By / Nov 17

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), a landmark law that has had a significant impact on promoting and protecting religious freedom around the world. Enacted on Oct. 27, 1998, the IRFA has become a crucial tool in the United States’ efforts to advance religious freedom globally. As we celebrate this milestone, here is what Christians in America should know in order to understand what the act is, why it matters, and how it has benefited mankind.

What is the International Religious Freedom Act?

The IRFA is a U.S. law that mandates the inclusion of religious freedom concerns in the country’s foreign policy. As President Clinton stated at the signing ceremony, “Religious freedom is a matter of national security as well as personal conviction.” Here are several requirements of IRFA: 

  • The act established a framework within which the U.S. could engage with other nations to advocate for the religious rights of individuals, regardless of their faith or belief system. 
  • It also requires the U.S. government to condemn violations of religious freedom abroad and assist foreign governments in protecting this fundamental human right. 
  • It led to the establishment of the Office of International Religious Freedom within the Department of State and the appointment of an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. 
  • It requires an annual report from the State Department on the status of religious freedom in each country around the world. 
  • It also established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal body that monitors religious freedom conditions worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress. 

Through various mechanisms, including annual reports, targeted sanctions, and diplomatic engagement, the IRFA endeavors to hold accountable those nations where religious persecution is rampant, while also supporting countries working diligently to improve religious liberty.

Why does the International Religious Freedom Act matter?

Religious freedom is a bedrock American value, and the IRFA reflects the strong and enduring commitment of the U.S. to advancing this right for everyone in the world. The act recognizes that freedom of religion or belief is inextricably linked to other fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, conscience, and association. When religious freedom is at risk, these other freedoms are also jeopardized. 

Unfortunately, approximately 80% of the world’s population still faces serious restrictions or risks in living according to their most basic values and beliefs. The IRFA provides essential tools to address these challenges and promote religious freedom globally.

How has the International Religious Freedom Act benefited mankind?

Over the past 25 years, the IRFA has had a significant impact on promoting and protecting religious freedom worldwide. Here are some of the key benefits it has brought to mankind:

  • Empowering the persecuted: The IRFA has provided a range of new tools to give voice to the persecuted and empower advocates for religious freedom. Through its work, the USCIRF has shed light on religious freedom violations, raised awareness, and advocated for the rights of those facing persecution. Additionally, the act has emboldened a multitude of religious freedom advocates, bolstering various initiatives aimed at promoting religious tolerance and understanding among different faith groups.
  • Freeing the persecuted: One of the notable successes of the act can be seen in its role in facilitating the release of numerous religious prisoners. Its provisions have been instrumental in spotlighting the plight of individuals incarcerated due to their faith, and in exerting pressure on governments to uphold religious freedom.
  • Promoting tolerance and respect: Over the past 25 years, the IRFA has shaped America’s response to religious persecution worldwide. The law expresses America’s unique understanding that religious freedom is an essential human right, and violations of it destabilize societies. The annual report has brought international attention to abuses and influenced U.S. policies toward repressive regimes. The U.S. government, led by its ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, has been actively engaged in advocating for those who have been unfairly targeted and promoting religious tolerance and respect.
  • Highlighting the importance of religious freedom: The IRFA has played a crucial role in raising awareness about the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. Its 25th-anniversary celebration has brought together various stakeholders, including religious leaders, policymakers, and human rights advocates, to reflect on the progress made and the challenges that lie ahead.
  • Providing a model for other countries: The IRFA has served as a model for other countries seeking to promote and protect religious freedom. Its success has inspired the adoption of similar legislation in various nations, further strengthening the global movement for religious freedom.

The challenge ahead

While the IRFA has achieved significant milestones over the past 25 years, challenges remain. In recent years, there has been a rise in restrictions on religious freedom worldwide, with some countries enacting laws that limit religious practice and expression. As we look to the future, it is crucial to continue advocating for religious freedom, supporting the work of the USCIRF, and engaging in dialogue with other nations to address these challenges and promote religious freedom for all. 

The IRFA affirms that religious freedom is not just an American value, but a universal human right. As we mark this anniversary, Americans can be proud of our leadership in promoting liberty of conscience for all people. The ideals enshrined in this act reflect our nation’s founding commitment to unalienable rights for people of all faiths. 

As long as the IRFA remains strong, the U.S. will continue speaking up for the voiceless and oppressed, which includes millions of persecuted Christians around the globe. While the work is far from complete, we celebrate the good that this law has done over the past 25 years to make the world a more free and just place.

By / Oct 17

“Addressing policymakers at home and abroad, American evangelical Christian leaders responded Wednesday to the attacks on Israel by Hamas by issuing a letter calling for moral clarity, both supporting Israel’s right to defend itself and proclaiming the need to protect the lives of innocent civilians.

In the wake of the evil and indefensible atrocities now committed against the people of Israel by Hamas, we, the undersigned, unequivocally condemn the violence against the vulnerable, fully support Israel’s right and duty to defend itself against further attack, and urgently call all Christians to pray for the salvation and peace of the people of Israel and Palestine.

Evangelical Statement in Support of Israel

The letter, signed by 60 institutional leaders, will be delivered to the White House, Congress and leaders at the United Nations, said Brent Leatherwood, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which helped organize the letter.

In a phone interview, Leatherwood said the letter was prompted by what he said were responses to attacks on Israel that drew “false equivalence” between the attacks by Hamas, a group identified by the United States as a terrorist entity, and the actions of Israel’s military.”

It is time for clear-eyed thinking and moral certainty

Brent Leatherwood

Read The Washington Post article here.

By / Oct 11

Washington, D.C., Oct. 11, 2023 The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has joined with SBC and other Christian leaders in developing an “Evangelical Statement in Support of Israel,” in response to the horrific atrocities committed against the people of Israel by Hamas. 

The statement has garnered more than 60 signatories from SBC leaders and a broad group of evangelicals to support Israel and advocate for the vulnerable involved with this ongoing conflict. 

ERLC President Brent Leatherwood commented on the statement.

“These repugnant atrocities by Hamas should shake us to our core. Hundreds of innocent Israeli lives have been struck down by a rampaging enemy. There should be no question that the Israeli government has the right to defend its citizens and sovereignty that have been so grossly violated. Our statement today, from leaders across denominational lines in evangelicalism and from various sectors of ministry, represents a significant show of solidarity with Israel as it responds to this evil.

“In the face of such wickedness, this is not the time for false equivalency or excuses by national leaders and policymakers, but clear-eyed moral leadership. Extremists and authoritarians are threatening lives across the globe, rendering countless individuals vulnerable. As we read in the 13th chapter of the Book of Romans, governments have a responsibility to thwart such evil—and that responsibility should translate to action. 

“At the same time, we must pray without ceasing for the families who have and continue to suffer from this attack. We pray that no additional innocent life be taken as Israel rightfully defends itself from this horror.”

The evangelical statement also calls on Christians across the globe to pray for the salvation and peace of the people in Israel and Palestine.  

Excerpts from the statement are below: 

“While our theological perspectives on Israel and the Church may vary, we are unified in calling attacks against Jewish people especially troubling as they have been often targeted by their neighbors since God called them as His people in the days of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). . . . 

“The tragic events of October 7th further underscore the importance of democracy in our world and stand as a sober reminder that supporting Israel’s right to exist is both urgent and needed. . . . 

“Furthermore, we recognize the dignity and personhood of all persons living in the Middle East and affirm God’s love for them as well as His offer of salvation through Jesus Christ to all people. . . . 

“Finally, we call on American policymakers to use their power to take all forms of terrorism seriously and call governments and civil authorities to confront evil work to prevent future attacks so that the innocent and vulnerable will be protected.”

Daniel Darling, director of The Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, served as a key drafter for the evangelical statement and commented on the crisis in Israel.

“These despicable acts represent a second Holocaust against the Jewish people. As in every generation, Israel needs defenders. There can be no equivocation. This is the time for the church to speak clearly and with one voice that we not only condemn these barbarous acts of terrorism but that we support Israel’s right to defend itself. I’m grateful for the moral clarity of those who added their name to this document and pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” 

Southern Baptists passed a resolution at the 2016 annual meeting titled, “On Prayer and Support For Israel” supporting the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign state. 

The full statement can be found here

The Southern Baptist Convention is America’s largest Protestant denomination with more than 13.6 million members and a network of over 47,000 cooperating churches and congregations. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is the SBC’s ethics, religious liberty and public policy agency with offices in Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.

To request an interview, contact Elizabeth Bristow
by email at [email protected] or call 202-547-0209
 Visit our website at www.erlc.com
Follow us on Twitter at @ERLC.

By / Feb 24

On this episode, Brent Leatherwood and Lindsay Nicolet discuss the SBC Executive Committee meeting and several noteworthy developments, including the “Ministry Check” website and six churches deemed not in friendly cooperation with the SBC. They also reflected on the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine. 

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By / Feb 24

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion into Ukraine, saying the “special military operation” is aimed at “demilitarization” and “denazification” of the country to protect ethnic Russians, prevent Kyiv’s NATO membership, and to keep it in Russia’s “sphere of influence.” Western nations pushed back, saying that it was an illegal act of agrression against a sovereign nation. 

Here are some of the most notable events over the past year related to the invasion.

March 2022: Russia accused of bombing a children’s hospital

A few weeks after the invasion, the Russians proposed a 12-hour ceasefire to provide evacuation corridors from select cities such as Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, and Mariupol. But during that period, Russian forces reportedly bombed a maternity and children’s hospital in Mariupol that killed three people, including one child. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said the bombing was “proof of a genocide.”

March 2022: Governments and corporations impose sanctions on Russia

In March, President Joe Biden announced a U.S. ban on imports of oil, natural gas, and coal from Russia. (U.S. imports from Russia account for only 8% of America’s energy, of which only about 3% was crude oil.) The European Union also cut gas imports from Russia by two-thirds, and the United Kingdom said it would phase out “the import of Russian oil and oil products by the end of 2022.”

The U.K. has also frozen the assets of seven Russian oligarchs, including one that owns an English soccer team. Additionally, the U.K. has made it a criminal offense for Russian aircraft to enter British airspace. A number of international companies also imposed voluntary sanctions. The list of companies includes Apple, Disney, Ford, MasterCard, McDonalds, and Visa. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo announced they would be pulling some products from the country.

April 2022: Russian troops kill hundreds of civilians in “cleansing” operation

After Russian troops retreated from Kyiv, the bodies of hundreds of civilians were found on the streets of the town of Bucha and in mass graves. News agencies discovered that in an attempt to neutralize resistance and terrorize locals into submission, the Russian military had ordered “zachistka”— cleansing. “The results of the criminal evidence we’ve gathered so far reveal that it wasn’t just isolated incidents of military personnel making a mistake but a systematic policy targeting the Ukrainian people,” said Taras Semkiv, Ukraine’s lead prosecutor for these war crimes.

June 2022: Claims of torture in Russian-occupied territories

By June, the BBC had documented numerous allegations of civilians being tortured by Russians in the region of Kherson. The claims included acts of rape, electrocution, beatings, strangulation, and burning—including on people’s hands, feet, and genitals. A doctor who claims to have treated such injuries says, “They were tortured if they did not want to go over to the Russian side, for being at rallies, for being in the territorial defence, for the fact that one of the family members fought against the separatists, some got there randomly.” Within the first four months of the war, ​​Ukraine claimed that around 15,000 suspected war crimes had been reported, with 200 to 300 more reported daily.

June 2002: SBC messengers adopt resolution on the war in Ukraine

At the 2022 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Anaheim, California, SBC messengers voted to adopt a resolution strongly condemning the actions of the Russian Federation in her declaration and acts of war against the sovereign nation of Ukraine. The resolution also called upon Putin to cease hostilities immediately, withdraw the Russian military, and end this war of aggression against Ukraine and her people. The messengers also noted that the SBC stands in “solidarity with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the people of Ukraine who have endured these atrocities and who have witnessed the horrors of war firsthand while seeking to defend their country from an invasion by a hostile army.” 

September 2002: Ukraine retakes much of the northeastern region; Putin calls up reservists

In September, Ukrainian forces launched a surprise counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region which forced Russian troops to pull back from areas that had been seized for months. In response, Putin ordered the mobilization of 300,000 reservists. The move was unpopular within Russia and led hundreds of thousands of Russian men to flee to neighboring countries to avoid recruitment.  

December 2022: Ukrainian President Zelensky addresses a joint meeting of Congress

In his first visit outside of Ukraine since the Russian invasion began, Zelensky visited Washington, D.C., to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. In the speech—given two days before Christmas—Zelensky said:

We’ll celebrate Christmas, celebrate Christmas and even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out. If Russian – if Russian missiles attack us, we’ll do our best to protect ourselves. If they attack us with Iranian drones and our people will have to go to bomb shelters on Christmas Eve, Ukrainians will still sit down at the holiday table and cheer up each other. And we don’t, don’t have to know everyone’s wish as we know that all of us, millions of Ukrainians, wish the same: Victory. only victory.

February 2023: U.N. says 8,000 non-combatants killed and 8 million people have fled Ukraine

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) reports that at least 8,000 non-combatants have been confirmed killed and nearly 13,300 injured since the Russian invasion. But the true number is likely to be substantially higher, OHCHR staff have said. More than 100 cases of conflict-related sexual violence had been documented thus far.

Additionally, more than 8 million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded across Europe, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Poland has seen the largest numbers of Ukrainian refugees (around 1.5 million), followed by other European countries like the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia.

February 2023: President Biden visits Kyiv

Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Feb. 20. In meeting with the Ukrainian president, Biden showed that the U.S. was in solidarity with our Ukrainian allies. The U.S. president announced a half-billion dollars in new assistance, including a variety of military equipment, and the imposition of new sanctions on Russia. “One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” said Biden.

By / Feb 24

Exactly one year ago, I was about to deliver remarks to a Southern Baptist meeting, when the news alerts lit up my phone. The long-predicted Russian invasion of Ukraine had commenced. Russian troops had initiated a new incursion deep into Ukraine’s heartland.

After I announced the development to the room, you could sense the audience was contemplating what this might mean for our nation, as well as what it meant for missionaries serving there and our Baptist national partners on the ground.

Points of clarity 

Twelve months later, many of those questions remain, though we do have clarity on several fronts. 

First, Ukrainians have made a valiant stand against their Russian aggressors. While they have sustained a barrage of attacks that have taken numerous innocent lives and demolished infrastructure throughout their country, many analysts have said the Russian military has taken far greater losses. Backed by an impressive array of support from America and European allies, Ukraine has been able to beat back an initial threat to its capital, Kyiv, and has even  retaken ground lost in its east. Few would have predicted this kind of result a year into the conflict.

Secondly, the Southern Baptist Convention has been engaged from both a ministry and advocacy standpoint throughout the year. Send Relief, the SBC’s compassion ministry, jumped into action to help Ukranians who flooded across national borders, fleeing from the war zone. They provided basic necessities and connected them with partners who could provide shelter. Estimates from Send Relief put the number of displaced Ukrainians around 15 million—the largest such crisis in Europe in generations. To meet the demand, Southern Baptists and our partners have given over $12 million through Send Relief.

Paul Chitwood, president of the International Mission Board, has made several trips to the region during the war. He’s visited Baptist churches in Romania and met with our missionaries who have offered input about what support is needed. In the U.S., the ERLC has advocated for Ukrainian refugees before the federal government to ensure they receive the support and asylum they need from the horrors back at home.

None of this response should be surprising. Baptists have long felt a calling to bring the good news to Ukraine and partner with the many Christians who call the nation home. As a result, an impressive network of Baptist churches, associations, and institutions are spread across the country. In some respects, a gospel bulwark has sprung up in Ukraine against the encroaching lostness that plagues so much of Europe. The solidarity and support expressed for the nation from Baptist communities in Romania, Moldova, and other nearby countries also demonstrates the key role Ukraine plays in the region.

Finally, this conflict is clearly driven by a vision to recapture the influence once held by the USSR and the appetite for conquest of one man: Vladimir Putin. The valiant stand of Ukraine and the incredible outpouring of support should not obscure the fact that the last year, under Putin’s direction, has been nothing short of hellish for Ukrainians. A bipartisan majority of American officials, reminiscent of the kind seen under the Reagan Doctrine—from President Joe Biden to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—have rightly said Russia’s illegal and unjust invasion must be opposed and stopped.

Our European allies have resolutely said the same, knowing that a successful takeover of Ukraine by Putin won’t end there. Who knows how far he will go to restore a Soviet-like domination of Eastern Europe? We would do well to remember he has called the downfall of the USSR the greatest tragedy of the 20th century

Thinking about year two 

So what does this mean for us as we begin a second year of this war?

Unfortunately, as NPR put it in one of its articles this week, “more misery” is ahead. Russia seems unlikely to relent, and so Ukraine, justifiably, will continue fighting for its survival. Those of us outside the immediate theater of war will continue to feel ripple effects in terms of a refugee crisis and unexpected swings in the international economy. 

Western support, especially America’s resolve, will be tested in the coming months. At this point, the U.S. has provided $110 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine, according to The Wall Street Journal. A number of voices, particularly in the political realm, are beginning to question the wisdom of providing that aid or whether it is being used properly.

As a matter of principle, I’m not opposed to scrutinizing how taxpayer resources are utilized. I’m a conservative in my philosophical and policy views. But in this instance, we know the answers. The Journal also indicates that the U.S. Inspectors General have assigned 177 auditors and investigators to track how these funds are deployed. Far from a “blank check,” these funds are being monitored closely to ensure they go to their intended objectives. If Putin accomplishes his aims and become an even larger threat to Europe, the long-term costs would be far greater. 

On a personal level, I have had individuals tell me I am taking an unbiblical view in my support for Ukraine, citing Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I understand their critique. My response is, “Absolutely, I want peace. And, in this situation, I want an aspiring autocrat who attacked a peaceful democratic neighbor to pull back his forces.”

Given Putin is unlikely to be persuaded by such a statement, I believe our next best option is to support Ukraine’s defense while continuing to work all diplomatic avenues that lead to a resolution respecting Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. This route promotes peace (Rom. 14:19) in the region while also ensuring innocent lives have the resources and support needed for protection.

Ultimately, that is my main concern. Putin’s invasion is nothing short of a grave injustice being perpetrated against those made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). Over the last year, we have witnessed the pummeling of a society and annihilation of innocent lives. Our hearts should break with every destructive blow. At a minimum, we should all pray for the Lord to turn Vladimir Putin from this wicked war and for his salvation. We should seek a day when the bombs, rockets, and artillery would fall silent. If our nation’s support for Ukraine helps make that a reality, we should, as the Baptist Faith and Message puts it, “do all in (our) power to put an end to war (Article XVI).”

By / Oct 21

Over ​​the past few weeks there have been a number of international incidents that are worthy of our attention and prayer. Here are three you should know about from Iran, Ethiopia, and China.

What’s going on in Iran?

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has had a law requiring all women—regardless of nationality or religious belief—to wear hijabs that cover the head and neck while concealing the hair. The Gashte Ershad (guidance patrols) are the “morality police” tasked with enforcing this and other dress codes, as well as modest behavior. The patrols are usually composed of men and stationed in vans in public areas. The patrols generally target women, who are taken to a ​​police station, correctional facility, or re-education center, where they are taught to dress “appropriately.” 

Earlier this month, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by a patrol in the capital city of Tehran and allegedly beaten while inside a morality police van. She was taken to the hospital where she remained in a coma before dying three days later. 

Amini’s death sparked outrage and protest throughout the country. Women in the country have posted videos of themselves setting fire to their headscarves and cutting their hair in public to chants of “Woman, life, freedom” and “Death to the dictator”—a reference to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

School children are protesting their leaders on an unprecedented scale that may prove difficult to contain, notes CNN. In attempting to put down the protest, an estimated 201 people—including 23 children—have been killed by Iranian authorities. The United Nation’s children agency UNICEF has also called for the protection of children and adolescents amid Iran’s protests. 

How to pray for this situation: Pray that God will protect the children and women of Iran, that the people will obtain freedom and protection for basic human rights, and that the church in Iran will be free from persecution. 

What’s going on in Ethiopia 

For the past year, the Ethiopian government and a regional military group have been engaged in a struggle for power and control over Tigray, the northern region of Ethiopia. Global leaders have so far hesitated to call it a genocide, referring to it as a civil war, or the Tigray War. But the atrocities committed by the Ethiopian and Eritrian governments make it clear the conflict is turning into a genocide. 

United Nations-backed investigators say all sides, including the Tigray forces, have committed abuses, but that the Ethiopian government is using “starvation of civilians” as a weapon of war. Tigray has been under a blockade for 17 months, and an estimated one million people are at risk of starvation. Because they are cut off from medical care, women are also dying during pregnancy or within 42 days of giving birth at five times the rate before the war. Children under 5 are dying at twice the pre-war rate, often because of easily preventable reasons. 

Altogether, an estimated half a million people have already died in the conflict. Tigray is “one of the worst manmade humanitarian crises in the world,” says the European Union foreign policy chief.

How to pray for this situation: Pray that the upcoming peace talks will bring an end to the conflict, that the genocide will end, and that the people of Ethiopia will find healing and restoration.

What’s going on in China? 

The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party began this week in Beijing. The 2,296 delegates will represent the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 96.7 million members in reelecting the current leader, Xi Jinping.  

The 69-year-old Xi was due to step down in 2023, but in 2018 he further consolidated power by having his party change the constitution to remove the limitation that no Chinese president shall serve more than two consecutive terms.

Xi Jinping was elected as the president of the People’s Republic of China in 2013. In addition to this role as president, Xi also serves as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (putting him in control of the country’s political party) and chairman of the Central Military Commission (which makes him the commander-in-chief of China’s military forces). He also is head of so many other smaller decision-making bodies that he’s been called the “Chairman of Everything.”

After his first four years in office, the Communist Party voted unanimously to incorporate “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” into the Chinese constitution, an honor previously reserved for Mao Zedong and his successor, Deng Xiaoping. This change enshrined Xi’s political philosophy into the country’s supreme law and made any challenge to him a direct threat to Communist Party rule. As the BBC has noted, schoolchildren, college students, and staff at state factories are required to study this political ideology.

The reelection of Xi means the continuation of human rights abuse that have been the hallmark of his presidency. Under his rule, more than a million Uyghurs, a majority Muslim ethnic group living in Central and East Asia, have been detained in a network of concentration camps. The atrocities against them include forced abortions, rape, sexual abuse, sterilization, internment in concentration camps, organ harvesting, human trafficking, scientific experimentation, the sale of human hair forcibly taken from those in concentration camps, family separation, forced reeducation of children, forced labor, and torture.

In 2021, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted the “Resolution 8: On The Uyghur Genocide,” becoming the first major denomination or convention of churches to speak up on behalf of Uyghurs and use the label “genocide” for Xi’s crimes against humanity. 

How to pray for this situation: ​​Pray for the Uyghurs, that they will find earthly protection and an end to the persecution, and that they will obtain ultimate salvation by putting their faith in Christ. 

By / Aug 19

The award-winning novelist Salman Rushdie remains in critical condition after he was attacked while waiting to speak at a cultural center event in upstate New York. 

Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old from New Jersey, allegedly stabbed Rushdie 10 times, striking the writer in the neck, stomach, right eye, chest, and thigh. A preliminary law enforcement review of Matar’s social media accounts shows he is sympathetic to Shia extremism and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In an interview from jail, Matar said, “I don’t like [Rushdie] very much. He’s someone who attacked Islam, he attacked their beliefs, the belief systems.” 

The threat to Rushdie

Rushdie has been threatened with assasination since the publication of his 1989 novel, The Satanic Verses. The book sparked controversy because it portrays a fictional retelling of the birth of Islam’s key events that imply Mohammad, rather than Allah, was the source of the revelations in the Quran. Muslims believe that, in the original Arabic, the Quran is a divine book (and not merely divinely inspired). 

At the time of its publication, the novel was banned in 13 countries with large Muslim populations including India, Pakistan, and South Africa. A year later the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme leader, issued a fatwa (a legal ruling in Islamic law) saying the book was blasphemous and calling on “all brave Muslims” to kill Rushdie and his publishers. A bounty of over $3 million was offered for anyone who killed Rushdie. 

A number of Muslims responded to the call for violence. The novel’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death in 1991. The Italian translator was beaten and stabbed, but lived, and the Norwegian publisher was shot three times, but survived. A Nobel-prize winning Egyptian author who had defended Rushdie also survived being stabbed in the neck by a Muslim extremist. 

Rushdie tried to have the fatwa lifted in 1989 by apologizing and saying, in part, “I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam.” The next year he signed a declaration affirming his Islamic faith and asking his publisher to neither issue the book in paperback nor to allow it to be translated. The actions failed to appease his critics.

Rushdie, an Indian-born British citizen who is now a citizen of the U.S., was put under police protection by the British government for nine years and spent many years in hiding. In early 2005, Khomeini’s fatwa was reaffirmed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a message to Muslim pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. But Rushdie had been living openly in New York for the past few years and had believed he was no longer under immediate danger.

When threats to religious freedom cross international borders

The attack on Rushdie emphasizes the need to continue promoting ​​religious freedom around the globe, and shows why religious freedom and freedom of speech are inextricably connected. But it also shows that threats to religious freedom easily cross international borders.

Rushdie was born into a Muslim family but later became an atheist. According to Muslim tradition and law, the penalty for apostasy from Islam is execution. This poses a threat to former Muslims wherever they live, even outside of Islamic countries. 

Because of advances in transportation and communication technologies, the global world has become increasingly less segmented and isolated. The result is that refugees fleeing religious persecution can find themselves targeted wherever they live. Over the past few decades there has been a rise in what has been called transnational repression, specifically harassment, surveillance, and intimidation of people who have fled countries where individual freedoms are denied. As the human rights organization Freedom House notes

Far from being a foreign problem, transnational repression impacts the lives and freedoms of people living in the United States. It violates their right to privacy, free expression, and free movement. The violence and harassment directed by authoritarian governments is not just a problem for the targeted individuals. Hindering their rights and freedoms has direct consequences for the quality of America’s democracy and institutions.

Baptists have a long history of promoting freedom of religion and expression. As the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states, the Christian ideal includes “the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.” In the past, though, Southern Baptists have tended to assume this applied primarily to the civil power within a nation. But as the Rushdie incident reveals, we also must push back against the interference in the sphere of religion by civil powers outside our own borders. In an increasingly open world, transnational repression could become one of the greatest threats to religious liberty in this century. 

By / Feb 25

If justice were to prevail in Ukraine, Russia would cease military operations, withdraw from the country, return Crimea and Donbas to Ukrainian control, publicly apologize, and provide restitution to Ukraine — and Vladimir Putin would resign the Russian presidency and turn himself in for a war crimes trial. Absent divine intervention, that will not happen. What, then, can we hope and pray for? What would a just end to the Russo-Ukrainian War look like? 

In my recent book on just war, I stressed the importance of working to achieve justice and peace in, through, and after war. Many debates about just war focus overmuch on the justice of starting wars. Was it justified to invade or not? (Spoiler: no). But justice demands much more of statesmen than that they fulfill a short checklist of criteria, as if just war were designed to be a permission slip for invasion. 

For a war to be just, it must result in lasting conditions of justice and peace in the aftermath — even if flawed and fallible, as all orders of justice and peace are in this fallen world. Russia cannot achieve justice in the aftermath of an unjust invasion, and whatever peace might befall Ukraine in the wake of a Russian conquest would be the peace of tyranny. As Tacitus said of the Romans, so too the Russians might succeed in creating a desert, and calling it peace. There is no justice in a Russian victory. 

What do justice and peace look like for Ukraine?

The harder question is for the Ukrainians and the international backers who are providing it with weapons and moral support and waging economic war on Russia through sanctions. What kind of justice or peace can we achieve? Is any achievable? Do we have any reasonable chance of success?

That depends on the course of the war, and it is hard to say in advance what might happen. But we can think through some scenarios. One scenario might look like this: If sanctions hurt hard enough, and the Ukrainian military holds out long enough, Putin may decide to shorten the war and only hold on to small portions of eastern Ukraine and Crimea and pull back from the rest. He will have proven his point about his ability to hold Ukraine hostage — indeed, hold European security hostage — and could likely count on the Ukrainian government being effectively cowed into submission for the foreseeable future. 

In that case, lasting peace may require Kyiv and its international backers to agree to some kind of permanent neutrality, as Finland and Austria agreed to after World War II. Ukraine’s president hinted at his willingness to consider such an outcome in the opening hours of the invasion. Neutrality would allow something like normal life to continue in Ukraine and reduce the likelihood of renewed fighting. It would also enable economic life to resume, along with international aid, investment, and development, helping Ukraine escape the trap of state failure and frozen conflicts. 

Here is another scenario: Russia seems to win a quick victory, then gets bogged down in an intractable insurgency in western Ukraine and in the big cities. The war drags on for years and destroys much of Ukrainian infrastructure and civic life, yet in the end the Russians are forced to withdraw, much as they were from Afghanistan in 1989. 

In that case, Ukraine would be whole, free, and seemingly at peace. It would also be shattered, impoverished, and dangerously prone to civil war between its pro-western half west of the Dnieper and its Russian-speaking population primarily on the east side.

In this scenario, justice and peace would require a much larger, longer, and more expensive international effort to bring Ukraine back into the family of nations. It would require billions in reconstruction and stabilization assistance, and possibly a U.N. monitoring mission to ensure Russia stays out and Ukrainians stay together. 

How do we relate to Russia after the war?

In either scenario, the hardest part of the question is how the world should relate to Russia after the war. Just war requires justice and peace for all combatants, not just the victor or the victim. How do we work toward justice and peace with Russia when its government has been guilty of one of the most flagrant, dangerous, and lethal acts of international aggression in generations? 

That will, again, depend on the manner of the war’s end and the Russian government’s behavior. Assuming Putin retains power and remains unrepentant, it is likely the United States and its allies will have to move toward something like the Cold War policy of containment. Keep sanctions in place, move to isolate and cut off Russia from the resources of the developed world, and work patiently — and peacefully, so far as possible — to limit and push back on Russian influence throughout the world. It will be a generational effort.

If Putin loses power — as Soviet leaders did in the aftermath of their defeat in Afghanistan — then the world has both greater opportunity and responsibility. The last time Russia went through a regime change, the world squandered the opportunity to help Russia transition to a more just, transparent, accountable regime that respects human rights and human dignity. Instead, Russia spent the 1990s deteriorating into a corrupt oligarchy, and the 2000s into a restored and rearmed authoritarian great power implacably opposed to the free world, all while the developed world took a holiday from history and lost two wars fighting terrorists in the Middle East and South Asia. 

We should not aim at violent regime change in Russia — the stakes of provoking a nuclear power are too great. But if Putin brings himself down through folly and overstretch — and videos of anti-war protests across Russia in the opening days of the invasion suggest Putin’s grip on power is not as solid as he wants the world to believe — we will face one of the best opportunities in 30 years to help a great power move — at last — toward greater justice and peace. It would be a herculean undertaking, but to fail again would invite catastrophe. 

By / Feb 3

The tensions mounting between Russia and Ukraine are cause for grave concern. As Vladimir Putin teeters on the edge of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, many are understandably voicing deep concern about the potential ramifications for the world order. But often lost in this conversation are the citizens of these countries who will suffer greatly in the face of conflict. And for me, the situation in this particular region is deeply personal.

I was born in Bucharest, Romania, and adopted as an infant. My family is built through adoption, and I have a brother from Romania, four siblings from Russia, and a cousin from Ukraine. Over a decade ago, I visited Romania. As I strolled through the streets of Bucharest, the remnants of communism existed in the bleak, colorless buildings that lined the streets — a visual reminder of its former life as the Socialist Republic of Romania. Like many of its neighbors, Romania was a Communist country for decades, and its citizens lived under a brutal dictatorship. The people of the Eastern Bloc were isolated from the rest of the world and faced issues such as starvation and poverty. But the year 1989 turned out to be a pivotal year for the countries in the Soviet orbit as unrest ultimately led to reforms.

It was then that the Iron Curtain fell. Unfortunately, after initial democratic progress was made, Russia now finds itself looking increasingly like an authoritarian regime. The Russian government is a particularly severe violator of religious freedom, earning the designation as a “country of particular concern” from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). According to USCIRF, “in 2020, religious freedom conditions in Russia deteriorated. The government continued to target “nontraditional” religious minorities with fines, detentions, and criminal charges. Russian legislation criminalizes “extremism” without adequately defining the term, enabling the state to prosecute a vast range of nonviolent religious activity.”

Praying for the people of Ukraine and Russia

In a globally-connected world, what happens on the other side of the globe affects all of us. As my colleague Jason Thacker writes, “The tensions in Eastern Europe should concern us all given the worldwide effects of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Not only does the prospect of a ground war raise concerns about major unrest in the region, untold loss of life, and the possible inclusion of other major powers in the conflict, but this situation also indicates what Russia may seek to do in the coming years.”

But more than that, Christians should care about this because millions of image-bearers live in Ukraine and Russia. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” People will dialogue and debate about what our response to the crisis should be, but, above all, we should endeavor to pray for the people in those two countries. Here are a few ways you can pray:

  • Pray for Christians in Ukraine and Russia, that they would not place their ultimate trust or hope in government leaders, but would firmly fix their eyes on the Lord. 
  • Pray for the missionaries in both countries, that they’ll continue to boldly proclaim the good news of the gospel and that many might come to a saving faith in Christ.
  • Pray for the safety of the citizens of Ukraine and Russia, that amid the geopolitical tensions, their lives would be honored and protected.
  • Pray for global leaders as they navigate geopolitical tensions, that they would act with wisdom.
  • Pray that Vladimir Putin’s heart would be changed and that he would withdraw from conflict with Ukraine. 

Times of trial and suffering are often used by God to draw people to himself. And we should ask, seek, and knock with confidence that this would be the case with the escalating tension between Russia and Ukraine. In the midst of the darkness, may it be that the light of Christ brings hope and help through his people, his Word, and his mercy shown to a war-torn region.