The International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit is one of the many in-person events that was welcomed back post-pandemic to Washington, D.C., for its annual meeting at the end of June. With close to 70% of the world’s population living in countries with religious restrictions, it is more important than ever to fortify our response to these troubling numbers. The IRF summit aims to gain political and grassroots support for religious freedom worldwide. Each year the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department releases a report on the status of religious freedom in the world. The conversations that happen at the summit often reflect the reports.
During the meeting, coalitions were strengthened, new relationships were made, and powerful testimonies were shared. While we often read the facts surrounding religious persecution and feel a sense of compassion, to see the faces of those who have survived is uniquely moving. I had the privilege of attending the IRF conference and hearing directly from a few of these survivors.
The story of Shi Minglei
I have never faced persecution for my faith or had to choose between renouncing my faith or living. The government does not send agents to my home to stop me from reading the Bible. My bank account has not been seized because of my faith. But there are individuals in this world who experience this reality daily. Shi Minglei is one of those people. Minglei and her husband, Cheng Yuan, are from China. Yuan is a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and was arrested for his decry of human rights violations by the CCP. After his arrest, his wife and daughter were targeted by secret police officers sent by the government. They were tracked, interrogated, and intimidated by agents. The ERLC has joined coalitions in condemning the treatment of Uyghurs and other religious minorities by the CCP. From condemning the Chinese Government at the U.N. Human Rights Council to advocating for the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, the ERLC has been active in trying to end religious persecution in China.
The CCP was relentless in their efforts to keep Minglei quiet. An agent warned her, “anywhere you go, anyone you meet, anyone you call, you have to get my permission for all of them, or else we’ll change enforcement measures on you!” Essentially, if she spoke out on the brutal treatment she had received, then she would be arrested or even killed. The mental toll that Minglei and her daughter went through cannot be overstated. Every day they lived with the lurking fear that someone was watching them. Agents could barge into their door at any moment and drag them away. While the fear ravaged their life for months on end, they were able to find peace in the only One who can provide it when a member of Minglei’s church rallied around them and offered to pray with them (Phil. 4:6-13). It was at that moment that her heart finally found rest.
“I cried out, and my heart, which had been ruled by the fear created by tyranny, was finally released. That night, I was no longer afraid. Every night, my little girl and I prayed and slept in peace. In the mornings, we took the bus to the subway together, and on the way we sang hymns together and praised God out loud. I began to learn how to live with my fears and how to walk through this trying time.”
Minglei was in a situation where everything seemed to be working against her. The institutions she was surrounded by oppressed her. Her beliefs were ridiculed. Life would have been much easier if she would have remained silent and quietly given up her resistance. Yet, thankfully that is not how the story ends. Minglei and her daughter were able to escape and are now safe within the United States. Hearing her speak in person with her daughter a few feet away in the audience was an experience that I will never forget. Minglei writes in an article about her experience that, “even though I don’t know what tomorrow holds, I do know who is in charge of tomorrow.” May we also live with that same reminder in our own lives.
Freedom of religion is not a worldwide standard. In fact, it is almost an exception. The United States has a unique platform in the world that can be used to promote freedom of religion.
The IRF conference is one of the many ways governments and civil society can come together to promote religious freedom so that everyone can worship without fear. And while conferences like these are necessary to build worldwide support, the fight for religious freedom does not stop with those in Washington. We all have a role to play.
One of the most important ways to get involved is through prayer. Pray for God to open the heart of government leaders who are oppressing their own people. Pray for the individuals who are living in the reality of religious persecution and that God would grant them strength. Lastly, pray that God will give us a spirit of hospitality to welcome those escaping persecution.
Another practical way to get involved is to further read on religious freedom. The ERLC has an entire section dedicated to resources on this issue. A few of my personal recommendations listed below.
- Why would Christians support religious freedom by Josh Wester
- SBC President Bart Barber on why religious liberty is a Baptist distinctive by Bart Barber
- 3 reasons Baptists should hold to religious liberty for all by Nathan A. Finn
The work toward religious freedom for all remains a cornerstone of Baptist tradition. The door to sharing the gospel can often be opened when others are free to practice their own faith. Stories like Shi Minglei should remind us of how blessed we are to have the freedoms we do in the United States. While we know that earthly governments cannot stop the gospel, it is in the interest of human flourishing to protect that right so that individuals are free to live according to their deeply held beliefs. The right to believe, practice, and live according to one’s own religious faith is a God-given, fundamental human right on which other basic rights often rise and fall. It is an essential ingredient in a functioning society. Because of that, the ERLC will continue to advocate for religious freedom for all people of all faiths around the world.