A hidden pandemic of persecution confronts people around the globe for the most personal of reasons. Repression and hate force individuals to hide from their friends, families and neighbors, remaining underground from the police. And should they share the truths about themselves or be otherwise discovered, these brave souls risk jail, torture, and even death.
Despite coming from different backgrounds and life experiences, three marginalized and vulnerable groups face similar threats in many countries around the world: Converts to Christianity, members of the LGBTQ+ community and individuals holding agnostic or atheistic beliefs (often referred to as humanists).
While usually combatants in domestic American political fights, their shared persecution overseas – issues of life and death – offers the potential for an unlikely alliance to confront governmental and societal restrictions. And such a coalition might help lower the temperature domestically as well.
From my time serving as a special envoy on religious minorities in the Obama and Trump administrations, I noticed striking similarities among these communities shackled by the religious doctrine of others and government laws contrary to their identity or conscience.
Yet this community of suffering does not know each other, despite shared experiences.
Several reports covering each group's persecution shows significant overlap and a common challenge. First, the World Watch List by Open Doors, an evangelical organization assisting the persecuted church, annually documents the worst countries for Christians.
Second, Humanist International, an advocacy group representing ethical/humanists and atheists, issues the Freedom of Thought Report, detailing countries where free thinkers are penalized and punished.
While each report takes a different approach and uses different methodologies, a commonality among all three communities is shared repression and brutality across 18 countries: Algeria, Brunei, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen.
In addition, 100% of the countries imposing the death penalty on LGBTQ+ relationships also ranked high across the reports for humanist and Christian persecution. For instance, Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, all designated by the U.S. State Department as Countries of Particular Concern for particularly severe violations of religious freedom, also impose the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations.
Other shared themes emerge. Persecution towards the LGBTQ+ community, Christian converts and atheists occur in the same realms: family/social life and non-state violence; legal persecution (through blasphemy, apostasy, anti-LGBTQ laws); and police brutality. They are not safe in any part of society.
In terms of regions, oppression against all three groups is most prominent in the Middle East and Africa. However, certain places in Asia also persecute. When countries are ranked at the top for persecution, generally a majority religion dominates society and government, oftentimes promoting intolerance toward other sects, beliefs and different ways of life.
The similarities between countries of persecution and the types of repression beckons for a unified response.
Expanding space for conscience rights and respect for the equal rights of LGBTQ+ individuals will take a long-term engagement with both governments and civil society. Rights advocates must work with police and religious institutions, elected officials and faith leaders, and education systems across the board. All to promote individual rights, respect and tolerance, and the benefits of diversity.
While important to stress international legal human rights standards, shared concepts of human dignity could be equally powerful. Dignity transcends law and culture – people should not suffer simply for who they are or following their conscience. Jailing, torture and death should never occur.
Each group advocating for the other would be powerful. For instance, religious freedom advocates taking up the cause of targeted LGBTQ+ individuals and humanists in Uganda, or for those communities to advocate for Christian converts in India. Unlikely allies can spur otherwise unlikely change.
If human rights advocates representing these communities worked together, it would bring new energy and ideas to assist some of the most vulnerable individuals in the world. Progress in one area would help others, expanding civic space for a diversity of beliefs and lifestyles. And such a partnership might help our domestic conversation by building relationships between skeptical communities.
Improvements for one group could help the other two. All three working together would be powerful. Hopefully, common cause can be found around the inherent dignity of all persons to be free from harm, regardless of who they are or their beliefs.
Knox Thames served as the State Department special adviser for Religious Minorities during both the Obama and Trump administrations.