Pope Francis grants an audience with Thomas Farr (right), director of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project, and Ken Starr (center), president of Baylor University, during a conference held in Rome last weekend.

Baylor University photo

Last weekend, Baylor University was honored to co-sponsor a global conference in Rome, the Eternal City, on religious liberty. The Rome conference was organized over a two-year period by Baylor’s new partner in the vital quest for religious freedom worldwide, Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. The conference theme was historic: the role of Christianity, over its two millennia, in fostering human liberty including religious freedom and promoting human flourishing.

Two overarching conclusions connected the conference presentations of more than 30 journalists, scholars and religious leaders from around the world.

First, in countries where Christians have been permitted to preach and practice their faith, societies thrive and individuals flourish (including raising themselves and their families out of poverty).

Second, and ironically, this powerful engine of human well-being is under grave threat around the world, especially in the strife-torn Middle East. Non-Christians in that troubled region are not immune from religious persecution, as demonstrated in Egypt (the repressive Muslim Brotherhood’s self-proclaimed assaults on Shiites) and in post-revolutionary Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began (governmental attacks on Sufis).

Christianity — a far-flung global community of 2.5 billion people in over 41,000 different denominations — in unity proclaims freedom for all human beings, everywhere. The words of the Apostle Paul — martyred not far from the site of the Georgetown-Baylor conference — rang through the widely reported gathering in the John Paul II Auditorium, located only a stone’s throw from the Vatican: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

At the conference, social scientists reported findings from around the world demonstrating the powerful influences for social good when Christians are allowed, in peace, to carry out the Great Commission and to serve the needs of mankind.

Recently garnering the coveted top prize of the American Political Science Association for scholarly articles, a heralded study by political scientist Robert Woodberry of the National University of Singapore showed that in countries ranging from China and India to Nigeria and Togo, the dedicated, sacrificial service of Christian missionaries resulted in higher economic growth and greater educational achievement in the particular regions those courageous believers served. The reason is simple. In Christian love, and without discrimination, missionaries not only preach the Gospel, they establish and operate hospitals, medical clinics, schools and orphanages, thus providing desperately needed social services. In doing so, by word and deed, the missionaries promote human dignity.

In India, for example, Dalits constitute a large underclass subjected to historic cultural discrimination. They are converting rapidly to Christianity, to the alarm of repressive local officials. Field research conducted by Georgetown social scientists confirms an expected pattern: Dalit converts have “a radically different way of seeing themselves. They believe they can move forward and improve their families’ lives.”

That’s the good news. Tragically, Christians — including missionaries — are increasingly subject to official oppression, including torture and senseless violence, at hot spots around the world. At its closing session, the Georgetown-Baylor conference hosted the Patriarch of Babylon, and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Raphael I Sako. Patriarch Sako eloquently urged Middle Eastern regimes, including his homeland of Iraq, to stop the slaughter of Christians. He reminded the Rome audience — and the world — that Christianity had played a pivotal (and once-welcome) historic role in Arab civilization.

The toll of Christian victims in Iraq is appalling. Patriarch Sako reported that in this year alone, 6,200 Iraqi Christians have been murdered. “If they kill us all, will you do something then?”

What has the Christian church done? Very little. American journalist and author John Allen decried the silence of Christians globally as “a moral scandal.” He said, “Christians around the world have stood by while the Christian church in Iraq was gutted.”

But Patriarch Sako refused to be worn down or intimidated. Under constant death threat himself, this brave Catholic leader closed the conference this way: “Christian life is based on hope. Jesus asked us not to be afraid.”

Georgetown and Baylor are spreading the word — through scholarship and collaboration. The Rome conference recalled again the beautiful Christmas message — with the angelic assurance to shepherds who watched over their flocks by night two millennia ago. “Fear not.”

Ken Starr is president of Baylor University.