Religious freedom is under attack internationally. Recent studies indicate 75 percent of the global population lives in countries restricting the free and peaceful practice of religion. In this context, Christians of all denominations suffer from repression and violent persecution. But they are not alone – persons of different faiths and no faith are also targeted because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Every day, millions of people around the world face repression, violence, and possibly even death.
Responding to attacks on freedom of religion will be the defining challenge of the 21st century. Situations of religious repression breed instability and foster extremism, while threatening other fundamental rights like expression and association. Past advocacy methods are not enough anymore, as abusive governments and extremist groups increasingly prevent individuals from practicing their faith through violence or repression. Lives are on the line. Time is not a luxury.
In response, Christians should lead a new movement, one bringing an urgent focus on international religious freedom for all, both for members of our own faith and those of other religions. Religious freedom for everyone everywhere needs to be a top priority for the global church.
At its core, religious freedom is freedom of thought – the freedom to question; the freedom to search for ultimate truth as one sees fit; the freedom to believe or not believe in God or a higher power. And religious freedom is a core part of the Christian experience.
The international standards protecting freedom of religion or belief arose after World War II, when the international community established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Arising on the ashes of the Holocaust, the Universal Declaration was a landmark achievement for the global community. It marked the first time in human history that the intrinsic rights of each individual were recognized to trump the power of the state.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration is the key text for religious freedom. While not using America’s First Amendment language of free exercise and establishment clause, Article 18 provides an expansive definition. The Declaration is a standard by which all nations can be measured. It declares:
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.
Under Article 18, the right of an individual to hold any belief is protected, be it theistic, deistic, polytheistic, or atheistic. It recognizes the freedom to believe in God or not, as well as the ability to worship, preach a sermon, share the word, and educate children. It shows how religious freedom is unique among human rights, as to be fully respected other fundamental freedoms must also be protected – freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement.
So why should Christians care about religious freedom for others? If the church is under attack, shouldn’t we first take care of our own?
Certainly Christians need a greater awareness about our persecuted brothers and sisters abroad. Too often their suffering goes unnoticed. A hopeful development was the recent signing of a pledge by 175 Christian religious leaders across denominational lines about persecuted Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. The situation for Christians is dire in those places and deserving of attention. But these are not the only places where the body of Christ suffers – just look at Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and China to name a few.
In addition to looking inwardly, we should look outwardly. Christ-followers are called to love our neighbor as our selves, so the suffering of persons from a different faith should matter just as much. The Bible overflows with calls to help our fellow man. And while not using contemporary human rights terms, the Bible speaks to these in the context of justice and mercy, as well as love of neighbor.
For instance Micah 6:8. It declares, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To seek justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The call to “seek justice” is a universal call.
In the New Testament, particularly instructive in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. As Jesus speaks to a crowd, a lawyer tests him by asking how can one inherent eternal life. Not easily stumped, Jesus turns the question around and asks the teacher in the law for his answer. The teacher responds with the admonition of “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “love neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says he answered correctly.
Yet the lawyer (like lawyers today) just couldn’t stop. He asked a second question – “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the well-known passage a traveler is beset upon by robbers and left for dead. The next two who travelled the same route, both priests, “passed by on the other side” and did not help.
As we know, the hero is the third person coming down the road, the Samaritan. Jesus says he “went to [the wounded traveler] and bandaged his wounds.” For the listeners of the day, it was an astonishing twist as Samaritans were the ultimate “other.” They were considered religiously and ethnically different. Jews and Samaritans hated each other and would walk miles out of their way to avoid each other’s communities.
Jesus concludes the parable by asking, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him (and all of us) to “Go and do likewise.”
From these and other passages, there is a clear call for Christians to serve alongside the oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people, regardless of their beliefs. Based on this admonition, we should work for religious freedom – work for the persecuted – be they Christians or atheists or Muslims or anyone else.
There is a community of suffering, and one not limited to fellow believers. In many places where the church is experiencing incredible pressures, Christians are not alone. Authoritarian governments and extremists are equal opportunity oppressors, meaning that when Christians are persecuted, so are other groups. And sometimes it is the other groups who suffer more.
For instance, look at Iran. The regime is especially hard on religious minorities, such as Christians, Baha’is, and Sufi Muslims. There has been much attention paid to Pastor Saeed Abedini, and with good reason. Yet the Baha’i community, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, long has been subject to particularly severe religious freedom violations. The government views Baha’is as “heretics” and consequently they face repression on the grounds of apostasy. There are over 100 Baha’is in jail.
The global church should speak out for them and others in this community of suffering.
So working for religious freedom for all is responsive to the Biblical call, but also addresses a practical necessity for the future of the church. Christians will struggle where religious freedom for all does not exist, especially in countries where they are a minority. When governments or societies establish narrow lanes of permissible thought, the church might survive, but it will not flourish. Environments where people of whatever persuasion are free to seek ultimate truth are environments where Christianity can thrive.
In other words, to truly help Christians enjoy religious freedom and a secure future, everyone in a country must enjoy freedom of religion and belief.
So what to do?
Heroes of the Christian faith have set a high bar, risking their lives to help our brothers and sisters. This should continue. Yet in light of increasing violations of religious freedom, we need an expanded approach, one where the church leads a new movement advocating for all. As we heard in the Good Samaritan parable, Christians are called to help our neighbors, regardless of faith or creed. Working for religious freedom for everyone will demonstrate Christians are not just concerned about ourselves, but rather are living out Christ’s call to love our neighbor.
The global church is working holistically in other contexts. The church has an admirable track record of assisting individuals in need, regardless of faith, through relief and development work. In a similar way, the church needs to act on these Biblical principles and promote religious freedom for all. Christians should be at the forefront of helping individuals in their time of need; lack of food or lack of freedom for their beliefs.
In addition, fighting for individuals to freely believe may be the strongest testimony of God’s love the church can show. It’s not equating beliefs, but rather tangibly living out our faith by demonstrating that Christians will help anyone in need. This is not saying all paths lead to heaven, but acting confidently out of our own convictions by showing Christ’s love to the oppressed in their time of need and standing with them.
In conclusion, the global church needs a new strategy to successfully push back against the rising tide of restrictions on religious freedom and increasing violence. To meet this expanding challenge, an expansive response is needed, one standing up for religious freedom for all. Let us lead by serving alongside the oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people.