Religious liberty is under attack around the world and religious persecution – especially of Christians – is very much a part of today’s world.
Of course, the persecution can be soft or hard. A devout Catholic in Washington, DC, will find a court nomination opposed and suffer a dearth of invitations to the important social events. A devout Catholic in the wrong place at the wrong time in parts of Asia or Africa may be crucified. And I don’t mean in a figurative sense – I mean nailed to a cross and left to die.
Religious conflict is nothing new. And no, it didn’t start with the Crusades. It didn’t even start with the early Christians. You can go back to the various groups the people of Israel battled in the Old Testament.
But persecution isn’t just ancient history. To get a frightening picture of the violence Christians face, I recommend John L. Allen Jr’s monumental – and sobering — work from 2013: The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution.
As the promotion for the book said:
From Iraq and Egypt to Sudan and Nigeria, from Indonesia to the Indian subcontinent, Christians in the early 21st century are the world’s most persecuted religious group. According to the secular International Society for Human Rights, 80 percent of violations of religious freedom in the world today are directed against Christians. In effect, our era is witnessing the rise of a new generation of martyrs. Underlying the global war on Christians is the demographic reality that more than two-thirds of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians now live outside the West, often as a beleaguered minority up against a hostile majority– whether it’s Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia, Hindu radicalism in India, or state-imposed atheism in China and North Korea. In Europe and North America, Christians face political and legal challenges to religious freedom. Allen exposes the deadly threats and offers investigative insight into what is and can be done to stop these atrocities.
The actual book is more terrifying than the promo. As I read the book shortly after it was published, I confess I wondered what could be done to stop the persecution. Pope Francis and the Holy See have been tireless in raising the issue at the United Nations, with religious and political leaders around the world, with anyone who will listen.
My fear is that the concern for religious persecution is a little like concern for the day’s weather; everyone talks about it but nobody does anything about it.
However, the talk is getting louder and more constant. And perhaps we have reached the tipping point where we refuse to accept anyone being persecuted for their beliefs.
U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista L. Gingrich on June 25, 2018, called for a comprehensive, international effort to incite action around the world to defeat religious persecution and repression. He comments came when speaking about the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See-hosted symposium on religious freedom on “Defending International Religious Freedom: Partnership and Action” at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce. It included opening remarks by the Ambassador and closing remarks by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
From July 24-26, 2018, Washington was the site of the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, sponsored by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It brought together a wide range of political leaders and representatives of virtually every major religion.
During this unique event, Sam Brownback, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, called for action by governments, individuals, and activist organizations to work together to protect religious freedom around the world.
“Religious freedom is in our DNA and it is close to my heart,” said John J. Sullivan, US Deputy Secretary of State. “I am the grandson of Irish Catholic immigrants who arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1880s.
“When they arrived and for many decades that followed, Catholics faced widespread prejudice. And something that Ambassador Brownback said in his opening remarks caught my attention, and that is our coming together. What helped my grandparents and their fellow immigrants who came to the United States was they had each other, they had a community, they had people who came together – even if they were persecuted, they had each other, and that was what sustained them.”
“The right to believe or not believe is the most fundamental of freedoms,” said US Vice President Mike Pence. “When religious liberty is denied or destroyed, we know that other freedoms — freedom of speech, of press, assembly, and even democratic institutions themselves — are imperiled.”
Pence singled out several examples of religious persecution currently happening around the world. In particular, he cited the situation in Nicaragua, which has been an ongoing concern of Pope Francis and the Vatican.
“The list of religious freedom violators is long; their crimes and oppressions span the width of our world,” Pence said. “Here in our own hemisphere, in Nicaragua, the government of Daniel Ortega is virtually waging war on the Catholic Church. For months, Nicaragua’s bishops have sought to broker a national dialogue following pro-democracy protests that swept through the country earlier this year. But government-backed mobs armed with machetes, and even heavy weapons, have attacked parishes and church properties, and bishops and priests have been physically assaulted by the police.”
At the same event, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force as part of the US Justice Department.
“The Task Force will help the Department fully implement our religious liberty guidance by ensuring that all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations,” Sessions said. “That includes making sure that our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith.”
Does any of this mean religious persecution will end anytime soon? Probably not.
But the Pope does have the world’s most bully pulpit and he is using it to call for religious freedom for all. And a group of political and religious leaders in a meeting hall in Washington can’t fix everything with a few well-intentioned words. But at least they have the right people in the room and have the conversation going in earnest.
Ensuring the religious freedom of everyone around the world won’t happen quickly or easily. It can’t happen through threats or war.
It will happen through God’s grace. And we can all play a part through our prayers and our personal refusal to be a part of any religious persecution or discrimination towards people of other faiths.
Some might argue that the talk we’re hearing is cheap and easy. But words can be powerful, especially if they are words of love and prayer.