- - Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The images projected across our television and computer screens throughout the day as we rest in the creature comforts of our offices and homes are very sobering. They should elicit the most basic instincts of both fear and compassion for hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of our fellow brothers and sisters. They are images not soon forgotten, though we have seen them before countless times. Each time we see them, the groans and pain evident on their faces grows more real for us and more difficult to ignore.

I’m referring to those around the world persecuted by a group of religious zealots whose behavior is difficult to comprehend. Their intolerance against Christianity is beyond horrible. People are being beheaded for their faith. Women and young girls are being sexually violated and whole families are being wantonly slaughtered in cold blood. Perhaps just as abhorrent is the profound silence of the American government as represented by the current administration. Even though President Obama has declared that we are not a Judeo-Christian nation, we are still compassionate people who should not ignore humanitarian atrocities, much less ones where the victims are only guilty of maintaining a belief in the principles espoused by Jesus Christ.

We have an obligation as Americans to denounce these acts of persecution. Even those who do not worship a higher deity should be concerned. For when we stand up to such intolerance, we are defending the root of freedom. We are defending choice — the ability to worship and call on the name of a heavenly being without fear of torture and abandonment.

The president, who very early in his tenure won the Nobel Peace Prize, now has an opportunity to truly be the broker of peace in a very troubled part of the world. He can be a champion of freedom of religion, which is a founding principle of our nation. As long as religious practices do not infringe upon the rights of others, he can make it clear that it is wrong to interfere with those practices.

In our own country, we must become more reasonable in the adjudication of disputes about religious symbols. For instance, if a Christmas tree or manger scene has been a long-standing tradition in a community, and one or two people come along and claim that it offends them and must be removed, should those few individuals have the power to interfere with the seasonal joy of thousands who rejoice in the viewing of those symbols of the holiday season? If someone is offended by a menorah in a Jewish community, would it not make more sense to give them some sensitivity training than to disturb the entire community by removing the symbol? I could go on for quite some time mentioning various symbols associated with a wide variety of religions, but I think the point is clear. When we reward unwarranted hypersensitivity surrounding religious ceremonies or beliefs, we add fuel to the hatred and intolerance that subsequently produces religious persecution.

I am certain that some will say religious persecution in other parts of the world does not concern us and that we cannot be the police for the planet. Certainly, there is some validity to the latter part of that statement, but if we continue to ignore or tolerate religious persecution elsewhere, it is just a matter of time before we will experience it to a much greater degree than we have already here at home.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, we are not helpless and can dispatch the State Department to do all it can to help those in this desperate time of need. Some conservatives and cynics might argue that such a move requires government dollars. Who’s to say? We don’t fully comprehend how besieged these people are, much less know what it would take to grant them relief.

Governments need to decry such persecution, and root it out wherever and whenever they can. The United States should lead in that effort — just as it has with combating sex trafficking and other problems the collective world can and has decried in the past. It is hard to find an issue that demands a sharper clarion call for leadership now.

Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University and author of the new book “One Nation: What We Can All Do To Save America’s Future” (Sentinel).