Although the state of international religious freedom gives us plenty of reason for pessimism, I’d like to offer one glimmer of optimism. From my work I already know that this will be controversial with some, and I’m genuinely eager to hear varying perspectives. Moreover, I know this will sound like it is coming out of left field when everyone is so focused on the Middle East (understandably), but the glimmer of optimism to which I refer is: Indonesia. Though I knew it intellectually, I had to go to Indonesia to truly be struck by the fact that Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, containing more Muslims than in all of Arabia. And the dominant Islam of Indonesia is a moderate, pluralistic Islam. I began to imagine what it would look like if the face of worldwide Islam were the Islam of the great archipelago instead of the Islam of the Saudi Wahhabis. And then I began to wonder why it wasn’t. Indonesians are reputedly modest, unassuming, even demure, but it was hard for me to believe that these personal traits carried over into international politics. But, indeed, Indonesia does not assert itself too strongly in the so-called Muslim world, instead following the consensus at the OIC and elsewhere. Nor does it have the economic might to fund mosques and madrassas all over the world the way the Saudis do. And it lacks the worldwide influence that comes with large stores of oil. But American foreign policy experts might do well to begin thinking about how the country of our president’s childhood could be more assertive on the international stage, promoting a form of Islam suitable for the modern world. I do not suggest this as a panacea, nor do I for a moment suggest that Islam presents the only problem for international religious freedom—there are extremist Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma, and godless communists in China all lined up together—but the ascendance of Indonesia would be a remarkable development.
A well-known Pew study estimates that over three quarters of the world’s population live in places where restrictions on religious freedom (perpetrated or tolerated by the government) are high or very high. Of course, this terrible state of affairs has been severely exacerbated by the rise of ISIS, which is unrivaled in its barbarism. It is hard to find the words to describe it, but we need to avoid looking away. At a minimum, even if we cannot do anything, we must at least keep informed of what is happening. One day when we look back and wonder why more was not done, at least none of us should dare to say, “Well, I didn’t know.” In addition to the sheer brutality of ISIS, we must appreciate the historical catastrophe that this destruction also represents. First, there is the destruction of ancient statues and temples, historical treasures gone forever. Second, and more importantly, there is the destruction of living communities of ancient pedigree, Christian, Yazidi, and other communities that persisted in Iraq for centuries or millennia before being wiped off the map by ISIS. These historical (and historic) losses do not compare to the enormous human tragedy brought about by ISIS’s rapacious and murderous advance, but neither must they be overlooked.
Naturally, all of this bad news demands a response. This is one of the great questions of our day: What is to be done? Or, why is more not being done? Many call for action but decry military intervention. Many lament the disappearance of ancient communities but (understandably) support resettlement efforts that, incidentally, mean their permanent extinction. Unfortunately, I am not an optimistic about the prospects for corrective action to the grave violations of religious freedom by ISIS and others. Instead, let me briefly outline some of the institutional and political challenges facing those who wish to respond.
By “institutional challenges” I mean a lack of tools to do the job. For example, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, on which I serve [though these comments reflect my own views only], has a system for recommending offending countries for designation by the State Department as “countries of particular concern.” So designated, countries are sanctioned or face other appropriate measures mandated by the legislation. But this works only when there is a state to sanction or with which to enter into a binding agreement. This does not work for non-state actors such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria or Boko Haram in Nigeria, to which regular diplomatic measures cannot be applied. Similarly, in states, such as the Central African Republic, that are essentially failed states, it is hard to apply the standard model. This is why USCIRF has called for a new designation to be developed for addressing non-state actors and failed states—though we have no illusions about how tough it will be to give that designation bite. (Even with states, we face the problem of giving our designations bite. The executive branch has many options for what amounts to inaction, even when it does make a designation.)
Another institutional problem is the inability to deal with the nearly unprecedented refugee crisis and the difficulty of dealing with such a problem even with the best intentions and best policies. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees recently put the number of refugees at almost sixty million, a staggering figure that represents a high water mark for the postwar era. The gripping stories and photos of boat people highlight the quandary that this represents. On one hand, we must protect the right of people to flee persecution. On the other hand, we must ensure that people are not driven into these unsafe and often fatal conditions, for their own safety and for the sake of not abetting the bad behavior of regimes that are only too happy to see unwanted populations leave. Though these problems are persistent in the refugee issue, they were easier to handle when the scale of the crisis was more “manageable.”
The other set of challenges is political, by which I mean a lack of will to address the dire situation for international religious freedom. Above all, there is little appetite for military action, which may in the end be the only option for sparing millions from the ravages of ISIS. Even with great political support, a military operation against ISIS might be complicated to execute, but that is a moot point if “boots on the ground” is off the table. In addition, the continuing economic woes of the West mean that fewer financial resources are available, whether for funding military action or humanitarian aid. More deeply, with respect to refugees, the unraveling of the European welfare state and its consistent failure to assimilate and integrate new immigrants translate into a diminishing willingness to welcome refugees—and that is to say nothing of the concern of terrorism from those admitted among the migrants. In the United States, the acceptance of refugees has been swallowed into a larger, highly-charged debate over immigration that has little to do with those fleeing religious persecution.
The most important political theme underlying the decline of international religious freedom is America’s retreat from the world and the growing prospect of a post-American order. We have been the world’s lone superpower long enough that we can take for granted the current balance of power. But we must think carefully about what the world will look like as countries like China, Russia, and Iran go increasingly unchecked by America.
So what can be done? Specific solutions to these problems will have to be hammered out, but let me touch on two broad points, one concerning internal affairs and one concerning external affairs. For domestic politics, we need to keep making the case that fighting for religious freedom is not just good ethics but good policy. There is more and more social science that shows that societies with more religious freedom do better across a range of measures. That is, our values and our national interest coincide, not just because our good values are worthy for their own sake but also because our values and our national interest coincide in practice. This is why America ought to remain invested in—indeed, redouble its commitment to—international religious freedom in its foreign policy.
With regard to foreign affairs, we need to convey the message that freedom is the solution, not the problem. In the past half-year or so, I have been to Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam for religious freedom work. Probably the most common theme in our conversations with government officials is the need for restrictions, or what I’d call oppression, in the name of stability or security. They think—or at least they say—that freedom threatens the unity and harmony of their society. If you let people do what they want, who knows what will happen? But they have it backwards. Denying people religious freedom creates resentment and resistance that threatens stability. For the most part, people just want to be left alone. A free people is a happy people and quite likely a people far more dedicated to the well-being of their country than its oppressed counterparts. Freedom is the solution, not the problem.
Last week, December 10-12, an international conference, “Under Caesar’s Sword: Christians in Response to Persecution,” took place in Rome, hosted by the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. The conference was designed to learn how Christian communities around the world respond to persecution and to increase solidarity with them. It introduced the results of the world’s first systematic global investigation into the responses of Christian communities to the violation of their religious freedom. The conference was not just the reports of scholars, though, but also featured the testimonies from global church leaders as well as activists who have experienced persecution directly. A major theme was also recognizing the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. Here can be found the agenda, speakers, background information, and the like.
Here are some of the highlights of the conference:
** On the opening day, we heard from two patriarchs from the part of the world where the persecution of Christians is most in the headlines — Iraq and Syria. Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and Patriarch Youssef Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church both spoke emotionally about the plight of Christians in their region. Patriarch Sako called for greater military intervention from the West in order to defeat the Islamic State. Both lamented the exodus of communities that date back to the earliest times of Christianity and hoped that Christians would stay even while respecting the choice of people to leave or stay.
** What I think many of the participants, including myself, did not expect, were moving and inspiring testimonies from people who have suffered persecution at the grassroots. There was Fr. Bernard Kinvi of the Central African Republic, who sheltered Muslims during his country’s war between Christians and Muslims. There was Helen Berhane, a gospel singer from Eritrea who spent over two years living in a shipping container because she would not renounce her faith. At the end of her panel she offered a song that she had composed while in captivity. Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church recounted his church’s long history of suffering underground under Soviet Communism and its heroic role more recently in the protests at Maidan Square in Kiev. Pakistan’s Paul Bhatti, a Catholic, spoke of his journey towards forgiveness and his decision to stay with the people of Pakistan after the assassination there of his brother, Shabhaz Bhatti, who had dedicated his life to protecting religious minorities in Pakistan.
** An extraordinary array of people attended the conference, portending the development of an integrated movement for religious freedom on behalf of persecuted Christians. There were activist ngos like Aid to the Church in Need, Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Oasis International; scholars; diplomats and ambassadors; and clerics and laypeople from numerous Christian churches around the world. In terms of numbers, my own (rough) estimate is that about 300 were in attendance at the opening session and then around 150-250 over the remaining two days.
** The conference received impressive media attention. In attendance were journalists from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, National Public Radio, the Osservatore Romano, The Boston Globe, Commonweal, Ave Maria Radio, and numerous other media outlets. See, for instance, this piece by Ines San Martin at Crux. Al Kresta of Ave Maria Radio, host of “Al Kresta in the Afternoon,” interviewed numerous speakers and attendees and has decided to make these interviews a major theme of his show. This very week, I have been gratified to hear his interviews broadcast, including one with Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, the Iraq and Syria expert among our scholars. Kresta’s show is syndicated among over 300 stations around the U.S.
** The second night of the conference featured a beautiful and haunting ecumenical prayer service at the Church of San Bartolomeo, a shrine to contemporary martyrs established by Pope John Paul II. The church is now run by the Community of Sant’Egidio, who hosted the prayer. Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Nigeria gave the homily, reflecting on the place of martyrdom in the Christian life.
** Central to the conference was the presentation of the findings of Under Caesar’s Sword’s team of 14 scholars, who have been researching firsthand some 30 countries where Christians have suffered persecution. Some findings:
** There are a strikingly diverse array of countries and regimes where persecution takes place. It’s not all Islam or even close to it. There are regnant Communist regimes like China, Vietnam, and North Korea. There are surprising countries like India, which is pluralist and peaceful in the popular imagination. There are democracies and semi-democracies like Pakistan, Indonesia, India, and Nigeria. We also looked at the increasing curtailment of religious freedom in the West, where it is exaggerated to say that persecution is taking place but where serious restrictions on religious freedom are rising.
** Responses to persecution fall into three categories ranging from reactive to proactive. First are strategies of survival, or “coping”; second are strategies of construction where churches assert their mission in ways ranging among building bridges to other faith communities to extending social services and education, but do not directly confront the regime; third are strategies of confrontation, including popular protest and underground organized opposition.
** Strikingly rare among persecuted Christian minorities are resorts to violence. Certainly there are cases of Christian violence, usually undertaken in self-defense, as in Nigeria, Central African Republic, and Indonesia. Sometimes it becomes disproportionate and indiscriminate, as in the Central African Republic. There are almost no instances of the formation of terrorist cells, though, among the Christian communities we heard about.
** In some cases, responses to persecution vivify the Christian gospel in a striking way. For instance, some Christians practice forgiveness. Paul Bhatti is a prominent example. Others are willing to accept martyrdom. Bhatti’s brother Shabhaz stands out here.
** In part, the kind of response that Christians muster to persecution depends on the degree of repression and the size of the community — common sense, right? But that doesn’t explain everything. China scholar Fenggang Yang of Purdue University gave the example of small Protestant communities who practiced “evangelization under all circumstances” under China’s most repressive period, 1966-1979. Today the spectacular growth of Christianity in China can be attributed to these communities. The blood of martyrs is seed of the Church, said Tertullian.
One problem with the degraded discourse on our college campuses, social media, and so on — the cheap shots, the shrunken vocabulary — is that that once-powerful words are so plentiful that they have lost their meaning. A “fascist” has become someone more conservative than you are; a “communist,” someone more progressive than you are.
There are still communists in the world — check out Pyongyang — and it has become increasingly clear since this past summer that there is at least one American politician veering quite close to fascism as well: Donald Trump. Ross Douthat of the New York Times published two columns recently, here and here, using Umberto Eco’s criteria to decide whether Trump is really a fascist. The answer? He comes awfully close to being an heir of Mussolini, but comes up short because he is not particularly attached to tradition.
But let us not let arguments over whether Trump is Roderick Spode distract us from the main issue, which is that Trump is proposing measures that would gut American religious freedom. We are now in the realm of constitutional principle, not political tactics. We also are in the realm of national identity. The story we tell about our country is a large part of who we are. It also is a large part of who others think we are and think about how we relate to them. I am spending this year in Berlin, and last evening my daughters and I were picking up some Turkish food from a nearby kebab stand. The manager had the TV tuned to a Turkish channel, and Trump’s “no more Muslims” speech was a top story. The world is watching us, and what they see is ugly.
Trump’s America cannot be the true America. So let’s keep piling on the man. Not just liberals and secularists, who were doing so anyway. Conservatives and religious people — and I am both — must clearly repudiate Trump and make clear to our brethren why. Give reasons. We rightly say that Muslims must do most of the work of persuading other Muslims to repudiate radicalism. The burden of defeating Trump and his reptilian politics falls mainly on us.
See this excellent piece dissecting the immoral logic of Donald Trump on fighting terrorism by Keith Pavlischek.
As the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s historical declaration on religious liberty, approaches on December 7th, 2015, the Wall Street Journal has published an excellent op-ed reflecting on the declaration by Fr. Arne Panula. The human right that the Catholic Church finally came to embrace is now under fire around the world.