I would like to tell you about some friends of mine. They are Christian brothers and sisters around the world who have welcomed me into their homes, introduced me to their families, and invited me to worship in their congregations. They are deeply committed to discipleship and service.
But I can’t say any more about them. The risk is too high. That’s because these friends live in regions of the world where the threat of persecution is very real.
There is no doubt that religious persecution is a global—and growing—problem. Nearly three-quarters of the people across the planet live in areas of persecution. Some face unjust restrictions from government. Others suffer violence and abuse from their neighbors. One of the most distressing recent patterns is the dramatic growth of religion-based conflicts between ordinary citizens, often in the form of organized terrorism, mob violence, or so-called “honor” killings.
While Christians bear a great deal of this suffering, the scourge of persecution affects believers of every faith—and those with no religion at all. Some of the chief culprits have become familiar to North Americans—ISIS in Syria and Iraq or Boko Haram in Nigeria, for example—because of their grotesque combination of media savvy and tremendous brutality. But persecution is also commonplace in countless regions we rarely hear about in news reports.
Synod 2013 commissioned a committee to study persecution in light of its increasing breadth and intensity. The committee’s mandate called for the church to respond to the injustice of persecution.
But how should we respond?
Putting up with Faith
A common approach in Western democracies is to assert the right to religious freedom. We are accustomed to legal guarantees that protect a space for religious belief and practice free from the undue interference of the state. And we have civil and criminal laws to protect that space from the hostile actions of fellow citizens.
Our religious freedom is not absolute, of course. Sometimes a religious practice comes in conflict with other important rights or societal values. In some cases a restriction on religious practice is warranted, for example, when religion is a pretense for child abuse. In other cases, restrictions may seem arbitrary or excessive—so much so that many Christians have become worried about what they see as a steady decline of religious freedom in the United States and Canada.
But North Americans continue to enjoy more freedom to believe and practice religion in comparison to most people across the globe. We often take that for granted. It’s important to remind ourselves that religious freedom is not simply the legal possession of a citizen of a particular country. It is a human right, a moral claim that any person of any faith can make. It should not matter if we’re in Grand Rapids or Jos, Bangalore or Beijing. It also should not matter if we’re Christian or Muslim, Buddhist or Jew.
Christians in the Reformed tradition have good reasons to embrace the principle of religious freedom as a human right—even though our forebears did not always put that principle into practice. Let’s start with some basic beliefs we affirm in our confessions: we are created to live in shalom, that is, in relationships of peace and joy with God, with each other, and with the creation. The fall shattered those relationships. But we worship a God who did not give up on the creation he loves. We are redeemed by his grace through Jesus Christ.
How do persecution and religious freedom fit into this picture of creation, fall, and grace? Persecution is, first of all, a clear breaking of shalom, a consequence of our fallen relationships. It is also, in a sense, a kind of idolatry, because it is often a human attempt to coerce belief, even though God has the sole power of salvation. To support the same freedom for nonbelievers as ourselves is an acknowledgment of God’s authority. What’s more, just as we live out our faith through the gift of the church, other religions also organize into congregations. Religious freedom protects this diversity of religious communities.
So Christians ought to object on the grounds of religious freedom when governments in Pakistan, Malaysia, or Sudan use anti-apostasy or anti-blasphemy laws to subject Christians—and other religious minorities, including the non-religious—to human rights violations. Or when the Chinese state cracks down on the peaceful worship of believers in unregistered congregations. Or when governments in India or Nigeria fail to protect people of faith from abuse and displacement at the hands of neighbors. And these are just a few examples.
It’s worth noting that our own governments have responded to these violations of religious freedom. The U.S. Congress, for example, passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, which established monitoring bodies and prescribed punitive sanctions for countries with egregious religious freedom records. Canada established a similar Office of Religious Freedom in 2013 (though it closed the office earlier this year). Numerous non-governmental organizations also do the work of monitoring and advocating for religious freedom worldwide.
This advocacy work is important. Faith needs space to breathe, and enforcing religious freedom by law helps create that space. But it is tempting to see monitoring and sanctions as the primary way we should respond to the problem of persecution. For Christians—especially Christians acting through the church—it shouldn’t be. We don’t rebuild the peace God wishes for his children through mere tolerance.
I don’t mean to suggest that enforcing tolerance of religion through legal rights is a bad idea. It would certainly alleviate the suffering of many people if their governments and fellow citizens would simply allow them to practice their religion.
But tolerance is a pretty thin strategy if our goal is to address the deeper causes of persecution. Tolerance is a ceasefire, a laying down of arms. It is not a change of heart.
Moving Beyond Tolerance to Peace-Building
If Christians are created to live in relationships of peace and joy, then we are called to do more than avoid conflict. We have to move beyond a perspective on religious freedom rooted in mere tolerance. We’re called to be reconciled to one another. In this alternative view, religious freedom opens up a space to foster peace by working across lines of difference: a “confident pluralism,” in the language of legal scholar John Inazu.
Moving beyond mere tolerance is hard, complex work. An American friend who has worked overseas for years uses a youth sports program to build peace in an area that is a hotspot of persecution. He told me that he didn’t even start the program until he had been immersed for a full decade of cultural learning and trust building. When he did take his first steps by inviting local kids to play basketball together, he initially had some success. Through their children, the parents began to see the possibilities of engaging others despite their differing faiths and ethnicities. But then a nearby flare-up of interfaith violence brought the effort crashing down. My friend was dismayed yet persistent, and now the program is beginning to transform the conflict and restore people to each other despite long-standing animosities. No program geared toward mere tolerance could bear such fruit.
Does responding to persecution, then, mean many of us should be heading to regions where there is persecution in an attempt to build peace? Far from it. In reaching beyond our borders, we generally do best by supporting organizations that do this work over the long term, such as the Institute for Global Engagement or the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, or the ministry staff who work on our behalf around the globe for World Missions, World Renew, and Back to God Ministries International
The North American Church and Persecution
But that doesn’t absolve us as communities of believers of the obligation to address persecution where we are. Unfortunately, the North American church has been surprisingly quiet about persecution. We can do better.
One critical way the church can engage is through ecumenical and interfaith learning. Since persecution affects people of all faiths, we can learn a great deal by looking outward from our own faith tradition. The Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the Christian Reformed Church has always been a platform for ecumenical dialogue across national borders, but individual congregations can sponsor interfaith opportunities too—and many in the denomination already have.
Christians have a related opportunity to extend hospitality to refugees who are making their way to the U.S. and Canada. Recent persecutions, especially in northern Syria and Iraq, have resulted in the massive displacement of believers of all faiths. It’s a challenge with no end in sight. The CRC’s Office of Social Justice has taken important steps in both advocacy and education about the refugee crisis, and organizations such as World Renew and Bethany Christian Services are helping to meet the challenge of resettlement. Scores of churches across North America have answered the call to help displaced persons as well.
But all of this outreach must be accompanied by internal practices of spiritual formation. Worship, for example, can focus congregational life around stories of persecution. The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, a Sunday set aside in early November to remember Christians who suffer for their faith, is a good place to start. Adult education classes, Bible studies, prayer gatherings, and other small groups are also places to testify to the plight of the persecuted. The Christian Reformed Church has developed some liturgical materials, including prayer litanies, songs, and a video about persecution in Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, we’ve barely kept pace with the urgency and scale of the problem.
We must pray for both persecuted and persecutor. Indeed, prayer is the most important starting point for a response to persecution that seeks to bring shalom. Violence and abuse in the name of the divine is bewildering. But we can pray with humility and boldness, knowing that God listens when we call out for protection of vulnerable brothers and sisters. What’s more, the practice of praying about persecution—of naming the people and groups who suffer and calling to account those who do harm—orients us toward the goal of restoration.
National and transnational organizations such as Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance, which sponsors the International Day of Prayer, and Open Doors USA provide helpful maps and other tools to get us into the habit of prayer. But let’s start with the people we probably already know: with field staff in denominational ministries including World Renew, World Missions, and Back to God Ministries International. Many of them report that their ministries are often in harm’s way, directly or indirectly. Part of our congregational sponsorship of these ministry partners should be regular prayer for their safety.
The global experience of religious persecution is one of the great moral challenges of our time. But persecution has always been with us. We have to be clear-eyed about the immediate prospects for peace-building. That means we must be patient, not paralyzed. We are called to act.
As the 2016 report of the synodical Committee to Study Religious Persecution and Liberty concludes, “To be faithful does not necessarily mean we will see clearly the fruits of our activity. In places where religion-based conflict is deeply entrenched, we shouldn’t even expect to see change in our lifetimes. When the prophet Isaiah calls out, ‘How long, Lord?’ God does not offer a timetable. But he does make a promise.”
Web Questions for Discussion
1. Do you think it is important to protect the right to religious freedom for people of all faiths, not just for Christians? Why or why not?
2. How might we move beyond tolerating other faiths to building relationships of peace?
3. How has your church incorporated concerns for the persecuted church into its worship and prayer life? If it has not, how would you suggest it start?
4. The article ends with, “To be faithful does not necessarily mean we will see clearly the fruits of our activity.” How might this insight encourage and shape our ministry and justice efforts?