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Moscow conference focuses on upswing in persecution of Christians worldwide

Uncertainty in Middle East; Is 'Arab Spring' becoming winter for religious minorities?

Participants of a high-level religious freedom meeting in Moscow last week vowed to keep the plight of persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East and Africa in the international community spotlight.

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About 100 million Christians worldwide -- mainly in the Middle East and parts of Africa -- are suffering persecution or are caught up in violent religious conflict, according to conference organizers.

The three-day International Conference on the Freedom of Religion and Discrimination against Christians began November 30 and brought together a diverse group of leaders from the Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Catholic and Islamic communities. Topping the agenda was the growth of what some have called "Christianophobia" in many countries where dominant religions or ideologies exert significant political and social power.

Vasily Stolyar, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Euro-Asia, said conference participants were united in their resolve to do more to alleviate the plight of religious minorities suffering persecution worldwide.

"Are we are our brother's keeper? Yes! We have a responsibility to speak out on behalf of our brothers and sisters who cannot speak for themselves," Stolyar said.

Discussions at the conference also focused on the impact of the so-called "Arab Spring" on the rights of religious minorities in countries that have experienced dramatic political change.

John Graz, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Adventist world church, described the issues raised at the conference as a "significant and growing concern for religious liberty advocates."

"The fate of religious minorities in a number of countries of the Middle East is still uncertain," Graz said. "It's a developing political situation, and we don't know yet what the long term stance of new governments in places such as Tunisia or Egypt will be toward Christians and other non-Islamic religious groups."

Graz added that the IRLA has been tracking an upswing in social harassment and attacks against religious minorities in the region over the past year, including a rise in anti-Christian sentiment. He pointed, also, to United Nations reports that have tracked a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq and, more recently, from Libya -- a trend that indicates a significant sense of unease among minority religious groups.

Graz said it was vital to keep these concerns constantly before the eyes of the international community as new governments determine whether to recognize religious minorities.

"We urge governments around the world, along with international bodies such as the United Nations, to do everything in their power to ensure that religious freedom, as a fundamental human right, is both recognized and protected in these countries," Graz said. [Bettina Krause/PARL]