International religious freedom needs a champion
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 8/30/14, 08:25 am
Founded in 1977 by Baroness Caroline Cox, Christian Solidarity Worldwide is a human rights organization specializing in religious freedom. Benedict Rogers represents Christian Solidarity Worldwide in what is perhaps the roughest neighborhood on the planet when it comes to religious liberty concerns, East Asia. His 2013 book, Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, includes an introduction by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Rogers has traveled to Burma more than 40 times in the past 15 years. He contributes regularly to The Guardian, International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. I had this conversation with Rogers in Florida at a conference hosted by Christian religious liberty law firm Alliance Defending Freedom.
What got you started in this work with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and your work with the oppressed generally? It was 20 years ago, in 1994, when I was a university student in London, just a couple of months after I had become a Christian. I heard the person who is the patron of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Baroness Caroline Cox, member of the British House of Lords. She spoke in my university chapel about Sudan. She also spoke about the situation in a place I had never heard of at that time, called Nagorno-Karabakh, a small Armenian enclave, where there was a war going on between Armenia and Azerbaijan. She talked about going into both places at the height of war, the risks she’d taken, but most particularly the suffering of the people in those two places. My reaction to that, I sometimes describe it as a feeling as if somebody had poked me in the ribs with a sharp pencil. When someone does that, it forces you to sit up right, and you’re alert and you react. That’s the affect her talk had on me. I just had this overwhelming sense of God saying to me, don’t just sit there and listen and think this is an interesting talk. Do something.
I approached her at the end of the evening and said, “This is how I feel.” One thing led to another, and I found myself a few months later traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh, this place I had never heard of. U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., was on that trip as well.
That’s how it all began. In Nagorno-Karabakh, people in Christian Solidarity Worldwide asked me if I would get more involved in that work, and for some years I did that on the voluntary level as a student, then as a journalist, and then I went full time. I’ve been full time for the last 10 years.
Historically, America has been seen as a positive force for religious liberty around the world. However in recent years, the United States has developed a reputation for ineffectiveness. Is America still a force for good in countries where there are human rights problems? I’m an America-phile. I love America. Over the years of doing this work, I’ve always looked to America and deeply admired America’s stand on freedom, including religious freedom. But under the current administration, definitely the leadership not been there or has been there less.
President Barack Obama spent part of his childhood growing up in Indonesia, and I had thought that made him ideally placed to raise the issues of the threats to Indonesia’s religious freedom and tradition of tolerance, in a way that no other presidents could do. He could point to his own childhood in Indonesia. To my knowledge, he’s completely failed to do that when he has visited Indonesia.
I’ve certainly been concerned that both the president and also former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her memoirs have held Burma up as a great success story of U.S foreign policy. I would say that’s far too premature and euphoric. Yes, there are some positive things that have happened in Burma in the last couple of years, but to hold it up at this stage as a success story is premature. There are a lot of very bad things still happening in Burma.
I think there is a tendency by this current administration to shy away from championing freedom and human rights. Maybe it has something to do with wanting to distance themselves from the previous administration and from the previous administration’s reputation in the world. In my view, they’ve gone way too far in jettisoning everything that has gone before.
What do you think America should do? I would like to see America be much more assertive and self-confident about the values that America stands for. Of course, I think it's right that America should listen to other countries and should balance its assertiveness with humility and with collaboration with others.
I think many of us do look to America, for leadership, in standing up much more strongly for the values rhetorically, but also in action: raising issues with governments, where necessary taking punitive measures against governments that are oppressing their own people, and championing freedom in a way that this administration has not.
Also, I think being … swifter to react to crises … whether it’s Syria, or Iraq or other situations. Something I deeply admired but that is little known in the outside world about President George W. Bush was that he, on more than one occasion, met with dissidents from foreign countries whether they be North Korean escapees or Chinese dissidents, including persecuted Christians. He met with them in the White House not simply for a photo opportunity but for very lengthy conversations. To my knowledge, President Obama hasn’t done that, but I think that was something very powerful because it sent a signal that the president of the United States cares enough about these issues not just to have a photograph, but to actually to sit down with dissidents and activists.
What should the church do? I think, firstly, be much better informed and aware. Once the church is informed, I think they do have to make a choice. I’ve heard the phrase a “Bonhoeffer moment,” where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to make a choice between whether to take a stand or not. I think in this day and age the church needs to take a stand, first and foremost by praying for persecuted Christians around the world and for others suffering oppression and injustice. Then it can raise its voice with the government. Particularly, some of the influential megachurch leaders have a real position of leadership in society in America. They have influence with the administration. If even just a handful of them were to make a statement or meet with the president or take some other action like that, that would be very significant.
Well, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, Benedict. But are you implying that so far there has been silence among American shepherds? By and large, I'm sad to say, I would say that. Of course, there are exceptions, and there are many wonderful Christians who faithfully pray about these issues. I think there’s a lot more that the church collectively can do and that influential pastors could do.
I know you also believe that Christian have responsibility to ensure the religious liberty, even of non-Christians. Can you say a word about that? I believe that freedom is indivisible. You can’t have freedom for one group of people and not have freedom for others, and that’s true of religious freedom. Our guiding verse in Christian Solidarity Worldwide comes from Proverbs 31 where it says, speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. It doesn’t say, speak up for those Christians who can’t speak up for themselves.
Now, absolutely, as Christians we have a real responsibility to our fellow Christians who are persecuted for our faith. We should stand with them as part of the body of Christ. But because freedom is indivisible, we have a responsibility to our fellow human beings who are made in the image of God for their freedom, as well.
I think one of the great truths of the Christian faith is that it is non-coercive. Faith has to be a human response of the heart to God’s message. For that reason, religious freedom for all is so important. We’ve been working with other communities who face similar persecution to Christians, communities like the Amadiyyah Muslim Community, which is a Muslim sect. Their motto is “love for all, hatred for none,” which, as a Christian, I think we can all identify with.
We’ve worked with the Baha’is, with the Shia. We’ve even taken up the case of a young man in Indonesia who was jailed because he declared himself an atheist. He was rather surprised when I went to visit him in prison in Indonesia twice. When I told him I was from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, he was a little confused at first.
I said, “Look, we have a different view on life. We have a different view of religion. But you should not be imprisoned because of your beliefs. I’d like to defend your freedom.” I believe there’s a moral and biblical imperative to speak out against injustice, whomever it affects.
I also believe it’s in our own interest to do so because when we’re advocating to an increasingly secular world, if we seem to be only interested in our own people, our own kind, fellow Christians, we get less of a hearing. If we can be seen to be speaking for religious freedom for all and for that principle, I think governments and policy-makers are more likely to listen to us.
Hear more of Warren Cole Smith’s conversation with Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide on Listening In: