By nearly any measure, 2015 was the worst year to be a Christian in living memory. As the Obama administration and U.S. Congress recognized in early 2016, the so-called Islamic State has been perpetrating a genocide against Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims. As Secretary of State John Kerry said, the Islamic State “kills Christians because they are Christians; Yezidis because they are Yezidis; Shia because they are Shia.”
But the Islamic State is not the only threat to religious liberty in the world today. Sectarian violence is running rampant across the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia. In some ways, the lack of religious liberty in the world today is the fundamental problem we face across the globe.
Moving in the wrong direction?
When we examine certain signposts, it’s clear we are moving in the wrong direction. In 1948, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international community rallied behind a strong definition of religious liberty that would put any religious minority at ease:
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.
Since that time, international commitments and statements on religious liberty have been softening. The 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief was much weaker on the question of whether a person has the right to change his religion. In 2008, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for “Combating the defamation of religions,” a challenging concept to square with freedom of expression.
Global consensus on the question of whether a person has the right to change his religion is critical to securing soul freedom everywhere. This is particularly true in the 21 countries in the world today where leaving Islam for another religion is criminalized.
The sectarian strife in the Middle East and North Africa is rooted in part in local politics, regional rivalries and competition over natural resources. In some ways, sectarianism is simply a vehicle used to advance other agendas. But to deny that there is a religious element to the conflicts raging in the Middle East and North Africa today is to ignore the obvious.
This same complicated dynamic is at work today in Europe. In November 2015, Paris experienced a brutal, cowardly attack on civilian targets by jihadists with a background in bank robbery and petty theft, not Islamic law and doctrine. By March 2016, the same pattern repeated itself in Brussels through another set of barbarous attacks.
It is true that economic despair—unemployment, low income, lack of public services—played a key role in the Paris and Brussels attacks. But to deny that these attacks are motivated in part by religion prevents us from combatting the aspect of the problem for which religious freedom is part of the solution. Christians must advocate for a world where religions that make mutually exclusive truth claims can live side by side in peace.
Signs of hope
In 1990, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation issued the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which addressed religious liberty with the following: “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism.” This statement, to put it mildly, leaves much to be desired.
But in recent years, there have been signs of hope. In response to the rise of the Islamic State, hundreds of Muslim scholars and leaders joined an “Open Letter to al-Baghdadi,” which argued that the Islamic State is un-Islamic. And in early 2016, another group of Muslim politicians, religious leaders and scholars issued the Marrakesh Declaration on the the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities. The Marrakesh Declaration affirmed the rights of religious minorities under a concept of citizenship and moved the discussion toward equal rights based on a concept of equal citizenship.
Of course, there is a long way to go. But one of the striking things about the Marrakesh Declaration and the Open Letter is the fact that each document is seeking to come to terms with religious liberty and human rights within the context of Islam itself. As Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyeh said in his opening remarks of the Marrakesh Declaration conference, “We believe it is possible to heal this illness from the pharmacy of the sacred law of Islam.” Whether this is possible or not remains to be seen, but what matters is that Muslim scholars have set their attention to this agenda.
As advocates for religious liberty around the world today, what should we do, and where should we focus our attention? First, we need to pray. We need to ask that God would protect our brothers and sisters around the world, giving them wisdom on how to interact within their societies and providing courage to stand firm in the face of unimaginable difficulties. We need to ask that God would raise up Muslim leaders that are well-positioned to advocate for broad rights for religious minorities living in majority-Muslim countries.
Second, we need to recognize the religious character of many of the conflicts around the world today. Solving these conflicts means standing with and supporting religious leaders that seek to counter violent extremism and advocate for religious liberty.
Last, we need to recognize that there are other points of persuasion toward religious liberty. For instance, as Brian Grim and the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation have forcefully argued, there is a strong linkage between religious liberty and economic development. These arguments may provide support for those within the Muslim community as they come to draw upon their own Islamic tradition to articulate a strong vision for religious liberty and pluralism in majority-Muslim societies.
Let us remain hopeful as we advocate for international religious liberty, knowing that there is a day coming when every tear will be wiped from every eye and every wrong will be righted. This day has not come yet, but it is surely coming.