Sri Lanka’s Deteriorating Human Rights Situation Raises Multiple Alarms

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

Shreen Saroor

NEW DELHI, India, Feb 1 2021 (IPS) – A decade has passed since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war between the government and the LTTE, where at least 100,000 people were killed in the over three-decade long conflict. Families of victims of enforced disappearances continue to seek justice, the government is yet to end impunity and put accountability for crimes under international law and human rights violation and abuses in its transitional justice process.


In a recent United Nations Human Rights Office of The High Commissioner report, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stressed that the failure to deal with the past continues to have devastating effects on tens of thousands of families in Sri Lanka, who are still waiting for justice, reparations – and the truth about the fate of their loved ones. The report warns that the failure of Sri Lanka to address past violations has significantly “ heightened the risk of human rights violations being repeated.”

“Sri Lanka’s current trajectory sets the scene for the recurrence of the policies and practices that gave rise to grave human rights violations.” The report also flags the pattern of intensified surveillance and harassment of civil society organizations, human rights defenders and victims, and a shrinking space for independent media.

“I see the OHCHR report as something that will give more oxygen to continue our many struggles, especially for truth and justice,” says Sri Lanka based human rights activist Shreen Saroor to IPS News. The report has articulated the lack of access to justice and the need for accountability very well. It is robust on militarisation and deep securitisation of Sri Lanka and calls for rigorous vetting and demilitarization with a warning of grave consequences if failed, says Shreen.

“Michelle Bachelet’s criticism on surveillance on CSOs and shrinking space for dissent and the abuses of Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act are alarming. However in order to prevent another round of conflict, the report should emphasize more on the ongoing attacks against countries’ religious minorities,” says Shreen.

Earlier in december 2020, Muslims in Sri Lanka were outraged over the forced cremation of a 20-day-old COVID-19 victim against the family’s wishes. Sri Lanka has been flagged for ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines which permits both burial and cremations.

In a country where minorities are marginalized and discriminated against, Muslims who fall victim to COVID-19 are unjustly prevented from being laid to rest in accordance with their religious beliefs and are forcibly cremated, said Amnesty International in a statement. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world which has made cremations mandatory for people who have died or are suspected of having died from COVID-19. The rights group urged the Sri Lankan Government to not forget that “ it has a duty to ensure all people in Sri Lanka are treated equitably. COVID-19 does not discriminate on grounds of ethnic, political or religious differences, and nor should the Government of Sri Lanka.”

“Many of us who have witnessed continuous minority rights violations over three decades in Sri Lanka, it is important for OHCHR to take on the issue of growing Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism and the extreme nationalism that has been mentioned in the OHCHR report.

“It is time for OHCHR to come up with an early prevention strategy, so that another bloody war or religious violence in this country is prevented,” says Shreen.

Human Rights Watch in its recently released 93-page report, Open Wounds and Mounting Dangers: Blocking Accountability for Grave Abuses in Sri Lanka, examines the efforts by the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to thwart justice in seven prominent human rights cases.

“The Sri Lankan government’s assault on justice increases the risk of human rights abuses today and in the future,” said John Fisher, Geneva Director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Human Rights Council should adopt a resolution at its upcoming session that demonstrates to the Rajapaksa administration that the world won’t ignore its abuses and offers hope of justice to victims’ families, the report stated.

In 2018, just before and during the ongoing session of the UNHRC, Sri Lankan authorities made several announcements to signify their commitments to pledges made in the October 2015 resolution on justice and accountability for abuses during Sri Lanka’s civil war.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksha months into his tenure in November 2019, made several changes including replacing the 19th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution, which was enacted to limit excessive executive power and facilitate independent institutions including the judiciary with the 20th Amendment, which consolidated power in the executive and nullified the independent commissions mainly Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commissions and Office of the Missing Persons. “Rajapaksa appointed people implicated in war crimes and other serious violations to senior administration positions,” said Shreen.

In February 2020 Sri Lanka withdrew itself from the 2019 UN resolution on post-war accountability and reconciliation, which is scheduled to be taken up in the upcoming session.

Sri Lanka’s main Tamil political parties are now urging for an international probe, and in a joint letter addressed to members of the UN Human Rights Council said, “It is now time for Member States to acknowledge that there is no scope for a domestic process that can genuinely deal with accountability in Sri Lanka.”

According to this report, Sri Lanka is in discussion with India and other countries for support to counter the Core Group’s move which could lead to targeted sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans against alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses in the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The author is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi. She hosts a weekly online show called The Sania Farooqui Show where Muslim women from around the world are invited to share their views.

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Not in Our Name, Never in Our Name: A Conversation with Muslim Faith Leaders Echoing the Wisdom of a Pontiff

Civil Society, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Azza Karam serves as the Secretary-General of Religions for Peace (#Religions4Peace – www.rfp.org) and is a Professor of Religion and Development at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres meets religious leaders April 2020 at Gurdwara Kartapur Sahib in Punjab province in Pakistan. Religious leaders of all faiths are being urged by the Secretary-General to join forces and work for peace around the world and focus on the common battle to defeat COVID-19. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

NEW YORK, Oct 26 2020 (IPS) As the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb said on October 20: “As a Muslim and being the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, I declare before Almighty God that I disassociate myself, the rulings of the religion of Islam, and the teachings of the Prophet of Mercy, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), from such heinous terrorist act and from whoever would embrace such deviant, false thought.


At the same time, I reiterate that insulting religions and abusing sacred religious symbols under the slogan of the freedom of expression, are forms of intellectual terrorism and a blatant call for hatred. Such a terrorist and his likes do not represent the true religion of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Likewise, the terrorist of New Zealand, who killed the Muslims while praying in the mosque, does not represent the religion of Jesus, peace be upon him. Indeed, all religions prohibit the killing of innocent lives”

The above words of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif — Sunni Islam’s intellectual headquarters, long standing knowledge base and one of its political epicenters — were shared at an ongoing conference hosted by the St Egidio Community, entitled “No One is Saved Alone Peace and Fraternity”.

In turn, these words were read out at this meeting, by Judge Mohammed Abdel Salam, the first Muslim to ever present a Papal Encyclical (in October 2020), and the first Muslim ever to be decorated as Commander with a star medal (Commenda con Placca dell’ordine Piano), by the Pope, for his great role and efforts in promoting interreligious dialogue and the relationships between Al-Azhar and the Catholic Church (in March 2019).

Judge Mohammed Abdel Salam is the Secretary General of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, and represents the Grand Imam on the World Council (governing board) of Religions for Peace, a 50 year-old multi-religious organization representing all the world’s religious institutions and faith communities – in effect, a “UN of religions”.

And yet these words seem to have to be repeated again and again. Many Muslims live in fear that each and every day’s news potentially bears yet another heinous act of violence whose mad perpetrator(s) claim(s) is done for or inspired by “Islam”.

Many Muslims still hear two comments again and again from within the western hemisphere: “where is the condemnation?”, and even more insidiously, an assertion that “there must be something in the religion that makes these repeated acts of violence …possible”.

Some western government-sanctioned narratives go so far as to describe “Islamic extremism”, further compounding a sense of victimisation by many Muslims, and adding to the ‘spin’ that the religion itself is capable of extremism.

No religion is itself intrinsically capable of anything. People live religion. In his latest Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”( in Chapter 8 “religion and fraternity”), the Pontiff focuses on “Religions at the service of fraternity in our world” and emphasizes that terrorism is not due to religion but to erroneous interpretations of religious texts, as well as “policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression” (paragraphs 282-283).

The Encyclical maintains that a journey of peace among religions is possible and that it is therefore necessary to guarantee religious freedom, a fundamental human right for all believers (paragraph 279).

Muslims – leaders, laypeople, communities, and multiple institutions – have condemned, continue to condemn and will always condemn violence in the name of their faith.

Imam Sayyed Razawi, the Secretary General of the Scottish Ahl al-Bayt Society, and a Trustee of Religions for Peace, notes that “since Islam does not teach harming others, a question that arises is what was the motivation of an individual who had a claim to being Muslim, to violate the parameters of the laws of his faith and country in committing such an act?

There is no doubt Muslims, be they in France or across the world, hurt, when their Prophet is seemingly insulted. However, it does not justify breaking the very principles laid down in Islam to prevent such acts”.

Both Judge Abdel Salam and Imam Razawi, are of similar age. The former, living in the Arab world, the latter, living in the West. Both are Muslim leaders, and both are well versed in Islamic Jurisprudence, and learned about Islamic traditions. Both continue to iterate, in multiple speeches, conferences and contexts, that what inspires them, is to serve humanity.

Imam Sayed Razawi continues to note that serving humanity leads us down a pathway which has various labels, though amounting to roughly the same thing: interfaith, inter religious dialogue, and/or multi faith collaboration. The ultimate aim and purpose have always been, and remains, how best to live harmoniously with others.

For both these Muslim leaders, and millions of other Muslims, the inspiration to maintain that such atrocities are not in our name, comes from the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). A man who even before prophecy was working with peoples of various faiths and backgrounds. A merchant, whose employer was a woman – later to become his wife when she proposed to him- and who believed passionately in being truthful and trustworthy.

“So much so” Razawi maintains, “that Jews, Christians, and pagans alike would entrust him with that which they held valuable to themselves, with the belief it would be safe. As a Prophet, Muhammad developed a city where Muslims lived side by side with Jews, Christians, Sabians and pagans. These lessons lead to the formation of a civilisation on the very same principles: coexistence and peace.”

Both the Imam and the Judge speak of their hurt when evil acts such as what has been witnessed in Paris take place. Both maintain, again, alongside countless others, that “it is important to repeat and continue to repeat that these are not the teachings of Islam, nor its Prophet or the interpretations of core Islamic principles”.

These atrocities are against what they believe, what they live, and what they preach, which is: peaceful coexistence, reconciliation and obeying the laws of the land one lives in, not to mention the need to uphold virtues such as compassion, love and forgiveness.

Both maintain that acts of violence are not reflective of a religion whose leaders have categorically emphasised the need for “loving thy neighbour”, because, as Imam Razawi states “either a person is your brother in faith, or your equal in your humanity.”

So why would an act be committed which is contrary to the very faith the actor confesses to be?

This is the question secular policy-makers may not ask. Or perhaps they do ask behind closed doors in rooms bursting with indifference to religion and religious sentiments.

Or yet again, maybe this is a question asked by religious ‘technocrats’ (those working on religion in secular spaces) and/or secular bureaucrats keen on instrumentalizing religious sentiments for ‘national security’ concerns.

But this is the question that every faith leader asks – and asks repeatedly. The answers lie, again, in what the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”, calls for, which the Catholic Pontiff also concludes his Encyclical with: “we were made for love” (Paragraph 88), and love builds bridges.

But how can we build bridges with love? Religions for Peace has been doing this work through 96 national and regional Inter-Religious Councils, with representatives of all faith traditions, for five decades.

In 2019, 250 religious leaders committed to building these bridges with and through service to the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda.

When Covid-19 hit, Religions for Peace set up a Multi-Religious Humanitarian Fund dedicated to supporting faith communities work to serve all, together. The religious leaders understood that there is no point to working to realise the SDGs, without a mechanism to collate and coordinate their efforts, geared towards serving social cohesion (in a world gone awry), within our new normal: humanitarian crisis.

Confronting Covid is an opportunity to work together across religious and institutional differences to build bridges of love. The humanitarian call is being heeded today like never before, by the first responders in crisis situations – i.e. religious institutions and NGOs. But few of these religious NGOs are actually collaborating, meaning jointly investing their resources, to serve together.

We can keep on having meetings to speak to building back better, and the uniqueness of faith (or business or civil society actors), and still face countless acts of violence (attributed to religion) from those whose sense of marginalization is intensifying.

We can choose to continue to serve our own organizational and territorial visibility and interests, while hundreds of thousands continue to die, and millions suffer, from a shared ecosystem of planetary degradation.

Or we can serve the multi-religious call – the multi-religious imperative – and actually pool our financial, human and spiritual resources together – to build bridges with love. The choice is ours.

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Religion & the Pandemic: A Call Beyond the Here & Now

Civil Society, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Prof. Azza Karam is Secretary General, Religions for Peace International

Religions for Peace Interreligious Council of Albania distributing Covid relief supplies from the Multi-religious Humanitarian Fund. Credit: Erzen Carja

NEW YORK, Aug 4 2020 (IPS) – — I have never been interested in religion or spirituality before, but I found myself tuning in to all sorts of on-line religion and spirituality related forums “in search of something.”


These are the words of a 30-something single young, middle class man (born into a Protestant-Catholic family background) in a European country.

The latter is known more for turning several churches into museums or shopping centers, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. When people are afraid, lonely and alone – they tend to seek “something” beyond science.

A quarter of Americans say their faith has become stronger because of the pandemic, according to a Pew survey conducted during April 20-26, 2020, of 10,139 U.S. adults.

But this is to be contrasted with the experiences of those from an older generation (60+) in the southern hemisphere, like my own 85-year old Muslim father, who lives to pray. For him, the mosque has, over the last decade since my mother’s death, become both his spiritual hub and social club.

His cohort is differing ages of retirees, who, in spite of very different political perspectives in a Middle Eastern country reflecting the now normal of intense polarization, treasure their prayerful community spaces. This middle class (an endangered species to be sure) of retirees, share a sense of deep faith informing their social and political convictions.

For many of them, the lockdown was experienced primarily s an inability to go to the mosque, and thus as almost physically painful. None of them countenanced the idea of on-line prayers, that doesn’t make any sense, they maintained. Their sense of depression was almost palpable throughout the lockdown period, as was their joy at the reopening of some mosques.

The coronavirus presents barriers to caring for the sick and to performing certain death and burial rites which are core religious practices, and especially needed in a pandemic that has already claimed nearly hundreds of thousands of lives.

In Sri Lanka for example, public health measures for safe burial practices have already challenged traditional rites, wherein authorities mandated cremations for Covid-19-linked deaths, despite the fact that cremation is supposed to be forbidden in Islam.

Covid-19 also complicates Jewish and Muslim burial practices of washing and cloaking bodies before burial, given concerns about transmission. Innovative religious responses seeking to reconcile public health policies with traditional burial practices have been taking place.

In Israel, for example, bodies are wrapped in plastic before burial, and before that, ritual washing is completed while wearing full protective gear. Some Islamic scholars are providing exegesis and guidance on how the ritual of washing the body prior to burials, could be conducted safely whilst following Islamic principles.

Religions for Peace Interreligious Council of Albania distributing Covid relief supplies from the Multi-religious Humanitarian Fund. Credit: Erzen Carja

This echoes what occurred during the Ebola crisis in West Africa. In fact, while COVID-19 differs from HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis, and Ebola, there are nevertheless some important similarities.

In cases of dealing with diseases where transmission affects large numbers of people, and vaccines and medication remain relatively hard to find and/or provide to all affected, beyond the health inequities which are underscored during such times, there are critical lapses by national and international authorities in acknowledging and supporting the role of religious leaders.

In fact, during previous outbreaks of HIV/AIDS (around the world), and of Ebola in Central and West Africa, the strengths of religious communities were rarely incorporated into public policy – until national and international secular authorities lose the plot.

In Religions for Peace (the only multi religious organization representing all religious institutions and communities around the world with 90 national and 6 regional Inter-Religious Councils/IRCs), a founding mantra is that caring for the most vulnerable is deeply embedded in all faith traditions.

As a result, religious institutions, communities, and faith-inspired/based NGOs (or FBOs as they are often referred to), have historically served as the original providers of essential social services. In fact, FBOs are the first responders in most humanitarian emergencies. Their work includes providing spiritual sustenance for sure, but also hunger relief, heath care, and shelter.

This is not only a feature of the developing world. Samaritan’s Purse set up a health center at the height of the pandemic in Central Park – an icon of New York city. Caritas, at one point, was feeding 5,000 people a day, in Geneva, Switzerland.

For 50 years, Religions for Peace worked to equip its IRCs (through the respective religious institutions and services) to seek peace through advocating for human rights (including the rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as women, religious minorities, the disabled, elderly, and youth), mediating conflicts, providing emergency humanitarian relief, and contributing to sustainable development efforts (including health, nutrition, sanitation, education and environmental sustainability).

The defining feature of Religions for Peace IRCs is multi-religious collaboration. The main principles of this collaboration are representativity and subsidiarity. In the case of the former, each IRC earns Religions for Peace affiliation by ensuring its governance represents each and all of the nations religious institutions, and communities. In return, each IRC is guaranteed its independence to determine its national/regional priorities, and its modus operandi.

Half a century of collaboration with several United Nations entities at different moments in time, provides a comparative context to enable an assessment of how the UN works with some religious actors.

At the very least, this historical time-line of partnership efforts on peace and security, sustainable development and human rights, provides a learning context. It is with that in mind that we can say that UN efforts in seeking partnerships with faith-based NGOs in facing the Covid-19 implications, are noticeably on the increase relative to pre-Covid dynamics.

Entities like UNHCR, UNICEF, UNAIDS, WHO, and even non-operational entities like the Secretary-General’s own office, as well as UN Office of Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect, have, respectively, issued statements specifically calling on religious leaders and actors to uphold their unique influences (noted above), sought religious input on and in Covid Guidance documents, and (are) hosting multiple consultations to strengthen myriad joint responses.

Working with multiple stakeholders, Religions for Peace research is revealing that while some religious charities are struggling to find resources to continue their services for communities, other FBOs are able to raise more resources for pandemic relief, than anticipated.

This is particularly the case for Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist organisations in countries in Asia, but also Muslim and Christian charities in Africa and the Middle East.

Almost 90% of Religions for Peace IRCs reported a 100% increase in engagement (asks) of their advocacy and messaging efforts from/by national governments, particularly as of May and June 2020 – as compared to this time last year.

This is evidenced through national campaigns during religious occasions and holidays, as well as local awareness raising efforts by religious leaders in particular, as opposed to faith-based NGOs.

Out of the Covid response efforts tracked by 25 Religions for Peace IRCs in 4 regions, thanks to the Multi-Religious Humanitarian Fund administered by RfP, multi-religious efforts are, on average, much harder to encourage than efforts administered by Ecumenical or single religion organisations.

A rough estimate shows that out of the nearly 100 humanitarian assistance projects being tracked by RfP in 40 countries in parts of Africa and Asia, only 1 percent involve multi-religious efforts. Several IRCs have also reported finding it harder to even advocate for multi religious collaboration to provide pandemic assistance (food and medicine packages) in conflict impacted countries (i.e. more than it normally is to seek to mediate some of the conflicts and/or work with governments in mediation efforts).

While it is now almost a cliche to call for more partnerships with religious, or faith-based actors, this is simply not good enough. FBOs, like many NGOs fully immersed in relief efforts, are finding several (good) excuses not to work together.

Faced with a global pandemic, even the FBOs – ostensibly inspired by religious calls for serving all, including the most vulnerable – are less keen on collaborating across their multiple differences (institutional, theological, structural, financial and political), as they continue to serve millions.

Is it enough to serve all who need regardless of religious affiliation (the current bar against which religious NGOs are often measured by the UN and other international entities), or should a pandemic inspire more, and better collaboration among multi-religious partners?

One can but wonder what the relative lack of religious NGO collaboration may foretell for social coexistence after the pandemic, not to mention what this lack of collaboration spells for the legitimacy of the so-called prophetic voice many of them speak of.

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Religion & its Discontents: Considerations Around COVID-19 & Africa

Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Featured, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Religion, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Dr. Azza Karam is the Secretary General of Religions for Peace International and Professor of Religion and Development at the Vrije Universiteit (VU), Amsterdam; Dr. Mustafa Y. Ali is the Secretary General of the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Credit: United Nations

NEW YORK, May 8 2020 (IPS) – COVID-19 has spread to many nations around the world, and has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. In the global south, the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched the available medical and health resources, triggered economic shocks, and caused social upheavals and insecurity in many countries and localities.


While the pandemic has caused huge numbers of infections and deaths in the global north, the consequences in the poorer nations in the global south is acute.

Serious challenges arising from responses from authorities to contain the pandemic ranging from hard to soft lockdowns, curfews, limitations in movements, and social distancing, are causing strains in communities.

From fragile economies to ill- equipped health facilities and underfunded health programs, to the almost non-existent social security measures that would ordinarily cushion large segments of pupations from falling further into poverty, the impact on many communities in the global south will be grave.

While COVID-19 has not had a devastating impact on Africa as it has elsewhere, according to official statistics, we fear that this may change.

On the health side, health experts are already warning that the pandemic could yet exact a much heavier death toll in the region if it overwhelms local health services – as has happened in the United States and United Kingdom.

There are also concerns that the relatively weak health systems and patchy testing may be enabling COVID-19 to spread through Sub-Saharan Africa, without a means of registering any of this data.

The official figures to date locate much of the pandemic’s regional burden in places like South Africa, which has reported nearly 5,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and recently deployed hundreds of Cuban doctors to help fight its impact, and more than 1,800 confirmed cases in Cameroon, which has launched nationwide testing in April.

Two countries in the region, Lesotho and Comoros, have yet to officially report any cases, let alone Covid related deaths. According to a director of the African Center for Disease Control, the collapse of global cooperation has marginalised Africa in the diagnostics market, and its lack of hospitals combined with a high prevalence of HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and malnutrition could lead to relatively high COVID-19 mortality rates.

Food security is another major issue. Speaking of concerns in Nigeria, Sister Agatha Chikelue, Executive Director of the Cardinal Onaiyekan Foundation and Coordinator of Religious for Peace’s interfaith Women’s Network, noted that people are afraid of dying of “Hovid” – the hunger caused as a result of loss of livelihoods from the lockdown.

Religious leaders join COVID-19 fight in Africa. Credit: United Nations

Small wonder, therefore, that Nigeria is one of the countries already struggling to consider reopening some of their businesses, in spite of dire warnings.

According to a UN report, Africa is home to more than half of the 135 million who suffer acutely from food insecurity, which means there are serious concerns about famines and the potential for a significant death toll.

In other words, we are speaking of very real fears that the Covid crises may cause famine in combination with the drought, which will have dire consequences on the conflict-affected countries in the continent.

John Letzing, Digital Editor of Strategic Intelligence at the World Economic Forum, lists some of the dynamics facing the continent as reported on by a number of different sources. Notably,

Some Africans may be suffering indirectly from the impact of COVID-19 while
abroad – in early April, images and video emerged of Africans in Guangzhou,
China, being subjected to passport seizures and arbitrary quarantine,
according to this report. (The Diplomat). Africa has undergone an incredible
journey to make routine immunization possible, though immunization
coverage in sub-Saharan Africa has stalled at 72%. Now, COVID-19 presents
a further threat to progress, according to this analysis. (New African)

Despite the heralding of the coronavirus, there are those who argue that Africa’s governments did little to prepare themselves, their systems, or their people. Other commentators note that many countries have made plans to ease coronavirus-related measures.

There is some speculation that lessons learned from incidents like the 2014 Ebola outbreak will contribute to some countries’ capacities to weather the storm.

The fact is, that one of the key containment measures—social distancing—will be impossible in the crowded markets, high-density informal settlements and dwellings shared by more than one family. Another oft repeated advise is that of frequent handwashing in clean water. But what happens when clean water to drink, is in very short supply for many households across the sub-Saharan African continent?

Moreover, it is inconceivable that governments will, on their own, be able to meet the needs of all their citizens in this COVID pandemic. Many were already struggling to do so even before the pandemic struck.

Besides offering spiritual guidance and support, which is increasingly needed in times of fear and uncertainty, faith communities and organizations in Africa as elsewhere, have, over the years, supplemented governments’ efforts to provide education, health, nutritional and other developmental needs to their communities.

They also have been in the forefront of peacebuilding initiatives, and in advocating for rights-based approaches to development, protection of, and ending violence against children and minorities.

With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging communities and creating fear and despondency, faith-based and faith-inspired organizations are already providing and augmenting critical services in health care provision – including but not limited to palliative care – and as part of the supply chains (for food, medicines, spiritual relief) reaching the heart of communities.

Religious organisations are also key to disseminating accurate news about the impacts and effects of the pandemic, rendering more critical their services as communicators and advisers on behavioral changes needed to keep communities safe.

Those of us engaged in working with religious actors speak of 84% of the world’s people claiming an affiliation to a faith tradition. This applies to all the world, and the sub-Saharan African subcontinent is no stranger to religiosity and belief as normal in everyday lives.

In times of fear, most believers will turn to faith, and this means that religious institutions, religious leaders and religious NGOs are playing a key role including psycho-social healing of COVID-19 traumas.

The fact is, however, that not all faith actors play the same role. And even when most play a positive role in helping communities and governments to cope, this does not mean all do. We know that some faith leaders are adamant that congregating for religious worship is a means of healing, because “God will spare us”.

These messages are hardly helpful when science and life and death experience indicate that social distancing is not only advisable, but downright necessary.

While the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire to all conflicts has been echoed by many religious leaders around the world, the question remains whether actors involved in extremist groups using religion as their raison d’etre will contemplate heeding such calls.

In fact, COVID-19 lockdowns may even be opportunities to ramp up violence, as government security services are otherwise engaged. This begs two important questions we have yet to find answers for:

To what extent will those religious institutions involved in providing for the daily spiritual, psycho-social, humanitarian care for their communities, and already overwhelmed in reconfiguring the very nature of religious worship, find the wherewithal to engage with the ‘radical fringes’ in African contexts already deeply divided by conflicts?

And what impact will COVID-19 have on the very same armed groups still insistent on playing out their conflicts? Already, some of those who still carry weapons, are working to serve some of their community needs – providing food, water and even money to households having to do without.

And as they serve their communities’ needs, the extremist groups have also ramped up attacks. In March and April, armed attacks in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 37 %, adding significant strain on the already overstrained resources, currently re-directed to COVID-related emergencies.

Sheikh Ibrahim Lethome, Secretary General of the Center for Sustainable Conflict Resolution, and Convener for the GNRC (Global Network of Religions for Children) Horn of Africa Working Group on religious-based extremism, is not surprised that the extremist groups have fully seized the confusion and despondency that COVID-19 has thrust into already fragile communities.

These stretch from the Sahel in West Africa, the Horn of Africa to Southern Africa’s Cabo Delgado in Mozambique

Will COVID-19 offer an opportunity for a different trajectory for some of those groups? As these groups continue to plant bombs, kill and maim, what will become of armed insurgency in the name of religion, when COVID-19 hits hard in Africa?

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International conference in Vienna: Successful societies are those that manage diversity and stimulate empathy towards the Other

Conferences, Human Rights, Religion

VIENNA, Jun 21 2019 – Societies must work together to build more tolerance, solidarity and peace within and between nations, said the Executive Director of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue, Ambassador Idriss Jazairy, during the 19 June international conference on “From Interfaith, Inter-Civilizational Cooperation to Human Solidarity.” He emphasized that all such societies are built on shared aspirations and not shared ethnicity.


This Geneva Centre was one of the organizers of this major event together with the Baku International Centre for Interreligious and Inter-Civilizational Cooperation and the KAICIID Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Centre.

It gathered over 200 high-level experts from 30 countries and 10 international organizations. A special message of greeting was extended to the co-organizers of the conference and the participants by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan HE llham Aliyev during the inaugural ceremony.

As the moderator of the opening and the first plenary sessions, Ambassador Jazairy stated that although the Berlin Wall was demolished in 1989, new physical and virtual walls were being erected which were breaking up societies and multilateralism.

It is one of the greatest paradoxes of the contemporary world that major world faiths and creeds that all preach human fraternity are being perverted to justify hatred and exclusion. The threat to peoples is not diversity, but poverty. Terrorism has no religion, denomination or nationality. It is a social cancer that affects the whole world,” he said.

To overcome this situation, Ambassador Jazairy highlighted the importance of promoting awareness of both the commonality of values and the specificities of practices of diverse faiths as expressions of enrichment through pluralism. He emphasized that all faiths supported God-given dignity to human beings and the duty of all to uphold it in particular for women and girls and vulnerable groups. Likewise, he recalled that all such faiths equally advocate the love of one’s neighbor.

The Executive Director of the Geneva Centre praised the outcome of the 25 June 2018 World Conference on religions and equal citizenship rights, the World Tolerance Summit organized in November 2018 in Dubai, the historical meeting of 4 February 2019 between the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar held in Abu Dhabi, and the Fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue held in-May 2019 in Azerbaijan.

In his concluding remarks, the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director underlined that the promotion of equal citizenship rights is the silver-bullet to promote successful societies that manage diversity and stimulate empathy towards the other.

Ambassador Jazairy added: ‘Ethnicity, religious or political affiliations do not convey more rights on some groups than on others. As the US Congress affirmed already in 1782 ‘E pluribus unum.’ This diversity needs to become again the subject of cultural celebration and lay the foundation for social cohesion and the promotion of inclusive societies. There can be no sustainable pursuit of happiness in islands of prosperity surrounded by oceans of poverty.”

The Executive Director of the Geneva Centre concluded his statement by appealing to countries from the Global North and the Global South to jointly promote empathy between different cultures and civilizations and to “speak up together so that the conference message comes out loud and clear and is picked up by politicians who can make it become a reality.”

In the concluding session of the conference, the co-organizers endorsed an outcome declaration welcoming, inter alia, the adoption of the 25 June 2018 World Conference 10-Point Outcome Declaration on “Moving Towards Greater Spiritual Convergence Worldwide in Support of Equal Citizenship Rights” which was sponsored by the Geneva Centre and its partners last year.

The co-organizers likewise adopted a joint message to the President of Azerbaijan HE Ilham Aliyev and to the President of Austria HE Alexander Van der Bellen appealing to both countries to address obstacles to sustainable peace and development, promote inter-civilizational dialogue and to make this conference format replicable at regular intervals in the future.

 

Executive Director of the Geneva Centre received by the Chairman of the Caucasus Muslims Board His Virtue Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazadeh

Conferences, Religion

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN, May 3 2019 – (Geneva Centre) – The Head of the Religious Community in Azerbaijan His Virtue Shaikh-ul Islam Allahshukur Pashazadeh invited the Executive Director of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue Ambassador Idriss Jazairy to a private audience in his residence in Baku.


During the visit, His Virtue Pashazadeh expressed his appreciation to the endeavours of the Geneva Centre to promote mutual understanding and cooperative relations between people and societies through the holding of the 25 June 2018 World Conference on religions and equal citizenship rights that received strong support from the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres.

His Virtue Pashazadeh and Ambassador Jazairy agreed that the Caucasus Muslims Board and the Geneva Centre are united by their vision to promote equal citizenship rights in multi-cultural and multi-religious societies worldwide.

In light of this discussion, the participants highlighted the need to capitalize on the momentum of the World Conference, the Joint Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together signed on 4 February 2019 by HH Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayib in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, as well as the Fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue held in Baku to examine inventive ways to carry the process forward to harness the collective energy of religions in the pursuit of equal citizenship rights.

His Virtue Pashazadeh invited the Executive Director of the Geneva Centre to co-organize the 19 June 2019 conference on “From the Inter-faith, inter-civilizational cooperation to human solidarity” to be organized together with the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Austria.

Ambassador Jazairy accepted for the Geneva Centre to be a co-sponsor of this important initiative and agreed to present a statement in Vienna on this occasion

The meeting was concluded by an official dinner that was attended by high-level government officials including the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Azerbaijan Abulfas Garayev.