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Religious Freedom in Focus Globally as Minorities Increasingly Targeted

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Human rights experts from around the world are calling on governments to intervene where the religious convictions of minority groups in their countries are being trampled on.

The Centre for Studies on New Religions, headquartered in Italy, and Belgium-based Human Rights Without Frontiers held a seminar to draw attention to what they say has become a worldwide concern. 

The seminar, held in Seoul, South Korea, and titled Intolerance and Discrimination Against New Religious Movements: An International Problem, made reference to specific examples of nations that failed to protect citizens and show urgency in dealing with the problem of forced conversions or “deprogramming”. 

Minority groups are often the target of forced conversions, where individuals are violently coerced to abandon their faith and adopt mainstream religious views. In many cases, kidnapping and detaining people of religious groups labeled as “cults” are used as tools of persecution by their opponents.

In South Korea, the phenomenon is particularly concerning but the practice is not isolated to this nation, with Southern African countries also experiencing violence and exploitation in religious movements.

“Korean deprogrammers are specialized pastors from the mainline churches, most of the Presbyterian,” Massimo Introvigne, Managing Director of the Centre for Studies on New Religions and an Italian sociologist, said.

“The protests that commemorate the victims from forced conversion were mentioned in the 2019 U.S. State Department Report on Religious Freedom, including violations of religious freedom in the year 2018,” he said. “However, there were new cases of deprogramming even after their deaths.”

Willy Fautré, Founder and Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, said a multi-dimensional strategy was needed to solve the problem, starting with the leadership of the Presbyterian Church, which tolerates and endorses the practice, taking responsibility. He also called for the development of advocacy at the United Nations to ensure freedom of religion is protected and perpetrators of violent deprogramming are prosecuted.

In an open letter to South Korean President Moon Jae In, signed by 15 international non-governmental organizations in July, the nation was labeled as potentially being, “the last democratic country in the world where deprogramming is still tolerated.” It also asked the president to investigate allegations of forced deprogramming.

South Korea, which was elected to serve its fifth term on the United Nations Human Rights Council in October, was urged by more than 80 participants at the seminar to respond to the issue of forced conversion with urgency.

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Elephant mortality in Okavango rises to 110, Anthrax ruled out

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Wildlife and National Parks department has ruled out Anthrax as a killer disease for elephants along some villages in the Okavango delta.

As of Friday last week, at least 110 dead elephants were discovered in areas of Seronga, Gunotsoga and Eretsha in the past three weeks and were suspected to have died from Anthrax.

However the Anthrax laboratory tests have come back negative, leaving the government departments searching for more answers. 

“Laboratory results have ruled out Anthrax and we are awaiting more results,” explained regional Wildlife coordinator in Maun, Dimakatso Ntshebe.

Ntshebe said his department through the help of veterinary department services are still conducting further tests to find out whether or not this mysterious disease is not a result of poisoning.

The disease according to Ntshebe causes the giant’s front legs to weaken and therefore the unwell animal walks in uncoordinated manner and ultimately drops to its death.

“We don’t know what could be the cause of this disease but we are working around the clock to find out and hopefully work on the cure,” added Ntshebe.

Some samples are to be sent to South Africa for further testing. “We could have taken other samples to the neighbouring Zimbabwe, but because of COVID-19 that brought everything to almost a standstill, we could not send them,” Ntshebe explained before adding that, “before coronavirus outbreak, Botswana and Zimbabwe were in talks and have entered into some agreements including exportation and importation of certain medications, but we have not yet concluded the matter regarding samples, that is why we have not been able to send samples to Zimbabwe.”

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SADC Executive Secretary disturbed by obstacles in movement of goods

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The Executive Secretary of SADC, Dr Stegomena Lawrence Tax, has cautioned member states that any lack of cooperation among then during the COVID19 era has potential to reverse the gains made in the last decades.

Addressing a virtual SADC Council of Ministers meeting this week, Lawrence Tax said that the regional ministers approved Guidelines on Harmonization and Facilitation of Movement of Essential Goods and Services across borders early April. 

She said that whilst the guidelines have played a critical role in facilitation of movement of essential goods, there are notable obstacles that have been noted by the Secretariat.

The obstacles include non-compliance/non recognition of regional legal frameworks; uncoordinated operations at the port of entry among border agencies; lack of harmonization and synchronization of policies and procedures among, and between member states; unilateral decisions outside agreed framework; as well as different approaches to deal with epidemiological challenges,” she said. 

She added that; “all these are resulting in increased cost of doing business, and negatively affecting the implementation of national and regional programmes”.

She advised that there is need to have measures, and coordinated approach in place since the region is in a post lockdown period since the transportation of non-essential goods and services will be resuming.

Lawrence Tax added that COVID19 is a global pandemic and that the SADC regional approach should expand to COMESA-EAC-SADC tripartite and eventually to other continental blocs.

“The Secretariat is already working with COMESA and EAC, specifically, in terms of harmonizing and synchronizing regulations and procedures for movement of goods and services under the Tripartite arrangement. We need to move in unison and avoid unilateral decisions, specifically with regards to cross border movement of goods and services,” she said.

According to the Executive Secretary, the regional office has already conducted a socio-economic impact analysis of COVID19 on the region and the results have shown that the pandemic will impact negatively across many socio and economic sectors.

“The decline in the global economy is projected to lead to a decline in commodity prices, increase in debt and significant contraction of the SADC economies in 2020. This will reverse the gains on industrial development and trade that the region has made in the last couple of years,” Lawrence Tax said.

On the flip side,  the region’s International Cooperating Partners have made pledges to mitigate the impact of COVID19 pandemic on its economy. 

“To date, the Secretariat has secured Euro 7.3 million from the German Government; Euro3.6million from European Union, Euro 190,000.00 under the GIZ/Africa Union Commission, whereas the African Development Bank (AfDB)  has considered a support UA 7 million. Engagements with the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) are also at an advanced stage,” the Executive Secretary said.

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