Sunday, January 16th is Religious Freedom Day
By Doug Carlson
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
Each year since 1993, the sitting U.S. president has recognized Jan. 16 as Religious Freedom Day. As this day of reflection approaches, it is fitting to take inventory of the state of religious freedom worldwide. Sadly, the religious landscape for much of the world is colored with repression, persecution, and even killings.
According to a study released in December 2009 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, “64 nations—about one-third of the countries in the world—have high or very high restrictions on religion” and “nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.” Pew also found that the governments of 75 countries (38 percent) “limit efforts by religious groups or individuals to persuade others to join their faith.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan watchdog group created by Congress in 1998 to make policy recommendations on securing religious freedom worldwide, also finds the “First Freedom” under fire. In its 2010 report, the nine-member panel, which includes Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, listed 13 nations as a “country of particular concern,” a designation reserved for the world’s worst human rights violators.
Heinous acts of violence against religious minorities escalated during the Christmas season. Here is a snapshot of just a few of the most horrific religious liberty conditions around the world.
China. To be a Christian in China is to live under constant threat of detention or torture by government authorities. One such victim is Dr. Fan Yafeng, a house church leader and human rights activist taken under police arrest in December for the fifth time since mid-October. In 2009, the ERLC awarded Dr. Fan its John Leland Religious Liberty Award in honor of his courage to stand against governmental repression of faith. Other religious minorities, such as Muslim Uighars, enjoy virtually no religious freedom in the nation. China tried well to mask such repression when it hosted the Summer Olympic Games in 2008. One hopes President Obama will include religious freedom on the agenda when Chinese President Hu pays a visit to the White House next week.
North Korea. Unquestionably one of the most repressive nations on religious liberty is North Korea. The rogue regime earned a spot on USCIRF’s “countries of particular concern” list as well as the shameful No. 1 place by other groups like Open Doors as most egregious violator. Here freedom of religion and conscience is nonexistent. Those caught worshipping secretively are often arrested, tortured or forced into labor camps, where they are nearly starved. Many of the oppressed escape to neighboring China, stepping into a future often worse than their past. North Korean refugees caught by the Chinese government are routinely repatriated back to their homeland, only to face imprisonment, severe beatings, and, in some cases, even execution.
Iran. The heavy-handed Iranian regime has remained hard at work since Christmas, detaining some 70 people, mostly Christians, in Tehran. Most of the detainees still have not been released. Like many nations in the Middle East, Iran recognizes Islam as its state religion. No other faiths, even dissenting sects of Islam, are welcome. Iranian President Ahmadinejed has vowed “to wipe Israel off the face of the map.” Converting from Islam to another religion can result in death. Evangelizing with the gospel message is forbidden. To be sure, living as a religious minority in Iran comes with a steep price.
Iraq. Meanwhile, the Christian population in neighboring Iraq dwindles. While the Iraqi government continues its transition to freedom and democracy, Christians still face hardship, even as targets of killing sprees. Many are being pushed to the outer regions. Others are fleeing Iraq altogether in pursuit of asylum elsewhere, including in the United States.
Pakistan. Peace has not reached Pakistan either. On Jan. 4, the Arabic nation headlined world news with the tragic murder of Salman Taseer, governor of the Punjab province, by a bodyguard. His purported crime: questioning the wisdom of the nation’s blasphemy law, which prohibits criticizing a religion—namely Islam. Under this law, blaspheming the Islamic religion is punishable by death, a sentence given to a Christian Pakistani woman in November. The blasphemy law is nothing more than a muzzle on religious freedom and discourse. It should be eliminated.
Egypt. On New Year’s Day, a suicide bomber took aim at a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt. Twenty-three people were killed in the blast, which occurred three days before Christmas on the Coptic calendar. Such violence is not new among Egypt’s largest religious minority. One year ago, again just before Christmas, a drive-by shooting rampage took the lives of seven people, six of whom were Copts. Regrettably, the Egyptian government has demonstrated little intent to protect Coptic Christians and other religious minorities from persecution and attack.
Sudan. The people of Darfur, located in the western region of Sudan, are well acquainted with suffering. Here, in this Central African region, radical Muslims from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, pillage the villages of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Religious violence and unrest is systemic. Since Sunday, the people of Sudan have been going to the polls in a weeklong vote to decide whether the South, where violence rooted in animosity toward Christians and other religious minorities also reigns, should secede from the North. As the future of the beleaguered Sudanese hangs in the balance, they desperately need prayer and assistance from the West.
The list of religiously oppressed peoples around the globe is too long to recount. Untold numbers of specific incidences of persecution are not even known. What is certain, however, is that the countless millions persecuted for their faith should not be forgotten. The preservation of religious freedom here and its advancement abroad should be central components of U.S. policy. With Religious Freedom Day upon us, and with a new Congress convening, now is an ideal time to let that be known to your senators and representative.
This article was used by permission of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention