If the term “religious freedom” conjures up images of burqa-banning in France or forbidden creches outside of state capitols in the United States, you are not alone. The topic of religious freedom is not a popular one, and, as such, it has been frequently characterized by trivial or isolated incidents.
For most people, religious freedom is simply not a burning issue. While other human rights issues, including human trafficking, have found their way to “hot topic” status, religious freedom is taken for granted, even ignored. Sometimes it gets cast in a negative light: “Religion has caused more harm than good,” is an oft-quoted analysis. People often think that because they have religious freedom – in fact, have always had it – it will always exist for them. But throughout the world, millions of people have had this freedom stripped away from them in the blink of an eye.
Trapped in Iran
Stories of religiously-motivated violence aren't broadcast on the news as often as they should be. Consider the cases of hundreds of Iranian Jews, Christians and Baha'is who are currently attempting to flee their country. Iran's official policy to eradicate religious minorities has led to its designation by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern.” It's also necessitated the yearly renewal of the critical Lautenberg Amendment, which allows for hundreds of Iranian victims of persecution to enter the United States by way of Austria each year.
But because religious freedom isn't exactly on the radar screen for many Americans – including members of Congress – the Lautenberg Amendment might not be renewed this year. The disappearance of this escape routewould leave almost 700 Iranian refugees stranded in a country where they are far from welcome. And as long the Lautenberg Amendment and other initiatives to protect victims of persecution are ignored by members of Congress like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the fate of victims will only grow worse.
Why We Must Act
The responsibility to defend religious liberty doesn’t just fall on members of Congress and other government officials. “Speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves,” reads Proverbs 31:8 (NLT), “ensure justice for those being crushed.” We all have a responsibility to uphold justice for the oppressed, whatever form the abuse takes.
People of faith have an additional reason to speak out: religiously-motivated violence is on the rise throughout the world. Our silence will only ensure the ongoing slaughter of innocent Christians and those of other minority faiths around the world. It might not be on our radar screen now, while it's affecting people half-way around the world. But persecution will certainly capture our attention once it's on our doorstep. We must act before that happens.
My own experience of visiting a Christian village outside of Lahore, Pakistan, a few years ago altered my personal impression of religious freedom, or the lack thereof, in the world today. Only days prior to my visit, this particular village had been attacked by a gang of radical Muslims wielding machetes. I still have the photos I took of that burned-out village church, wires hanging from the walls, the mess of books and communion cups and crosses, not to mention the bandaged, bloody wounds of the victims.
After that visit, I had the privilege of attending church with Pakistani Christians in Lahore. Walking past the men armed with machine guns surrounding the building and slipping into the church for the worship service, I experienced, in some small way, what it must feel like to be a Christian in an epicenter of religiously-motivated bombings, kidnappings, and killings.
Confronting with Compassion
Today, only a few years later, the situation in Pakistan has worsened considerably. Within the past few months, the moderate Muslim governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, was shot to death because of his defense of an imprisoned Christian woman, Asia Bibi. Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's Minorities Minister and a strong defender of the persecuted church in Pakistan, was murdered a few weeks later.
The stories of these victims are too often ignored, shoved under the news pile, and too quickly forgotten. But what if we were able to confront the issue of religious persecution with the clarity and compassion it deserves?
A recent study from Pew Research Group shows that 70% of the world's population is affected by religious persecution in some form. That includes church bombings in Nigeria, assassinated Christian leaders in Pakistan, and refugees fleeing religious persecution in Iran. Religious freedom might not be a hot topic, but it should be. And there are steps that each of us can take to raise this issue to the level it deserves – in our minds, our churches, our communities, our country.
How to Get Involved
The first step is to gain awareness of the issue of religious persecution. The U.S. State Department's Office for International Religious Freedom offers resources on understanding which countries have been designated as “countries of particular concern” – and why. Open Doors releases a “World Watch List” annually, covering countries where religious persecution is the worst. They have recently released a Congressional Scorecard, identifying members of Congress who have been active in supporting religious freedom throughout the world, as well as those who have been less active or even silent on the issue. The scorecard essentially grades members on how involved they are in ensuring the protection of religious freedom.
The Religious Liberty Partnership is a coalition of unique organizations working to protect religious liberty as well as offer aid and advocacy for victims of persecution throughout the world. Involvement with nonprofit aid organizations is a great way to learn more about the backgrounds and stories of individuals who are facing persecution, as well as make a difference in their lives.
Religious persecution might not be a hot topic yet. But with the united efforts of individuals throughout the world it is possible to raise the small voice of this crucial issue to an international outcry.
This article published on April 21, 2011.
Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout the Middle East and Asia. She is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to religious freedom, human rights, and philanthropy. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.