Let’s Praise Progress on Religious Freedom. Start with These Countries.
Four Muslim-majority nations deserve our support and engagement, as an alliance of 33 other nations finds its voice.
Today the Open Doors World Watch List has again thoroughly documented the severe repression that many Christians experience every day. The church is under outright attack in many countries, while grinding repression and ceaseless limitations slowly strangle believers in others.
The list is a call to action and prayer for the persecuted. Understanding the dire situation should motivate Americans of all denominations to ask our government to help the persecuted church and to speak up for others victimized for their beliefs.
Yet while the World Watch List paints a troubling picture, the news is not all bad. There are positive situations in a few countries. Of course they are not perfect, and Open Doors still gives several low marks. But these glimmers of light are worthy of prayer, support, and continued engagement to press for further improvements.
Here are my picks for five recent religious freedom developments worth praising:
1) United Arab Emirates
Last year, construction begin in Abu Dhabi of the first official synagogue in the country, part of a larger state-funded project to build a mosque, church, and synagogue in the same complex to represent the three Abrahamic faiths. The UAE is also funding the restoration of two historic churches in Iraq that ISIS tried to destroy. The synagogue construction comes alongside the Emirates establishing ties with Israel and expatriate Jewish life blossoming in the Gulf state. Emirati citizens do not enjoy full conscience rights, but the country boasts many churches for foreign Christians—something remarkable considering its neighbor Saudi Arabia and nearby Iran.
In 2019, the transitional Sudanese government issued a new constitution with several notable provisions defending religious freedom and minority worship. While the devil is always in the details, the transitional government also repealed the law mandating death for apostasy and reduced blasphemy penalties by removing flogging as a punishment. These were notable developments, as the Muslim-majority world trends toward increasing—not weakening—apostasy and blasphemy punishments. At the same time, the transition away from former dictator Omar Al-Bashir is in jeopardy, with the military pushing out key civilian leaders and using deadly force against unarmed protesters.
In a far corner of the world, the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan has opened space for religious freedom. From 2006 to 2017, the US State Department designated Uzbekistan as one of the worst countries in the world for religious freedom. However, new leadership brought a new interest in improving relations with the United States, creating momentum for religious freedom reforms. Uzbekistan has eased legal restrictions, released prisoners, and registered churches. Not everything is perfect, however, and the old Soviet mentality hinders reforms that would bring greater religious freedoms.
Authorities continue to approve the building of new Coptic churches, a significant change from a decade ago for the Middle East’s largest Christian community, estimated at around 10 million. Previously, Copts endured a painful approval process for new churches or even simple repairs, an exercise designed to frustrate and eventually suffocate Christian life. But as CT reported last year, the Sisi government has now approved 44 new churches. In addition, the release of Coptic activist Ramy Kamel after two years of pre-trial detention is positive. However, Kamel’s jailing demonstrates deeper problems with the dismal human rights environment in the country for all Egyptians—Muslim, Christian, or otherwise.
5) IRFBA Alliance
Rights-respecting nations are responding to the threat of religious persecution worldwide. In 2020, at the initiative of the United States, a new alliance was launched to promote international religious freedom. Now, for the first time, a group of 33 nations are explicitly working together to advance religious freedom for all. Still in the early stages of development, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance has spoken about Afghanistan and Burma (Myanmar). Other multinational efforts include the upcoming multinational summit in London this summer focused on freedom of religion or belief, and a US summit led by civil society groups will continue. Time will tell if words will translate into deeds.
Moving governments and international institutions to act can save lives, free prisoners, and increase religious freedom for all. But why should we fight for the religious freedoms of non-Christians, be they Muslim, Hindu, or atheist? Because they are our global neighbors. To love them as we love our own, we should speak up for them as well as for our brothers and sisters in the faith. Such a heroic love of neighbor would be a powerful example of God’s love. And practically, if not everyone can enjoy religious freedom, then there is not complete religious freedom for anyone.
A great example is Open Doors calling for an Olympic boycott because of China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims, or the Southern Baptist Convention condemning China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as a genocide.
Open Doors should be commended for its commitment to accuracy. For instance, its statistic on Christian martyrs is much lower than other organizations. Although inflated numbers would be effective clickbait, it would undermine their credibility and rigorous research—and ultimately hurt the people they want to help. Groups found to exaggerate, misrepresent, or be ill-informed will have difficulty persuading persons of power and influence.
The World Watch List also clarifies the blessings of liberty we enjoy in the United States. While some have spoken of Christian persecution in America due to COVID-19, the Open Doors report demonstrates what real persecution looks like: violent, targeted, and unrelenting. What occurred this past weekend at the Colleyville synagogue in Texas resembles what one finds throughout the list. Unfortunately, too many of our brothers and sisters overseas must bravely confront violent persecution every day. Overuse of the term in our domestic context only cheapens it and lessens the impact in actual situations of persecution.
Knox Thames served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities for both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is currently writing a book on 21st century strategies to combat religious persecution. You can follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.