By / Jun 8

On June 2, the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom released its 2021 International Religious Freedom Report. Each year, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) tasks the office with issuing a report to Congress exploring the global state of religious freedom. The recommendations in the State Department’s report “describe the status of religious freedom, government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies promoting religious freedom in nearly every country and territory throughout the world.”

Embassies, civil society organizations, and local clergy identify incidents that infringe on religious freedoms. Then, they partner with the State Department to track the efficacy of American efforts to restore religious freedom and human dignity. Through this process, the Office of International Religious Freedom collates all data into a massive report that gauges the status of religious freedom in each nation.

Major themes of the report

Secretary of State Antony Blinken reinforced America’s longstanding commitment to ensuring religious freedom for people of all faiths. Protecting America’s “first freedom” must remain a “vital foreign policy priority,” Blinken said. The secretary called upon “all societies” to “do more to address rising forms of hate.”

Rashad Hussain, the ambassador at-large for International Religious Freedom, noted three recurring themes throughout the report. First, far too many governments use discriminatory laws to oppress their own people. For example, China continues to commit genocide against the Uyghur people, while Burma ruthlessly persecutes the Rohingya people, and the Taliban oppresses Afghan women as second-class citizens. 

Additionally, rising cultural intolerance and acts of hatred are fueling conflict around the world. Mobs in nations like India burned down churches and mosques, often with social media serving as an incubator for these incidents of hate speech and threats of violence. 

Finally, Hussain celebrated the collaboration between civil society and government, a partnership that brings “essential” progress to the fight to secure international religious freedom. Hussain noted that “religion can be such a powerful force for good,” and the United States will seek to encourage positive religious action around the globe.

Countries of concern

The report details the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to heavily restrict religious expression. In addition to its aggressive persecution of Muslim Uyghurs in western China, the government “imprisoned about 3,000 people for exercising their right to freedom of religion” last year. The party “continued its multiyear campaign of ‘Sinicization’ to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine” by compelling clergy attendance at political indoctrination sessions and closely monitoring sermon content for anti-CCP rhetoric. Christians, Muslims, and Falun Gong practitioners reported housing and employment discrimination, citing increased anti-religious cultural sentiments reflected in strict government laws.

The report also notes that following the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan last summer, they have resumed enforcing strict Sharia law and persecuting religious minorities, forcing many Afghan Shia Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus to worship privately to avoid persecution. Christian converts and other religious minorities regularly faced death threats and increased cultural hostilities. ISIS-K and other nongovernmental terror groups claimed responsibility for dozens of mosque bombings and suicide attacks last year, killing hundreds of Shia Hazara Muslims.

Since a military coup in February, the new Burmese government has committed “an alarming escalation of grave human rights abuses.” The State Department reports that regime military forces have bombed Christian churches and killed pastors. The regime has continued their crusade against the Muslim Rohingya people, imprisoning over 144,000 in camps last year. The report notes that “Rohingya continued to be perceived as foreigners, irrespective of their citizenship status, and as members of a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain.” The State Department is hopeful, though, that pro-democracy and religious freedom efforts continue to gain ground in Burmese culture and government.

In India, some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) report that “the government failed to prevent or stop attacks on religious minorities.” The report expresses concern over a rapid increase in violent attacks against Christians, as state police regularly ignored official complaints of violence. Hindu “cow vigilantes” killed Muslims on charges of smuggling cattle, while extremist leaders faced little government opposition for calling to “wage a war against Muslims.” Most religiously-motivated violence is performed by mobs and nongovernmental terror groups, but American officials continue to pressure the Indian government to protect the rights of religious minorities and discourage religious violence.

How is the ERLC involved?

The ERLC affirms Ambassador Hussain’s assessment that “no community is immune from these abuses,” and we will continue advocating for religious freedom for all people everywhere. Over the past several years, the ERLC has advocated extensively for Uyghurs and raised awareness for the plight of other persecuted minorities. The ERLC has also partnered with diverse coalitions to fight against blasphemy laws, stem the rise of anti-Semitism, and aid the resettelement of persecuted refugees. We are dedicated to advocating for the vulnerable and oppressed around the world and to fighting for the sacred rights of our persecuted brothers and sisters.

By / Jul 14

With the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and too many others, conversations of racial reconciliation, systemic racism, and police reform have dominated our country’s headlines. These are vitally important conversations. But in the midst of them, we shouldn’t forget about the ongoing effects of COVID-19, particularly its impact on communities of color.

Minority populations have contracted COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. While African Americans account for roughly 13% of the U.S. population, they comprise about 33% of COVID-19 cases. Additionally, Latinos, the single largest minority ethnic group in America, are 20% more likely to contract COVID-19 than their white counterparts. Furthermore, other racial and ethnic minority groups experience outsized impacts of the virus. 

Obviously, COVID-19 does not discriminate based on ethnicity. But the coronavirus has had an immense effect on the health of ethnic minorities in the United States, exposing a deep imbalance in our healthcare system. 

COVID-19’s main form of transmission is person-to-person contact. While the primary solution to slowing the spread of the virus seems simple—just maintain social distance—it is much easier for some than others. Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in densely populated areas—a contributing factor being systemic racism in public residential housing systems. In addition, racial and ethnic minority families are more likely to live in multigenerational households. These households increase the possibility of exposure to a virus spread by proximity to older, at-risk generations. Additionally, racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live a farther distance from a grocery store or doctor. This can significantly reduce access to necessary supplies for daily life and require greater contact with other individuals and public transit. 

People of racial and ethnic minorities are also less likely to have the ability to telecommute to their jobs as compared to their white neighbors. This significantly increases exposure to COVID-19 due to regularly interacting with others while at work. Latinos and African Americans comprise nearly 25% of service industry jobs, whereas only 16% of non-hispanic whites hold these same jobs. By virtue of these jobs, people of racial and ethnic minorities are placed at a significant disadvantage in maintaining social distancing guidelines. 

It is our calling as citizens of heaven and the United States to fight for truth, justice, righteousness, and peace, to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbors.

These jobs also have ramifications for health insurance. Latinos are nearly three times less likely to carry health insurance, and African Americans are nearly two times as likely to not carry health insurance as compared to their white counterparts. The lack of insurance limits doctor visits, prescribed medicine, as well as preventative health treatments. And while any of these individual factors can be detrimental, in conjunction they can become deadly.

It is easy to see how these disparities would contribute to other health problems. And the reality is that this imbalance is not limited to COVID-19. To learn more about this issue, see this article by Grace Liu published earlier this year. 

The deaths of Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd sparked massive protests and calls for reform. But we need to recognize that those injustices are part of the larger picture of racial inequality and centuries of injustice in America. Our country has been plagued by racism since its founding, and we can still see results of it today. The healthcare inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis are just one example.

How can the local church help? 

The responsibility of caring for the community ought to be found in the local church body. We know the importance of serving the sick (Jam. 5), serving those in need (1 John 3:17-18), and caring for the vulnerable because every human being is made in the image of God. 

1. Be in prayer: First and foremost, we should always be in prayer. We can pray that God would establish the works of our hands (Psa. 90:17) and that he would show favor to those who are working toward justice and peace. In addition, we should pray specifically for local law enforcement officers, elected officials, and police chiefs. And, we can pray for vulnerable populations: local homeless shelters, the mentally ill, essential workers, and those without health insurance. 

2. Give generously: During this time of economic hardship, many are struggling to make ends meet. For those of us who are able to work from home or are still seeing steady paychecks, we can be generous with our money. We can also donate food or clothing, give of our time to babysit for essential workers, volunteer to help clean the sanctuary before and after church services, or give up your comfort by wearing a mask, which can help prevent the spread of the virus to at-risk populations. 

3. Learn from your neighbors: Finally, we can spend time learning about the experiences of ethnic minorities in our communities. We can read books and articles from Black authors and research the history of racism and how it was codified into law. We should also celebrate the American heroes who worked toward justice in our country and study how they did it. And we can reflect on the benefits we may have received, but have previously taken for granted, humble ourselves, and listen to those who are hurting.

We cannot settle for anything less than justice for all in our country. It is our calling as citizens of heaven and the United States to fight for truth, justice, righteousness, and peace, to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbors.

ERLC intern Jackson McNeece contributed to this article

By / May 22
By / Oct 24

Walking through South Dekalb Mall in Atlanta is a revealing experience for a white girl from Kentucky.

As soon as you enter, you feel like the lights suddenly dim and the lonely spotlight snaps on, aimed right at you. You try to act normal, like it’s no big deal, but this is a strange situation. You’re not used to being the only Caucasian around. It feels like everyone’s looking at you—because many are. It’s uncomfortable, even with a diverse group of friends at your side.

For someone who has always been part of the racial majority, suddenly being the minority became eye-opening. There is a level of comfort and security in being the majority that I never recognized until I stepped away from it for a moment. But what happens when you become the minority most of the time?

A new perspective

Last August, I moved in with a group of girls that is about as racially diverse as you can get. I also started an internship at a church in Atlanta where the majority of members and attendees are African American. While there are still many other races represented, it’s quite a change from my home church—where I’d be excited to see just a handful of non-white faces on a given Sunday.

One awesome benefit of worshipping, serving, and learning about God in the midst of such diversity and being led by a different cultural framework is that you get a new perspective. When you consider the ways and teachings to which you’re accustomed and the new ones to which you’re being exposed, you start to check them with Scripture and distinguish between things that are really of Christ and things that are merely cultural. Your view of the kingdom of God is stretched further every day.

The beauty of diversity 

Something amazing happens when your view of God’s kingdom expands—your heart expands, too. You learn to embrace the unique ways the image of God shines through different races and cultures. You start to look at the world differently. Your values expand from the self-absorbed, this-is-how-I-was-raised scale of importance to, “Huh. Maybe there are different ways to look at this.” You learn to fight for justice effectively—not just in the ways that seem right (or easiest) to white, middle-class America.

But coming to understand all these things isn’t easy. I’m not even close to being there yet. Tension and misunderstanding are natural byproducts of diversity in a broken world. You can’t assume everyone shares your opinions. You have to put in the work, be open to change, and learn the backgrounds behind the worldviews, attitudes, and customs.

Diversity in the body

For my church, diversity didn’t just happen—it’s a value in and of itself. To be effective in the diversity of the city, especially the city of Atlanta, we believe the Church itself must be diverse. The fact that my church embraces and encourages diversity makes it easier to be in the minority than it probably is elsewhere. While I sometimes feel out of the loop on certain pop culture references or aspects of urban living, I’ve never felt any less a part of the church because of my skin color or heritage. I almost always feel loved, accepted for who I am, wanted, and needed (any time I don’t, it’s usually just personal insecurities). And when I look around at the people who make up this church, my heart is warmed at the wonder of how God can bring people of all races, classes, and backgrounds together, and my mind is set toward eternity, of which the diversity I see is just a glimpse.

Because that’s what Jesus does—he brings people together, no matter who they are or where they previously found their identity. Despite their differences, Jesus becomes their common ground. That’s basically what the Church is: anyone and everyone who finds their life and identity in Christ.

At my church, we have small groups called missional communities that meet, study God’s word, do service projects, and experience life together. Last fall, some of the missional communities came together for a cookout. It was a melting pot of people—different races, classes, ages, and backgrounds. Afterward, a guest who attended the cookout told one of my friends that they’d never seen such a diverse group of people who loved and accepted each other so much. The people of my church aren’t perfect, by any means, but that’s a picture of the Church at its best.

The gift of diversity 

When you’re exposed to diversity and have a chance to live as the minority, you start noticing the lack of diversity where you never would before. When I peruse through old Facebook albums now, I start to realize how many white people are in my pictures. When I go somewhere out of my current urban context, it’s odd to be back in the majority. It’s not that uniformity is always intentional or bad—it’s often just in the cultural makeup of a place. But it feels off because normality has changed. The beauty of diversity has left a mark on your mind. It’s like seeing a sunset for the first time. Blue skies are nice, too, but you don’t take as many pictures of them.