February 17, 2012

We treat everybody equally

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Such is the claim from the Uzbekistan authorities: “We treat everybody equally“, according to the Forum 18 News Service.  Indeed, from what little information makes it into the news, that seems to be the case with recent arrests of Christians, Muslims, Bahai members, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for the world), “we treat everybody equally” is not the standard set out in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan (and the list goes on to include all 192 member countries of the United Nations) voluntarily agreed to.

What is the standard?  Forum 18 (so named as Article 18 of the Declaration is about freedom of thought) summarizes it as:

  • The right to believe, to worship and witness
  • The right to change one’s belief or religion
  • The right to join together and express one’s belief

All the news from the UN-member countries violates Article 18.  They aren’t new violations and many would say that in the face of no repercussions, the violations are on the increase.  A couple of trends to make you aware of and seek your prayers about:

VIOLATION: Churches and church leaders must be registered and approved by the Government.  The governments maintain they need to know and prevent extremists from organizing.  The churches maintain that by registering, they are painting a target on themselves for persecution.  And some have pursued registration only to find the submission rejected without grounds, or interminably delayed.  Leaders called to meet with believers in their homes are then sought after, arrested, and fined.  The fines have soared to as much as 18 months of average wages in that country.

VIOLATION: Extremists, and sometimes governments, prevent changing religion.  Particularly in the Muslim world, in those countries where Islam in the national religion, citizens are born Muslim and must remain so.  Period.  Conversion to any other religion, including Christianity, bears fines, imprisonment, torture, and/or death.  Governments usually have some mock-type of process; extremists just render their brand of justice on the spot.  Some of the national governments hide behind the fact the states or regions have adopted Sharia law, but the national government has not.  As such, the states exercise a strict Islamic code, that has no national legal standing, but has led to count after count after count of persecution.  Again, with repercussion.  I just saw a news article yesterday from India where the national government had stepped in to stop a Sharia council proceeding.  That’s a very positive sign.

VIOLATION: Coerced to renounce one’s beliefs.  This commonly occurs around the world, with reports from Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist communities.  And most often is the first step taken when one from the “accepted” religion converts to another (and most often, that’s Christianity).  Two Jehovah’s Witnesses prisoners in Uzbekistan were serving 3 and 4-year sentences for their faith.  Near the end of their sentences, prison officials reportedly told them that if they did not renounce their beliefs, their prison terms would be extended.

That is in no way an exhaustive list of violations; just the recent trends I wanted you to be aware of.  The question remains what to do about these violations.  I won’t pretend to be an expert on the United Nations; I’m not at all.  I wouldn’t qualify as a kindergartener in being educating on the affairs of that body.  What I do see is that no public actions are take and there seems to be no repercussions, no hand-slapping even for nations that do not respect and honor Article 18 freedoms. 

I also acknowledge it’s a complicated matter.  Through the Open Doors USA ministry, we have sometimes learned that discussions/ negotiations are taking place and more public outrage, public notoriety is working against a positive outcome.  Nations and their leaders have to save face.  They can’t be seen as buckling to world pressure (or USA pressure) and releasing prisoners or dropping trumped-up charges, for example.  But we also see USA funding to many of these countries continue unabated.  Only recently have we seen some public discussion about withholding the $1.3 billion in aid targeted for Egypt pending the release of some NGO (non governmental office) representatives.  And then we see the Egyptian government publicly push back and refuse the release.  It doesn’t seem like handling these negotiations in the world press works.  But what does?  Over 100 million Christians are living in persecution today.  And it’s growing.  God is at work everywhere around the world and when His light pierces the darkness, darkness pushes back (thank you Dr. Carl Moeller for that quote). 

Doug Bandow spoke to the issue of “what to do” in his Forbes op/ed titled, “Targeting the World’s Worst Religious Persecutors.”  Bandow’s statement:

“While Washington cannot make the world free, Americans can reach out and help their oppressed brothers and sisters around the globe.  Persecution should be highlighted and denounced; victims of intolerance, hate, and violence should be comforted and supported.  Finally, if America is to remain free, Americans must tenaciously defend religious liberty at home.”

For those of us of the Christian faith, the answer lies in prayer.  Pray for the nations leaders around the world – Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other.  Jesus called us to love our neighbors and our enemies.  As the Casting Crowns’ sound says, “If we’ve ever needed You, Lord, it’s now.”  We should have God in all our plans but too often we only develop plans that can be carried out within our means.  In such plans, where’s the role for God?  This lack of religious freedom is a God-sized problem that won’t be fixed until God is invited in and He takes a role.  Let’s begin that right now, right at this moment, and then continue to pray without ceasing.

     More than conquerors (Ro 8:37),

     Kevin

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