COMECE urges EU foreign ministry to set up a 'religion unit' to promote cause of religious freedom more effectively

Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, according to a European commission of Catholic bishops.

A report issued this week by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) said that at least three-quarters of all religious persecution was directed at Christians.

In the report the bishops urged the European Union to apply more pressure to countries around the world that failed to protect the religious freedom of their citizens.

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They called on the EU’s foreign ministry, headed by the Labour peer Lady Ashton, to set up a “religion unit” to promote the cause of religious freedom more effectively.

Their report coincided with a conference at the European Parliament on the persecution of Christians organised by COMECE and Polish and Italian MEPs.

Speakers included Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio, Sudan, and Professor TM Joseph, principal at Newman College in India.

The bishops said in their report: “It is important to recall that at least 75 per cent of all religious persecution in the world is directed against Christians. The number of the Christian faithful discriminated against, oppressed or persecuted in this regard amounts to approximately 100 million people.”

The bishops said that tackling this persecution would help stem the “demographic haemorrhage” of religious minorities fleeing to the West.

They urged EU institutions to put pressure on countries such as Pakistan to abolish blasphemy laws used to persecute minorities. In July, for instance, two Pakistani Christians were murdered outside a courtroom in Faisalabad after they were accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

The bishops proposed that EU delegations to countries that do not adequately protect religious freedom must make sure they raise the issue during their visits.

The bishops also urged Lady Ashton, the British head of EU foreign policy, to “integrate religious freedom fully into EU human rights policy”. The bishops suggested she ensure that the European External Action Service “be provided with a ‘religion unit’ devoted to the cause of religious freedom”.

In the report bishops said religious minorities were particularly under threat in Asian countries such as India, China, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea.

They said that in other parts of the world religious believers in general were oppressed because of the state’s opposition to religion. They cited countries in Central Asia, where there was “a leftover of atheist Communism”.

At the conference in Brussels Archbishop Sako spoke about the persecution of Christians in Iraq, which he said included “killings, abductions, beatings, rapes, threats, intimidation, forced conversions [and] marriages, and displacement from homes and businesses, and attacks on religious leaders, pilgrims, and holy sites”.

The archbishop said the persecution could eventually lead to the extinction of the Christian community in Iraq.

For Christian families, he said, the war had been a disaster, and America was responsible for it.

“They [Americans] should not leave them behind and pull their troops out of Iraq without caring,” the archbishop said.

“The future of Christians in Iraq, but also in the Middle East, has one of two ends: emigration, or accepting life as a second-class citizen with many difficulties and fears,” he said.

The archbishop argued that Christians could only survive in Iraq with strong international support and clear plans to protect them and foster reconciliation among Iraqis.

He said the Synod of churches in the Middle East, which starts on Sunday, was a chance “to revise the whole situation for Christians in the Middle East”.

Prof Joseph, from Kerala, talked to the conference about religious freedom in India. Earlier this year a professor at the college, also called Prof T Joseph, had his right hand cut off in a brutal attack after he set an exam question that allegedly defamed Islam.

Prof Joseph, the principal, said that although religious freedom was enshrined in India’s constitution it was subject to considerations of “public order, morality and health” and did not include the right to convert.

He said persecution of Christians in recent years had included “violence against the leadership of the Church, killing of priests, raping of nuns, [and the] destruction of Christian institutions”.

But he said these were “stray incidents” that were part of a law and order problem rather than being merely religious persecution. “Such incidents do occur within single communities as well,” he said.

Prof Joseph argued that since the Indian state could not curb this violence, there was “a crisis of governance” in the country that needed to be addressed.

He said India was a “by and large peaceful” country where a countless diversity of people lived in “relative harmony”.

The other Prof Joseph was attacked by eight people as he was returning home from church with his mother and his sister, who is a nun.

Shortly before the attack he had set an exam question which allegedly contained a derogatory reference to the Prophet Mohammad, an accusation strongly denied by his family. The professor has reportedly been dismissed by Newman College. He is said to be appealing the decision.

The conference was organised by MEPs Mario Mauro and Konrad Szymanski together with COMECE, Aid to the Church in Need and the NGO Open Doors International.

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