Not only a religious issue
By Marc Fromager

This report, which examines religious freedom, seeks to assess evidence relating to the practice and expression of faith within a given country and to provide a view regarding the prospects for its development going forward.

Two problems must be avoided in failing to accurately reflect religious factors in an analysis of conflict, either by exaggerating the part it plays or by failing to acknowledge it sufficiently. In reality, religion is but one of many factors in play, many of which are inextricably linked.

In no particular order, a list of the factors involved would include: the weight of history, the impact of geography or the climate, political circumstances – both historic and contemporary, the demographic features, the socio-economic situation, culture, education levels and finally religion.

If we wanted to group these various elements together for the sake of clarity, we could probably assume that most of these causes could be broadly related to three fundamental areas: politics, economy and religion. The latter is often not considered in a systematic manner, except in a report like this where it is the main object of study.

Two recent crises help illustrate the complexity of such situations, namely the war in Syria and the exodus of the Rohingyas. Generally portrayed as a civil war, the Syrian crisis entails an international geopolitical dimension (Saudi-Iranian conflict and then Russian-American confrontation), an economic component (Qatari gas and Syrian oil) and a religious element (hostile fighting between Sunnis and Shias against the backdrop of the expulsion of religious minorities).

As far as the Rohingyas are concerned, the usual presentation of the situation oversimplifies the conflict by presenting it as poor, innocent Muslim victims persecuted by evil Burmese Buddhists. Without seeking to lessen the suffering of nearly half a million refugees or demean the countless victims, the fact remains that, when one examines the nature of this conflict, it is clear that it is not purely religious.

Again, we come across political factors: the desire for the secession of a tribal part within Burmese territory against a background of demographic changes (the Rohingyas are believed by many Burmese and the government to be mostly of Bengali origin) and economic causes (the discovery of a large hydrocarbon deposit offshore from this region, and the will to defy sizable Chinese investments).

These two illustrations show there is a religious factor but it cannot adequately account for the root-cause of either crisis. Taking into account this complexity highlights the importance of promoting religious freedom. This can help reduce the possible instrumentalisation of religion, and thereby eliminate one of the factors contributing to the crisis.

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.