International Religious Freedom

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September 24, 2018

What We Can Learn From the History of the International Religious Freedom Movement

On Thursday, September 20, the Save The Persecuted Christians (STPC) coalition held a summit in Washington, DC to discuss steps forward in the most effective way to help persecuted Christians around the world. In addition to members and prospective members of STPC, speakers included the Honorable Sam Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and long-time defender of the persecuted, now retiring as Distinguished Senior Fellow from 21Wilberforce, U.S. Representative Frank Wolf (retired).

 As a founding member of the coalition, and as the IRD’s International Religious Liberty Program Director with a long history in the advocacy movement for global religious freedom (and, apparently, a longer memory and paper trail about important little details than most of my contemporaries!), I was also asked to speak to the 50 or so of us that gathered at the Hay Adams Hotel for the four-hour brainstorming session. The following is a transcript of my comments:

Thank you for the opportunity to share good, exciting memories of how the international religious freedom movement got started. Thank you to Ambassador Sam Brownback and Congressman Frank Wolf. Simply put, you are my heroes. You have been for many years. And thank you, all of you here, for being part of this Save The Persecuted Christians coalition. Our movement has brought me new hope and energy.

Next month is the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act – a U.S. law that forever changed American policy on defending religious freedom. October is also my 25th anniversary as International Religious Liberty program director at the IRD. So I can tell you about the IRF movement from inside the thick of things – and how, as a result, I know how extremely important and timely our new movement is.

St. Paul said: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” It isn’t always easy to not become weary in defending persecuted Christians. But it is a lot easier when there are many of us working together, encouraging each other.

And although that statement, Galatians 6:9, alone can encourage and exhort us …do you know that the context is? The very next verse is the one I call the “Persecuted Church Verse” or the Biblical Mandate for what we are doing, Galatians 6:10: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

So, to share a little history, from my perspective, of the IRF movement, I say first that it was one of those moments in history when we did – as it says in Galatians 6:10 – HAVE opportunity.

I believe that the IRF movement was initiated by God. He opened the door to that opportunity. It was His love and compassion for His faithful people suffering for His sake that orchestrated all the parts of the IRF movement then and has orchestrated our movement TODAY!

HE awakened and motivated a sleeping church: Before there was IRFA there was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP). But before that, God orchestrated the meeting of an American Jew and an Ethiopian Christian. The late Chuck Colson said about Michael Horowitz, “Two millennia ago, God sent a Jew into the world for the Gentiles to know God and be at peace with God …In 1996 He sent a Jew into our midst to waken us, a sleeping church.” When my friend Michael found out about the horrific persecution of his friend Getaneh he wrote a guest editorial for the Wall Street Journal in July 1995.

The tepid response from U.S. Christians to his “New Intolerance Between the Crescent and the Cross,” and Michael’s determination to change that activated the launch sequence for the IRF movement, starting with IDOP.

I was part of the team that created IDOP. IDOP was history-making because it was the first global prayer day so that Christians suffering the most persecution were praying for others experiencing that same suffering. Sudan praying for Pakistan,Nigeria praying for Iran, etc. It was very humbling for those of us who do not get persecuted.

Like our Save The Persecuted Christians movement, IDOP used banners modeled after the Save Soviet Jewry campaign. The first Day of Prayer was September 29, 1996, with 5,000 U.S. churches participating. In 1997, 50,000 U.S. churches participated! One speaker at the National event was a man from southern Sudan, my friend Ruben Benjamin. Ruben went on to serve the U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq as a translator, then served the new nation of South Sudan as its Ambassador to Israel until this year.

At the same time we were praying, we were getting politically active. Five days before the 1996 Day of Prayer Congress passed a resolution “Expressing the Sense of the House with Respect to the Persecution of Christians Worldwide” that was adapted from a resolution I wrote for the Episcopal Church! The Episcopal Church didn’t pass it, but Congress did! That success encouraged us to work on the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

IRFA began as the Wolf-Specter bill, with a team of us from NGO’s and Christian organizations working to help pass it. Unlike the 1996 resolution, this time there were many teeth being considered for the bill in both its Wolf-Specter and final form.

The obstacles IRFA faced then can help us understand the opposition today. We faced opposition from such things as:

  • The Clinton Administration, particularly State Department, didn’t want a new office of International Religious Freedom, or an independent U.S. Commission.
  • Secular human rights organizations that said religious freedom should not be prioritized over other human rights…Of course they didn’t say that they totally disregarded religious freedom!
  • Media that questioned the fact that Christians were being persecuted. For instance, journalist Laurie Goodstein used scare quotes and the word “allegedly”. Thank GOD for the late, great Abe Rosenthal, former NYTimes editor, who, when exposed to the issue, wrote prolifically about Christian persecution and the apathy of Americans, comparing it to the 1960’s Kitty Genovese murder.
  • Also, a large part of the American church establishment! The National Council of Churches opposed the bill, teaming up with USA Engage, lobbyists for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They funded a dog and pony show of foreign church leaders who claimed there was no persecution in their countries, and the US should not rock the boat. You’ll never believe the hero in that episode! Mother Jones magazine. They exposed the partnership in an article called “So You Want to Trade With a Dictator ” and a follow-up called “Persecution Complex.” Many mission organizations also opposed the bill. Particularly people were antagonistic to the idea of the U.S. creating a list of Countries of Particular Concern and dealing with them accordingly.

The bill was early on expanded to talk about religious freedom for all, not just Christians, though Christians face the most persecution worldwide. That is why I am thankful that Save The Persecuted Christians remains faithful to Christians around the world. We are not told we have to include “everyone” because otherwise we would not care about the others. We are told that as a way of diffusing the issue and distracting the world from the strategic attack on Christians. And, even with that concession, no one believed IRFA would pass. The front page of the NY Times declared it dead before the vote. Well, you know what happened? It passed in the Senate 98-0 and was accepted unanimously in the House.

Finally, although IRFA wasn’t perfect, it was a transforming event. U.S. policy acknowledged the importance of religion – an idea that is critically important to understand Islam and global jihad! It has provided two decades of tools and people that care about international religious freedom – none more than right now. And in Freeing God’s Children, author Allen Hertzke says, “In the ecology of human rights, the struggle for IRFA shaped the environment for future initiatives.Without IRFA, there’d be no Sudan Peace Act. Without the religious advocacy coalition, there’d be no human trafficking law.”

And the IRF movement itself? Save The Persecuted Christians is now the movement called by God to this opportunity: to see the hand of God at work; to see answers to your prayers in flesh and blood before you – as when I met in person for the first time Soviet prisoner of faith Alexander Ogorodnikov after praying for him for years; to weep with the persecuted, knowing that when they are being beaten, God is weeping too, and asking “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Here we are, Lord.


One Response to What We Can Learn From the History of the International Religious Freedom Movement

  1. Faith: Thanks for your long-time faithful service to keep us in the Church awake and praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters worldwide. I wish you were here to do the podcast with me on this topic leading up to Persecuted Church Sunday this week!!

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