The Evil of Religious Persecution
“I’m here on behalf of the president as a tangible sign of his commitment to defending Christians and, frankly, all who suffer for their beliefs across the wider world,” Vice President Mike Pence said at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, in Washington, DC, on May 11.
The vice president’s words acknowledged something that the previous administration, after some pressure, also recognized: The vicious religious persecution occurring across the world. Former Secretary of State John Kerry would ultimately use the word “genocide” to call out the ongoing existential threat to Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria from ISIS terrorists.
“Throughout the world, no people of faith today face greater hostility or hatred than the followers of Christ. In more than 100 countries … from Iran to Eritrea, Nigeria to North Korea — over 215 million Christians confront intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion, abuse, assault or worse, for holding to the truths of the Gospel. And nowhere is this onslaught against our faith more evident than in the very ancient land where Christianity was born.”
Pence’s words highlighted a reality that doesn’t always make the headlines. The administration in which he serves ought to take some of its own words, and some of the people Pence recognized in his remarks, to heart. Pence said: “Let me also say how deeply humbling it is for me to stand today before the courageous men and women who are with us, who have stood without apology for their faith in Christ and suffered persecution across the wider world.”
And then Pence named, among others, Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean priest who has been tortured by Islamic militants and has said that U.S. policy has not always taken into consideration the lives of the Christians in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. His is a gentle rebuke, as he radiates gratitude for the many Americans, citizens and leaders alike, wanting to help his people.
Pope Francis has been one of the first and most consistent voices to talk about the fact that we have more persecuted Christians living in the world today than even in the first days of Christianity. Kudos to Mike Pence for picking up on it.
All this got me thinking about words spoken by President Ronald Reagan, in a speech to government leaders in Lisbon in 1985. “We have rediscovered the preciousness of freedom, its importance to the cause of peace and to restoring to humanity the dignity to which it is entitled,” he said.
He elaborated: “This belief in human dignity suggests the final truth upon which democracy is based — a belief that human beings are not just another part of the material universe, not just mere bundles of atoms. We believe in another dimension — a spiritual side to man. We find a transcendent source for our claims to human freedom, our suggestion that inalienable rights come from one greater than ourselves.”
Reagan then paid tribute to Pope John Paul II, saying: “No one has done more to remind the world of the truth of human dignity, as well as the truth that peace and justice begins with each of us, than the special man who came to Portugal a few years ago after a terrible attempt on his life. He came … to plead for forgiveness and compassion among men, to pray for peace and the recognition of human dignity throughout the world.”
Besides good words, our leaders, and the people who elect them, must be rooted in humility. That means looking and listening. To work in defense of persecuted Christians or anyone else means not working from a position of self-interest, from a defensive mode. It means leadership rooted in something greater than ourselves. That’s the tangible commitment that will keep us moving forward, working for equality, freedom and a more just world.
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