.
We are convinced that the Christian exodus from the Middle East will drastically deteriorate the regional situation, considering the Christian impact on the Arab social structure and the preservation of historical and spiritual heritage of global significance.
Religious intolerance is growing in the OSCE countries despite government measures. It is directed against Jews, Muslims and, severest of all, Christians. The Christian faith, shrines and believers are victim to persecution and discrimination, even in countries where Christians make up a majority. Priests are attacked, religious events thwarted, religious symbols removed from public places, churches and cemeteries ransacked and desecrated, freedom of expressing Christian ideas encroached on, and believers harassed economically and in other spheres of life. Vandalism, incendiarism and thefts of objects of Christian cultural heritage are ever more frequent. Some media outlets openly ridicule Christian values, justifying themselves by claiming freedom of expression. Absurd bans are made on Christmas tree decorations, the wearing of crosses, etc.
Aggressive Western neo-liberalism and militant secularism play a prominent role in the growth of these negative trends, as they undermine spiritual and moral traditions. The warped policy of multi-culturalism and bloated immigration make the public forget the impact of Christianity on the formation of values shared by all of Europe, which laid the basis of European integration.
Roger Trigg, Academic Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion in Public Life at University of Oxford, believes that Europe is growing ever more aggressively secular. The European Court of Human Rights is mainly concerned with tolerance, while the public showers it with complaints on religious discrimination, in particular, Christianophobia; 250,000 suits have been brought up, and the court does not consider more than 40 a year.
European Union laws on non-discrimination and hate crimes are used more and more to marginalise Christians and their values. Directives currently being drawn up concerning non-discrimination of commodities and services prioritise human rights, including the rights of sexual minorities, above fundamental religious freedoms.
The liberal media circulate the idea of Christianity as an atavistic ideology that hampers new universal values. Even religious symbols are attacked. Faith-based intolerance has taken on an alarming scale in the United States. According to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Muslims make up less than 1 per cent of the US population, while accounting for 14 per cent of instances of religious discrimination. American sociologists qualify 15-20 per cent of the population as blatant xenophobes. An Anti-Defamation League study revealed that 15 per cent of Americans (about 35 million) are radical anti-Semites.
For several years now, American media outlets express the view shortly before Christmas that public demonstration of religious emblems during celebrations is improper. Such expressions are becoming more and more frequent. Traditional Christmas greetings are giving way to politically correct “season’s greetings”, much to conservatives’ indignation. Religious people are stubbornly ousted from community life and politics, and those who offer resistance are all too often branded as radicals who instigate intolerance and strife.
I believe it is necessary to focus on the situation regarding religious freedoms and rights that has evolved in Ukraine, where an unconstitutional coup was followed by a fratricidal war, and national radicals set the course for escalating religious strife.
The first attempts to seize religious centres of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) were made right after the Maidan, during the last week of February 2014. Then, until August 2014, this process moved along sluggishly. At the same time, the new authorities launched a propaganda campaign portraying the UOC as “a key internal enemy”, accusing it of storing weapons, sheltering members of special-ops units, financing terrorists, collaborating with Russian special services, being involved in killing civilians and service personnel, etc. As a result, Ukrainian society was seized by mass hysteria, reminiscent of medieval “witch hunts”. When it became obvious that the unity of the UOC and its flock could not be broken, national radicals began to use force.
Outrageous seizures of churches in Ukraine, primarily in its western regions, and the battery of priests and believers became in effect common practice in the country. In all, between February 2014 and November 2015, 26 UOC facilities were attacked with the participation of militants from nationalist groups, at least nine were completely destroyed and 77 were damaged. The actual number of seizures is many times more than this. The Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church made three or four attempts, with the help of militants from radical nationalistic groups, to seize a number of churches which were defended by believers.
Several priests were killed. At least eight clergymen suffered as a result of interrogations with the use of force by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies. Despite the evidence from injured parties and media publications, the abduction, beating and torture of clergymen by the Ukrainian Security Service and paramilitary formations in 2014-2015 have not yet been investigated.
The focused efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church to promote peace and calm in Ukraine and put an end to the fratricidal conflict in the country are praiseworthy.
The visit by the Holy Patriarch of All Russia Kirill to Havana and the signing of a comprehensive joint statement following his meeting with Pope Francis on February 12, 2016 was an historic event. Speaking at a high-level segment of the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said: “We hope that this call will receive a practical response, including in the UNHRC’s activity. We will work toward this end.”
Russia is one of the most active generators and advocates of important international initiatives aimed at ensuring the rights of believers throughout the world and preventing religious intolerance, the politicisation of this area of human rights and the use of double standards.
From the onset of the Arab Spring, Russia has adopted a firm position towards the resolution of crises through evolutionary reforms and national dialogue, without outside interference, based on peace and harmony between all religious groups.
Historically important steps were taken with the adoption of UN Security Council resolutions, including Resolution 2199. President Vladimir Putin has put forward an initiative to form a broad antiterrorist front to combat the ISIS threat with the participation of key international players, including Middle East countries, particularly Syria.
Many Middle East analysts note the high value of Russia’s activity in Syria for regional stabilisation. According to them, Moscow has managed to alleviate military and political tensions in the Middle East and undermine ISIS positions, as well as to stimulate the consolidation of local Christian communities in fighting terrorist groups.
Under these circumstances, it is important for Russia to retain its key role in upholding the interests of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. This goal is facilitated by measures to expand Russian participation in the restoration of Christian shrines and world cultural heritage sites, such as those in Palmyra, Syria. At the same time it is important to take advantage of the interest in developing dialogue with Moscow that is currently observed among Christian religious groups represented in the region (for example, the Antioch Orthodox Church).
Over the past two years, on Russian initiative or with the decisive participation of the Russian side, a number of international conferences on the protection of believers’ rights, unprecedented in their substance and scale, were held at the UN Human Rights Council and the OSCE.
On March 13, the 28th session of the UNHRC adopted a joint statement, co-sponsored by Russia, the Vatican and Lebanon, on Supporting the Human Rights of Christians and Other Communities, particularly in the Middle East, which was later joined by 65 countries, including the UK, Germany, the United States, France and Japan.
We will actively continue this dedicated effort.