Last week the U.S. Department of State hosted some 1,000 international visitors, legislators, religious freedom advocates and activists in Washington, D.C at the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The event was an unprecedented accomplishment – bringing together representatives from some 100 countries and dozens of faith groups.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has personally taken the issue of religious freedom to heart. During his keynote address, he described his devotion:
Last year at this ministerial, I told this audience that we were working to bring home Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was unjustly held in Turkey for more than two years. This year, hallelujah, our prayers have been answered, and he’s with us here today.
Pastor Brunson’s deliverance goes right alongside what I think is my most memorable moment as the Secretary of State.
Last year, on one of my missions to North Korea, I brought home Kim Dong-chul, Kim Hak-song, and Tony Kim. We got off the plane here at about 2:30 a.m. at Andrews Air Force Base. President Trump was there, the Vice President was there to greet them. It was one of the most joyful moments of my life. As the three of them descended the stairs from the plane, they slipped me a little note. It was on an index card. I stuck it inside my coat pocket.
And when I got home, I woke my wife up – it was early in the morning – and my wife Susan and I sat down to read the card. It was Psalm 126: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” I keep it framed in my office today. I do so because it reminds me of the power of faith in even the most trying times.
Secretary Pompeo emphasized that 80 percent of the world’s population lives under religious restrictions. More than a few speakers and attendees described, formally or informally, the challenges they and many others face because of their religious beliefs and practices.
There were a number of hopeful messages interwoven throughout the course of the Ministerial – glad tidings about a number of detained people of faith who have been set free from captivity in recent months. In fact, 27 such survivors met with President Donald Trump at the White House on July 17.
But there was also more than enough bad news to go around.
The first three speakers at the Ministerial were survivors of recent terrorist attacks that snuffed out hundreds of lives and devastated worshippers at three different and far-flung locations.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 worshippers were shot dead in October 2018, spoke of the importance of removing the word “hate” from our vocabulary. “Emotional language leads to emotional responses – violence, such as the murder of 11 Jews in my synagogue,” he said.
The second speaker, Farid Ahmed, survived the March 2019 terror attack at Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Along with a related shooting at the nearby Linwood Islamic Center, 51 people were killed and 41 injured. Confined to a wheelchair and deeply devoted to his Muslim faith, during the attack, Ahmed saw his wife die. Nonetheless, he said, “I don’t want to have a heart that is boiling like a volcano. A volcano has anger, fury, rage; it doesn’t have peace…”
The third Ministerial speaker, Yamini Ravindran from Sri Lanka, described the horrendous Easter Sunday massacres in her country, during which 259 people were killed and at least 500 injured. Ravindran introduced what for some victims has become a motto: “Do not be afraid to forgive,” she challenged her audience.
That was only the beginning. Testimonials from activists, clergy, witnesses to horror and survivors of marginalization, discrimination and violence spoke of their communities’ triumphs and tragedies. They addressed both small focus groups and huge plenary presentations.
For those of us who work on religious freedom issues, it was wonderful to see familiar faces of friends and colleagues who have devoted themselves to religious freedom and the issues that surround it. There were pleasant reunions and warm greetings. But there were also troubling reports of increasing abuses across the world. On July 16, 2019 Pew Research reported,
- Government restrictions on religion have increased globally between 2007 and 2017 in all four categories studied: favoritism of religious groups, general laws and policies restricting religious freedom, harassment of religious groups, and limits on religious activity.
- Social hostilities involving religion have increased in a few categories, but levels of interreligious tension and violence, also known as sectarian or communal violence, have declined globally.
- The level of religious restrictions is highest in the Middle East-North Africa region in all eight categories measured by the study.
- In certain categories, some of the biggest increases in religious restrictions over the past decade have occurred in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
Still, there was encouragement for those of us who had written and learned to care about people we’d never met. In one break-out session on Africa, I was moved to meet two women about whom I’d reported distressing stories in the past.
One was Sudanese Christian Mariam Ibraheem, who was imprisoned in December 2013, and later sentenced to death for alleged apostacy. Her crime under Islamic Sharia law was marrying a Christian man when her father was Muslim. Mariam was pregnant during her captivity, and her nine-month-old son Martin was imprisoned with her. She gave birth to her daughter Maya while her legs were shackled; she feared for her newborn’s life, health and survival. Miriam was released soon after Maya’s birth, in May 2014, due in no small part to intense prayer and activism on her behalf, she says. Her children are both healthy.
Another woman I met was Helen Berhane, a Christian gospel singer, who was arrested in 2004 in Eritrea. She was imprisoned in a filthy, flea-ridden shipping container along with more than two dozen other women. They shared a single bucket for toilet purposes. She was tortured, beaten and nearly lost her ability to walk. She miraculously escaped in 2006.
To my amazement, I sat at a table with both of these women, who shared their experiences during a discussion about the plight of Christians in Africa.
In attendance was American pastor Andrew Brunson, for whom so many Americans prayed and protested, while President Trump personally intervened with the Turkish government on Rev. Brunson’s behalf.
Pakistani Muslim Shaan Taseer also spoke. His father Salmaan Taseer – the former governor of Punjab – was murdered for his defense of Christian prisoner Asia Bibi. After nearly ten years of false imprisonment for blasphemy, Asia Bibi was finally able to leave Pakistan in May 2019. Her release was another opportunity for both relief and praise among those of us who followed and publicized her case. However, Mr. Taseer offered some cautionary words.
“As we celebrate these victories,” he said, “we must be mindful of the challenges ahead…While Asia Bibi – the world’s most famous prisoner victim of blasphemy is a free woman – I want you all to know that there are 200 Asia Bibis in jail accused of blasphemy law in Pakistan today and these are only the reported cases.”
Shaan Taseer’ sobering remarks at the Ministerial summed up the reality of today’s efforts on behalf of religious freedom – the good news and the bad news. Yes, there have been long-awaited releases. But there is still much to be done – through diplomacy, advocacy, prayer and protest. Our work on behalf of Christians and other people of faith is far from finished.