CREID online event, opened by the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Rehman Chishti, and bringing together over 100 academics, faith leaders, human rights activists and NGO practitioners. highlights global trends of discrimination and violence experienced by religious minorities and marginalised communities during Covid-19.
The event, organised by the IDS-led Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID), brought together over 100 academics, faith leaders, human rights activists and NGO practitioners. They heard about the experiences of religious minorities and marginalised groups in Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan, and discussed what needs to be done to address religious inequalities – and the violence and hardship resulting from these – in a post-Covid-19 transition.
Five alarming global trends
It was opened by the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mr Rehman Chishti MP who outlined five alarming global trends depicting experiences of religious minorities following the spread of Covid-19:
- Governments using the pandemic to further repress minorities
- Religious minorities discriminated against in the provision of food aid and healthcare
- Religious minorities being blamed for the spread of Covid-19
- Online propaganda campaigns targeting religious minorities – spreading misinformation and inciting violence
- Technology being misused to further repress, discriminate or surveil religious minorities.
Professor Mariz Tadros, CREID Director, warned of history repeating itself, recounting the vilification of garbage collectors in Egypt, who are predominantly from the Coptic Christian minority, during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
Mistakenly referring to it as “swine flu”, the authorities ordered a mass culling of pigs as a knee-jerk response to contain the disease. As a result, 60,000-70,000 garbage collectors, who used the pigs to eat organic waste, lost their livelihoods causing an enormous waste management problem that persists to this day.
Experiences from Pakistan, Nigeria and Iraq
Pakistan: Sayid Ali Abbas Zaidi, Founder of HIVE, stressed the inextricable link between poverty and religious inequality. Experiences of minorities since the outbreak of Covid-19 demonstrate this: Food aid being denied to Christians and Hindus, Covid-19 labelled as a “Shia virus” (linking it to Shia pilgrims returning from Iran) and economic hardship for Christians and Hindus living in informal settlements where an estimated 60-80 per cent of daily wage workers have no legal contracts or insurance. Pre-existing discrimination continues unabated, such as forced religious conversions or the targeting of entire communities, such as the recent destruction of a Hindu settlement.
With support from CREID and Al-Khoei, HIVE developed a new programme of work to address these challenges. It includes crowd-sourcing funding from local communities to provide hard-hit Christian and Hindu families with basic supplies, a new website sharing personal experiences to dispel myths and stereotypes, monthly policy reports describing the challenges being faced by religious minorities, and community development projects, for example, installing a water filtration plant in a Christian community whose members currently have to walk 5km to access clean water.
Nigeria: Hajiya Fatima Suleiman, the Executive Director of the Islamic Counselling Initiative of Nigeria, is herself recovering from Covid-19. Living in northern Nigeria, she experienced first-hand the marginalisation of women during this pandemic. In the isolation centres she witnessed and experienced poor and unsuitable hygiene for women, male patients receiving more medical attention, fewer female personnel, lack of equipment, and experiences of depression amongst patients with few psychologists to encourage and inspire them. As a Covid-19 victim, she also experienced stigmatisation within her community and even within her family.
‘In my experience, religions makes little difference,’ Mrs Suleiman said. ‘In northern Nigeria, it’s poverty and lack of security that need to be addressed’. She added ‘the system needs to be completely re-vamped if we are hoping for a good post-Covid transition’. In the short-term, this means increasing women health practitioners and a campaign aimed at educating people, especially women, on safe approaches to hygiene, water and sanitation. In the long-term, there needs to be greater investment in basic education and a focus on women’s empowerment is essential.
Iraq: Mr Salam Omer, Editor-in-Chief at the independent media outlet, KirkukNow, has been working with CREID covering stories of how religious minorities in Iraq’s disputed territories are experiencing Covid-19. With only 100,000 Kaka’is left in Iraq, this long-standing minority of Kurdish ethnicity is facing an existential crisis.
Mr Omer said, ‘No religious or ethnic minority in Iraq has suffered from Covid-19 as much as Kaka’i minority… they are losing their lives and the source of their income. If it continues, we are going to lose minorities in those areas’.
Having previously suffered displacement and exile under the Ba’ath regime, they were targeted by IS, and are once again finding themselves under attack. Five villages have been evacuated and people are leaving the area. Kaka’is are also facing extreme economic hardship as they can no longer farm or sell the handicrafts for which they are renowned due to combination of IS attacks and lockdown.
Mr Mike Battcock, Head of Inclusive Societies at DfID summed up what is needed:
- Evidence to improve our understanding of the intersectionality of issues faced by religious minorities
- Reliable information to tackle fake news, misinformation and scapegoating
- Inter-faith community development action
- Empowerment of women
- Representation of minorities in decision-making spaces
- Getting aid to grassroots organisations that can support religious minorities
- Accountability of those who abuse human rights
- Building capacity of implementing organisations including delivering training and ensuring they are properly resourced.
The challenges faced by religious minorities are core development concerns that donors, development organisations and academics are familiar with: poverty, gender, safety and security.
Above all, as Professor Mariz Tadros reminded participants, ‘people need to have a voice and be sitting at the table and represent their own issues themselves.’
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