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Global persecution, local interfaith co-operation

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There are Christians in Russia, they meet underground,

In China they're killed when they're found.

And in Cuba the Christians live up in the hills,

Because it's not safe in the towns.


So sang Christian rock singer Larry Norman in 1972 on his album Only Visiting This Planet. Back then, during the Cold War, the persecution of Christians -- especially in Communist countries -- was very real.

Skip ahead over 40 years and that song seems quaint; a historical relic. Isn't persecution something that happened long ago?

Sadly, the answer is no. On Jan. 8, Open Doors, a non-denominational group that supports persecuted Christians worldwide, released a report showing 2,123 people were killed because they were Christians in 2013, up from 1,201 in 2012.

In an article by Reuters, Frans Veerman, head of research for Open Doors, suggested there may be many more such deaths. "This is a very minimal count based on what has been reported in the media and we can confirm," he said.

According to Open Doors, failing states with civil wars or persistent internal tensions are often the most dangerous for Christians, and the main perpetrators of persecution against Christians are radical or extremist Muslims. Nine of the top ten places it lists as being dangerous for Christians are Muslim-majority countries.

In addition to the threat of death, Christians also face legal and other restrictions in some countries, along with attacks on churches and schools, discrimination, threats, sexual assaults and expulsion.

But Christians aren't the only ones being persecuted for their faith; Baha'is are suffering in Iran, Muslims are being attacked in Myanmar, and members of indigenous religions are discriminated against in Indonesia -- the list could go on.

Not only that; according to the International Humanist and Ethical Union, people who choose not to follow any religion or believe in God are at risk in 13 countries, including some where people can be executed for not believing in God.

In its 2013 report, titled Freedom of Thought, the union found there are 39 countries where people can go to prison for blasphemy or insulting religion and 12 countries where people can be killed for leaving a religion -- in all cases, they are places where the dominant religion is Islam.

The subject of religious persecution is a sensitive one. It is hard to bring up in interfaith company. In an editorial before Christmas, the Guardian newspaper in Great Britain noted the reluctance may be based on "a peculiar sense that there is some hierarchy of victimhood, with Christians less deserving of concern. And, no doubt, the historical association of Christianity with persecution of other beliefs -- the crusades, the inquisition and so on -- is also working away somewhere in the background, as is the idea that Christianity is essentially a western faith. This links to the worry that supporting persecuted Christians is somehow taking sides in a clash of civilizations. This thought looks especially foolish when written down; which is precisely why it is worth stating so baldly."

Perhaps the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights can be a launching pad for a discussion about religious persecution. After all, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and that right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and the freedom to practice and teach his or her faith.

Local congregations could also do something. A few years ago a local rabbi floated an idea for a "document of friendship and support" among Winnipeg clergy. It was his hope such a document could help promote Winnipeg as a place where different faiths model positive ways to relate to each other. Maybe someone can pick that up and champion the idea.

One of the great things about living in Winnipeg is the amazing and generous scope of interfaith co-operation that exists between various religious groups. This includes the ability to be open with each other about differences. But does it also include being able to talk openly about persecution? I hope so.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 D15

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