Religious Groups

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Religious Groups

Religious groups are one of the four groups identified for protection by the 1948 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In order to convict an individual of genocide, according to the Genocide Convention, it must be proved that the accused committed one or more of the specific acts prohibited (such as killing or causing serious bodily harm) and that the act was "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such" (Article 2). The same components of "intent" and "religious group" mentioned in the Genocide Convention also appear in the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY; Article 4.2), the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR; Article 2.2), and the Elements of Crimes of the International Criminal Court (ICC; Article 6). The elements of crimes section additionally provides that the targeting of persons on the basis of their belonging to a religious group constitutes the "crime against humanity of persecution" (Article 7[1][h]), and that the humiliation or degradation of "religious personnel" is a violation of the "war crime of outrages upon personal dignity" (Article 8[2][c][ii]).

The meaning of "religious group" and "religion" within international law and the Genocide Convention is more complicated than might at first be imagined. In fact, the difficulty of identifying when the intent to destroy a religious group, either in whole or in part, has occurred illustrates some of the underlying difficulties of interpreting the meaning of the Genocide Convention, whether in strictly legal terms or within the context of public language where the word "genocide" is often used rhetorically to describe an atrocity.

For example, did the massive killings by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia constitute genocide? The strict legal application of the Genocide Convention aside, the killing of between 2 and 3.5 million Cambodians would certainly qualify as an egregious case of genocide in ordinary human discourse. But when subjected to legal analysis, can it be questioned which "national, ethnical, racial or religious group [emphasis added], as such" the perpetrators intended to destroy in whole or in part? The vast majority of those killed were the Khmer people—the same national and ethnic group that perpetrated the killings. Most observers would identify the clearest case of genocide within Cambodia as the annihilation of the Cham Muslims, a religious group, who were targeted with particular vengeance. However, does it make sense to conclude that the millions of Khmer people killed were not victims of genocide and that only the Cham were because they experienced a higher percentage of victims (although numerically smaller)? Although Buddhists were not targeted per se, the Buddhist clergy was. Should the Buddhist clergy then be considered a "religious group" within the meaning of the Genocide Convention?

It is also complicated, and sometimes controversial, to suggest that a particular people were marked for extinction in whole or in part because of their religion. For example, approximately two million southern Sudanese died in the last fifteen years of the twentieth century as a result of the policies and actions of the government in Khartoum. Were the southern Sudanese victimized by northern Muslims because of their religious affiliation (principally indigenous religions and Christianity), racial and ethnic differences, or historical and economic reasons? Did Saddam Hussein, modern-day Iraq's former leader, target Kurds and Marsh Arabs (MadDam) for reasons of religion, politics, or economics?

Although the answers to the Cambodian, Sudanese, and Iraq questions trigger (or not) a discussion of the applicability of the Genocide Convention, such questions are purely academic to the victims of executions, rampages, and starvation.

Regardless of the applicability of the Genocide Convention, the religious divide between perpetrators and victims is frequently a salient characteristic of mass killings. Principally Muslim Turks either killed, forcibly converted, or exiled Christian Armenians. Although the Nazi state was officially atheist, the vast majority of those responsible for operating the death camps and exterminating Jews were born, raised, and died Christians. Orthodox Christian Serbs killed Bosnian and Albanian Muslims. The atheist Chinese state executed Tibetan Buddhists. In each of these cases, of course, there were other victims. Muslim Turks who tried to rescue Armenians also were executed as sympathizers. Romani, homosexuals, political dissidents, Christian clergy, and the physically and mentally handicapped also were victims of the Nazi death camps. In other cases of mass violence, though not typically identified as cases of genocide, similar hostilities are often provoked by government officials and executed by crowds, as in Gujarat, India. Thus, in many cases of genocide and mass killings, religion serves as a marker of differences.

Despite the importance of religion in many (though certainly not all) cases of genocide and crimes against humanity, historians and other commentators often have the tendency to emphasize the ethnic characteristics of the victims, as opposed to their religious characteristics. This reluctance may in some cases result from misapprehension about the meaning of the victim's religion to the perpetrators. It is important to understand that with regard to religious discrimination, persecution, and violence, there are three aspects of religion which should be differentiated: religion as belief, religion as identity, and religion as way of life. The first of these pertains to spiritual beliefs or theological opinions, and adherence to doctrines and teachings. Religion as "identity" refers to the community into which one is born regardless of one's individual beliefs or observance of sacred rituals. According to this view, people might believe that all Turks are Muslim, all Poles are Catholic, and all Russians are Orthodox. "Way of life" refers to religion and its manifestations in rituals, diet, and social activities. Although these three aspects are not mutually exclusive, and they can be interrelated in the minds of the religious person and the persecutor alike, genocide and crimes against humanity emerge most commonly within the context of religion as identity. Victims are targeted most directly because of who they are rather than what they believe or what they do. In Nazi Germany a Jew could not escape brutalization by simply renouncing his or her beliefs, or maintaining a secular lifestyle. While a religious group is likely targeted because of its despised identity, its beliefs and way of life may well serve as the signals that inflame the hostility initially aroused because of identity.

SEE ALSO Minorities; Persecution; Religion


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Gunn, T. Jeremy (2003). "The Complexity of Religion and the Definition of 'Religion' in International Law." Harvard Human Rights Journal 16:189–215.

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Neier, Aryeh (1998). War Crimes: Brutality, Genocide, Terror, and the Struggle for Justice. New York: Random House.

Sells, Michael A. (1996). The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Suny, Ronald Grigor (2001). "Religion, Ethnicity, and Nationalism: Armenians, Turks, and the End of the Ottoman Empire." In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century, ed. Omer Bartov and Phyllis Mack. New York: Berghahn Books.

T. Jeremy Gunn