By David Kilgour
THE 20th century was the worst in history in terms of violence directed at spiritual communities.
It is estimated, for example, that more Christians were killed in the 20th century than in the previous 19 combined.
One estimate of the number of human beings from all nationalities who died for their faith between 1900 and 2000 is a dismaying 169 million, including: 70 million Muslims; 35 million Christians; 11 million Hindus; nine million Jews; four million Buddhists; two million Sikhs and one million Baha'is . . .
Freedom to worship
Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that everyone enjoys freedom of conscience and religion.
This freedom to worship, or to choose not to worship, is part of Canada's appeal to immigrants from many lands who come here to pursue more fulfilled lives.
Religious freedom is a universal value; most of the world's nations have signed international agreements committing them to respect individual freedom of thought, conscience and belief. In too many, however, nationals continue to suffer for their beliefs or practice of their faiths; their governments refuse to recognize or protect this basic right.
Most of the persecution of spiritual communities during the 1900s and early years of the present century was committed by regimes which detested all religions, primarily because practitioners' deepest loyalties lay elsewhere.
Totalitarians around the world continue to persecute them with varying degrees of severity.
One of many cases to come out of China, whose party-state remains one of the world's worst violators of religious and other basic rights, is that of Liu Zhenying, better known in Canada as Brother Yun. His experiences as a follower of Jesus in his homeland, some of you have probably read about in his autobiography, The Heavenly Man . . .
Consider too the experience of another Christian, Gao Zhisheng, who has been persecuted mostly because of standing up for another large spiritual community, Falun Gong. He is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
In 2001, he was named one of China's top 10 lawyers despite not attending law school because of the cost. His family was so poor they lived in a cave when he was born. As a lawyer, he donated a third of his time to victims of human rights violations, representing miners, evicted tenants and others.
First the regime removed Gao's permit to practice law. This was followed by an attempt on his life, having police attack his wife and 14 year old daughter and denying the family any income. It worsened when Gao launched nationwide hunger strikes and called for justice and human dignity.
In 2006, he was sentenced to three years in prison for 'inciting subversion of state power'; international pressure appears to have caused a suspension of the sentence for five years.
The Canadian Friends of Gao wrote Prime Minister Harper earlier this year asking him to intervene for his release . . .
In Sudan, the Bashir regime has probably slaughtered more than 400,000 African Darfuris and expelled six times as many -- an estimated 2.5 million, after having killed an estimated two million and expelled even more in the predominantly Christian and animist South Sudan . . .
It's a genocide by Arab Muslims against African Muslims, and earlier in the South against Christians and animists.
Eric Reeves, a leading observer of Darfur, notes there are currently about 3.5 million people affected by its conflict, with about 10,000 dying per month from various unnatural causes. The personal testimony and pleas of Mia Farrow and others to protect the people of Darfur are deeply compelling.
Marc Gopin, a senior researcher at the Tufts University's Institute for Human Security, wrote some years ago about the then increasing attacks by Hindu militants upon Christians in parts of India . . .
The most dangerous friction in India is between Hindu and Muslim. I agree fully with Gopin that Gandhians across India should rekindle the movement towards conflict resolution and reconciliation not attempted on a large scale since the days of Gandhi himself. Indian Christians could play a constructive role here as well.
The 2008 extremist Hindu rampages in Orissa were hopefully terrible exceptions. The Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance issued a report on the situation in late February, just prior to the national elections in India. Several Canadian MPs picked up on the report and wrote to the national government of India.
The Supreme Court in rule of law and democratic India ruled that the national government was responsible for maintaining peace in Orissa and could not allow the state and local governments to ignore the illegal local persecution.
Canadians do impact what is taking place internationally. It is vital that more of us speak up about violations of spiritual freedoms regardless of where they occur. It is nonsense to suggest, for example, that doing so might affect our trade with a particular country.
What can we do?
One major lesson for all religious communities is clear: if we stand shoulder-to-shoulder when anyone in our own or another is being persecuted anywhere, lives can be saved. For example, in the '90s, hundreds of Edmontonians of many faiths demonstrated at city hall concerning the murderous persecution of Muslims in Bosnia. Later, many of us did the same at the legislative assembly over the persecution of Christians in Pakistan.
Hopefully, it made a difference; thousands of Canadian soldiers did join the NATO peacemakers that eventually went into the Balkans.
Developments in the post 9/11 period brought another test of Canadian resolve. One of its immediate consequences was an increase in hate crimes against Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs and Jews across the world.
The Samaj Hindu Temple of Hamilton was burned four days after September 11 by arsonists. This act of vengeful ignorance was roundly condemned by the vast majority of Canadians, who were horrified by this attack. Many offered support; the temple was fully restored to its original form.
It is only through mutual respect, understanding and support that we can build a better world which all peoples, religions and cultures can genuinely call their own. In the new century, moreover, probably more than ever in world history, only if faith communities can cooperate will peace across a shrunken planet be feasible.
-- Human rights activist and former MP David Kilgour gave the preceding speech October 16, 2009 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Ottawa.