Nothing is sacred for Putin: religion has become ‘collateral damage’ in war on Ukraine

Image credit: Lianne Kolrin

Religion has become “collateral damage” in Ukraine, foreign secretary Liz Truss told global ministers and religious leaders gathered in London for the 2022 FoRB conference. 

Welcoming almost 700 delegates from 100 countries to the International Ministerial Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference in Westminster, Liz Truss said “freedom to believe, to pray and commit acts of worship, or indeed not to believe” has been a fundamental freedom “since the dawn of time”. 

“Yet throughout history, we have seen oppressors crack down on freedom of religion or belief in order to exert control,” she said at the opening of the two-day event, which is hosted by the UK government. 

In her speech at the QEII Centre in Westminster, Ms Truss said: “Vladimir Putin and his enablers claim that Russia is waging a holy war, but in truth they believe nothing is sacred. We are seeing growing evidence of heinous war crimes committed by Russian troops.

“Innocent civilians are having to shelter from Russia’s indiscriminate bombardment in places of worship. Churches, synagogues and mosques have been reduced to rubble. Religion is proving to be collateral damage from Putin’s aggression.”

Later in the day the conference heard from representatives of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine who described the religious hardships imposed by the Russian occupation. They said: “The parishes of our church, as well as the parishes of most religious communities in occupied parts of Ukraine are under constant pressure. 

“When you as politicians extend freedom of religion or belief you show your care for your people. When you take it away you show indifference.”

– Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

“If you are not linked to the Russian state then you will encounter its counter-action and persecution.”

The conference opened with a performance by the Citizens of the World Choir, a musical collective of refugees from 30 countries. Together they performed Carol of the Bells, a Ukrainian song of hope. 

The conference — the fourth of its kind — was the first in person since 2019, with the most recent being staged remotely from Poland.

Despite the recent rise of Covid-19 in Britain, delegates sat shoulder to shoulder and largely maskless just a stone’s throw from the corridors of power. Hundreds of suited men and women sat alongside others in hijabs, turbans, saffron robes and other religious attire to discuss freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

Ms Truss condemned other abuses of the freedom enshrined in Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, saying: “In Xinjiang, the evidence is clear of the extraordinary scale of China’s targeting of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities, including severe restrictions on the freedom of religion.

“In Afghanistan, many of those with a belief the Taliban does not condone are forced to follow this in secret or flee for their safety.”

The opening session heard that more than 80 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where FoRB is under threat. 

Welcoming guests in a recorded message, the Prince of Wales said: “Freedom of conscience, of thought and of belief is central to any truly flourishing society. It allows people to contribute to their communities without fear of exclusion, to exchange ideas without fear of prejudice, and to build relationships without fear of rejection.”

Charles mentioned the “tragic paradox” of people of faith disrespecting others, saying: “If faith and belief leaders are seen as part of the problem, they must also form part of the solution.”

Also via video, Boris Johnson said: “Millions of people live in fear simply from following their religion or because of their beliefs … We ignore these voices at our peril, not just because of the ineluctable link between this and many of the human rights that we cherish, but because free societies are stronger and more prosperous and advance the global cause of peace.”

The conference coincides with Britain chairing the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, founded in 2020 and now with 36 signatories “fully committed to advancing freedom of religion or belief around the world”.

As part of that commitment, the UK has announced £500,000 of funding to support everyone’s “fundamental freedom” to follow a religion or belief. 

Attending in person were numerous faith leaders, among them the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who recently condemned the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. Today, he criticised political leaders who fail to go all out to protect FoRB. “Leadership is a hard task,” he said. “When you as politicians extend freedom of religion or belief you show your care for your people. When you take it away you show indifference.”

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis highlighted the persecution of Uyghurs in China, as well as the “worrying increase of antisemitism right around the world”. He pointed towards the “threat” to Jewish rituals such as circumcision and kosher slaughter in Europe, saying: “Surely this should have no place in Europe in 2022.”

He added: “We have seen how Holocaust denial and distortion have been used by Russian leaders to justify the war in Ukraine.”

Other notable speakers included Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the UK’s minister for human rights; Sheikh Mohammad al-Issa, secretary-general of Muslim World League; Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, head of the Worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community; Trupti Patel, president of the Hindu Forum of Britain; and Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh, chairman of Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jutha. 

Andrew Copson, president of Humanists International, told the conference that FoRB was just as important for those without a religion.

He said: “‘If FoRB is to be for everyone everywhere, we must all resist the temptation to impose our beliefs on others. This is how so many violations of FoRB originate. 

“That is true of the Christian in China whose atheist government prevents her from congregating freely as her conscience leads her, and of the non-religious woman in the West when Christians in her government block her conscientious choice of an abortion or any other practice. 

“Illiberal totalitarianism, whether atheist, Christian, Islamic: many forces limit freedom of religion or belief today. All of us are in the minority somewhere and all of us have brothers and sisters subject somewhere to the vilest of persecution.”

In a second session saw the MP Fiona Bruce, who is the UK’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, chaired a discussion on “Promoting FoRB in the face of global challenges”. 

Lord Alton of Liverpool described FoRB as the “orphaned right” because it is largely forgotten about, adding: “Why are we so indifferent to what is happening to the Yazidi, what is happening to the Rohingya, what is happening all over the world?”

Rashad Hussain, the US ambassador at large for religious freedom, said: “Education from a young age is one of the most critical tools we have. They [children] are not just learning academically — they are learning to get along with different people from different faiths.”

While many of the speakers raised the issues of religious discrimination in the developing world, Sam Brownback, former US ambassador for international freedom, pointed elsewhere. 

“The Europeans need to raise their voice far more on religious freedom as a fundamental human right,” he said. While he did not specify countries, he added: “Too often it [religion] is seen as compromising the right to advocate for LGBT issues.”

Yet he suggested that research showed countries with the highest regard for FoRB tend to boast the best LGBTQ+ rights. “It goes to the issue of fundamental freedom and dignity of the individual,” he said. 

A selection of breakout sessions throughout the conference are focusing on three core areas: prevention, protection and promotion. 

During one on prevention, Lord Pickles, the UK’s special envoy for Holocaust issues, discussed how religious infringements were often a precursor for genocide. “It’s a rarity for a genocide to take place privately or secretly,” he said. Referring to the growing restrictions on Jews in the run-up to the Second World War, he said: “All the signs were there in plain sight and in plain understanding.”

Attendees also heard from speakers about the plight of the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, the Hazara community in Afghanistan and persecution of Yazidis by Islamic State. 

Speaking remotely, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the United Nations’ special adviser on the prevention of genocide, detailed her experiences of meeting with many such communities. “I would say in all instances [of genocide] we have seen dehumanising hate speech. Hate speech isn’t only a precursor to genocide, it’s also an accompaniment,” she said. 

Running alongside the ministerial conference is the FoRB fringe, fronted by independent civil society organisations. Dozens of events are planned across the country on a huge range of issues including persecuted Christians in Africa, gender-specific religious persecution and whether governments should tackle the difficult question of God. 


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