In September of this year, Baylor University sponsored two lectures on the topic of religious persecution. The presenters were former congressman Frank Wolf (now the Jerry and Susie Wilson Chair of Religious Freedom at Baylor) and Princeton Professor Robert P. George, who currently serves as the Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Together they detailed a serious crisis. Religious persecution is spiraling out of control in countries around the world while Americans seem dangerously unaware or unconcerned.
Addressing thirty-eight undergraduates in a class on religious liberty, Mr. Wolf described the enormity of what ISIL has been doing in Iraq. “More biblical activity took place in Iraq than in any other region of the world,” noted Wolf. He went on to point out that Abraham’s homeland was Iraq (ancient Nazaria) and that Iraq is also the site of Ezekiel’s burial place. In a diabolically symbolic gesture in July of 2014, ISIL deliberately bombed the tomb of Jonah in an effort to erase the region’s religiously diverse history.
Unfortunately, ISIL is succeeding in its attempts to stamp out the region’s Judeo-Christian heritage. According to Wolf, there were roughly 150,000 Iraqi Jews in 1950. Today there are fewer than ten—a shocking statistic in its own right, but also an ominous sign in light of an old regional saying: “as go the Jews, so go the Christians.” Indeed, ISIL has its own version of that saying: “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.” In other words, ISIL is systematically expelling, converting, or exterminating two ancient faiths in sequential order. Christians in Iraq numbered 1.5 million in 2003, Wolf observed, but that number has now fallen to approximately 200,000.
In neighboring Syria, where the al-Assad regime has for the past four years been massacring Sunni Muslims, ISIL has moved into the vacuum to target all religions that oppose their radical ideology, including Alawites, Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, and Christians. Observers estimate that more than half of Syria’s pre-conflict population has now been displaced or exterminated.
And earlier this year in Libya, ISIL beheaded twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians in a symbolic act of anti-Christian terror. Wolf took pains to stress that these are not random acts of violence, but a “deliberate campaign of genocide,” and that Christians are in fact on the “edge of extinction” in the region where Christianity originated.
Professor Robert George’s talk in the majestic Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor summarized the 2015 annual report of the United States Commission on Religious Freedom. That report identifies 17 “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs), where religious persecution is especially severe. In last year’s report the number of CPCs was only nine: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Commission still regards those countries as CPCs, but has now added eight more: Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. Space does not permit an account of the atrocities occurring in the countries on the Commission’s list, but the full report (quite readable and informative) is available online here and Professor George’s talk itself is available here.
The vital question is why the number of countries committing and supporting religious persecution is growing so rapidly. The number of CPSs has nearly doubled in a year. What lies behind this startling trend?
This question was posed to Professor George from the audience after his talk, and he did his best to address it, though he acknowledged its complexity. His answer was that liberal democracies in the 20th century left something undone when they defeated the oppressive ideological regimes of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, and eventually Soviet Communism. They defeated the powers but failed to defeat ideology itself. The word “ideology” in this context refers to a comprehensive worldview that attempts to explain and justify mass violence in the name of bringing about a more perfect world. But like a hydra with many regenerating heads, ideology is capable of recreating itself in new guises. The crisis, then, stems from the world’s failure to understand and prevent the ideological impulse, according to George.
Interestingly, Mr. Wolf was asked the same question: “Why is religious persecution on the rise around the world?” His answer was that during the era of Presidents Carter and Reagan, the U.S. government made human rights abuses a centerpiece of American diplomacy, often demanding progress on human rights as a condition of any “deal” with the U.S. But today things are quite different. Wolf mentioned the looming nuclear deal between the United States and Iran, a deal that requires nothing from Iran with respect to its ongoing practices of religious persecution. He likewise referenced American diplomacy with China, claiming that we fail to use their human rights violations as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table—even though Chinese government officials routinely violate human rights laws to which China is a signatory.
Mr. Wolf’s view, then, is that the failure of the United States to stand up for religious freedom around the world creates a tacit incentive for radical groups to commit crimes against religious believers. The groups are able to convince themselves (correctly) that no one will stop them.
But whatever the causes of the rise of persecution around the world, Mr. Wolf and Professor George both expressed alarm that Americans are unaware and unconcerned about the issue. If Americans do not care about the state of religious liberty around the world, neither will their government, nor will the leaders of other nations. Americans have historically been the most outspoken proponents of religious liberty in modern history. Should we fall silent now, either out of ignorance or apathy, the effects will be disastrous. This is what the sudden spike in religious persecution around the world already suggests. Unfortunately, matters can get much worse.
David Corey is associate professor of political philosophy at Baylor University.