Asia Bibi’s arrival in Canada last week was good news — so many had been hoping and praying for the release of the Pakistani Christian woman who had been falsely accused of blasphemy.
While Canadians were glad for her, it was also a reminder she is not unique. Around the world, millions of people suffer persecution because of their beliefs. Unlike Bibi, however, most of these people get little or no attention.
That changed a bit in April and May when two reports were released about worldwide religious persecution.
One report came from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which cited dozens of countries where people are persecuted and oppressed because of their faith — places like Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Of the countries on the list, China is considered to be one of the worst due to its repression of Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners and Uighur Muslims.
As commission member Gary Bauer put it, China is "an equal-opportunity persecutor. They go after anybody, any sect that might compete with the communist, atheistic government of China."
Ways it attacks religion include detaining between 800,000 and possibly more than two million Uighur and other Muslims, deploying a million party cadres to live with Uighur families and report on any signs of "extremist" religious behaviour, closing and destroying churches, and oppressing members of other faiths.
The report also singled out blasphemy laws in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as being of special concern, and listed other countries where persecution is rife: Central African Republic, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
Another report came earlier this month from British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Its special focus was persecution of Christians, with a spotlight on the Middle East, where it said the situation facing Christians is "coming close to genocide."
According to the report, millions of Christians in the region have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against.
At one time, the report says, Christians made up 20 per cent of the population in the Middle East and North Africa. Now it’s five per cent. Before 2003, Iraq had 1.5 million Christians; today there are fewer than 120,000.
Forms of persecution in the region range from discrimination in education, employment and social life; arrests; imprisonment; and attacks against churches and Christian communities. Social media is also being used to incite hatred against Christians.
Other areas where Christians are being persecuted, the report says, are southeast and east Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
"Evidence shows not only the geographic spread of anti-Christian persecution, but also its increasing severity," the report said.
Hunt, an Anglican, notes that Britons are often uncomfortable talking about persecution of Christians around the world because of that country’s colonial history, and for fear of being politically incorrect.
This includes fear of offending people of other faiths in Britain’s multicultural society. "That has perhaps created an awkwardness in talking about this issue," Hunt said, causing "people to shy away" from this topic.
"What we have forgotten in that atmosphere of political correctness is actually the Christians that are being persecuted are some of the poorest people on the planet," he added.
What’s true for Great Britain is true for Canada. As Canadians, we also find it hard to talk about religious persecution — some of the same fears of causing offence are at play here, too. But as Asia Bibi’s case showed, it can’t be ignored.
Perhaps Winnipeg, home to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and to an active and engaged interfaith community, can lead the way by creating opportunities to talk honestly, openly — and occasionally, even painfully — about the persecution being done in all of our names against people of faith, and also against those who profess no beliefs at all.
At the same time, we can keep on modelling a different way for our co-religionists in other countries, as Winnipeggers from all religions support and care for each other, honour each other’s unique beliefs, and seek to learn from and be inspired by other traditions.
Doing those things would be a fitting way to honour Asia Bibi, and welcome her to Canada.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.