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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Three anniversaries will force issues of religious persecution at the UN General Assembly

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Whether world leaders grapple with interconnecting issues of religion and global affairs remains to be seen, but they cannot afford to ignore them.

With world leaders soon descending on New York for the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 19, they will confront a multitude of challenges. Religion is not on the agenda, per se, but issues of faith will haunt the gathering, either lurking just below the surface or directly provoking discussions. Whether world leaders grapple with interconnecting issues of religion and global affairs remains to be seen, but they cannot afford to ignore them.


Three anniversaries coinciding with the General Assembly will force several issues of religious persecution to the forefront.

Just before arriving in New York, many will mark the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran at the hands of police for “improperly” wearing her hijab. Her death sparked nationwide protests last year, and the regime’s harsh response and crackdown demonstrated its unwillingness to reform. Tehran has recently strengthened the “morality police” and has taken steps to limit protests before the anniversary. In addition, long-standing persecution of Baha’is and evangelical Christians continues. It is doubtful that U.N. member states at the General Assembly can convince Tehran to change course, but unified criticism can encourage reformers and keep Tehran isolated.

It has also been one year since the United Nations human rights office released its damning assessment regarding China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims. Thousands of Uyghur Muslims have disappeared into reeducation camps in China’s far western Xinjiang region for the “crime” of being Muslim. However, despite the appalling abuses, protests generally come from only North America and Europe, with Muslim-majority countries conspicuously absent. Will a critical global consensus emerge, such as with the treatment of the Rohingya in Burma? Despite U.N. and other reports documenting ongoing Uyghur persecution, no Muslim country apparently wants to discuss it due to Beijing’s pressure. The General Assembly provides a forum to build consensus that every nation must speak out.


And two years ago, the Taliban swept back into Kabul. U.N. officials recently released a statement debunking any ideas of a “reformed” Taliban. Many have raised human rights concerns, limitations on girls’ education and persecution of religious minorities. However, the Taliban continue to force their austere religious interpretations over the country, recently burning “immoral” musical instruments and preventing girls from attending schools, even abroad, or visiting national parks. With the Taliban arguing for official recognition, U.N. meetings afford an opportunity for a robust multilateral front insisting on reforms.

Current events will also force topics relating to religion onto the agenda. The Quran burnings in Sweden and Denmark, which resulted in attacks on embassies and threats from terrorists, will undoubtedly arise. Most Western nations protect these acts under freedom of expression, so, while appalling, the burnings are legal. However, such explanations don’t carry water in countries that criminalize blasphemous activity.

These divisions were seen during this summer’s U.N. Human Rights Council emergency session. While U.N. officials generally drew the right balance between protecting speech and promoting tolerance, the July council resolution revived a split among nations, emphasizing the criminalization of speech. Over a decade ago, similar divisions resulted in a compromise resolution that kept the peace. With extreme voices wanting to dominate this discussion today, preventing further cleavages will depend on world leaders rediscovering a middle way.

Religious groups will be essential partners in this, as they can promote understanding or foster disharmony. Their humanitarian work is also unparalleled, such as with poverty alleviation and education. Consequently, they should be active participants during U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ summit on addressing poverty, economic exclusion and education convened just before the General Assembly. Faith-based humanitarian groups are front-line workers against poverty, while religious schools welcome some of the most disadvantaged populations globally.

But religious communities need government partners, as they cannot meet the cascading challenges alone. Indeed, the array of problems risks overwhelming the international system, thus likely resulting in many other religion-tinged difficulties going overlooked: violence against Christians in India’s far east, church burnings and Ahmadi mosque destructions in Pakistan, the Iraqi government’s harassment of the Chaldean patriarch and even the ongoing violence against Rohingya Muslims in Burma. And while Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine remains a top priority, Russia’s purposeful attacks on religious targets go underreported. U.N. agencies report that Russian bombs have damaged 120 sacred sites since February 2022 as part of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to erase Ukrainian national identity.

The world is a complicated and broken place. It is also furiously religious. In some cases, faith actors represent part of the problem, while elsewhere, they work tirelessly to bring peace. Some governments persecute religious groups, while others seek partnership toward the common good. In this context, the United Nations General Assembly provides a high-profile and timely forum where like-minded countries and faith actors can constructively address dire issues impacting millions.

(Knox Thames served in a special envoy role for religious minorities at the U.S. State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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