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Indigenous populations treated as ‘second-class citizens’ say Christian Solidarity Worldwide

17 March 2023


A Mayan priest during a ceremony at a beach in Riviera Maya, Mexico

A Mayan priest during a ceremony at a beach in Riviera Maya, Mexico

MEMBERS of indigenous populations are being denied the right to practise a different religion from the rest of their communities, and are treated as “second-class citizens”, a new study says.

The charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said that its research showed that the individual rights of indigenous peoples to follow a different faith or no faith were being ignored, as collective cultural rights were taking precedence over individual rights.

In Colombia, for example, one of the countries examined in the CSW report Belief and Belonging, a constitutional court’s ruling gave primacy to the collective cultural right to protect traditions over individual rights to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). In some cases, indigenous leaders interpreted this to mean that non-traditional religions — such as Christianity — should not be allowed on indigenous lands, and their followers should be exiled.

In Colombia, interviewees told researchers that Christian converts were rejected by their families, excluded from meetings of indigenous groups, and blocked from employment opportunities.

A member of the Achagua indigenous group said that, in his community, “Protestant Christians have been subjected to threats, forced displacement, harassment, denial of communal property, arbitrary detention, kidnapping, torture, and forced recruitment by illegal armed groups because of their religious beliefs.”

Interviewees said that, often, traditional authorities feared that allowing conversion to other faiths — usually Christianity — would destroy indigenous people’s identity and spirituality; and they referred to the history of Roman Catholic and Protestant missions to the country in the 20th century. In Colombia, particularly, traditional leaders felt that Christians did not have the same commitment and concern for the environment as traditional believers.

The report said: “Many [traditional leaders] consider FoRB to be a direct danger to their culture and traditions, especially in terms of religious beliefs and practice, and they are closed to the idea of any form of religious pluralism in their communities.”

The report is based on a series of in-person and virtual interviews conducted by CSW and independent researchers, with indigenous people representing different ethno-linguistic groups and religious beliefs in four countries: Colombia, India, Mexico, and Vietnam. Researchers found a common thread in all four countries of a lack of recognition of the individual rights of indigenous people to follow a religion or belief.

In India, the study said that it was non-government organisations who were primarily responsible for suppressing individual rights of freedom and belief, but that the government allowed them to act with impunity. In Mexico, as in Colombia, violations of religion or belief affecting indigenous peoples are the responsibility of community leaders and local authorities, although a Mexican law sets out that the implementation of collective cultural rights must uphold individual rights. In Vietnam, violations are directly linked to the policies and actions of the government.

Researchers said that all those interviewed in the four countries wanted to be recognised as indigenous, regardless of their decision to practise a particular religion, or to follow no religion.

“Many expressed dismay that, in exercising their right to choose their own religion or belief, even as they maintain linguistic, familial, and cultural ties, they risk being stripped of their identity as a member of their indigenous group.

“As a marginalised population within an already marginalised population, this has the potential to put them at increased risk of discrimination, poverty, and forced displacement,” the report’s authors warn.

The President of CSW, Mervyn Thomas, said that the report “challenges the common and dangerous misconception that collective cultural rights are either incompatible with, or should take precedence over, the right to freedom of religion or belief. Such arguments have only increased the marginalisation of individuals within already marginalised populations, rendering them more vulnerable to discrimination, poverty, forced displacement, and even violence and brutality.

“We urge the international community to take heed of the report’s recommendations, elevating indigenous voices to lead efforts in developing a framework that ensures indigenous people are free to fully enjoy all of the individual rights and protections afforded to non indigenous peoples.”

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