19 January 2018

Finding the Appropriate Answers to a Long Neglected Crisis

Answers can be found successfully if we use our reason and if we seek the Common Good. In the 21st century either Common Good will prevail or ideologies of superiority: superiority of a nation, a religion, a race, a social class... Either peace, justice, humanity will triumph or hatred, violence and conflicts will prevail. True Christianity has always been a promoter of common good, and has become one of the first victims of militant ideologies. We know this from our Czechoslovak or Hungarian or Soviet totalitarian past.

I am here as the first ever Special Envoy of Europe for the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the European Union. The decision of President Juncker and the Commission to create my mission came about after the EP Resolution on mass atrocities in the territories of Iraq and Syria under ISIS dominance (February 2016).

The 60-year-old EU is today more concerned with FoRB, which is an essential value. It represents freedom of conscience and human dignity for all and everywhere. In recent years the EU started to build up an agenda and tools around FoRB protection and promotion. In 2013 the Council adopted common Guidelines for the foreign policy of 28 member states. After the last EP elections in 2014 the EP Intergroup for FoRB and Religious Tolerance was established. I would like to commend the work of Peter van Dalen, Dennis de Jong, Lars Adaktusson, György Hölvényi and other very active members. As EU Special Envoy I visited Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Morocco. These were meaningful and important missions. For example our engagement in Sudan contributed to the release of jailed Christians Petr Jašek, Reverend Taour, layman Abdumawla, prisoners of conscience, human rights defender Professor Mudawi and five other activists.

As a Special Envoy I established regular working relations with NGOs, charities and faith-based organisations (FBOs). Likewise, we are in constant dialogue with faith leaders from different religions and countries. I plan to visit Senegal, Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, hopefully also Myanmar and Iran, in order to promote inter-faith dialogue and FoRB, religious literacy and education for pluralistic society, legislative reforms for the sake of religious and ethnic tolerance. We rely on the main financial development instrument for this field the EIDHR (European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights) 1.4 billion euros development aid. And parallel to the 25-year-old Lorenzo Natali Media Prize for development journalism, a new distinction has been created: the LN Prize for FoRB journalism, both professional and amateur.

I am glad that the European Academy of Religion started to operate in historical Bologna; it is aimed at the promotion of academic and scientific cooperation of numerous universities, faculties, institutes, chairs, journals from Europe, Middle East and North African countries and some other countries of the world.

Today’s persecution of Christians is unparalleled in history. Many reports, as well as books with testimonies and stories bear testimony to this tragedy. John Allen in his book Global War against Christians estimates that up to 100,000 Christians were killed annually for their faith in recent years. Moving evidence can be found in Rupert Shortt’s Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack. Pew Research Centre (USA) tells us that more Christians have been harassed in several countries than any other religious group, and have suffered harassment in many of the Muslim- majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa. It signals that they were harassed by governments or social groups in a total of 128 countries in 2015, and more ferociously than any other religious group.

We all agree that there is today a particular focus on the persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East and for good reasons. Since 2014 there have been even genocidal attacks perpetrated by ISIS militants. ISIS is a brutal misuse of religion. As a terrorist organisation it must be eliminated as the number of Christians is drastically decreasing in the region. This is a civilisational challenge.

But persecution rarely targets just one minority. As we see in Syria and Iraq, not only Christians, but also Yazidis, Shia Muslims and other minorities are suffering from discrimination, harassment and persecution. There are plenty of examples: in Pakistan, Ahmadis suffer as well as Shias. In Sudan, Sufis. In Iran, the Baha’is, in Myanmar Rohingyas are persecuted by Buddhist nationalists. In China, it is the Falun-Gong; in India several minorities suffer discrimination; in North Korea all people of faith have to endure a cruel dictatorship. If a society accepts the persecution of one minority, it lays the ground for the persecution of other minorities.

However, there are 2.3 billion Christians globally, i.e. more than any other religious group. Roughly two thirds of the world’s countries, for example, have Christian majorities! So, why do Christians suffer in so many countries? My answer is: because we are many times indifferent, ignorant or scared to say something on behalf of the voiceless and defenceless people and to do something for real justice. Evil has allies in every population. The most potent enemies are the following three: indifference, ignorance and fear.

 

WHAT TO DO IN THIS SITUATION?

 

1. We must work better and harder for peace and justice. Let us learn from history and, as a minimum, avoid repetition of mistakes.

As Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Slovak Parliament, I did not vote in favour of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, supported then by the Slovak Government. Then I felt, and today I know, I was right. When I visited Iraq – Baghdad, Najaf, Erbíl – this year, somebody told me: Christians in this country survived the Arab conquest, the Mongolian conquest and the Ottoman conquest, but may be finally decimated as a result of the Bush–Blair invasion. An invasion led by Christian leaders! Patriarch Younan spoke clearly about the chaos following the invasion.

Lesson? Wise use of military force in international relations, in line with international law; promotion of justice for all and everywhere; effective prevention of conflicts and especially mass atrocities. We must acknowledge that the international community in the last century – but also today – repeatedly failed in the three “P”s delivery. To prevent, protect, punish: to prevent mass atrocities and genocides, to protect victims of such crimes against humanity, and to punish those who committed them. And we fail again and again, while the promise was “never again”!

Christians and religious minorities found themselves abandoned when facing the cruelty of ISIS, as we heard from His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem. It is crucial to stop war in Syria and search for a political solution and stability, to wipe out ISIS ideology and start a renewal in Iraq. Special responsibility is on the shoulders of the UN Security Council Permanent Members – the US, Russia, China, the UK and France. To be a Permanent Member means responsibility in protecting peace and security, not only an honour.

The UN and democratic countries are invited to provide effective, timely, uncorrupted humanitarian aid, as this becomes a matter of urgency, and acute assistance on the conflict spots. And to care much more for justice and rule of law than before, as peace is the fruit of justice.

Unfortunately, the UN Security Council is very slow in responding to the case of Iraq. While the Iraqi Government requested support in the investigation of ISIS crimes already in May 2016, approval of the resolution came only in September 2017!

Security and reconstruction should follow the peace process, since international conferences organised in London and Brussels on Iraq and Syria respectively agreed on a financial support of 6 billion US dollars.

All refugees have the right to return to their homes and properties. But without their security guaranteed IDPs (internally displaced persons) will not return! The heavily destroyed cities of Mosul and Aleppo can be rebuilt and renewed like Dresden or Stalingrad/Volgograd after the Second World War.

A special role is envisaged for Christians in the reconciliation process. Remember that the EU came into being as a result of reconciliation and its birth was due especially to Christian politicians’ active leadership. Without Christian communities and societal contribution this region will not be what it historically was. In the chaos which is today the Middle East, persecutions do not target only Christians. We also witness intra-Muslim conflicts between Sunnis and Shias, and other ethnic and religious factions. There is a common threat today: the manipulation of religious strife. Ignorance fuels misperceptions and political errors. We have to build trust and quench hatred; we have to defeat the militant ideology of ISIS as well.

2. Work on equal citizenship and revisit the concept of minorities.

Together with Archbishop Warda from Erbíl and the Hungarian Government I would like to emphasise the role of education, as it is the most efficient tool to change social attitudes. Christian schools in many countries all over the world are considered of top quality. In Pakistan for example the elite send their children there. The same happens in Palestine. These schools are open to all. They are laboratories for interreligious, peaceful cohabitation.

Different communities need relevant education for living together in diversity. We need to learn how to live together, not only to exist together. The optimal solution is a shared society, in which responsibility is based on participation. The defining principle for a reconciled and shared society is equal citizenship, not a particular religion or ethnicity. The idea of equal citizenship is gathering consensus throughout religious and political affiliations. This is the recipe for Christians and for all communities in Iraq, Syria and in the Middle East.

In Kurdistan the term “minority” was replaced by “social component” by a recent law. “Minority” has somehow a confrontational flavour; you read it “versus majority”. Syrian Christian leaders whom I met proposed the term “communities”.

A long-term strategic approach to protect Christian and other religious communities must focus on changing those majority cultures and state structures that enable and encourage discrimination, harassment and persecution. Therefore we welcomed the Marrakesh Declaration on these issues in Muslim majority countries. But it needs to be put into practice.

I was pleased when meeting Shia Grand Ayatollah Al Najafi and later Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako that I heard the same language – the future Iraq as a civil state! A righteous secular state is a blessing for society. It opens the public space for plurality of religions and beliefs. An unrighteous or sham secular state closes down public space, tries to replace religion with secularism or other ideologies.

3. Better cooperation and partnership is needed between the EU and its member states, international organisations, NGOs, civil and faith-based organisations and religious leaders. This will create more synergy.

Due to many reasons there is a growing importance of more direct cooperation with local faith communities.

I would like to praise the work of many organisations in the conflict areas, particularly the ACN, Open Doors, CSW, Brot für die Welt, Knights of Columbus, L’Œuvre d’Orient, SOS Chrétiens d’Orient and others. I support and recommend cooperation with credible religious leaders and faith-based organisations (FBOs) and charities. Many times religious leaders possess more credibility, authority or stability than political leaders. They really can significantly contribute to peace, the return of refugees and reconciliation.

 

HUNGARY AND THE V4

 

Hungary is to be commended for this initiative, for in the Middle East Hungary supports programmes for awareness-raising, student scholarships, school construction, reconstruction and development aid, and other projects. I congratulate the Hungarian Parliament for adopting a resolution denouncing the genocide perpetrated by ISIS. I thank Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Minister Zoltán Balog. We need more of such fruitful support for saving threatened Christian and other communities in the region.

The V4 cooperation under the Hungarian Presidency should intensify this initiative and build national partnerships between Governments, Churches and Charities, and provide joint support to targeted communities in the Middle East countries or globally, where effective aid and reconstruction is needed. The V4 approach could be easily enlarged into a regional one. I even have a more suitable, inviting name for this: Middle Europe Helps Middle East. Cooperation will assist communities in need in the conflict zones, and show real people-to-people solidarity. And it would create a positive image of the Visegrád countries during the current migration and refugee crisis, and European political disputes.

 

CONCLUSION

 

I reject the concept of “the clash of civilisations”. But there is a visible sign of a potentially big clash: the clash of ignorances. Ignorance, indifference and fear are allies of evil. Their opposites are education, generosity and courage. All of them are present and promoted these days here at our Budapest meeting and activities.

Let us work against deficits of human responsibility and maturity. I hope these initiatives will gain ground in our societies and state institutions, and bring positive fruits for Christians and other religious communities in the world.






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