Last Monday, President Trump and United Nations General Secretary António Guterres became the first president and general secretary to address a meeting on religious freedom at the United Nations. More than 130 heads of state and delegations gathered to hear both speak of this increasingly crucial issue. Joining them: Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft as well as U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, each urging those in attendance, and the world, to acknowledge the global crisis of religious persecution.
I was privileged to attend the event and doubly pleased when I opened the Waco Tribune-Herald Tuesday to find a front-page wire article addressing this historic occasion. The president was duly quoted: “It is an urgent moral duty for world leaders to stop crimes against faith, release prisoners of conscience and repeal laws restricting religious liberty.”
Fair enough. However, I was disappointed when the remainder of the article couched both the event and issue as little more than the president’s reaching out to his evangelical base, choosing religious freedom over the United Nations conference focusing on climate change. Of course, the president recognizes the importance of international religious persecution to many of his Christian supporters. Yet freedom of religion or belief is not a partisan issue.
Certainly this meeting was not homogeneous. It was far more diverse than just American evangelicals as evidenced by those in attendance. Consider the crowd: An influential imam from Northern Virginia sat directly behind me. Next to him: former Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rabbi David Saperstein. To my right: a religious freedom advocate from the Church of Scientology. Two leading Catholics sat in front of me. And they were behind members of the multi-faith U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. And three victims of religious persecution told their stories: a Christian woman from Iran, a Jewish rabbi from Yemen and a Uyghur Muslim woman from China. Excerpts from their testimonies:
Dabrina Bet-Tamraz, an Assyrian Christian from Iran:
- “On the 26th of December 2014, security officers raided my family’s home during a Christmas celebration, arresting all attendees. The authorities separated men from women, conducting strip searches, seizing all the Bibles and confiscating all personal items such as cellphones, laptops and identification documents. My father was imprisoned immediately. They shaved his head to humiliate him, treated him like a terrorist, a criminal. He was kept in solitary confinement for 65 days and was charged with conducting evangelism and illegal house church activities among other false charges that amounted to acting against national security.”
Rabbi Faiz Algaradi on Houthi rebels’ hostility toward Jews:
- “In 2007, I was forced to flee Yemen because I advocated against discrimination, abuses and kidnapping of my village’s community. In one province, Jews were given three choices: convert to Islam, leave Yemen or face genocide. I was one of those who decided to leave. My wife, four children and I left Yemen in 2007. In 2009 we were granted an immigration status to live here in the United States, and for this we are eternally grateful. Today it is my honor to speak to you as a proud citizen of the United States. For those who gathered here today, there are millions of people around the world in need of the same help as my community. Please make the world safer for present and future generations to live and flourish. ”
Jewher Ilham, speaking on the imprisonment of her father, part of China’s abysmally abused Uyghur Muslim minority:
- “He never advocated for separatism but is now serving life in prison because he chose to speak out about the right to believe what you choose to believe, the right to worship the way you want to worship and the right to think what you want to think. The only thing he was guilty of was publicly calling for peaceful dialogue and reconciliation. The Chinese government targets religion to ensure that people of faith do not answer to any greater power than the Communist Party. In China, authorities have defaced or demolished churches, temples and mosques throughout the country. Crosses and minarets have been replaced with hammers and sickles. Spiritual images have been removed in favor of photos of authoritarians. The Ten Commandments have been taken down to make room for government propaganda. Children are forbidden from attending religious services. We are witnessing the systematic eradication of ethnic and religious minority identities in China.”
All this should underline the fact religious freedom is not a sectarian or partisan issue. People of all faiths — even those of no faith at all — are suffering for no other reason than their personal beliefs, faith or conscience.
More than 80 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is threatened or banned. People are persecuted for religious beliefs at an alarming rate. In China, a million Uyghur Muslims are imprisoned simply because of their faith. In Iran, the persecution of Christians, Sunnis, Baha’i and Jews continues. The Myanmar military targets Rohingya Muslims and Christians with violence. Last year a United Nations investigation recommended prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
During the past year, sacred places of worship have been the scene of unspeakable tragedies: 300 Christians were murdered during Easter services in Sri Lanka. In New Zealand, 51 men, women and children were brutally killed while attending a mosque. Jewish communities in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, faced deadly and cowardly anti-Semitic attacks.
Convert, be killed or flee
Nor should the twin events at the United Nations be seen by anyone as an either/or dichotomy between religious freedom and climate change. Both are existential crises. We must not be misled into the “we” versus “them” narrative of petty political arguments. Religious persecution is not a looming catastrophe, it is the current reality, much as climate change is. Religious prisoners of conscience languish in prisons for their beliefs. Many disappear. Religious intolerance is rising globally and must be stopped.
Our team at 21Wilberforce has traveled to many of these communities of concern and interviewed the victims of this violence. We have listened to Yazidis and Christians driven from their homes in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq by ISIS terrorists. They too were given three choices: convert, be killed or flee. The church bells that rang throughout the region on Easter and Christmas since the 1st century are silenced. In our report “Edge of Extinction” we describe the situation as nothing short of genocide.
We have wept with the parents of Nigerian girls captured by Boko Haram. Survivors of a Nigerian village reported to us the brutal massacre of men, women and children by terrorists. We have met with Christian pastors and human rights lawyers from China who speak of oppression and persecution that they have not seen since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Deserters from North Korea report murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, starvation and disappearance of persons there based on nothing more than exercise of faith.
It was exciting to hear top leaders of our nation joined by the United Nations general secretary pressing one theme to leaders from more than 130 nations, as well as leaders of faith communities, businesses and members of the press: This violence must stop.
“There is richness and strength in diversity; it is never a threat,” Guterres said. “Profiting from that diversity requires a strong investment in social cohesion policies. We have much wisdom to guide us on our way. All major religions espouse mutual respect and peaceful coexistence in a spirit of shared humanity. And our shared foundational text, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirms everyone’s ‘right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’ Simply put, the best way to promote international religious freedom is by uniting our voices for good, countering messages of hate with messages of peace, embracing diversity and protecting human rights everywhere.”
Indeed, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Religious persecution won’t be stopped by laws and sanctions, though these are crucial. Article 18 has been affirmed by some of the nations that are the greatest offenders, something Secretary of State Pompeo alluded to at one point: “The United Nations is only as strong as its sovereign members determine it will be. ” Religious freedom must be the result of churches and other faith groups, communities and families who embrace religious freedom as a God-given right for all. The United Nations meeting was a significant step forward indicating, “We are listening.” Now the question becomes: What actions will we take as we seek to stand with those who are suffering?