“They are raping and killing children in front of their parents. Then they are killing the parents.”
Amid their tears, the speakers were Joseph and Mariam (not their real names), an Iraqi Christian couple who came to Catholic University to relate the travail of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Christianity, they told a stunned audience, will soon be eliminated in these two lands of the religion’s birth.
Sarah Liu (in this case her real name) told of being tortured and sexually abused for four months at a Chinese “Women’s Re-education Through Labor Prison.” A subsequent arrest sent Ms. Liu, a Christian, to forced labor camp for three years. Her escape from China allowed her to tell her story, which may surprise those who think religious freedom is progressing in the world’s largest nation.
The terrible, largely unacknowledged reality is this: We are witnessing in the early 21st century an international crisis in religious freedom. It pervades the Middle East, South and East Asia, Russia and sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Pew Research Center, three quarters of the world’s people live in countries where religious freedom is severely restricted.
In many of these nations the symptoms include brutal torture, rape, unjust imprisonment, forced exile and murder. The primary causes of these horrors are the religious beliefs and practices of the victims, those of their tormentors or a combination of both.
The Pew studies also show that religious freedom is on the decline in the West, including in the United States. In fact, social hostility to religion is much higher in Europe than the global median. In the US, both social hostility and government restrictions have been increasing.
Why is this happening? And what does it mean for America and the world?
Religious freedom stands at the core of what it means to be human. No person can live a fully human life without the right — protected in law and culture — to seek God and to live in accord with the truth as he or she understands it.
Of course, a regime of religious freedom imposes limits. It does not justify violence or a state-mandated religious monopoly. At its core, religious freedom means an immunity from coercion on religious grounds by any human agent, especially the state, and full equality under the law for all religious individuals and groups.
This concept of religious freedom underlays the American founding, and led to its labeling as “the first freedom,” without which American democracy would fail. Since then most Americans have understood it as the birthright of every person, necessary to the success of any society that seeks to establish a system of ordered liberty.
Such views, it seems, are fleeting. Today, Americans who seek to exercise their citizenship with traditional religion-based moral arguments about the common good — on marriage, the sanctity of human life, and on religious freedom itself — are labeled by their fellow citizens as bigots, motivated by “malice” and a “desire to humiliate.” This assault has been mounted by some on the left, but the leaders can be found on the Supreme Court, inspired by the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority Windsor decision.
What does this have to do with Joseph, Mariam, Sarah, and the millions of others — Christian and non-Christian — who are suffering for their religious beliefs? In the short term, we must destroy the Islamic State, which threatens them, the very existence of Christianity and the possibility of stability in the Middle East.
But the assault on religious liberty in America suggests that our nation is not prepared to deal with this crisis over the long term. When the Islamic State and other causes of the crisis have been removed, we are ill-equipped to help Christians, Muslims, Yazidis and others return to their homes and develop their own systems of ordered liberty.
In 1998 Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, mandating the advancement of religious freedom in US foreign policy. Notwithstanding the dedicated service of many diplomats since then, no administration has seriously supported that policy. The current ambassador is an extremely talented man, but he has little authority and almost no resources to develop strategies that can address this problem. Even he cannot sell a product in which the American foreign policy elite no longer believes.
The stakes are high. Contemporary scholarship and common sense demonstrate that religious freedom can over time help democracies stabilize, increase economic growth, advance the rights of women, and undermine religion-related violence and terrorism.
As it happens, a bill is moving through Congress which could begin to alleviate this problem, the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. This bill would force the State Department to get serious about advancing religious freedom around the world. If we do not act now, we will look back in shame — as we do when pondering Munich (1939), Rwanda (1994) and Srebrenica (1995) — that we did so little to help avert disaster.
• Thomas F. Farr is director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. He was the first director of the State Department’s office of international religious freedom.