UN chief urges world to stamp out religious persecution

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says the mounting attack on religious groups is alarming. (AFP / Fabrice Coffrini)
Updated 23 August 2019

UN chief urges world to stamp out religious persecution

  • Antonio Guterres said the rise in attacks against individuals and groups around the world is alarming

UNITED NATIONS: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the world on the first international day to remember the victims of religious persecution to “step up to stamp out anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, the persecution of Christians and other religious groups.”
The UN chief on Thursday cited a rise in attacks against individuals and groups around the world, saying: “Jews have been murdered in synagogues, their gravestones defaced with swastikas; Muslims gunned down in mosques, their religious sites vandalized; Christians killed at prayer, their churches torched.”
Guterres said the first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion and Belief was an opportunity to show support by doing “all in our power to prevent such attacks and demanding that those responsible are held accountable.”
He urged people everywhere to resist and reject those who “falsely and maliciously invoke religion to build misconceptions, fuel division and spread fear and hatred.”
Fifteen UN human rights experts marked the day with a call on all countries to ensure that religions and beliefs are not used to violate human rights — and to combat religious extremism.
The independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council said in a joint statement that “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief is misunderstood as protecting religions and belief instead of the people with the beliefs and those without.”
The experts, on issues ranging from freedom of religion to minorities to violence against women, emphasized the words of the General Assembly resolution sponsored by Poland and adopted in June that established the international day on Aug. 22. It said that “terrorism and violent extremism in all its forms and manifestations cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic group.”
At an informal UN Security Council meeting marking the day, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said by video from Geneva that “despite much progress, I am deeply alarmed by the worldwide rise of xenophobia, racism, religious intolerance that is menacing to our lives” as well as to democracy, social instability and peace.
“If we can’t accept diversity ... there shall be no peace in the world,” she said.
Bachelet said a key to trying to combat religious persecution is to look for “early warning signs” like discrimination and words of intolerance and take early action.
Samuel Brownback, the US ambassador at large for religious freedom, told the council that according to the Pew Forum, “83% of the global community live in countries with high or very high restrictions on the free practice of faith — and it’s getting worse, not better.”
He pointed to “the horrific actions of violence and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims” in Myanmar, persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan “either at the hands of non-state actors or through discriminatory laws and policies,” Boko Haram’s attacks on mosques and churches in Nigeria, and the Daesh extremist group’s targeting of Iraq’s Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Turkmen “for atrocity crimes.”
Brownback said the United States is “deeply concerned” about China’s “escalating, widespread and undue restrictions” on religious groups, including Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants and Falun Gong.
“We call on the Chinese government to end its war on faith and to respect religious freedom for all,” he said.
The United States also strongly opposes Iran’s “severe violations and abuses of religious freedom,” including the death penalty for blasphemy, apostasy from Islam and proselytizing Muslims, and discrimination and harassment of unrecognized minorities such as the Bahai’is and Christian converts.
British Minister of State Lord Tariq Ahmad, a special envoy on religious freedom, said religious minorities face challenges ranging from discrimination to armed conflicts, mass murders and violent assaults.
“The heinous attacks this year on places of worship from the Philippines to Burkino Faso, New Zealand to Sri Lanka, have reminded us all that the fundamental human right of freedom of religion or belief is increasingly under threat,” he told the council. “As we commemorate the victims of such acts of violence, we demonstrate our commitment to supporting research to change people’s lives and help build a world free of religious intolerance and hatred.”


Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

Updated 15 September 2019

Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

  • The program has brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city
  • The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis

BERLIN: Berlin was the last place Helga Melmed had expected to see again. She was 14 when the Nazis forced her and her family onto a train from their home in the German capital to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, in 1941.

That started a gruesome odyssey that later saw her imprisoned at Auschwitz and Neuengamme outside Hamburg before she was finally freed by British soldiers in 1945 from Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, a 46-pound walking skeleton.

For years, she never considered returning to Germany until she was invited on a trip by the city of her birth, in a reconciliation program meant to help mend ties with former Berliners who had been forced out by the Nazis.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the program has successfully brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city.

Some 35,000 people have accepted the invitation since it was first issued in 1969, and while the numbers are dwindling a few new participants still come every year.

“I thought I’d never come back,” Melmed, 91, who emigrated to the US via Sweden after the war, told The Associated Press in an interview.

The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis, or those like Melmed who survived their machinery of genocide.

On Wednesday, she and other former program participants were invited to Berlin City Hall to celebrate the half-century anniversary.

At a ceremony mayor Michael Mueller thanked them for coming back — despite all they suffered at the hands of the Germans.
“Many people followed our invitation, people who had lost everything they loved,” he said. “I want to express my strong gratitude to you for putting your trust in us.”

Despite skepticism at the time that anyone persecuted by the Nazis would want to return, in 1970 — one year after the program’s launch — there was already a waiting list of 10,000 former Berliners who wanted to come back for a visit.

More than 100 other German cities and towns have instituted similar programs but no municipality has brought back as many former residents as the capital.

Berlin, of course, also had the biggest Jewish community before the Holocaust. In 1933, the year the Nazis came to power, around 160,500 Jews lived in Berlin. By the end of World War II in 1945 their numbers had diminished to about 7,000 — through emigration and extermination.

All in all, some six million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Melmed’s father was shot dead in the Lodz ghetto — where the Nazis concentrated Jews and forced them to work in factories — a few months after their arrival and her mother died of exhaustion a few months later, shortly after Melmed’s 15th birthday.

Melmed, who lives in Venice, Florida, received her invitation under the reconciliation program 42 years ago. “One day, out of the blue, I found a letter in the mailbox inviting me to come back for a visit,” the retired nurse said at the hotel where she was staying with two of her four children and a grandson.

“So, in 1977, my husband and I traveled to Berlin.” They were part of an organized group tour of dozens of other former Berliners who had been persecuted by the Nazis.

“I don’t know if the trip was a dream or a nightmare,” Melmed said. One afternoon, she went for a coffee at Berlin’s famous Kempinski Hotel — today called the Bristol Hotel — just like she used to do as a little girl with her mother and dad, a banking executive.
“It was heart-breaking,” Melmed said.

Her life story is chronicled in the exhibition “Charter Flight into the Past” about the program, which opened Thursday at Berlin’s City Hall and will run through Oct. 9.

Johannes Tuchel, the director of the German Resistance Memorial Center, which curated the exhibition, said that many returnees had conflicting emotions.

They didn’t trust the Germans — especially in the early years of the program, when many people they saw in the streets still belonged to the Nazi generation. Often, memories of loss and pain were stirred up by the visit, but at the same time many were also able to reconnect with a city that harbored many happy childhood mementos for them.

For Melmed, closure came only at an old age. In 2018, when she turned 90, she decided to return once again to Berlin. It was then that she met the current tenants of her old family home in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood of Berlin.

They invited her back into the apartment and organized a plaque-laying ceremony last week to commemorate her parents on this year’s visit.

Last week, city officials presented her with her original birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “Now it’s all closure for me,” Melmed said with a peaceful smile as she touched her golden necklace with a Star of David pendant. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”