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It’s startling but true: religious persecution is on the rise around the world, and it constitutes the number one human rights issue of our time.
In case you think I’m overstating the issue, consider the facts.
According to the most recent Pew report on religious persecution and restrictions, roughly three-quarters of the world’s population lives in a country with high or very high restrictions or hostilities on religion.
Just as disturbing, the report concludes that Christians were harassed in 108 countries in 2014, up from 102 in 2013, and Muslims in 100, compared to 99 in 2013. And although they make up just 0.2% of the world’s population, Jews were harassed in 81 countries, up from 71 in 2012.
And if you think this phenomenon is limited to the developing world, you’d be wrong. Forty percent of Jewish leaders in Western Europe cite anti-Semitism as the most dangerous threat facing their community – up from only 10% in 2008.
As a pastor, I am especially troubled by the rising tide of hate against Christians. As reported by the World Watch Monitor, Christians are being killed for their faith in more countries than ever before. And while genocide against Christians in Syria and Iraq made headlines last year, the fastest growing region for Christian intolerance and persecution is not the Middle East. Instead, the rise of religious nationalism in Asia and Islamic radicalization in Sub-Saharan Africa account for the two fastest year-over-year increases in Christian persecutions.
The sad reality is, people of all faiths including Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and other religious minorities, are experiencing increased persecution. Regardless of whether you are a person of faith, an agnostic or an atheist, these facts should cause us all to shudder. It pains me just writing this.
But I am also reminded of how fortunate I am to be protected by the religious freedoms we enjoy in America, and how critically important it is that we continue to defend this most sacred human right. After all, the very ideas of freedom of speech and religious expression—two rights forever linked together—are revolutionary concepts that debuted on the world stage with the U.S. Constitution.
When it comes to religious freedom, how America goes, so too goes the world. We have, for centuries now, successfully assimilated diverse people groups with wide-ranging belief systems, all while respecting each person’s freedom to believe as he or she chooses.
Does America have a perfect record? Of course not, but by contrast, it is clearly a legacy we should be proud of. In fact, it was largely a result of America’s leadership in the post WWII era that led the UN to ultimately enshrine the freedom of religion and belief in Article 18 of the United Nations (UN) Declaration of Human Rights.
Unfortunately, mirroring worldwide trends, America too has experienced a rise in religious intolerance. A report from the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings indicates that nearly half of Americans feel discrimination against Christians is as big of a problem as discrimination against other groups, including Hispanics, Blacks and other minorities. And while comprising a much smaller percentage of the population, Muslims and Jews have also experienced a similar spike in intolerance.
While this discrimination does not usually result in torture or death, it does lead to increased stereotyping and marginalization. Whether it’s on television shows, in the news media or inside public classrooms, people of faith are expected to keep their convictions out of the public sphere. If not, they are often ridiculed, isolated and ostracized.
You see, we must not allow religious intolerance and persecution of any kind—against any faith—to go unchecked. Complacency or complicity only leads to increasingly dangerous and violent ends, further entrenching us in our prejudices and divisions. America has long been a beacon of hope to the rest of the world, and we must do everything in our power to uphold this most basic and precious of human rights.
For the sake of believers everywhere, that battle must begin right here at home.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the world’s largest Hispanic Christian organization. It serves as a representative voice for the more than 100 million Hispanic Evangelicals assembled in over 40,000 U.S. member churches and another 500,000 congregations spread throughout the Spanish-speaking diaspora. He has been named by CNN and Fox News as “the leader of the Hispanic Evangelical movement” and TIME Magazine nominated him among the 100 most influential leaders in America.
Faith and Education Coalition is an initiative of the National Hispanic Christian Leaders Conference (NHCLC). With 2,568 members representing almost 3,000 local churches in 44 states, the Faith and Education Coalition advocates for high-quality education options for all of America’s children.