By Scott Stearman
In recent months, we’ve seen the issue of religious freedom return to the forefront of a national discussion. These are vital conversations, and the need to guard the freedom of religion and the freedom from religious coercion and discrimination will likely never end in the United States. But, we Baptist champions of religious liberty must also look beyond our borders to a world that seems to be losing the battle for this basic human right.
A recent article from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty makes clear that concrete violations of religious freedom are on the rise around the world. In 1998, Congress created an independent Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission’s 2015 report cited 33 countries for violations, including Iraq and Syria, where ISIL has inflicted havoc on everyone who has opposed its extremist views.
Also noted were Boko Haram in Nigeria with kidnappings and mass murders at churches and mosques, and the persecution of religious minorities in Burma. The report mentions nine countries of particular concern (Burma, Iran, Sudan, China, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan) and recommends adding eight others (Central African Republic, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Tajikistan, Nigeria and Vietnam).
The Commission’s report recommends that the United States work with other “like-minded” nations to combat the humanitarian crises caused by religious liberty violations. But it also points out that help isn’t enough. The only permanent solution is “the full recognition of religious freedom as a sacred human right.”
This gives rise to the question: How in this world do we promote such a “full recognition”? Where and how do we work toward such an end? One obvious answer to these very important questions lies in and around the United Nations.
In January 2015, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship committed itself to just such an effort. In late January, CBF announced an expanded partnership with the Baptist World Alliance around global advocacy efforts at the United Nations, including a focus on international religious freedom. To maximize these collaborative efforts to defend global religious liberty and human rights, Mark Wiggs, a Jackson, Miss.-based lawyer and committed Cooperative Baptist, was appointed to serve as BWA UN Liaison Officer.
As a New York-based pastor and fellow Cooperative Baptist, I have joined in these important efforts alongside Wiggs, doing some footwork at meetings in and around the UN headquarters. We are working with other volunteers to create an advocacy voice promoting religious freedom on the international level.
As part of this work, I attended a “Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop” of the Council on Foreign Relations. At the opening session of the conference, Welton Gaddy, the recently retired president of the Interfaith Alliance, led a discussion on religious liberty with Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; Eric P. Schwartz, a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College. It was a very enlightening and energizing discussion that highlighted the need for ongoing work.
Rogers mentioned that, according to the U.S. State Department, in 2013 there were more religious communities displaced by violence than in recent history. She gave examples of the growing tides of both Antisemitism and Islamophobia. Yusuf emphasized that to combat such growing trends we need more religious education, not less (as some secularists might encourage), because those more educated in religion are more likely to embrace tolerance.
To the sometimes-debated question about whether we should engage or shame countries that have deplorable records on religious liberty, Commissioner Schwartz said the answer is both. We must recognize that the two approaches are in tension, but that both tools should be used to work towards the expansion of global religious freedom.
It was Rogers who made the point about religious liberty being an expansive and “not a narrow” right. It is a universal right for all humans to practice, or not to practice, a faith. This broad universal right creates all kinds of questions of public accommodation, of course, and this was a part of the discussion.
Religious liberty is a term that many of us tend to think of as an abstraction — until the point at which the abstraction turns into some very concrete restriction or compulsion.
My international experience makes this personal and concrete for me. I preached on the beauty of religious liberty while serving in France, but was quite troubled by the restrictions on “religious apparel” placed after 9/11. It seemed more than an overreach.
While living in Greece, where religious liberty is the law of the land, I saw first-hand the efforts of religious authorities to restrict proselytizing of Greek nationals. Just north in Bulgaria, my Baptist friends didn’t experience the hoped-for freedom after the fall of communism brought back the national Orthodox church, part of which was behind efforts to label Baptists as a dangerous cult.
Gaddy ended the session at the Council for Foreign Relations by using the cliché: “the price of religious liberty is eternal vigilance.”
It is a high price. But it is a priceless gift we give to the world.
The Rev. Dr. Scott Stearman serves as pastor of Metro Baptist Church in New York City.