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27 April 2017

The Promise: learning the lessons of history

Emma Howlett is head of communications for CSW, a Christian advocacy organisation working for religious freedom for all in more than 25 countries.

The Promise, the new film about the genocide of Armenian Christians during the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago, might not seem to have much in common with the scenes filling our television screens and newspapers today. How can a story set a century ago still be relevant today? 

In reality, this film has many links to the situations Alliance member CSW works on around the world – stories of persecution and religiously-motivated violence that are happening at this very moment to countless people – because of their religion. They're stories that we encounter daily; stories that break my heart daily.

As I watched The Promise and saw scenes unfolding of Armenian Christian communities being forced to flee their homes, heading deep into the mountains to find refuge, I saw today's news headlines flash through my mind. Millions of refugees around the world who've been forced to flee, very often, because of religious or ethnic persecution. 

The similarities were striking.

Since 2011, Syrian civilians have been the victims of unspeakable violence, devastation and terror. Almost five million Syrians have been forced to flee as conflict has ravaged the country. Another six million have been displaced internally. Islamist militias, including Daesh (IS), have unleashed an unprecedented degree of religious persecution on Syria's many religious and ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, government forces have targeted Sunni communities using mass arrests, mass rape and extreme military force. At the end of last year, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria declared that Daesh (IS) is committing genocide against Yazidis in Syria. 

And we don't just see this happening in the Middle East. 

In Burma, around 100,000 Rohingya Muslims have been officially disowned by the Burmese government and are now stateless, meaning that no government will offer them shelter or claim them as their own. Forced to flee, many are now in horrific conditions in makeshift camps, on the brink of starvation because the humanitarian aid they so desperately need is being blocked from getting through to them. 

As India's Christian communities gathered to mark the Easter period recently, we saw Palm Sunday characterised by harassment and attacks on Christians in six states. We received reports of prayer meetings and church services being disrupted by Hindu fundamentalists or local government officials.

Meanwhile for some Christians and other religious minorities in central Nigeria, the threat of attack has become a daily fear. Since 2010, armed militants from the Fulani tribe – a mainly Muslim tribe – have been violently forcing non-Muslim communities off their land and seizing it. Villages are being destroyed. Men, women and children are being killed and often entire families are wiped out.

More than 10,000 people have been displaced in the south of Kaduna, one of the worst hit states, and it's estimated that more than 800 people have been killed in a recent upsurge of violence.

And to think that, so often, I take my freedom for granted. 

The Promise might be fictional, but some of the issues I saw brought to life on screen have stayed with me since – they're ones that CSW encounters routinely as we campaign for, support and defend those who face discrimination, harassment or persecution because of their religious beliefs. 

The Promise reminds me, as it should do all of us, that we must listen to the echoes of history, and make sure the world doesn't ignore the suffering of religious minorities today.

You can find out more about CSW's campaign for Nigeria at www.csw.org.uk/nigeria-action 

Read more about The Promise at  www.csw.org.uk/thepromise