For Americans in a modernized world, religious persecution seems like an antiquated and archaic notion rather than an infringement upon liberty and natural rights. In fact, Americans—millennials, in particular—dispassionately take religious freedom for granted. This is either because we are less concerned with religion, freedom, or both.
Why should millennials invest in defending religious freedom if they are indifferent, or less concerned with religion on a personal level? A recent Pew Research study claims that 54% of millennials believe this increasingly non-religious attitude “doesn’t make much difference for American society.”
In an interview with the Review,Dr. Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and a professor at Georgetown University, explained why students—and anyone who values democracy—should be concerned with defending religious freedom.
“Everyone should care about it,” Dr. Farr said. “In terms of the United States but also around the world, because when countries have no religious freedom, they are unstable.”
Farr cites Egypt as an example of a struggling country where the United States should be facilitating a move towards religious freedom. In Egypt, as in any democracy, religious liberty is a necessary condition for a stable democracy. What’s more, stability is in America’s interest.
“The reason is that [religious freedom] is necessary if they’re going to have a stable democracy, and it’s in our interest for them to have a stable democracy” Dr. Farr explained. “It’s true all over the world, there are many countries where this is true; most of them are very important to the interests of the United States.”
Perhaps the disinterest of religious freedom amongst millennials is a result of the mass globalization and information age, which ironically insulates us from the international brutalities that continue to occur against religious.
Or rather, we are distracted with an idealistic mindset, and we tell ourselves, “That can’t happen in this day and age!” As Secretary of State Kerry recently quipped, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion.” After all, it’s not the 11th century, nor is it 64 AD, so surely humanity is past that. Not quite.
All too often, religious persecution is thought of as a remnant of biblical history in the biblical age. In reality, religious persecution, although perhaps less brutal in this day in age, still persists, and likely on a much larger scale.
Today’s persecutions are not much different from what Paul wrote of in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”
Paul was later beheaded in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero.
In North Korea, Chrisitan missionary Kenneth Bae was sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly preaching against the North Korean government. In Iran, Saeed Adedini was sentenced to eight years in prison for evangelizing. These are just a few publicized examples, similar to the persecution some of the Christian disciples faced in biblical times.
What’s concerning is that all indicators point towards increased hostility towards religious believers. However, even more alerting is the lack of acknowledgment by the Western world, from the lay-citizen and college students, all the way to President Obama.
“Every indictor [of religious persecution] is getting worse including the groups that are most harassed—Christians—is getting worse year by year; Muslims are not far behind,” Farr said. “The fate of Jews has gotten substantially worse over the last six years.”
The World Watch List reports that an estimated 50,000-70,000 North Korean Christians are imprisoned in concentration camps, while sectarian violence in Syria resulted in 1,213 martyred Christians in the year 2013. In Nigeria, 612 Christians were martyred while the September 22, 2013 bombings of a church in Peshawar, Pakistan resulted in 88 deaths (World Watch List).
A more comprehensive study by the Pew Research Center found that religious hostilities are at a six year high, increasing in every region of the world with the exception of the Americas. In 2007, 20% of the 198 countries included in the study had high religious hostilities, which rose to 29% in 2011 and up to 33% in 2012. The sharpest of these increases took place in the Middle East and North Africa, on account of the Arab Spring, with significant rises in hostilities occurring in the Asia-Pacific region.
Although the number of countries with high or very high levels of government restrictions on religion has stayed roughly the same since 2011, 43% of the countries included in the study were rated high or very high: the highest percentage in six years (Pew Research Center). What’s more disconcerting, though, is the fact that 76% of the world’s population is living where overall restrictions on religion are high or very high, up from 68% in 2007, according to the same Pew study.
Furthermore, five of the world’s most populous countries (Egypt, Indonesia, Russia, Pakistan, and Burma) had the most restrictions against religion, taking into account both social hostilities and government restrictions.
Since 2007, social hostilities towards the religious have steadily increased in several categories, including harassment of women over religious dress and violence related to religion, including both terrorism and sectarian violence. Although overall government restrictions have stayed steady since 2011, government restrictions on public preaching and government use of force against religious groups have grown steadily. Amongst the former, “nearly half (48%) of the world’s countries in 2012, up from 41% in 2011 and 31% as of mid-2007” used force against religious groups, according to the Pew Research Center.
Among religious groups between 2006 and 2012, Christians were harassed in 151 countries, while Muslims were harassed in 135 countries, and Jews in 95 countries (Pew Research Center). It is important to note that Christians and Muslims collectively make up over half of the world’s population.
With religious hostilities consistently on the rise, more citizens should be concerned. All the while the leader of the free world doesn’t seem to be alerted to such rising persecutions. After assuming office in 2009, President Obama dragged his feet for more than two years before nominating an Ambassador for International Religious Freedoms, finally nominating Suzan Johnson Cook. In October 2013, Johnson Cook resigned as ambassador. Ever since her resignation, the post has been vacant with no nominations by the Obama Administration.
“They simply are uninterested in advancing religious freedom around the world,” Dr. Farr told the Review. “It’s not because they are ‘for’ persecution; that’s not it. It’s just not high on their list of priorities. They’re far more interested in advancing other things.”
Other countries see this is not a priority of Obama’s foreign policy concerns. Part of the problem is that the position of Ambassador for International Religious Freedom isn’t taken seriously, only being seen as a figurehead. But with the growing trends hostile to all the major religious sects, the administration needs to prioritize religious freedom abroad.
I would go so far as to say that the Obama Administration’s policy of inaction for religious freedom is more disturbing than its lack of useful action in the Ukraine crisis and the Syrian Civil War. It will be a travesty if Obama doesn’t fill the vacant ambassadorship soon, and it reflects his lack of priority in defending religious freedom globally.
If this administration continues to sit on its hands, anyone concerned with advancing liberty and democracy should and needs to vouch for action to defend religious freedom at home and abroad. It’s up to millennials to apply the pressure and send the message of liberty in defense of those persecuted if the Obama Administration is unwilling to do so.