The Pew Research Center recently released results of a study finding that Christians are the most persecuted religious group world-wide. The study found that Christians were being harassed for their faith in 110 countries, and "[m]ore than 5.3 billion people (76 percent of the world's population) live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion, up from 74 percent in 2011 and 68 percent as of mid-2007."
This news might come as a surprise to many of us here in the United States, who feel that we live (relatively) free and unrestricted lives when it comes to practicing our religion. However, as documented by Pew and reported in multiple news outlets, the world-wide oppression and targeting of fellow Christians, and those of various other faiths, is alive and well.
Indeed, as noted by Pew, "across the six years of [its] study, religious groups were harassed in a total of 185 countries at one time or another," and "[m]embers of the world's two largest religious groups -- Christians and Muslims, who together comprise more than half of the global population -- were harassed in the largest number of countries, 151 and 135, respectively." The "sharpest increase" in "religious hostilities" occurred in areas of the Middle East and North Africa that were part of the Arab Spring.
In light of all this disturbing news, it was heartening to see that President Obama highlighted restrictions on international religious freedom in his remarks at this year's National Prayer Breakfast, during which he called for the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini. President Obama noted that Pastor Abedini has "been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to eight years in prison on charges relating to his Christian beliefs. And as we continue to work for his freedom, today, again, we call on the Iranian government to release Pastor Abedini so he can return to the loving arms of his wife and children in Idaho." President Obama also remarked that "as we pray for all prisoners of conscience, whatever their faiths, wherever they're held, let's imagine what it must be like for them."
While the president offered reassuring words in support of religious freedom, his own administration and policies have been marked by an increase in its suppression. Whether it is the administration's opposition to the owners of Hobby Lobby being able to freely live out their faith, military service members facing demotion for sharing their faith, or the administration's failure to speak out against China's violence against the underground church, there are troubling inconsistencies between the president's speech and action on this issue.
The world pays attention to action and not mere words. Religious liberty must once again become a foreign policy priority for the United States. Going back to the post-World War II era, from its work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights onward throughout the 20th Century, the United States has been a strong international voice for freedom of religion as an inherent human right and as a matter of human dignity. The United States must once again step up to the plate and reclaim its place as the moral voice for those persecuted worldwide for merely exercising their faith.
This increased attention on international religious freedom must be further reflected in churches across the land. As we gather to worship freely each week here in the United States, we should be mindful to pray for our brothers and sisters being persecuted and imprisoned for their faith overseas. Religious freedom at home and abroad should be both a government priority and a popular concern.
Let us pray that as we look forward into 2014, those seeking to exercise their faith here at home and around the world will be treated with equality according to their inherent human dignity, and will be able to live freely according to the dictates of their faith and conscience.