Pilgrims still flee to America for free worship
This Thanksgiving story begins not with Pilgrims in the Old World, but with a veiled Iranian woman who whispers prayers as she slips past Tehran guards and boards a flight to religious freedom.Skip to next paragraph
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It is also the story of a small, naive Tibetan boy, hiking high into mountain pastures with his grandfather for a secret rendezvous with a Buddhist priest.
It tells, too, of a Vietnamese pastor who builds a church out of leaves deep in the jungle, so he and other compatriots can worship undetected by Communist pursuers.
These people and thousands more have fled religious persecution in their native lands and found refuge in the US, their ordeals giving fresh meaning to the Pilgrim journey and Thanksgiving.
Indeed, as religious persecution expands around the world, according to experts, America remains a relatively rare haven of religious tolerance.
Around the globe, attacks on religious freedom are "absolutely on the upswing," says the Rev. Steven Snyder, president of International Christian Concern, a Maryland-based Christian human rights group.
Religious liberty is "deteriorating," and today only one-quarter of the world's people enjoy broad religious freedom. Another 39 percent of the population faces partial constraints on practicing their faith, while the rest, more than one-third, suffer from fundamental violations of their religious freedoms, according to a survey released last month by Freedom House in Washington.
"It does seem that there's been an increase in religious persecution, most distressingly in countries where there hasn't been a tradition of it for some time," adds Lawrence Goodrich, communications director for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The end of the cold war has seen a rise in religious tensions along with heightened ethnic and communal rivalries, experts say. Meanwhile, foreign regimes seeking to buttress themselves are more likely to target as an enemy the United States, the only remaining superpower, and in turn Christianity.
"With those now seeking power, the scapegoat has been the West and the United States mainly," says Mr. Snyder. "With Christianity making inroads," thanks in part to high-tech evangelizing, "religious fundamentalist groups ... fear they will lose power over their own people."
Mina Nevisa understands this all too well. Her ordeal began one afternoon in 1982, when the 17-year-old Iranian student felt something under a table at the Teheran University library. She reached down and pulled out a Bible, the first one she had ever seen written in her native Persian.
Curious, she stayed up for the next two nights reading the book with a flashlight under a blanket, despite warnings from her father, an Islamic fundamentalist priest.
The discovery soon led to Ms. Nevisa's conversion to Christianity, denunciation by her parents and family, and - after the arrest and killing of members of her prayer group - her secret flight from Iran. In Europe, she received death threats after writing "Don't Keep Me Silent," a book about the persecution of converted Christians in Islamic countries. So in 1998 she moved again, to the United States.
Today, Nevisa is preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving at the Iranian Church of Eternal life in Oakton, Va., where her husband is pastor. As she anticipates the celebration, complete with roast turkey and cranberry sauce, and Iranian rice and pastries, Nevisa's feelings are bittersweet.
"Strength comes from suffering," she says. "I believe we appreciate the freedom we have in this country more than those who have not suffered."