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Fighting religious persecution

A time to fight violence against religious believers

A conference of European rabbis meets in Munich, Germany, on May 30 to discuss religious freedom. Associated Press/Photo by Matthias Schrader

Fighting religious persecution
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Religious persecution and religion-justified violence are on the rise in the world today. That is why it is important that in 2019 the UN established Aug. 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The day passed without the fanfare that we should expect around our most important rights. Nonetheless, this UN-sponsored event is an opportune moment for Christians to pray against religious persecution and support the work of those countering oppression worldwide.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by nearly every country, proclaims:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change [one’s]religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest [one’s] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

It should not be surprising that the writing of the Declaration, written in 1948 after the evils of Nazism, was heavily influenced by religious ideas. According to scholar Paul Marshall, the “godfather of the Universal Declaration” was Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who argued for the human rights and religious freedom of all people. Among the drafting committee were Jewish lawyer René Cassin and Lebanese Christian statesman Charles Malik.

This rich definition of religious freedom is consonant with America’s founding principles. Freedom of religion is not just being allowed to privately reflect on religion, nor is it merely the right to practice corporate worship behind closed doors. Religious freedom is broad. It means the freedom to live one’s faith in every aspect of life, both publicly and privately, without fear of coercion from the government or society. People of religious faith do this individually and in community, and it is in community that they exercise other rights such as the right to assemble, the right to speak and publish freely, to raise their children in their faith, to own or rent property, and practice the rites of the faith.

Living out one’s faith also means being able to express one’s religious beliefs through vocational and charitable service. That is why so many hospitals, clinics, pregnancy centers, food programs, and orphanages are funded and staffed by religious people. They are living out their desire to “love God and love our neighbor.”

Sadly, global persecution remains at an all-time high. According to Pew Research, nearly three-quarters of the world’s population live in places with high levels of persecution. The U.S. government’s lists of threats to religious freedom never seems to diminish: China, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and elsewhere.

What is being done? The good news is that there are at least three areas where Christians are making an impact on religious persecution. All need our prayer and our support.

According to Pew Research, nearly three-quarters of the world’s population live in places with high levels of persecution.

The first is law and legislation. Just as we need legal teams to defend religious freedom in the United States, there are important international venues to fight against injustice. There are a number of Christian organizations training young lawyers to defend religious freedom in both foreign and domestic courts, including international human rights court venues. As reported in WORLD magazine, a recent court win protected a Finnish Member of Parliament and a Lutheran Church official after they were indicted for stating in public their Biblical views of marriage. Other cases successfully challenged overt COVID restrictions in 2020-2021.

The second means of assistance involves accurate and useful reporting. A variety of Christian organizations provide invaluable reporting on the persecution faced by Christians and other religious minorities—from Nigeria to Afghanistan. These and other organizations may also provide expert counsel to governments on ways to better assess and react to ethno-religious and other forms of violence. For instance, a new international protocol for documenting religious freedom violations was made available to government officials at an intergovernmental meeting of senior foreign policy officials in London last month.

The third area is education. Authoritarian, chauvinistic worldviews are at the root of most religious persecution, so a variety of organizations work with Asian and African teachers, students, and children to change their perspectives against violence and toward a form of citizen tolerance that values religious freedom as critical for democracy, civil liberties, and economic flourishing.

The work that these organizations do is daunting. Oppressive political elites around the world use religion to justify violence (prime example, Russia), scapegoat minorities (such as in India and China), perpetrate terrorism (Iran), or as an excuse to oppress “the other” (Burma and Afghanistan). Christians recognize that every person is created in the image of God. Thus, our Christian witness demands that we pray for the good of all as well as for an end to the perversion of religion to justify imprisonment, torture, and murder. May this week not only commemorate yesterday’s victims, but also galvanize citizens and governments to work against this scourge now and in the future.

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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