Prayer, advocacy urged in response to State Dept. report

"Pray for the religious minorities of one new country every week."-- Travis Wussow
WASHINGTON (BP) -- Prayer and advocacy are appropriate Christian responses to the U.S. State Department's latest report on international religious liberty, says Southern Baptists' point man on global justice and freedom of faith.

In its annual report, the State Department cited the upsurge in persecution of religious adherents by non-government groups as a major development in 2014. The International Religious Freedom (IRF) Report, issued Oct. 14, again assessed the conditions for people of faith in nearly 200 countries and territories, something that has been required since the enactment of a 1998 federal law.

The State Department, however, did not designate "countries of particular concern (CPCs)," which also is mandated by the law, in its new report. The CPC designation is reserved for the world's worst violators of religious freedom.

Southern Baptists and other Christians can take two practical steps in response to the latest report, said Travis Wussow, director of international justice and religious freedom in the Middle East office of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). They are, he wrote in an Oct. 19 post at the ERLC's website:

-- "Pray for the religious minorities of one new country every week. Read the country's section in the report and use the information there to respond.

-- "Pay attention to whether the State Department designates new countries of particular concern and join with [the] ERLC in asking the State Department to act" if it fails to do so.

The State Department last designated CPCs when it released last year's report in July 2014. At that time, it named the following nine governments as CPCs: Burma; China; Eritrea; Iran; North Korea; Saudi Arabia; Sudan; Turkmenistan; and Uzbekistan. 

In his post, Wussow pointed to three "big-picture trends" found in the new State Department report:

– "The rise of abuse by non-state actors. Governments themselves continue to oppress religious minorities across the world. But we have also seen an increase in the failure of governments to protect religious minorities from political parties, social organizations and terrorist organizations.

-- "The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. In 2014, anti-Semitism surged, as many protests against Israel 'crossed the line into anti-Semitism.' Chillingly, the IRF Report notes that these protests have 'left many pondering the viability of Jewish communities' in Europe, including France and Germany.

-- "Failure of governments to protect religious minorities from societal tensions and discrimination. In countries across the world, governments are failing at their first task: to protect the rights of their citizens. For instance in Nigeria, the government failed at all levels to investigate, prosecute and punish violence and discrimination against religious minorities."

In its report, the State Department said of the rise of persecution from non-government forces:

"In the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and throughout Asia, a range of non-state actors including terrorist organizations, have set their sights on destroying religious diversity. Members of religious groups were disproportionately affected, often suffering harsh and hateful treatment of non-state actors. In these regions, religious intolerance and hostility, often combined with political, economic and ethnic grievances, frequently led to violence. Governments stood by, either unwilling or unable to act in response to the resulting death, injuries and displacement."

Among those non-state persecutors are the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Boko Haram.

In Iraq, ISIS targeted Christians, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandaeans and Shia Muslims. Its terrorist actions in 2014 caused the displacement of 1.8 million people in the Middle East country, according to the State Department report.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram used murder and kidnapping against Christians, as well as Muslims who disagreed with their extreme Islamic beliefs. The terrorist organization killed more Nigerians in 2014 than in the previous five years combined, according to estimates by civil society groups. Violence has displaced about 1.5 million people within the country and caused about 200,000 people to flee to other countries, the State Department reported.

Regarding government repression of religion, the State Department report cited these findings:

-- The continued threat and enforcement of blasphemy laws against non-Muslims in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

-- Repression of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims in China. The Chinese government even cracked down on state-sanctioned churches, removing crosses and demolishing church buildings.

The report also highlighted positive development in global religious freedom, including improvements in the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom -- a bipartisan panel that reports on religious liberty conditions to Congress, the White House and State Department -- recommended earlier this year these eight governments be added to the CPC list: The Central African Republic; Egypt; Iraq; Nigeria; Pakistan; Syria; Tajikistan; and Vietnam.

Wussow arrived in the Middle East in late July to open the ERLC's international religious freedom office. The office collaborates with other organizations to advocate for religious freedom and social justice internationally. It also provides training resources on justice and religious liberty for churches and organizations, creates material for raising awareness on the issues and works with Baptist Global Response to help meet human needs.

The State Department report may be accessed online at Wussow's post on the report is available here.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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