We must speak up for religious freedom worldwide.
“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” ~ Hebrews 13:3, NIV
A recent Pew survey reported that over 70 percent of the world lives in a repressive regime that denies religious freedom. In my service in Congress and in visits I have taken around the world, I have found this to be true over and over.
This led me to leave the House of Representatives at the end of my 17th term to focus exclusively on human rights and religious freedom. In January 2015, I joined the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative (21CWI), a newly created religious freedom organization, as distinguished senior fellow. Through domestic and international partnerships, the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative is using advocacy, capacity building and technology to urge the church, people of all faiths, and political and cultural leaders to stand for religious freedom and against persecution both here in the United States and around the world.
During a trip to Nigeria in February 2016 with colleagues from 21CWI, we interviewed many Christians from the middle belt and the north. They told of people from their villages being harassed, kidnapped and killed in attacks from Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen. They feel forgotten by their own government and by the West. When 200 girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok two years ago, there was a huge outcry in the West — #bringbackourgirls — an outcry since forgotten.
In China, Catholic bishops are under house arrest, and Protestant house church leaders are in prison. One hundred thirty Buddhist monks and nuns set themselves on fire to protest the oppression of the Chinese government.
In Pakistan, Asia Bibi languishes in jail under a death sentence after she refused to convert to Islam and was later convicted for blasphemy. While leaving his mother’s house in 2011, Shabbaz Bhatti, the lone Christian in the cabinet, and Minister for Minorities, was gunned down for speaking out about religious freedom abuses.
Last year, I visited Iraq with a team from 21CWI to investigate the plight of religious minorities. The Christian community there has fallen from 1.5 million in 2003 to 250,000 or fewer today. We were told that 17 families leave every day. In Syria today it would be dangerous to take the road that Paul took to Damascus.
President Ronald Reagan once said that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are a covenant, with not only the people of Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787, but with people all over the world. This means the people of Nigeria, Pakistan, China, Iraq and Syria.
Human rights and religious freedom were bipartisan issues in the 1980s and 1990s. Remember the work of Democrats Sen. Scoop Jackson and Rep. Tom Lantos, and Republicans President Ronald Reagan and Rep. Henry Hyde?
Today, defenseless religious communities are facing a crisis that threatens their very survival in the lands they have inhabited for centuries. I believe the church in the West is not burdened by the great injustice of religious persecution. Without hearing from the faith base, the political leadership won’t move on it.
There should still be an overwhelming interest and focus on these issues. Not because we are driven by guilt, but because we are motivated by our faith. Not because of some tired sense of obligation, but because of a vibrant biblical mandate.
Central to people’s dignity is their ability to worship according to the dictates of their conscience. As such, where religious freedom comes under attack, God’s law itself is violated. I am convinced that as these persecuted individuals become more than faceless, nameless victims in distant wars and hard-to-pronounce prison cells, and that as we commit to knowing their stories, weeping at their wounds and interceding on their behalf through prayer and advocacy, we will find ourselves shaped by these giants of faith. And if we are clear-eyed about the times in which we live, I believe these encounters will make our own faith more robust and strengthen us for the days ahead.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember, not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Congressman Frank R. Wolfe served Virginia’s 10th District for 17 terms, until January 2015. He was known as the House’s “champion of human rights,” and “conscience of Congress.” In January 2015, Wolf joined the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative as distinguished senior fellow, and he was appointed the Jerry and Susie Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion. The post is an excerpt from the 2016 summer edition of Outcomes Magazine.
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