What was the big international religious liberty story of 2018? As IRD’s International Religious Liberty Program Director, I think that it is that American Christians have a long way to go to fulfill the Biblical mandate to care for persecuted brothers and sisters.
Some American Christians are far more focused on conditions in their own church than on suffering fellow Christians around the world. They are less interested in fighting for freedom for brothers and sisters than in worrying about the erosion of domestic freedom.
Of course that has been the story every year, even as the tide of persecution rises. But my top ten 2018 international religious liberty stories are not all about horrific human rights violations. They include good news and positive indicators for the future.
I start with IRD’s own critique of American Christians and churches:
On May 10, 2018 IRD hosted a well-attended summit on global Christian persecution and American churches’ failure to be strong advocates for persecuted Christians. The summit, which included U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the Honorable Sam Brownback, and former U.S. Representative Frank R. Wolf among the speakers highlighted the Biblical mandate of Galatians 6: 10 and how this should be in the DNA of churches in America.
News in 2018 demonstrated how badly our Christian brothers and sisters, along with others who are persecuted, need our commitment and compassion. Two such regions are Nigeria and China:
The big story in Nigeria is not just the presence of two of the top four most lethal terrorist groups, Boko Haram and Fulani Jihadists, the first of which still holds Christian schoolgirl, Leah Sharibu. It is not just that false moral equivalence narratives of “Christian/Muslim clashes” or “Farmers versus Herdsmen” are popularly repeated. And it is not even just that whole Christian communities are being eradicated by these groups with outside support.
The big story is that these violent attacks against Christians and others will lead to even more disaster. Unsustainable numbers of IDPs and refugees are creating famine, sex trafficking, and other extreme conditions. This could result in complete collapse of Nigeria and the Lake Chad region if nothing is done. Those who care about persecuted Nigerians, including IRD, are urging President Trump to appoint a U.S. Special Envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region.
On February 7, 2018, I was part of a small group in Washington, DC that had a wonderful meeting with Chinese Christian hero and human rights attorney, Dr. Li Baiguang. A few weeks later, I offered a tribute at his memorial service. Nineteen days after Dr. Li met with us in Washington, he died in a Nanjing Military Hospital under mysterious circumstances. Since Li’s death, President Xi Jinping has accelerated a crackdown on Christians.
Amidst stories of arrests and persecution and even deaths, the big story is of the courage and endurance of the Chinese Church. In September 2018, hundreds of Chinese Christian pastors and leaders from across various denominations issued a joint statement of faith. At last count, 439 had signed the declaration which pledged, “For the sake of the Gospel, we are prepared to bear all losses – even the loss of our freedom and our lives.”
But we also have had some tremendous answers to prayer in 2018:
Almost two years to the day that Pastor Andrew Brunson was arrested and imprisoned in Turkey, a Turkish court ruled to free him. The pastor, who then returned to his home and family in North Carolina, had led a small church in Izmir for 23 years.
Bogus charges against Brunson of participation in the attempted coup against Turkish president Erdogan sparked outrage. The Trump Administration interceded, with the President’s own involvement becoming both personal and unprecedented. In July Brunson was removed from prison and placed under home detention the day after his daughter, Jackie Funari, shared her father’s story at the State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (see #7 below).
Not much good can be said about the DPRK (North Korea). Even with overtures for ongoing talks, negotiations, etc. coming from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un since his June meeting with President Trump, conditions in the country remain an unbelievable, hellish nightmare. But one bright spot was the May 2018 release of Americans Kim Dong-chul, Kim Hak-song, and Tony Kim, overseen by then brand new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice-President Mike Pence, and President Trump. Pence later released a copy of a notecard from the three freed men that contained verses 1-3 from Psalm 126.
This was another case of good news mixed with bad, due to the overall conditions in the country.
After eight plus years in prison under Pakistan’s egregious blasphemy laws, poor Christian wife and mother Asia Bibi (Aasiya Noreen) was acquitted of all charges against her by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The Islamists who had been demanding the death of Bibi were thrown into an outrage and threatened the lives of not only all of the region’s Christians, but the Supreme Court Justices and Bibi’s valiant attorney (that’s not news, that’s typical).
Soon after, intimidated by the radicals, Pakistan’s government banned Bibi and her family from leaving the country. Since that time diplomatic channels have urged that advocates not call attention to the case. We hope and pray that something good is going on behind the scenes and that the freedom of Asia Bibi will be on 2019’s Top Ten stories!
The U.S. continues to demonstrate exemplary awareness of how critical religious freedom is to the rest of our foreign policy. It began with the signing into law of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. This awareness paved the way for new initiatives in 2018 in which IRD has played a role:
International religious freedom became enshrined in U.S. foreign policy in 1998 when the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. October 2018 marked the twentieth anniversary of a law that has provided two decades of tools and put in positions of influence people that care about international religious freedom.
One of the key positions is that of the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. On January 24, 2018 the U.S. Senate voted to confirm the Honorable Sam Brownback as the current (5th ever) U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. We at IRD cheered the confirmation because after working with then Senator Sam Brownback for many years we know him to be a leader of great courage, integrity, and humility. We hope and pray that he will go from strength to strength in 2019, with wisdom from the Holy Spirit.
Adding to the current efforts of the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom, in July of 2018 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted the first ever State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. I was a participant in the Ministerial, which took place over a four day period, with government ministers and representatives from civil society from all over the world. The event culminated in the “Potomac Declaration,” a statement of commitment to advance religious freedom by the U.S. government.
Also in 2018 a group of committed advocates launched a new grassroots movement on Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday to raise awareness of Christian persecution. “Save the Persecuted Christians,” of which I am a founding member, is a coalition modeled after the “Save Soviet Jewry” campaign circa 1970.
Finally, the once one, now two, but still-complicatedly-related nations of Sudan and South are also top news stories of 2018 for me:
Winston Churchill referred to Russia as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” But Russia ain’t got nothin’ on Sudan! And I’m sure that Churchill would agree – having written The River War after his time in Sudan. Lots of Sudan stories in 2018 – genocide and persecution continue; lobbyists like Squire Patton Boggs, and the Atlantic Council, push for normalization; Sudan’s former head of National Intelligence and architect of torture houses in Khartoum becomes the Sudan Embassy’s Charge D’Affaires in Washington, DC!
But the big news came at the very end of the year. Since December 19 the people across Sudan have taken to the streets to protest the 30 year regime of war criminal president Omar al-Bashir. What will be the result remains to be seen. It would be a great blessing to be able to claim as the 2019 greatest story of the year that Sudan has religious freedom, secular democracy, and justice for all Sudanese.
The ongoing false narrative, based on UN reports and moral equivalence between a sovereign government defending its sovereignty (I repeat: SOVEREIGNTY) and an armed opposition was not a big 2018 news story. It never has been because the media regurgitates the same stories given to it by leftist NGO’s and foreign policy elites that “know what is best” for South Sudan.
But the South Sudan Government and (most of) the rebels signed an August 2018 peace agreement. That peace agreement is holding on all sides. South Sudanese are hopeful and happy in spite of attempts by the UN to continue making money off of South Sudanese refugees. For me, the big story is the shocking disrespect and hostility a South Sudan high-level delegation faced from elites at a US foreign policy think tank (these same elites would give Khartoum’s leaders a sponge bath with their tongues). Nothing says “racist neo-colonialist Arabist” like refusing to shake the hand of the Vice-President of South Sudan but never refusing a cup of Bedouin tea with the genocidairres in Khartoum.
Here’s to a good new year for South Sudan, with peace/forgiveness/reconciliation initiatives such as that under the leadership of the new Episcopal Archbishop and Primate of South Sudan, the Most Reverend Justin Badi Arama, ongoing efforts of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and other leaders committed to peace, and development projects by good friends, committed to building the nation!
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home. (Isaac Watts, 1674-1748)