Speech of Dennis P. Petri at the House of Lords, delivered on 24 March 2017

Dear Bishop, dear Professors, dear students,

It is an honor and a privilege to speak to you at the House of Lords about the challenges to religious freedom worldwide, and specifically in Latin America, the area in which I specialize.

The Westminster attack of 22 March 2017

Before I talk about Latin America, I would like to express my sincerest condolences to the families of the victims of the tragic attack at Westminster that took place on 22 March 2017, and of course also my concern to the British people who must feel deeply shocked by this sad event.

This very unfortunate and appalling Islamist terrorist attack, which happened only two days ago at this very place, is at the core of the topic that concerns us now – Constitutional State and Religious Liberty – for three reasons.

Firstly, the attack is a painful reminder that religious conflict is here to stay. Any person, whether operating in solitary or within broader networks, can act upon his deeply held religious convictions, using regular objects such as a car and a kitchen knife to perform savage violent acts.

For us, living in Western Europe and in the Western Hemisphere, we do not realize enough that such attacks are at the order of the day in many non-Western countries, such as Syria, Pakistan, Israel or Nigeria. The frequency of such attacks has been increasing in Western Europe and is now becoming part of the reality of Western countries as well.

Many consider the World Trade Center attacks on 11 September 2001 as the beginning of the current wave of Islamist terrorist attacks in the Western world. But we should not forget that Islamist terrorism in the West has been on the increase well before 9/11. I just would like to remind this audience of the El Descanso bombings in Madrid on 12 April 1985 and the TWA flight 847 hijacking in Greek airspace on 14 June the same year.

Secondly, the Westminster attack also reveals that the frameworks that are used by academics and journalists are inadequate to properly understand the changing nature of religious conflict and religious freedom violations.

No one would disagree that the Westminster attack had a clear religious motivation. Reports are starting to confirm now that the perpetrator of the attack had Islamist ideas, and was, at least to some degree, inspired by the Islamic State.

But this kind of attacks are not usually considered as religious freedom violations. The targets of the Westminster attack were not worshippers in a church or religious leaders. The attack did not take place in a church or seminary. It is likely that a large part of the victims would not describe themselves as Christians, or are at least as regular church attenders. Instead, the target of the attack was the British Parliament.

In a highly secularized society, many find it counterintuitive to speak of religious freedom violations when the targets are no longer the churches, but the football stadiums, the theaters, the bars and now the parliaments.

But we should not forget that in the minds of the perpetrators, in this case the Islamist fundamentalists, what they attack are symbols of what they see as the excesses or the decadence of what they perceive as Christian Western society.

It’s strange that when similar attacks happen in Christian areas of Nigeria, for example, they are immediately labeled as religious freedom violations, but when they happen in the secularized West, no one seems to see it this way.

This is one of the reasons why I think that our frameworks for understanding religious freedom violations are inadequate. I will come back to this later.

Thirdly, the Westminster attack puts the question on the agenda once more how we should deal with such terrorist attacks. Western governments are struggling to identify the right way to respond to them, and so do political parties. Some take a very radical stance while others take a more conciliatory approach. But no one seems to have the answers to what is one of the largest challenges of our time.

This is also an open question for religious institutions. What can churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions do in the wake of this kind of religious terror? How can they contribute to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable groups? I will also come back to this point later.

Suggestions of conceptual innovations to understand religious freedom

I said before that our frameworks to understand religious freedom violations are inadequate to understand their changing nature. In light of my research in Latin America, I will touch upon a few aspects now that I think should be taken into account from a methodological perspective:

  • There is a tendency by many analysts to use very narrow definitions of religious freedom, and of religious persecution. The problem with using narrow definitions is that it leads us to neglect important aspects of religious freedom violations. I just mentioned an example of this and I will mention some more examples now.
  • It’s important to look beyond the legal dimension of religious freedom violations. In this respect, the human security perspective is helpful because it moves our focus away from religious freedom violations as such, to try to understand how religious minorities can become vulnerable to human security threats in specific contexts.
  • As far as the legal framework is concerned, there are no major obstacles to religious freedom in the vast majority of Latin American countries, with the exception of Cuba. From the perspective of human security, the enforcement of religious freedom, however, does pose challenges.
  • Furthermore, when addressing religious conflict, we must understand that religious minorities can be vulnerable not only based on their identity, but also as a result of their behavior. In some contexts, religious identity can be a cause of persecution. In such contexts, owning a Bible, using a religious symbol as part of your dress or changing your faith might get you into trouble. But in other contexts, it’s not religious identity that causes you to be vulnerable, but rather the behavior you display as a result of your religious convictions. Therefore, I recommend to take into account both religious identity and religious behavior as sources of vulnerability, and not to limit the analysis to religious identity only.
  • In Latin America, the majority of all citizens is formally Christian, but actively practicing Christians – Christians who regularly attend church – are a minority. This minority is specifically vulnerable to suffer human rights abuses.


Restrictions on religious freedom from a human security perspective

Actively practicing Christians possesses a specific vulnerability for suffering human rights abuses. In other words, there are demonstrable threats to forms of religious behavior. I will discuss three major categories of threats to the religious expression of Christians in Latin America:

  • The regulation of religion by organized crime;
  • The hostility towards Christian converts in indigenous communities;
  • The restrictions on religious expression in communist and post-communist countries.


Organized crime

The main feature of organized crime is the creation of a climate of impunity, anarchy and corruption, in which actively practicing Christians are vulnerable because their behavior – based on the biblical worldview – is contrary to the greed of organized crime. Of course, organized crime affects societies as a whole, and not only Christians but actively practicing Christians possess a specific vulnerability for suffering human rights abuses.

The targeting of Christians by criminal organizations is generally motivated by a combination of two elements. Firstly, people involved in organized crime view Christians who openly oppose their activities as a threat, especially when Christians get involved in social programs or in politics. Secondly, criminal organizations know that the Christian faith is not compatible with their ideals. They fear Christians will influence members of the community or even members of their own organizations to oppose their activities.

All denominations of Christianity can become victims of organized crime, though it affects mostly the more outspoken Christians who fulfill leadership positions.

Let me mention a few examples on Mexico.

In many states of Mexico, violence is pervasive but affects actively practicing Christians to a high degree. Churches and other Christian institutions are often seen as revenue centers by drug cartels. The extortion of priests, pastors and Christian business-owners is commonplace. Attending church services increases the threat of kidnapping, and youths are particularly at risk of being recruited into gangs. Social initiatives are also faced with major threats, especially initiatives that enter the area of influence of criminal organizations. Drug rehabilitation programs or youth work are a direct threat to the market and influence of drug cartels, and therefore increase the vulnerability of Christians engaging in these programs. From personal research on the ground I can confirm that that there is widespread and sophisticated surveillance and monitoring by members of drug cartels within churches.
Now referring to Colombia, in many parts of the country, similarly to Mexico, organized crime is responsible for demonstrable threats to certain forms of religious behavior.

Hostilities against conversion to Christianity in indigenous areas

The second dynamic that restricts religious freedom in Latin America is the presence of hostilities against conversion to Christianity in indigenous areas, especially in Mexico and Colombia. Converts to Christianity are regularly threatened, excluded from access to basic social services, beaten and displaced by tribal leaders. They are not given sufficient protection by their governments.

Indigenous territories in Colombia are protected by a constitutional law that gives them autonomy. The legal situation of indigenous territories prohibits intervention from the State’s judiciary system or security forces. As a consequence, any crime against Christians (such as lands being occupied) is likely to be left unpunished. Because Christians are seen as a threat to the perpetuation of the indigenous culture and traditions, the rural Christian indigenous population of a number of autonomous territories of Colombia is victim of hostilities. Conversion of indigenas to Christianity often has a power dimension, as it erodes the power basis of traditional indigenous leaders. When Christian parents take their children out of indigenous schools, these schools receive less funding from the government, which represents a major income reduction for the indigenous governments. This all accounts for an enormous pressure in the community sphere.

In these countries, there is an urgent need to find ways to balance and accommodate two contradictory rights. The right to self-determination and to preserve their culture of indigenous groups must be respected, but this must not come at the expense of the protections of human rights, including religious freedom of individuals within indigenous communities.


The third dynamic that restricts religious freedom is communism. In Cuba, pressure on Christians continues in the form of harassment, strict surveillance and discrimination, including the occasional imprisonment of leaders. Religious practice is monitored and all church services are infiltrated by spies.

In Venezuela, the pressure on Christians is subtle, but any organization which is influential is restricted by the government. For years, the Venezuelan administration has attempted to shut down private Catholic education in favor of public schools.

In Bolivia, through administrative and bureaucratic obstacles, Christians are also restricted in their freedom to exercise their right to worship as well as freedom of expression.

Recommendations to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable communities

Based on our research findings about the persecution of actively practicing Christians by organized crime in Mexico, stabilization mechanisms can be developed to reduce their vulnerability to human security threats. This examination is an exploration of possible avenues to reduce risk and increase resilience.

Reducing risks caused by external factors of vulnerability seems like an obvious place to start, especially because the position of religious minorities is to a large extent dependent upon the social and political context. In fact, these factors of vulnerability are the focus of many democracy assistance, development and human rights organizations. Issues such as state reform, corruption prevention, strengthening of the rule of law and human rights education are frequently mentioned in reports by international organizations. These efforts are essential to Mexican society as a whole. Naturally, this work is extremely difficult in the present context, but all contributions are valuable.

Whereas external factors of vulnerability are addressed in various ways, reducing the risks caused by internal factors of vulnerability is not really on the agenda of actively practicing Christians – there are no strategies devised by churches or Christian institutions to cope with the threats that they face. This is a missed opportunity because actively practicing Christians, if organized and united, can also contribute their knowledge to the policy questions surrounding the impunity and the corruption. Often, the focus of most Christian leaders is restricted to church related issues, leaving aside the potential contribution it could have to national debates on the major issues affecting society, including the pervasiveness of organized crime.

My research reveals that visible gatherings of Christians in churches are directly putting them at risk. Congregation is essential within Christianity, but safer ways could be explored so that religious services attract less attention of criminal organizations, such as the organization of meetings in smaller groups, preferably in private homes in order to stay under the radar, instead of large and visible gatherings. Increased security checks at the entrance of churches might also be relevant. These measures will not solve the problems, but could reduce the vulnerability of this religious minority to some of the threats.

Reducing vulnerability to threats is a necessary stabilization mechanism, but must be accompanied by an increased focus on projects and processes that increase the resilience of actively practicing Christians, and will ultimately benefit society as a whole. The initiative taken by Christian religious leaders of Guadalupe, Monterrey (Nuevo León) in 2011, to address the corruption and infiltration of drug cartels in the police department, is an example of how this religious minority can play a significant role and increase its resilience.

The Mexican government had already recognized the role the church and religious institutions can play in promoting social capital in society, but the churches did not really respond to this opportunity.

These forms of civic participation need, however, to be executed in such a way that they do not increase the vulnerability of actively practicing Christians, but instead contribute to an effective transformation of social structures in all spheres of society, increasing resilience.


Your excellences, I recommend the following:

  1. Latin American states are not always diligent enough in terms of investigating issues related to violations of freedom of religion and expression. We must urge Latin American governments to live up to their responsibility in this field.
  2. The specific vulnerability of actively practicing Christians should be taken into consideration in both academic and advocacy work. The reduction of risks for Christians caused by organized crime should also become an integral part of foreign policy of all governments.
  3. Special attention should be given to the issue of structural violence, impunity and corruption, as Mexico and other Latin American states are not always diligent enough in terms of investigating issues related to violations of freedom of religion and expression.
  4. Pressure must be put on the Colombian government to counter the abuses in the realm of religious freedom of the constitutional provision that grants autonomy to indigenous territories.
  5. All institutions, both government and religious institutions, should work together with Latin American states to create a system in which churches and Christian leaders who are victims of extortion feel safe to denounce threats against them.
  6. More generally, governments, security expects and churches must work together to strengthen the resilience of religious communities around the world, including in Western countries. Resilience has many different dimensions that need to be integrated in a holistic approach. The spiritual or theological approach must be complemented by training to create awareness about legal rights, security, early warning systems, legal assistance, advocacy and social-economic development.

The Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America is a program of the Foundation Platform for Social Transformation, a registered charity in Voorburg, The Netherlands under Chamber of Commerce #50264249.

Copyright © 2018-2020 - Foundation Platform for Social Transformation

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