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Advancing religious freedom despite persecutions on the rise

Despite religious persecution surging globally, the Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Nury Turkel, talks about ways to combat the phenomenon and affirms that Pope Francis' powerful gestures to promote interreligious visits have concrete value.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

While religious freedom may always be greatly threatened, an expert says there are ways to combat persecution and promote this fundamental human right.

This was conveyed by Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Nury Turkel, when addressing Vatican News and other press gathered at a special media roundtable on religious freedom on Thursday afternoon in Rome.

The roundtable was held at the US Embassy to the Holy See, following the Chair's meeting with the Vatican's Secretary for Relations with States and Multilateral Organizations, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, in the Vatican in the morning.

Nury Turkel is an attorney, author, foreign policy expert, and advocate with nearly two decades of experience working in the intersection of law, business, government, and the human rights community.

Nury Turkel, Chair of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom
Nury Turkel, Chair of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom

He specializes in corporate governance and regulatory compliance, national security, foreign policy, digital authoritarianism, forced labor and supply chain risk issues.

Speaking to journalists, Dr. Turkel lamented the harsh realities facing Catholic communities dispersed in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

He said Pope Francis’ commitment to pursue interreligious dialogue, including his unprecedented Apostolic Visits and papal documents have been fruitful, but that more needs to be done by the world and by States as a whole.

He told Vatican News of specific ways institutions can combat uptrends in religious persecution and discrimination.

'Top of the list' priorities

"Often times, when our senior leadership makes a policy decision, human rights and religious freedom concerns don't make it onto the top of the agenda," he admitted, saying "That's where we can start."

"We should also consider treating religious persecution as a national security concern, publicly, because if you don't do that, you will end up dealing with war crimes, genocide, humanitarian crises at the end."

"This is one area", he said.

Misuse of technology

The other area of great importance, he cited, is "the role of tech," "the misuse of technology."

The attorney warned that countries have built and exported sophisticated technology “creating a new norm, surveilling, harassing, persecuting religious communities.”

This, he said, is "very disturbing," and he reiterated that governments worldwide cannot turn a blind eye to this phenomenon.

"When we see abuses, including religious persecution, we need to implement the existing laws. We need to revisit the way we address this. We also need to look at how technology has been misused for religious persecution so that we might be able to avoid future atrocities committed against ethno- religious groups."

In the United States, he recalled, there is the Elie Wiesel Act, a legislative mandate that directs the executive branch to document and recommend policy actions.

Countries and societies that respect religious freedom, he stressed, naturally become prosperous, harmonious, peaceful societies.

Debunking propaganda

In addition, he appealed, “we must debunk negative view propaganda” which suggests “religion is a bad thing. It's not.”

The above approaches, he said, constitute a way to address this globally.

“Often," he lamented, "if you find a country geopolitically beneficial or helpful, we tend to ignore the abuses, human rights abuses and religious persecution. That should not be the case; that needs to change globally."

History, he warned, "told us that any time we do that, the bad actors get bad ideas, encouragement and feel emboldened."

If they do not suffer the costs, he said, they do not stop.


We have seen this repeatedly, he said, noting that governments must be held accountable through measures such as targeted sanctions and public condemnations.

He said he is particularly concerned with religious persecution in India, China, Nigeria, and Nicaragua. 

“If India wants to be a close ally, a friend, a partner, it needs to play the game by the rules, acceptable rules, in a responsible and ethical way. Trying to be a democratic country on one hand and persecuting religious minorities should not be tolerated.

Pope Francis with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Al Tayyeb, during his historic visit to Abu Dhabi
Pope Francis with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Al Tayyeb, during his historic visit to Abu Dhabi

Turkel told Vatican News how Pope Francis’ commitment to interreligious dialogue and his appeals are useful in battling religious persecution and discrimination.

In our work to advance and protect religious freedom, he said, substantive actions and symbolic actions should be carried out at the same time, "especially when dealing with authoritarian figures, and societies where people are not free."

“Symbolic actions," he continued, can "actually be more important than substantive actions, because symbolic actions, the optics, sometimes give a sense of powerful and a hopeful message for those who have been persecuted and who have been told that they have no voice and that no one cares."

“The Pope's recent visits, accomplish that goal.”

Listen to an excerpt from the interview with Nury Turkel

Pope’s appeal for religious freedom

Earlier this week, Pope Francis also told the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See that peace also demands “the universal recognition of religious freedom.”

“It is troubling that people are being persecuted simply because they publicly profess their faith and, in many countries, religious freedom is limited.”

The Holy Father lamented that about a third of the world’s population lives under these conditions, and that along with the lack of religious freedom, “there is also persecution for religious reasons.”

“I cannot fail to mention, as certain statistics have shown, that one out of every seven Christians experiences persecution.”

Religious freedom, which, the Pope said, cannot be reduced simply to freedom of worship, is one of the minimum requisites for a dignified way of life.

“Governments have the duty to protect this right and to ensure that each person, in a way compatible with the common good, enjoys the opportunity to act in accordance with his or her own conscience, also in the public sphere and in the exercise of their profession.”

The plague of persecution

According to research conducted by the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), some 350 million Christians around the world live in a country where they suffer some form of persecution, including arrest, human rights violations, and sometimes death.

ACN statistics reveal that every month, in the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian, an average of over 300 Christians are unjustly imprisoned.

In Asia, in the Middle East, Africa and in some countries in South America, thousands of Christians are unjustly detained for their faith.


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12 January 2023, 18:10