Like many countries, Burma has been ravaged by sectarian hatred. But at an inter-religious meeting, I saw a flicker of hope

An explosion of hatred and intolerance hit the world this year. From post-Brexit Britain to America’s Trump era, from ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma, mass protests by Islamist extremists against the Christian governor of Indonesia’s capital, to genocide in Syria and Iraq, the entire world seems convulsed in a poisonous atmosphere which, in its most extreme form, leads to mass killings and severe persecution.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. One only has to recall recent genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and Kosovo to know the potential of man’s inhumanity to man. The Holocaust serves as a constant reminder of how quickly sophisticated Western civilisation, too, can turn to evil.

And as we recall during Advent and prepare for Christmas, the baby born in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem was born a refugee amid Herod’s slaughter of innocents. Indeed, even as the Prince of Peace makes ready to leave the safety of his mother’s womb, assassins are being commissioned to hunt him down. Perhaps that’s why, within 24 hours of celebrating the Nativity, we commemorate the first Christian martyr. Hatred is never very far away.

Nevertheless, there have been few times in recent history when almost the entire world faces the same challenge: how do we live with differences? Political, racial and religious diversity in mature, established democracies was until recently taken for granted and celebrated, at least on the surface. Now, there is a fragility to it.

The brutal murder of Jo Cox, a Member of Parliament who epitomised public service and humanitarian spirit, was the most shocking illustration, but widespread social media threats received by many public figures reveal a deep malaise in Britain’s political discourse.

The institutions of democracy are strong enough in Britain, the United States and across Europe to withstand the current coarsening of debate. The rise of populism is alarming, but in well-established democracies the fall-out can be minimised through the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a free press. Those who incite hatred and violence can be brought to justice.

In other parts of the world, the consequences are far more dangerous. In Burma, the Rohingyas, described as among the most persecuted people in the world, have endured a campaign of dehumanisation and marginalisation for decades. Under a 1982 citizenship law they were rendered stateless, described as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though they had lived in Burma for generations.

Over the past two months the Rohingyas have faced the latest, and one of the most severe, military offensives, resulting in the displacement of at least 30,000 people, with hundreds of rapes and killings reported. A UN official has accused the Burmese government of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. State media have described the Rohingyas as a “thorn” that must be removed and as “detestable human fleas” – genocidal talk with echoes of Rwanda, where the Tutsis were referred to as “cockroaches”.

In China, the communist regime has ruthlessly pursued a campaign to eliminate Falun Gong, a peaceful and non-political Buddha-school spiritual movement, since 1999. While China persecutes Christians, Tibetans and Uighur Muslims, the intensity of hatred of Falun Gong is particularly severe.

In addition to violent suppression – including the arrest and imprisonment of several million Falun Gong practitioners and the targeting of tens of thousands for forced organ harvesting – the regime unleashed the full force of its propaganda machine, depicting this peaceful meditative practice whose principles are truthfulness, compassion and forbearance as an “evil religion”.

According to Ethan Gutmann in Losing the New China, Falun Gong is falsely accused of killing its followers and being part of an imperialist scheme. “The Chinese leadership had finally set the stage for a coordinated propaganda campaign, mass arrests and brutality,” he writes.

Researcher Matthew Robertson refers to a children’s book disseminated in schools around China that contains 100 anti-Falun Gong poems and 100 anti-Falun Gong cartoons, including some portraying practitioners as the Grim Reaper or vampire bats.

In Indonesia and Pakistan, blasphemy laws are used to attack minorities and sow hatred. Asia Bibi, a Christian in Pakistan, remains in jail facing the death sentence under blasphemy charges after she tried to drink from the same water as Muslim women. My friend Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for minorities affairs and a Catholic, with whom I worked closely for five years, was assassinated in 2011 for trying to reform the blasphemy laws.

Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok”, is a double-minority – ethnic Chinese and Christian – and is generally popular because, unusually, he is seen to be effective and not corrupt, and is a great advertisement for Indonesia’s pluralism. Yet he is now facing trial on charges of blasphemy, with 200,000 Muslims, stirred up by radical Islamists, taking to the streets calling for him to be jailed. It is a blatantly political move to prevent his re-election, but it is also an indicator of rising intolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

Much of the world’s intolerance can be summed up in two words: Saudi Arabia. The spread of Saudi-funded Wahhabi-Salafi propaganda has destabilised and poisoned previously tolerant, pluralistic societies, through school books, religious texts and scholarships. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was right to speak out against the influence of Saudi Arabia and Iran and their proxy wars.

Amid the rising intolerance – and in some instances visceral, even genocidal hatred – around the world, there remain flickers of hope. In 2015, I brought a group of Buddhist monks, Muslims and Christians from Burma to Indonesia for an inter-religious exchange on countering intolerance and promoting religious freedom.

Three moments from that visit stand out as a reminder that hope can counter hate. The first was a meeting with a former radical Islamist who had often led attacks on Ahmadiyya Muslims, but whose heart and mind had been changed through dialogue, and who now works to counter extremism.

The second moment was when a gathering of Burmese and Indonesians of all faiths stood outside the presidential palace in Jakarta in a protest for religious freedom in the two countries, singing the great civil rights song We Shall Overcome.

The third moment was an encounter between an Indonesian Muslim cleric and a Burmese Buddhist monk where, after an exchange of gifts, they embraced. A few months later I showed this image in a workshop in Mandalay in Burma, saying that this is what the world needs. At the end a Buddhist monk approached me and said: “I love that image. I want to do the same,” and threw his arms around me. Moments like that shine a light in the darkness.

This year we marked the first international day for the prevention of genocide, as well as International Human Rights Day. As we come to the end of the year and prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, we can be certain that the message of the baby in the manger – the Prince of Peace – has never been more needed. As we look ahead to a new year, we would do well to reflect on how we change our political discourse at home and counter hatred and intolerance abroad.

If we are to learn anything from past genocides or from current unfolding tragedies, it is that language makes a difference. If we allow the continued coarsening of political discourse in Western democracies, if we fail to restore a tone that allows for robust debate and passionate disagreement without descending to dehumanising the other, then we are on a slippery slope, ill-equipped to speak out for those who are in imminent danger. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks offers some ways forward in his books, notably in The Dignity of Difference, and in these words from To Heal a Fractured World:

Against the fundamentalisms of hate, we must create a counter-fundamentalism of love … ‘‘A little light,’’ said the Jewish mystics, ‘‘drives away much darkness.’’ And when light is joined to light, mine to yours and yours to others, the dance of flames, each so small, yet together so intricately beautiful, begins to show that hope is not an illusion. Evil, injustice, oppression, cruelty do not have the final word.

Or, in the words of St John’s Gospel, which we hear during Advent: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We would do well to heed such wisdom and let the lights that are switched on for Christmas spread in our hearts to conquer hatred across the globe.

This article first appeared in the December 23 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here