St Mary's Cathedral. Picture: Julian Andrews
St Mary's Cathedral. Picture: Julian Andrews

Here’s why religious freedom really matters

IN countries less blessed than Australia, the issue of religious freedom is not about ideology but "how to avoid a bloodbath", says Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga, the Archbishop of Bangui in the war-torn Central African Republic.

"Here… religious freedom is not a concept; it is a question of survival".

And so it is around the world, where persecution of minority faiths has deteriorated in 18 countries in the last two years, according to the latest volume of "Religious Freedom in the World," published by the Catholic charity Aid To the Church in Need (of which I am a board member).

To highlight the plight of persecuted religious minorities, St Mary's Cathedral will be lit up red tonight for an extraordinary gathering of interfaith solidarity, involving leaders of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha'i and other religions.

Among the searing stories to be told is the persecution of Baha'i in Yemen, one of the Arab world's poorest countries, where a nasty proxy war is being waged between Shia and Sunni Islam.

The Baha'i Temple at Ingleside. Picture: Troy Snook
The Baha'i Temple at Ingleside. Picture: Troy Snook

You might have seen the beautiful Baha'i temple on the way to Sydney's northern beaches. A white on white dome atop a hill, it serves a small, peaceful religion which is similar to Buddhism but which emerged in the 18th century from Shia Islam in Persia, now Iran. Bahai's have been persecuted in the Middle East and especially today in Yemen, where they have been targeted for genocide by the fanatical Houtthi rebels, and are regularly arrested and jailed without trial, or simply disappear.

Liqaa, a 52-year-old Baha'i refugee who found asylum in Australia, will speak at the cathedral tonight about her escape from Yemen. She was born in Iraq but fled Saddam Hussein with her family in 1990 and settled in Yemen, before being hounded out when Baha'i became scapegoats in the civil war.

Members of the Baha'i religion have been persecuted for hundreds of years. Pictured as Baha’i prisoners in Iran in the 1850s.
Members of the Baha'i religion have been persecuted for hundreds of years. Pictured as Baha’i prisoners in Iran in the 1850s.

She, her husband and their two youngest children fled again to Turkey where they registered as refugees with the United Nations and were resettled in Australia.

But her family is still in peril. Her sister was arrested in 2016 for praying with a group of Baha'i. She was imprisoned for a month before being released under house arrest but is now on a list of 20 people accused of "espionage and apostasy" for practising their religion.

Liqaa has come from Brisbane to tell her story tonight because, "I want the people to know the situation of the Baha'i in Yemen and pray for them."