Update: As I was posting this article this morning, my wife told me of early reports of the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini from his imprisonment in Iran. That has since been confirmed, and I celebrate his freedom.
Today is Religious Freedom Day. I wish every day, in every nation, was Religious Freedom Day, but it’s not. Sadly, this is among the most neglected of human rights, and we should be ashamed of that fact.
We have opted to tolerate tragedy in this area. The world gives a collective shrug to the fact that so many people live in nations where religion is either imposed or forbidden. It is one of the scandals of our day, and it has to change.
Some justify their indifference with this phrase: “They don’t see things like we do, so we just need to do our best to coexist and live with the religious differences.” Why would we take that tolerant approach in this area, but not in others? The world didn’t tolerate institutionalized racism in South Africa – international pressure eventually forced that nation to change its internal laws and honor the basic human rights of all of its citizens. Today, we bring similar pressure on countries that turn a blind eye to human trafficking. We have often called for the worldwide respect of basic human rights, and have isolated and pressured countries that have refused to do so. But freedom of religion seems to no longer be among those rights.
When terrorists killed a dozen journalists in a horrific massacre in France last year, it rightly provoked a vigorous global defense of the freedom of the press. World leaders marched together in Paris to defend that crucial principle. Why then is there relative silence about the freedom of religion? Why does it not matter?
According to Open Doors, a global evangelical organization, 2015 was the worst year in the modern era for persecuted Christians. Over 7000 Christ-followers gave their lives for their faith. Where is the parade of world leaders for freedom of religion? Where is the outrage against persecution? The world is tragically silent, and sadly the church is sometimes equally silent. Both must change.
The Open Doors report on persecution in 2015 (available here) indicates that Islamic nations have the worst record of religious freedom. Islam is the dominant religion in nine of the ten countries most likely to engage in religious persecution. Even in what are considered to be moderate nations (and American allies), it is often illegal to abandon Islam for another faith.
But the Islamic world is not the only threat to religious freedom. I have friends in India who are caring for the orphans of men and women who were killed by Hindu militants in a wave of anti-Christian violence. Churches were burned, and people were killed, simply because of their faith.
It’s hard to believe that in 2016 there remain nations like North Korea (#1 on the Open Doors persecution list) where religion is an official target of the state. The 20th century should have taught us the horrors of state-sponsored opposition to religion, when tens of millions of people were killed for their religion in places like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and China. Why do we tolerate nations that imitate those policies today?
There are glimmers of hope. North Korea is increasingly isolated. Moderate Muslims are speaking out against persecution – I have friends who are among them, and I admire their courage and integrity. Organizations like Open Doors, Voice of the Martyrs, and Amnesty International shine helpful spotlights on abuses.
But there are still hundreds of millions of people, maybe billions, who do not know what it means to have freedom of religion. That is a tragedy.
I will practice my faith today. I will speak at a funeral this afternoon, glad to be free to publicly give faith-based hope to those who mourn. I will lead my church in prayer tonight and tomorrow, grateful that I can do so without fear of government intervention.
And I will pray for those around the world who have no idea what that is like.
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