In northern Nigeria sexual violence survivors paint self-portraits to share their stories

In May, the UN General Assembly passed* a resolution designating 22 August as the UN International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

Until now, there has been no UN-led day focused exclusively on religiously motivated violence — or any other aspects of freedom of religion or belief. (Some states mark October 27 as International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, but this is not a universally recognized annual day and has no equivalent within the UN system.)

The day is intended to provide a focus to address the ever-growing issue of violence based on religion or belief.

The latest research by the Pew Center (covering 2017), published the day before the US State Department hosted a 1,000-strong international conference to address international religious freedom, shows that India, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, CAR, Pakistan, Israel, Yemen and Bangladesh have “very high” social hostilities involving religion.

Countries in which Pew reports government hostilities are “very high” include China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Indonesia. Eritrea, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Mauritania, Sudan and Pakistan and the Central Asian “Stans”.

The 22 August commemoration’s focus is limited to violence based on religion or belief, rather than the broader concept of religious persecution which may include “intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights” (highly likely because ‘religious persecution’ is not being defined unequivocally; some definitions are very broad). The focus on acts of violence intends to send a very clear message that no act of violence is acceptable, whether a single incident or acts of violence that are systematic and perpetrated on a mass scale.

Ewelina Ochab, who masterminded the process of getting the day recognized, said “Poland and other states have to be commended for recognizing the issue of violence based on religion or belief as a contemporary issue that can no longer be neglected…We owe this to past and present victims and survivors of violence based on religion or belief, and to generations that come after us”.

Open Doors CEO Dan Ole Shani applauded the UN’s decision to set aside Aug. 22 to remember those who suffer violence on account of their religious beliefs.

“Open Doors welcomes the establishment of this first-ever day to commemorate those whose lives have been tragically affected by violence, carried out simply because they are of the ‘wrong’ religion or refuse to deny their faith,” he said. “We will continue to rally the worldwide Church to stand with their persecuted family. We will continue to ask God to give His people strength to cling to Him through trial.”

Pew has shown that, of all global religions, it is Christians who experience the most hostility, a point emphasised by the recent independent report commissioned by the-then UK Foreign Secretary.

In Sri Lanka, attacks on three churches at Easter killed more than 250; 176 children lost one or both parents; some families lost all their children. Early this year, bombers killed 20 people at a church in the southern Philippines. Suicide bombers in Indonesia attacked three churches in one day in 2018.

In Egypt, extreme persecution also comes at the hands of radical Islamic militias – where the Islamic State in Sinai vowed in 2017 to ‘wipe out’ the Coptic Church – as well as in Libya, Somalia and many other sub-Saharan countries.

The 2019 edition of the Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, reported that more than 4,100 Christians in those 50 countries were killed for faith-related reasons – 3,700 in northern and central Nigeria alone. (This was during the most recent 12-month data-collection period, 1 Nov., 2017 – 31 Oct., 2018).

During the previous 12 months, the number of Christians killed in the top 50 countries was nearly 2,800.

CAPTURED, CONSTANTLY RAPED, BABY REJECTED AS ‘BOKO’

Boko Haram survivor Esther**holding her daughter Rebecca in her arms

Ten years after the start of Boko Haram (‘Western education is forbidden’) in north-east Nigeria, it is still having great impact.

Esther (not her real name) is one survivor of their violence based on their extreme Islamist ideology. In 2014, the 16 year-old in southern Borno attended school, while also caring for her widower father.

Then Boko Haram surrounded their house. As she was abducted, the last thing she saw was her father being struck and left on the ground for dead. The rebels took her (and other girls) to their hideout in Sambisa Forest and tried all kinds of ways to make her renounce her Christian faith for Islam – first offering her privileges, but following up with threats and intimidation. Many of her captors wanted to marry Esther, but she did not give in. “I cannot count how many men raped me. Every time they came back from their attacks, they would rape us… defile us. Each passing day, I hated myself more and more. I felt God had forsaken me. At times, I was so angry with God… But still I could not get myself to renounce Him. I found myself remembering His promise to never leave me or forsake me.”

Eventually Esther was married to a fighter who already had three wives. When she fell pregnant, she “had no idea how on earth [she] would ever be able to love this child”. Around the end of 2016, the four wives escaped after their husband was killed; after three days, the Nigerian military found them. Back home, however, they were received with suspicion and mockery, and called “Boko Haram women”.

“They mocked me because I was pregnant. Even my grandparents despised me and called me names. I cried many tears. I felt so lonely. What broke my heart even more was that they refused to call my daughter Rebecca. They referred to her as ‘Boko’.”

Esther has received trauma counselling from Open Doors, helping her to work through her anger, pain and shame. She says she can now even forgive her enemies. She has also received some food aid through Open Doors partners.

*The Resolution was tabled by Poland and the US, and supported by the General Assembly core group of Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan

**Name changed for security reason

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