Are Persecuted Christians Worthy of Concern in Syria but not North Korea?

on January 30, 2014

The Orwellian persecution of Christians in the world’s most brutal dictatorship, North Korea, can be read about in this chilling report.

New ominous signs reported on our website about such persecution increasing raise serious questions about the disparate approaches of the United Methodist Church’s controversial Washington lobby office, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), to the persecution of Christians in Syria and in North Korea.

Nevertheless, we at IRD have long said that one thing on which self-described “liberal Christians” and more orthodox believers should be able to agree is defending the basic human rights of Christians persecuted for their faith.

The liberal-stacked GBCS board of directors had a chance to show this at their September board of directors meeting.

After some discussion, they unanimously adopted a statement on the Syrian civil war, condemning the violence and urging peace while opposing the sort of military strike the Obama administration had then recently proposed. It called for perpetrators of the “abhorrent” chemical-weapon attack to be “brought to justice.” And it at least very briefly “urge[d] that any settlement ensure the rights of all Syrians, including our Christian brothers and sisters.” Among the directors urging that the statement include explicit concern for beleaguered Syrian Christians were Bishop Christian Alsted (Northern Europe) and Randall Miller (California-Nevada).

The statement did have elements of the GBCS’s ideological biases. It avoids explicitly noting the involvement of Iran or al-Qaeda, or identifying the perpetrators of any of the lamented violence. It lazily proof-texts a verse from Romans about avoiding unnecessary conflict between fellow Christians in the context of a church into some sort of political mandate for largely non-Christian groups of people. Furthermore, the statement claims that “[t]o a great extent, the uprisings across the Middle East are symptoms of a profound gap between the rich and the poor,” while ignoring central political and religious factors.

The statement did not say more about “our Christian brothers and sisters” at least in part because of the fears of some directors that more extensive expression of solidarity from a U.S.-based church group could somehow backfire into worsening persecution of Syrian Christians. Nevertheless, it is good that in response to a strong push from several directors, the GBCS statement on Syria at least said something about the suffering of Christians there.

In contrast, there was much more contentious debate over a brief petition calling on the Obama administration to (1) lift sanctions on North Korea while rolling back military cooperation with South Korea, and (2) sign a peace treaty with the Stalinist hermit state. It probably says a lot about how seriously the drafters take Scripture that it also includes an astoundingly non sequiter misquote of a passage from Ephesians about the inclusion of Gentiles in the new covenant. Since the GBCS was being asked by United Methodists Women (UMW) to endorse a statement that was already written and being sent for endorsement by others, it was not subject to amendment.

Board member Richard Hearne (North Texas) spoke out very forcefully against the resolution, countering that sanctions should probably be increased, not decreased. He noted that North Korea had killed American soldiers in the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) in the 1960s and that “you can’t sign a peace treaty with a country that doesn’t want peace.”

Other directors, from a range of ideological perspectives, also spoke out against it, raising such concerns as the “overly simplistic” petition’s ignoring offenses of North Korea while casting the U.S. and South Korea as the main aggressors, its ignoring such complexities as the role of China, the Communist dictatorship’s human rights abuses and persecution of Christians, the fact that “people across the political spectrum” agree the United States has in fact pursued peace “but the North Korean government has not responded helpfully,” and the most memorable argument against the petition: “it’s dumb!” (Unfortunately, no one mentioned the petition’s blatant misuse of Scripture.)

But Haniel Garibay (Virginia), a GBCS director and staffer of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) caucus, oddly defended putting the burden for peacemaking entirely on the U.S. on the grounds that directors were meeting in the U.S. (despite the global nature of our denomination). He plaintively asked “Can’t we just do this for the sake of the Korean people?” without elaborating on how covering over the brutal oppression of the Kim dynasty would do anything “for the Korean people.” Others board members, such as Emily Farnell (North Carolina) asserted that this petition would somehow advance peace, without making clear how.

Apparently, the latter arguments were good enough for the GBCS’s board, who voted 17-13 in favor of the resolution (including the vote of the GBCS board president, Bishop Robert Hoshibata of the Desert-Southwest Conference). Given the heavily liberal stacking of the board, it was surprising to see that close a on what would normally be a rubber-stamp question: “do you agree with some lefty political pronouncement from United Methodist Women?”

During the debate, staffers Liberato Bautista and Mark Harrison lobbied for the petition, with the latter reporting that this statement had come from out of an ecumenical conference last spring and was developed in consultation with Christians from South as well as North Korea. It is unclear how representative these unidentified Korean Christians were, particularly given the penchant of liberal mainline denominational officials for singling out the voices of various people groups that fit within the pre-determined agenda while ignoring other voices.

The sad fact of the matter is that liberal mainline denominational officials have a shameful record of collaborating with and legitimizing the Korean Christian Federation as some sort of implicitly free, authentic representatives of “North Korean Christians.” Indeed, a longer declaration from the conference to which Bautista was apparently referring lauded the Federation’s “efforts … for reconciliation, peace and reunification,” while listing the Federation alongside a South Korean ecumenical body in a way that suggests that these are both authentic bodies of Christians freely expressing their faith and values. But the Korean Christian Federation is actually a program run by the violently anti-Christian North Korean government to repressively control its domestic Christian population while serving the regime’s propaganda and other political purposes abroad. In the words of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2013 report: “former refugees and defectors continue to testify that the federations [of Protestants and other faith traditions] are led by political operatives who maintain religious venues as both cultural relics and tourist attractions and seek economic assistance from foreign donors.” While there may be some genuine Christians within the clutches of the Korean Christian Federation, they certainly do not have the same freedom to speak out as truthfully about the situation as North Korean defectors.

So why are the GBCS staff and a majority of its directors willing to express concern for persecuted Christians in Syria while at the same time adopting a resolution that perpetuates suppression of similar concern for the persecution of Christians in North Korea? Lest anything think I am making too much of this one resolution, I did a search for all mentions of “North Korea” on the GBCS website within the last two years and did not find a single clear mention of the human rights atrocities of the Kim regime, except for a very cursory aside within one sentence in an article focused on protecting the religious liberties of adherents of pre-Christian Mayan spirituality in Guatemala plus an article noting and linking to a report on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) including North Korea in a list of countries which “’engage in or tolerate’ systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”  Neither of these two GBCS articles highlighted any specific human rights abuse of the North Korean regime, although these could be found in the second article’s links.  (UPDATE: An earlier version of this article did not mention the GBCS’s USCIRF article. We regret the error.)

Even Evangelical Left sympathizer Roger Olson acknowledges the reflexive anti-Americanism of the left wing of the U.S. membership of mainline Protestant denominations in this country. Thus lefty mainline Protestant pronouncements on foreign affairs follow a yawningly predictable pattern of being harshly critical of the United States and its allies while often giving a free pass to severe human rights abuses committed by nations at odds with America. So when IRD President Mark Tooley (who at the time was UMAction Director) submitted resolutions to the 2004 UMC General Conference expressing concern over human rights abuses in Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, China, and yes, North Korea (among other places), the liberal-dominated relevant committee dismissed these out of hand. Yet these same liberal delegates have had no problem passing all sorts of resolutions singling out the U.S. ally, Israel, for criticism.

Perhaps the present mess in Syria creates a bit of an opening for liberal American Christians who feel that national self-criticism must be idolized over even moral clarity or honest acknowledgement of reality. For all of President Obama’s anti-Assad statements, he is clearly not on the side of al-Qaeda, nor has he armed allegedly moderate rebel factions. Thus, no matter who they criticized in the conflict, the GBCS would be safe in avoiding favoring a U.S. ally.

But there are not such ambiguities with North Korea’s belligerently anti-American regime. As much as some liberal mainline officials like to exclusively blame the United States for allegedly being too aggressive towards North Korea, or even-handedly decry the stubborn militarism of “both sides,” I do not recall the Bush or Obama administrations producing the equivalent of North Korea’s infamous anti-American propaganda. But to publicly acknowledge the violence of the Kim dynasty against other countries and its own people, even if it meant shifting some blame away from the U.S.A., seems to be too much for the GBCS.

Thus, the GBCS’s chosen route was to not use whatever clout it has within and beyond the UMC to educate and advocate on behalf of the victims of the world’s most brutal dictatorship, but rather to second a sanctimonious call for “peace” that ignores these abuses and shifts accountability away from the chief perpetrator.

In defending such ill-conceived political pronouncements, the GBCS and its defenders typically claim that they are being “prophetic,” as if using that word somehow magically absolves such statements from any need for critical scrutiny.

But the GBCS would have done well to have considered these words of an actual prophet:


They dress the wound of my people

    as though it were not serious.

‘Peace, peace,’ they say,

    when there is no peace.

-Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11


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