Weaponisation of technology driving explosion of religious hatred in COVID era, says report

April 20, 2021 John Pontifex

Persecution of faith groups has drastically increased in more than 95 percent of the world’s worst-offending countries – according to a report out today (20th April) highlighting how new tech is being used to crush religious freedom.

Religious Freedom in the World Report 2021 (RFR 2021) Front Cover in English language

The Religious Freedom in the World Report 2021 (RFR), produced by international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), found that, over the past two years, oppression against vulnerable faith communities has increased in all but one of the 26 countries listed in the survey’s worst (‘red’) category.

The report, which covers all 196 countries worldwide, traced the rise of transnational Islamist networks, including an online “cyber-caliphate”, which is “expanding globally [and] is now a tool of online recruitment and radicalisation”.

This core finding of the report, describes how “Islamist terrorists employ sophisticated digital technologies to recruit, radicalise and attack”.

Cross-border networks are “spreading across the Equator” leading to jihadist attacks from Mali to the Philippines, taking in Comoros in the Indian Ocean, with the aim of creating what the report calls “transcontinental caliphates”.

The report also describes how digital technology, cyber networks, surveillance including artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition technology has increased persecution.

The Chinese Communist Party is keeping religious groups in line with the help of 626 million AI-enhanced surveillance cameras and smartphone scanners.

In addition to Islamist extremism, the report identifies two principal protagonists of persecution, highlighting increased crackdowns by authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea, and majoritarian religious nationalists’ persecution of minorities in India and Burma (Myanmar).

COVID-19 was also to blame for increased persecution, according to the RFR, which found that societal prejudice against minorities, including in Turkey and Pakistan, meant that some faith groups were denied food and other vital aid.

The report concluded that violations of religious freedom occur in almost one third of the world’s countries (62 out of 196), many of them the most populous nations such as China, India and Pakistan.

Reflecting on the gravity of the RFR’s findings, ACN International President Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern stated: “Regrettably, despite the – albeit important – UN initiatives and the staffing of religious freedom ambassadorships, to date the international community’s response to violence based on religion and religious persecution in general can be categorised as too little, too late.”

The RFR also reported on increasing cases of sexual violence used as a weapon against religious minorities – crimes against women and girls who are abducted, raped and forced to convert.

In the West, the report concludes, there has been a rise in “polite persecution”, a phrase coined by Pope Francis to describe how new cultural norms and values have consigned religions to what the RFR calls “the quiet obscurity of the individual conscience”, making it more difficult for people of faith to access the public square.

Regarding positive developments, the RFR highlights progress in inter-religious dialogue, noting the Vatican’s role, in particular the declaration signed by the Pope and Sunni leader Grand Imam Ahamad Al-Tayyib of Al-Azar.

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