A year before America entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt shared his vision of “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom from fear, freedom from want, and “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.” FDR asserted these Four Freedoms in the context of a speech about “the democratic way of life … being directly assailed in every part of the world” by a “new order of tyranny.”
Today, it seems the civilized world is under assault from a disorder of tyranny and terror. The enemies of religious freedom abound. But as a recent State Department report reveals, some regimes are set apart when it comes to government repression of religious freedom: North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Russia, and Bahrain. In addition, a Pew study of government restrictions on religious freedom consigns Egypt, Afghanistan, and Syria to the worst-of-the-worst category. Here’s just a tiny sampling of how these regimes smother religious freedom:
- According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the Iranian government is guilty of “ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture and executions.” Iranian Christians are literally scourged for drinking Communion wine — 80 lashes was the common punishment in 2013. Iranian authorities “raid church services, harass and threaten church members, and arrest, convict, and imprison worshippers and church leaders.” According to the State Department, the Iranian government “deems conversion from Islam to be apostasy” (punishable by death), bars non-Muslims from engaging in public religious expression, bans the Baha’i faith from public pensions, and imprisons Christian pastors for spreading “anti-regime propaganda.
- Shiite theocrats and Sunni autocrats may have different interpretations of the Koran, but the results are largely the same. Saudi Arabia is a place where “not a single church or other non-Muslim house of worship exists,” where promoting “unbelief” is a crime, where even private religious practice is illegal, according to USCIRF. Saudi textbooks “teach hatred toward members of other religions,” promote violence “against apostates,” and label Jews and Christians “enemies.”
- China ranks in the very worst level on USCIRF’s review. According to USCIRF, “Independent Catholics and Protestants face arrests, fines, and the shuttering of their places of worship.” Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, folk religionists, and Protestant house-church attendees are subjected to “jail terms, forced renunciations of faith and torture in detention” as well as property destruction. According to the State Department, Beijing fines individuals “for studying the Koran in unauthorized sessions” and positions PRC flags on mosque walls “in the direction of Mecca so prayers would be directed toward them.” Freedom House reports that “hundreds of thousands” of religious adherents — many of them guilty of “simply possessing spiritual texts in the privacy of their homes” — are sentenced to forced labor.
- Likewise, “Thousands of religious believers and their families are imprisoned in penal labor camps” in North Korea, according to USCIRF, which adds, “Individuals engaged in clandestine religious activity are arrested, tortured, imprisoned, and sometimes executed.” A U.N. panel finds in North Korea a “complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
- The State Department reports Assad’s Syria carries out policies of “killing, imprisonment, detention, and the intentional destruction of property on the basis of religion”; “restricts proselytizing and conversion”; and “does not recognize the religious status of Muslims who convert to other religions.”
- Sudan prohibits conversion from Islam, denies permits for churches, and demolishes houses of worship.
- Tajikistan bars Muslim women from attending mosques and prohibits people under 18 from public worship. Turkmenistan has carried out a systematic campaign of “beatings and torture of persons detained for religious reasons.” In Uzbekistan, the government raids gatherings of religious organizations and confiscates religious literature.
- Myanmar tolerates violence against Christians and prohibits Muslim land ownership.
- Bahrain discriminates against Shiite Muslims in employment and government services.
- According to USCIRF, religious freedom in Pakistan has “hit an all-time low due to chronic sectarian violence” targeting Shiites, Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus — actions for which the Pakistani government is not necessarily responsible — and due to the fact that “the Pakistani government failed to intervene effectively” to protect these groups, inaction for which the government is very much responsible.
- In Russia, blasphemy laws curtail “the freedoms of religion, belief and expression,” according to USCIRF, which adds that Moscow prosecutes Muslims without evidence, issues baseless fines against Protestant churches, and denies legal status and permitting for Mormon, Armenian Catholic, and Muslim houses of worship.
Religious Freedom and National Interests
This litany of abuse should matter to anyone who believes in freedom, human rights, and the dignity of man, which means it should matter to followers of Christ.
But this assault on religious liberty isn’t just about values and ideals. It’s also about national interests and international stability.
But this assault on religious liberty isn’t just about values and ideals. It’s also about national interests and international stability. After all, an annual index of failed and failing states places 14 of the aforementioned 15 countries in its at-risk or high-risk categories. Failed and failing states generate most of the world’s worries — and trigger most of the world’s wars nowadays. For instance, the United States has engaged in military operations in nine of the bottom 13 failed states during the past 20 years. (These countries are not failed states because the U.S. intervened. Rather, the U.S. intervened because these failed states were neglecting their people and/or destabilizing their neighbors.) Moreover, North Korea is technically still at war with the United Nations (the 1953 agreement that stopped the Korean War was only an armistice). Iran has been waging a proxy war against the U.S. since 1979; from Beirut in 1983 to the Khobar Towers in 1996 to Iraq in the 2000s, well over 700 American deaths can be traced to Iran’s agents. Russia has attacked and annexed a sovereign neighbor without cause, setting Europe on edge. China has claimed vast stretches of the South China Sea without legal justification, setting Asia on edge. Sudan made common cause with al-Qaida in the 1990s. Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan — hiding in plain sight.
That serves as a reminder that some of today’s gravest threats to religious liberty are not atheist nation-states like China and North Korea, but rather theocratic nonstate groups like al-Qaida, ISIS, and the Taliban — groups that take literally Muhammad’s injunction “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.’”
Consider what the Taliban did while in power — and continues to do while trying to reclaim power: banishing girls from school and launching poison-gas attacks against girls’ schools to terrify Afghan families back into the darkness; ordering Hindus to wear identity labels; beheading people for dancing; turning soccer stadiums into execution chambers; burning people alive; imprisoning Christian missionaries; allowing bin Laden to turn Afghanistan into a spawning ground for his global jihad.
ISIS (whose adherents are Sunni Muslim) has summarily executed hundreds of Shiite Muslims, subjected Yazidi and Christian women to mass-rape and sex slavery, orchestrated mass beheadings of Egyptian Christians, razed ancient Christian churches, and targeted Assyrian Christians for abduction.
These movements and regimes may be the real “axis of evil.” Religious liberty is the proverbial canary in the coal mine of a society’s health. It doesn’t tell us everything about a government or group, but it tells us enough.
University of Texas professor William Inboden notes that “Every major war the United States has fought over the past 70 years has been against an enemy that also severely violated religious freedom.” He sees a clear “correlation between religious persecution and national-security threats.”
This isn’t to suggest that America should go to war against every enemy of religious liberty. But perhaps we shouldn’t cut deals with Tehran, take Putin at his word, draw a line of moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas, or avert our gaze from the latter-day gulags in North Korea and China. Instead, policymakers should draw attention — relentlessly and repeatedly — to assaults on religious liberty. “The most essential element of our defense of freedom is our insistence on speaking out for the cause of religious liberty,” President Ronald Reagan said, echoing FDR. The purpose here is not to shame the enemies of religious liberty — for the shameless cannot be shamed — but rather to isolate them and offer a platform to their victims.
Regimes that have no respect for religion see no limits on their power. Since they believe nothing is above the state, they can rationalize everything they do in the name of the state or the fatherland or the revolution.
Nor is this to suggest that religious freedom will cure all the world’s ills. It won’t. After all, America and Taiwan and Brazil and South Africa respect religious liberty yet still have problems. (As a matter of fact, even a bastion of religious liberty like the U.S. sometimes veers off track when it comes to balancing church and state.) Even so, a government that respects religious liberty is healthier than a government that mandates or proscribes religious activity. Such a government recognizes that there is something within each person beyond the reach of the state. In other words, governments that respect religious liberty recognize that there’s a limit to their power.
Regimes that have no respect for religion, on the other hand, see no limits on their power. Since they believe nothing is above the state, they can rationalize everything they do in the name of the state or the fatherland or the revolution. Consider Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the Kim dynasty. Regimes and groups at the opposite end of the spectrum — those that see themselves as instruments of their god — end up at the very same destination. Since they believe they are acting on behalf of their god, they can rationalize everything they do in the name of their god. Consider Imperial Japan, Iran, ISIS, and al-Qaida.
Jesus Offers an Invitation, Not an Ultimatum
This subject of religious freedom is near to God’s heart. We sometimes forget that Moses’ interaction with Pharaoh was primarily about religious freedom. Speaking through Moses, the Lord declared, “Let my people go so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.”
Jesus interacted with pagans and polytheists, politicians and priests. He talked — and listened — to Roman generals and governors, rich men and tax collectors, beggars and lepers, Jews and gentiles, Greeks and Samaritans, Sanhedrin officials and Syrophoenicians. He had the power to make all of them bow to Him, but He never did. Instead, He commended the centurion; listened to Pilate ramble on about truth and authority; allowed the rich young ruler to walk away; and healed a foreigner’s daughter, a pagan’s servant, a synagogue leader’s child.
Jesus lived among religious zealots and self-appointed holy men willing to kill to prove their piety. He could have joined them or led them, but He never did. Instead, He practiced religious tolerance and modeled religious liberty. Look at Luke 9. A Samaritan village refused to let Jesus stay there “because He was heading for Jerusalem.” As one commentary explains, “Samaritans were particularly hostile to Jews who were on their way to religious festivals in Jerusalem” and often “refused overnight shelter for the pilgrims.” But Jesus didn’t make them accept Him. In fact, when James and John asked “to call fire down from heaven to destroy” those who dared not open their doors to Him, Jesus rebuked His disciples and “went to another village.”
Jesus offers not an ultimatum, but an invitation. He leaves it up to us to accept the invitation. Importantly, disciple means “one who accepts” — not one who submits. As Philip Yancey observes, “Our respect in the world declines in proportion to how vigorously we attempt to force others to adopt our point of view.”
For evidence of this, look no further than the enemies of religious freedom: The jihadists are fighting for a world where there is no faith but theirs, the petty despots for a world where all faiths are supine and subordinate to the state, the atheist autocrats for a world where there is no faith at all.
Today, as yesterday, God’s response to the tyrants and the terrorists is “Let my people go.”
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.