International days are intended to promote awareness and action related to issues or occasions as designated by United Nations resolutions.

Though not as common as International Women’s Day or World Water Day, the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief is significant for advocates of freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly article 18, along with related articles 19 and 20, enshrines the principles of freedom of conscience and religion, free expression and assembly.

These three articles are among the universal and inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated rights every individual possesses without regard to their ethnicity or sexuality, culture or where they live.

Commemorating victims allows us to first consider the global trends of violence based on religion or belief.

Further, we reflect on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and how religious minorities are impacted by the policies developed to meet these goals.

And finally, we must renew our commitment to global advocacy for full participation of religious minorities in economic, social and cultural/religious life.

Despite international agreement on the principles of freedom of religion or belief for all, the Pew Research Center reports that government restrictions on religion globally have increased to record highs.

Persecution of religious minorities by state action, non-state groups and/or individuals remains high. In many cases, persecution is perpetrated by members of the same religion.

For example, minority Christian religious groups, including Baptists, face increasing persecution at the hands of majority Orthodox Christians in the occupied Lugansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine as well as in Crimea.

The Baptist World Alliance’s Vulnerability Index evaluates four variables in determining the most challenging countries globally. The variables include hunger, livelihood, violent conflict and religious freedom challenges.

The index was developed with additional input from regional Baptist leaders. In two countries considered most vulnerable, Syria and Nigeria, the state’s lack of control over its own territory contributes to situations leaving religious minorities even more vulnerable.

On July 5, 2021, 120 students were abducted from the Bethel Baptist High School in Damishi, Kaduna state in northern Nigeria, by armed kidnappers seeking ransom. This is the latest reminder of the difficulty faced by Christians living in parts of Nigeria where the government seems incapable of providing for the safety of its citizens.

Ethnic and religious minorities are often targeted during military conflicts. For example, in Myanmar, religious minorities have been targeted for violence by the military regime. Further, security forces have targeted first responders and aid workers seeking to bring relief.

The Baptist global family has spoken out clearly in statements to the UN’s Human Rights Council.

“Our concern is for the people of Myanmar – particularly ethnic and religious minorities – who have been subjected to brutal violence at the hands of the armed forces,” I said in a statement to the 47th Session of the U.N. Human Rights Council on July 7, 2021. We stand in solidarity with those who face ethnic/religious-based persecution by calling for a “vigorous global response.”

The global trend of increased violence and persecution based on religious belief is troubling. Complex socio-cultural realities contribute to situations where religious minorities are stigmatized and sometimes targeted for violence because of their otherness.

Development, particularly when the impact is designed for broad impact, can also have an added impact beyond economic development. Ideally, it can also lead to integration of the marginalized, including religious communities.

There is a global commitment to sustainable development as embodied in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 integrated goals, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, are a call to action to address the most pressing global issues including poverty and climate change.

The SDGs are expected to guide international initiatives including the human rights agenda. However, as Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, noted in his interim report to the UN’s General Assembly in October 2020, religious minorities are in danger of being “left behind” because of discrimination and exclusion.

“Increasingly, evidence suggests that if left unchecked, such discrimination and inequality can precipitate poverty, conflict, violence and displacement,” reported Shaheed.

Awareness of the intersection of the complex social inequalities including race, ethnicity, class, as well as gender, enables new ways of understanding the situation faced by religious minorities.

This paradigm shift in our understanding also opens new avenues of changing the existing power relationships that seek to keep religious minorities marginalized. A renewed commitment to inclusive development from within this new paradigm leads to more just and peaceful communities.

The most effective way to commemorate the victims of violence based on religion or belief is to work towards developing societies where diversity is embraced and violence is rejected.

Seeking sustainable development, inclusive of religious minorities, creates a more diverse society and is a countermeasure against inequality.

Global freedom of religion or belief advocacy efforts by the Baptist World Alliance demonstrate our belief that this human right is not for Baptists or Christians only but for everyone.

We continue to condemn the discrimination and violence against the majority Muslim Uyghur people in China, the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and the rising violent acts of antisemitism in Europe, as well as to call for international action to draw attention to the situation Christians face in Nigeria.

These global efforts towards peace are powerless without regional, local and even congregational-based initiatives to promote mutual understanding and respect for cultural and religious diversity while opposing all forms of intolerance or discrimination.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. Each article expresses only the opinion and perspective of the author and not any other columnist in the series.

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