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Religious conflicts in the world


A religious war, according to the Treccani vocabulary, is a war that is caused by differences in matters of religious faith. This definition is certainly correct but, following this line, it would mean that almost all wars could be classified in this way. The questions, which many throughout history have asked themselves, is: how important is the religious or confessional factor really among the causes of the various conflicts?

Generally speaking, one can agree on considering religion a relevant factor when talking about many conflicts, even contemporary ones. However, scholars and analysts have tried to differentiate the theoretical explanations of conflicts influenced by the “sacred”. The main theories regarding the relationship between religion and violence are: the primordialist, the instrumentalist, and the constructivist.

Primordialist or essentialist theories argue that the differences between the various religious and cultural traditions are among the main authentic reasons for the outbreak of conflicts between states or groups of individuals. The more differences there are, the more likely there will be conflict and violence between the two systems.

On the other hand, the instrumentalist theories believe that religions are not the real cause of conflicts, but that they can, however, aggravate them, by increasing their intensity. Conflicts, according to these theories, would be triggered by economic and social reasons or by territorial tensions. In these cases, the religious factor would be used by certain leaders to take advantage of popular support and direct it against an enemy in the name of a religious / sectarian opposition. In this way, conflicts generated by other causes would be led to exacerbation and non-original radicalization.

The constructivist theories agree with the instrumentalist ones in considering the triggering causes of a conflict material. However, according to constructivist theories the religious factor, in addition to the ability to exacerbate the conflict itself, would also have the effect of being able to contribute to its end and accelerate a relaxation process.

Over the centuries, many conflicts have occurred or have escalated for religious reasons. A fundamental part was played by religion, but it seems difficult to consider religion as the primary cause of a war. If one simply looks at the Christian religion, one cannot fail to mention the Crusades, which from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, saw the main countries of the European continent send crusaders against the Muslim invaders, with the official aim of regaining Jerusalem and the “Promised Land”. However, it cannot be thought that all this was motivated “solely” by religious interests. Strong economic, commercial and strategic interests were in fact at stake. Going further into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is possible to find the French wars of religion between Huguenot Catholics and Protestants, and the Thirty Years’ War, also between the two aforementioned confessions. Even in these cases, however, different interests were at stake. In more recent and current times we can cite the controversial and long-standing question of Northern Ireland, whose divisions between Protestants and Catholics are part of important social and historical issues concerning relations with Great Britain.

In the Islamic world then, the opposition between the Shiites and the Sunnis is secular and sadly famous. In fact, currently the clashes and tensions present throughout the Muslim world could be attributed, in part, to religious motivations. The concept of “jihad” or “holy war”, which has risen to prominence on various occasions since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, fits into this trend.

Geo-strategic interests

Are there any religious wars currently taking place around the world? Precisely for what has been written previously it is difficult, especially today, to define a war simply of religion. Unfortunately, what can be said for sure, without fear of being proven wrong, is that various persecutions against religious or denominational minorities are taking place all over the world.

Today Christians are the most persecuted religious group. According to the World Watch List 2019, published by Porte Aperte, 4305 Christians were killed between the end of 2017 and the end of 2018. On the other hand, about 300 millions of them suffer acts of persecution, and one out of seven Christians lives in a country of persecution, according to the ACN Report on Religious Freedom presented at the end of 2018. In total, 38 countries were recognized as countries in which serious violations of religious freedom are recorded. In 21 of them real acts of persecution have occurred: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Yemen. The remaining 17, on the other hand, are states and places where acts of discrimination have occurred in recent years or occur: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Brunei, Egypt, Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam.

We will now analyse, in a certainly not exhaustive way, some of the situations relating to religious persecution and discrimination in the main countries just mentioned above.

In India there are more and more acts of violence against religious minorities; surely these facts are connected to the rise of aggressive nationalism, precisely ultra-nationalism. The VHP (Hindu Jagran Manch), for example, is an ultra-nationalist Hindu group, linked to the central government, and in recent months it has been responsible for some more or less forced reconversions of hundreds of Christians. In the elections of May 2019 Narendra Modi was confirmed, with his BJP (Baratiya Janata Party – Party of the Indian People) at the head of the country, and this raises fears for the conditions of the various Indian religious minorities. The danger of going back, even for just a few years, shakes communities. Suffice it to say that just over ten years have passed since the very serious anti-Christian attacks in the state of Orissa in 2008, in which more than 100 people were killed and in which thousands of Christian homes and churches were destroyed.

In China, the situation is very similar. Xi Jinping’s regime becomes more and more oppressive as the years pass. Over the period of time taken into consideration in the World Watch List, mentioned previously, there was an absolute increase in imprisoned Christians: 1131, compared to 134 in the previous year. The new Regulations for Religious Affairs entered into force in February 2018 and imposes new restrictions on religious groups. The churches, but in general various Christian entities, are closed, the ceremonies and functions are controlled; in some cases, access is forbidden to minors under the age of 18.

Furthermore, in China there is another ethnic-religious minority that is severely persecuted by the central government: the Uighurs. This ethnic group, Turkic and predominantly Muslim, has been present in the Xinjiang region for millennia. It is a separatist community, which since the early 2000s has had to undergo a profound campaign of repression, passed off as a fight against internal terrorism. Since 2017, the few million Uighurs have been subjected to fierce repression: detention in “professional education” or “training against extremism” camps, a profound indoctrination, not only for inmates but for everyone, a proper “re-education” of community members Islamic. All this is done due to an important use of the most advanced technologies such as cutting-edge surveillance systems. There were even door-to-door video checks to see if people had any religious material in their own homes.

All this is explained by going beyond the possible opposition to religious minorities. The Xinjiang region, where the Uighurs have lived for centuries, is an area rich in energy sources, natural gas, coal and oil, which represents about 20% of China’s energy potential. It does not take long to understand therefore that the Chinese central government is doing and will do everything, even going against respect for human rights, to remain in full control of the region, nipping in the bud any attempt at separatism or autonomy.

A similar situation has been affecting the Tibet region for decades. There, too, the Chinese government’s will to keep control of the area is absolute; the Dalai Lama, considered by Beijing as an expression of a medieval system, has renounced the hypothesis of making Tibet independent, trying to obtain some form of autonomy from China.

Another example, probably the most striking in terms of persecution, especially against Christians, is that of North Korea. Not being able to have exact data, it is estimated that Christians detained in real prison camps can be up to 200 thousand, accused of having organized or participated in prayer meetings or similar activities. In fact, Christians are relegated to the last of the social categories into which North Korean society is divided; for decades they have been seen in the country as spies of Western forces, and therefore enemies of the country and the regime. In Pyongyang, people can be tortured, locked up or killed simply because they have a Bible in their home or workplace. At the end of 2018, the dictator Kim Jong-un opened the possibility of a trip by Pope Francis to the North Korean state, which made many turn up their noses, given the evident contrast with the strongly repressive policies towards Christians at the within the country.

As for Pakistan, the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian citizen sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy and acquitted only in 2018 after years of imprisonment, ended up under the eyes of Western public opinion, and the Italian in particular, just a few months ago. Laws on blasphemy were introduced into the legal system of the state in the 1980s. In practice, a Muslim can accuse any person (Muslim, Christian or of any other religion) of profaning the name of Muhammad, also having the possibility through summary judgments to punish the offender. Pakistan is also an ethnic, linguistic and religious mosaic, where even in the same Muslim majority, the two Sunni and Shiite components coexist, often even violently. In some areas of the country real religious courts are still present and active; in recent years there have been cases of stoning for adultery. Furthermore, the forced conversions of young boys and girls to Islam are not uncommon: around 1000 Christian and Hindu girls are kidnapped and converted every year.

The situation of Christians in Afghanistan is also very serious. Indeed, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan does not allow any Afghan citizen to become a Christian, nor does it recognize converts as such, but as apostates. This means that Afghan Christians cannot live their faith openly. The control of the Taliban, which is becoming more and more pressing and it is increasing in more parts of the national territory, also greatly affecting the lives of Christians, as does organized crime involved in the production of opium in the country.

To remain in the Asian continent, we find a very serious humanitarian issue in Myanmar. In the state of Rakhine, on the border with Bangladesh, live the Rohingya a Muslim faith group belonging to the poorest strata of the population. The Rohingya are not recognized by the Burmese government which has always considered them a threat to race and religion in the Buddhist majority country. They cannot access secondary education, suffer from restrictions on freedom of movement and are subjected to terrible violence, especially by the Burmese army. They live in overcrowded camps, so much so that in recent years hundreds of thousands have fled, and continue to flee, in Bangladesh, creating huge refugee camps. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) a veritable genocide is taking place.

To analyse the situation in another continent, we come to the Nigerian case. In Nigeria the population is divided in religious terms: for about 50% Muslim, Christians are divided into 26% Protestants and 14% Catholics. The rest of the population follows traditional religions. In the central regions of the country there are repeated clashes for the control of land and water resources between shepherds and farmers, divided between the Hausa-Fulani (Muslims) and the Berom (Christians) ethnic groups. In the state of Plateau, violence is very frequent, also due to the ongoing desertification of the territories. Therefore, the religious factor fits into very different problems. In June 2018, more than a hundred Christians were massacred by Fulani shepherds. In addition, Christian churches and villages are attacked, whose inhabitants must flee, fuelling the migratory phenomenon. In the northern part of the country, nearly 3,700 Christians were killed in 2018 because of their faith, according to the World Watch List report.

The phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism of Boko Haram fits into this context. The terrorist organization, influenced by Wahhabism, which has important links with other organizations outside Nigeria, such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, has surrendered and continues to be the protagonist of tremendous violence and jihadist attacks in the country. Also, in this case rape and forced conversion of women are practiced, as already mentioned above.

Radical Islam is also growing in Ethiopia, especially in some areas of the country. In rural areas it is even easier for Christians to be denied religious rights or freedoms. In August 2018, more than 10 Christians were killed and some churches were set on fire.

Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq, Syria and other countries of the Middle East carry out daily violence and attacks against the local Christian communities. In Iraq, Christians have drastically decreased; in fact, in just over 40 years, they have gone from about two million at the end of the 1970s to less than 400,000 today. The persecutions of extremists condemn the Christian faithful to choose between converting to Islam, paying large amounts of money in order to remain in the territory, without being able to profess their faith, or escape. Also, and above all, in the territories controlled by the Islamic State, Christians were forced to flee the violence and looting that the militiamen of the Caliphate perpetrated against them. More recently, when the Caliphate lost control of the conquered territories, many Christian families were able to return to their places of origin.

Future scenarios

The persecution of Christians, and of various ethnic-religious minorities, in many parts of the world will sadly be a phenomenon that will still characterize the entire globe in the coming decades. The sobering thing is that in some cases in the so-called democratic and civilized West it is not even mentioned. Pope Francis on several occasions has tried to place critical situations relating to Christian communities, and beyond, scattered throughout the world, at the centre of public attention, obviously hoping for peaceful and integrative solutions.

The spread of radical Islamist groups, especially in African countries, the Middle East and Asia, where in some cases there is a strong central state apparatus, is the main reason why Christians in particular become targets of violence and discrimination due to religious faith. However, not only them, because fights within the Islamic and Muslim world are, unfortunately, on the agenda. The historical division between the Sunni and the Shiite components is well known, but the various currents existing within them are not spared violence. Today, many more Muslims are being killed by other Muslims than Christians or the believers of other religions.

Nowadays, around the world, various wars and conflicts provide the environment in which minorities are persecuted. It is almost trivial to emphasize that religion and confessions must be a factor of union and not of division, and knowing how to respect every ethnic-religious minority is one of the distinctive signs of true democratization of a country. Therefore, not only must the entire international community commit itself to stopping the persecution and violence against every religious minority, but it must also be able to recognize equal dignity and the right to freedom of conscience.