Aid to the Church in Need, a global Catholic charity has released a groundbreaking—and heartbreaking— report.
With the launch of Hear Her Cries—the first comprehensive report on gender-specific religious persecution—Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) alerts the world to grievous human rights abuses that have for too long, been underreported by the media, and ignored by law makers.
It documents an added layer of oppression that Christian women face, both as Christian minorities and as women.
“The research suggests that in the countries under review (Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Iraq and Syria and others), among minority faith groups as a whole, Christian girls and young women are particularly susceptible to attack,” says the report.
Hear Her Cries quotes a study that Open Doors— a non-denominational mission that supports persecuted Christians around the world— had conducted on gender-specific religious persecution in 2021. This study had concluded that key factors of concern such as forced marriage and sexual and other physical violence against Christian women had worsened over the previous year.
Another key finding of the ACN report is that there is a higher incidence of sexual and religious persecution in situations of war and conflict, such as for example, during the Isis military takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq. Hear Her Cries notes that was “an organized system of sexual enslavement of minorities” in these countries.
“In countries where Christian minorities are persecuted, these women and girls are not only vulnerable to such treatment, they are also effectively deprived access to justice, allowing the perpetrators to continue with such abuse,” Ewelina Ochab, the UK-based genocide expert and co-founder of Coalition for Genocide Response told Convivium.
The atrocities committed against Yazidi women have become fairly well known, largely due to the courageous efforts of Nobel prize winner Nadia Murad who was sold into sexual slavery by her Isis captors. After her narrow escape, she had to break virtually indestructible cultural taboos to tell her story to the world.
But this has not been the case with oppressed Christian women.
Hear Her Cries acknowledges the enormous challenges of researching the phenomenon of gender and faith-based persecution.
“Social pressure, including the fear of casting shame on the family, and the fear of reprisal from abductors and their accomplices are among the difficulties of investigating the issue,” says the report.
Christian advocates and human rights defenders have confirmed the challenges of documenting the issue that is crying out for action by governments and international organizations such as the UN.
“The (secular) media don’t think about Christian persecution, let alone persecution of Christian women,” Marie-Claude Lalonde, National Director of ACN Canada Convivium in an interview. “And women who escaped their tormentors are afraid to talk for fear of reprisals and of bringing shame on their families.”
Lalonde added that the launch of Hear Her Cries was part of the program associated with Red Wednesday 2021, a day set aside each year to call attention to worldwide Christian persecution, and marked by churches and other buildings being illuminated in red.
Nuri Kino is a Swedish journalist, film maker and human rights advocate, who has, for decades, observed and reported on the plight of Christian and other faith minorities in the Middle East.
“Some of these Christian women who were kidnapped by terrorist organizations were either released, thanks to ransom being paid for them, or they managed to flee,” he told Convivium.
He explained that he and a colleague, Lebanese film maker Elias Salameh, produced a documentary called Limbo, in which several Middle Eastern Christian women narrate the story of atrocities they had suffered at the hands of Isis extremists.
“It was extremely difficult to get the women to come forward and speak,” Kino said. “But those that wanted to, did a good job. Before filming we were careful that they understood that their faces would be shown and their names revealed.”
He added that after fair amount of public exposure two of the women said they regretted participating. He said Limbo had gone viral after it was posted on Vimeo, and was also seen by participants when it was screened in Washington DC at the International Religious Freedom Summit last summer.
“They (the women in the film) were either ashamed or afraid that terrorists would hurt them in Lebanon— where some of them are living in the most appalling conditions as refugees— or even as far away as Australia,” he commented.
Asked about the current situation of the women who had survived such atrocities, he said that A Demand for Action, the NGO he founded works with many of them in Lebanon.
“They are in limbo. Most of them haven’t received visas to a third country and can’t make a living,” he said.” They have to rely on charity organizations and churches for food. Some of them get donations from family members in Europe , North America or Australia. They are very depressed, sometimes suicidal, because they have been in Lebanon for five to seven years and have not been able to give their children a comfortable life or any kind of future.”
Fionn Shiner, press officer with ACN UK emphasized the need for the UN to recognize and take steps to address this issue.
“We want the UN to recognize this aspect of violence against women and then take effective steps to address this. These steps could include improving reporting, raising awareness, reviewing laws, and actually ensuring these laws are enforced,” he said in an interview published by Crux, the online Catholic newspaper.
“There are many Christian women who suffer sexual violence because they are Christian – but we don’t believe the UN quite appreciates this,” Shiner said in the same interview.
Marie-Claude Lalonde agrees with Shiner that the UN has not acknowledged this problem.
“I am not surprised,” she told Convivium. “Years ago, rape as a weapon of war was not recognized. It will take a while to capture the link between religious persecution and gender violence.”
For Lalonde, the next step after the release of the report (currently it is being translated into French) is to bring it to the attention of the Canadian government.
“The report Hear Her Cries will be distributed to parliamentarians and to officials at Global Affairs Canada,” she said. “I would like the government to acknowledge the problem. All governments in the world should do everything in their power to stop this persecution. They can use all diplomatic means at their disposal, and they can offer asylum to victims.”
“But the challenge is to change the mentality (of indifference) to the victimization of Christian women and girls,” she said.
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Media attention may have shifted away from Afghanistan, but suffering families and religious minorities remain in the country. On-the-ground relief efforts are in dire need of support, writes Susan Korah.