'Cyber-caliphate' linking Islamist network expanding globally with online recruitment, says religious freedom report

(REUTERS / Stringer)Residents watch as two men walk amidst rubble after Boko Haram militants raided the town of Benisheik, west of Borno State capital Maiduguri September 19, 2013. Islamist Boko Haram militants killed 159 people in two roadside attacks in northeast Nigeria this week, officials said, far more than was originally reported and a sign that a four-month-old army offensive has yet to stabilise the region. Picture taken September 19, 2013.

Persecution of faith groups has drastically increased in more than 95 percent of the world's worst-offending countries – a new shows highlighting how new tech is being used to crush religious freedom.


The Religious Freedom in the World Report 2021 (RFR) is produced by international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and was released on April 20.

"Along with communist totalitarianism and Islamism, religious nationalism is among the greatest threats to religious freedom and peaceful religious co-existence in our world today," says the report.

Religious minorities in numerous countries – such as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia, Bhutan, and Nepal, among others – increasingly face severe marginalization and active persecution by many of their own fellow citizens, with the rise of religious majoritarian populist movements.

The report found that, over the past two years, oppression against vulnerable faith communities has increased in all but one of the 26 countries listed in the survey's worst ('red') category.

The report covers all 196 countries worldwide and traced the rise of transnational Islamist networks, including an online "cyber-caliphate," which is "expanding globally [and] is now a tool of online recruitment and radicalization."

This core finding of the report, describes how "Islamist terrorists employ sophisticated digital technologies to recruit, radicalize and attack."

"The question facing Africa is not whether the continent is the next battleground against Islamist militants, but rather when will sufficient lives be lost and families displaced to move the international community to action? Already the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands, and millions, respectively," says the report.


It notes that sub-Saharan Africa is ripe for the infiltration of Islamist ideologies.

That is due to generations of poverty, corruption, pre-existing intercommunal violence between herders and farmers over land rights (exacerbated by the consequences of climate change) and weak state structures, so the area has become a breeding ground for marginalized and frustrated young men.

"Battle-hardened Islamist extremists have moved south from the plains of Iraq and Syria to link up with local criminal groups in the Sub-Saharan countries of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, northern Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Mozambique," the report says.

ACN International President Dr. Thomas Heine-Geldern stated on the gravity of the RFR's findings, "Regrettably, despite the – albeit important – UN initiatives and the staffing of religious freedom ambassadorships, to date the international community's response to violence based on religion and religious persecution in general can be categorized as too little, too late.".

Cross-border networks are "spreading across the Equator" leading to jihadist attacks from Mali to the Philippines, taking in Comoros in the Indian Ocean, with the aim of creating what the report calls "transcontinental caliphates."

The report also describes how digital technology, cyber networks, surveillance including artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition technology has increased persecution.

In China, the Communist Party is keeping religious groups in line with the help of 626 million AI-enhanced surveillance cameras and smartphone scanners.

In addition to Islamist extremism, the report identifies two principal protagonists of persecution, highlighting increased crackdowns by authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea, and majoritarian religious nationalists' persecution of minorities in India and Burma (Myanmar).


COVID-19 was also to blame for increased persecution, according to the RFR, which found that societal prejudice against minorities, including in Turkey and Pakistan, meant that some faith groups were denied food and other vital aid.

"The COVID-19 pandemic opened an important debate around the world about fundamental rights, including the right to religious freedom, the implications of legislative overreach, and whether, in some cases, aggressively secular governments are adequately able to discern the importance of these rights," said the report.

The report concluded that violations of religious freedom occur in almost one third of the world's countries (62 out of 196), many of them the most populous nations such as China, India and Pakistan.

The RFR also reported on increasing cases of sexual violence used as a weapon against religious minorities – crimes against women and girls who are abducted, raped and forced to convert.

In the West, the report concludes, there has been a rise in "polite persecution," a phrase coined by Pope Francis to describe how new cultural norms and values have consigned religions to what the RFR calls "the quiet obscurity of the individual conscience", making it more difficult for people of faith to access the public square.

Regarding positive developments, the RFR highlights progress in inter-religious dialogue, noting the Vatican's role, in particular the declaration signed by the Pope and Sunni leader Grand Imam Ahamad Al-Tayyib of Al-Azar.

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