Marcela Szymanski (right), Head of International Advocacy for ACN and Editor and Managing Editor for the Religious Freedom Report. Photo by Aid to the Church in Need

West doesn’t view religion as basic right: report

  • June 29, 2023

An increase in religious persecution can draw a straight line to Western nations that prioritize economic interests over human rights, concludes Aid to the Church in Need’s latest religious freedom report.

“Persecution worsens and impunity reigns” is the title of the latest report produced by the international pontifical charity. The five words capture the current state of religious freedom (or lack thereof) around the world.

The report notes that there is an increasingly muted response from the international community towards atrocities by “strategically important” regimes such as China and India, and that nations like Nigeria and Pakistan escape international sanctions and other punishment for religious freedom violations against their own citizens. The result is a growing culture of impunity in countries where religious minorities suffer the most violent forms of persecution.

Two paragraphs in the report note how apathy and indifference or prioritizing of economic interests in the predominantly secular Western world contribute to the culture of impunity in offending countries. It says: “There is increasing evidence of a curtain of indifference behind which vulnerable faith communities suffer, their plight ignored by a religiously illiterate West,” and continues: “In the eyes of Western governments and the media, religious freedom is slipping down the human rights priority rankings, being eclipsed by issues of gender, sexuality and race.”

Marie Claude Lalonde, Canadian director of ACN, said inaction stems from a failure in Canada and Western countries to see freedom of religion as a primary human right. She said trade and economic relations take precedence over freedom of religion and other human rights, and this accounts for the reluctance to address this issue with authoritarian leaders.

“Religious freedom is ranked second as a human right (in the Western world),” she said. “The reason for the silence around this issue is not so much lack of information, but economic considerations. For example, trade and economic relations with countries like China and India take precedence over human rights.”

Marcela Szymanski, Head of International Advocacy for ACN and Editor and Managing Editor for the Religious Freedom Report, agrees with Lalonde that autocratic leaders who violate freedom of thought, conscience and religion are not brought to justice because of the economic power they wield.

“The brutality and shamelessness of autocrats has increased,” she told The Catholic Register in a telephone interview shortly after her return home from Madrid where she presented the report at a press conference in ACN’s Spanish headquarters.

She explained that Western leaders defer to autocrats on whom they depend for fossil fuels, minerals and other resources that are important for their economies.

The report itself, comprising 900 pages and published in six languages, presents a detailed picture — in words, numbers and images — of an alarming trend that could potentially destabilize large parts of the world and exacerbate the suffering of 4.9 billion people in 61 countries where the right to freedom of religion or belief is routinely violated.

A key message in the report is that in  a world grappling with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and multiple economic crises, not only have the number and severity of the violations increased, but authoritarian governments and non-state entities — emboldened by international inaction and citizen fear or apathy — carry out egregious acts of religious persecution with greater impunity.

Issued every two years by ACN, it is one of the key sources of information for the general public, as well as for international policy makers, and is even used by Pope Francis to keep abreast of the issue.

A major finding is that globally, with more autocrats and fundamentalist group leaders seizing and monopolizing power in various parts of the world, the two-year period covered by the report has seen a rise in the number and severity of acts of religious persecution,

Terrorist attacks, destruction of religious heritage and symbols (Turkey, Syria), electoral system manipulation (Nigeria, Iraq), mass surveillance (China), draconian anti-conversion laws and financial restrictions (Southeast Asia and Middle East) threatened peace and security for all religious communities.

All religious minorities, and in some cases religious majorities (Nicaragua, Nigeria), suffered from increased suppression of religious freedom, the ACN report states.

While most countries noted for extreme and violent acts of persecution are in the global South, Western countries such as Canada do not go unscathed for their failure to address the issue.

In fact, the report suggests that Western nations are complicit in international religious persecution by failing to call leaders of offending nations to account, and for turning a blind eye to religious freedom violations, particularly when committed by countries that are valued as trading and business partners.

Szymanski shared her personal experience of interacting with leaders in various capital cities, where they told her explicitly that international religious freedom is not a policy priority for them.

“Religious illiteracy is not an excuse,” she said.

Szymanski gave an example of how action against an autocrat can produce results.

“International sanctions against Daniel Ortega (Nicaraguan dictator noted for persecuting the Catholic Church) compelled him to release 200 political prisoners,” she said.

“Canadians should put pressure on their government to honour its obligations under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights of which Canada is a signatory,” she said in response to a question on what Canadians can do to help the persecuted.

“A large number of citizens can ask their foreign affairs minister to put pressure on autocrats to stop violating peoples’ right to freedom of religion. An effective way of exerting pressure on the foreign affairs minister is to get your elected officials to reduce her budget if she does not act on this.”

Szymanski added that people can also engage with their church in reaching out to help victims of religious persecution and natural disasters.

The full report can be viewed at

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