“It’s a dangerous time to be a person of faith,” said Ambassador Callista Gingrich. “We are at a critical moment. We can and must do more.”

Addressing a Rome symposium on Monday on “Defending International Religious Freedom: Partnership and Action,” the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See drew stressed that “repression, violence and discrimination are daily realities for millions of believers in every region of the world” and that in “many cases” their human rights “are limited or restricted entirely.” 

The ambassador was one of several speakers to highlight both the plight of a great number of people of faith as well as underscore the importance of cooperation to secure religious freedom as a universal human right.

Other speakers included Salwa Khalaf Rasho, a 20-year-old Yazidi girl from Sinjar, Iraq, who testified to the magnitude of the persecution faced by Yazidis and other vulnerable communities in Iraq and Syria. 

Salwa noted that the Yazidis have faced 74 genocidal campaigns in their history. In Iraq, she recalled how more than 6,000 women and girls of her community were kidnapped by ISIS, and subjected to “all types of sexual and physical abuse and violence.”

“I myself spent eight months in the grip of the Islamic State, and during this period I was subjected to unthinkable practices,” she said. “I finally had the chance to escape from their grip, but other women and girls did not.” 

She said more than 3,000 of them are still missing, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis are displaced and facing other dangers in refugee camps. Salwa also reported an increase in suicides, as well as psychological and health problems. She revealed that “about 60 mass graves” have been found in Sinjar. 

Salwa called on the diplomats, Church leaders and NGO representatives present to “imagine yourselves in my position and understand the scale of our suffering and pain,” and urged that a series of steps be taken. These comprised reconstruction, uncovering the 3,000 still missing, protection of the mass graves so they can be investigated, protecting Yazidis internationally, helping set up a war crimes trial, and opening the door for persecuted refugees seeking asylum. 

“If this action is not taken, our existence, identity and culture will be wiped out — fulfilling the aim of the Islamic State,” she warned.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, reflected on religious freedom in the Middle East. In particular, he spoke of the importance of Lebanon and warned that if it is destabilized, “the whole of the Middle East will definitively collapse,” and also remove security for Israel. 

In Pakistan, although a separation of religion and state was promised at the time of independence, that is by no means the case now, according to Cardinal-designate Joseph Coutts, Archbishop of Karachi, Pakistan. 

The archbishop, who will be elevated to the College of Cardinals on Friday, noted how religious extremism has become such an emotive issue in the country that even the government has felt coerced by extremists. It’s not so much fundamentalism that is the problem, he said, but “extremist thinking largely based on emotions.” 

He recalled Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian mother facing a death sentence under the country’s blasphemy law since 2010 because of an argument with Muslim women. He said the government is “even afraid to take the case forward” because it is concerned about an “emotional reaction” by extremists. 

He also recalled Shahbaz Bhatti, the former minister of religious minorities, who was gunned down in 2011 for trying to change the blasphemy law, and a local governor who suffered the same fate. The source of the atrocities, he said, is the extremist Sunni Islamic sect of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. “Our government is not strong enough to control this extremism,” he said. “So we’re suffering as Christians,” and so, too, are “our Muslims brethren.” 

Other speakers included Ziear Khan,a Rohingya Community Activist, who shared details of the atrocities committed against the Islamic Rohingya minority in Burma. Similar to Salwa, Khan called for international help and cooperation. He compared the situation to Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s and said there were “clear signs of ethnic cleansing and genocide.” Khan, a Muslim, said he would “hate to be silent when God asks what we did when these atrocities were taking place.” 

Mark Riedemann, public affairs director of Aid to the Church in Need, gave an overview of the challenges religious minorities are facing, especially in Iraq and Syria. In particular, he singled out the United Nations for criticism, and stressed that when most embassies leave, the Church never does. But that, coupled with sanctions, means great weight is thrown onto the shoulders of the Church. 

Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Sant’Egidio lay community, stressed how dialogue must continue but that also means action, not only talking. Interreligious dialogue, he said, is a “preferable” way to prevent “radicalization of conflicts.” 

At the conference, Iraq’s ambassador to the Holy See, Omar Ahmed kerim Berzinji, spoke of the importance of dialogue but omitted to mention the need for all Iraqis to be treated as equal citizens before the law. 

A criticism of the Iraqi government has been that, despite the Iraqi Constitution stating that all minorities be treated equally, that does not happen in reality. 

Full respect for the rule of law and equality before the law was also stressed by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, in his remarks which closed the symposium. 

He also spoke of the importance of building trust and cooperation between governments, religious leaders and international organisations to secure religious freedom, as well as the urgency to “overcome political indifference.” The cardinal also underscored the need for “proper education” and a unanimous “no” to every form of violence carried out in God’s name. 

Monday’s symposium, co-sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need and the Sant’Egidio Community, was aimed at helping to “inform and enhance” the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, to be convened July 25-26, in Washington, D.C. by U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. 

The meeting will aim to identify concrete ways to restrain persecution and ensure greater religious freedom. 

 

Iraqi Testimonies

During my visit to Iraq last month, three students from the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh — Sally Salim, Rahma Jacob and Rashel Garo — shared their views on the challenges facing the Northern Iraqi city since it was liberated from ISIS in 2016 (see video below). 

The students, currently studying at the Catholic University in Erbil, also gave a rendition at the end of the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.