What a powerful combination - Americans of many faiths joining hands with their government and with partners worldwide to expose and roll back religious persecution! That is an important "story behind the story" of the US State Department's helpful and frank "Report on US Policies to Eliminate Christian Persecution," released July 22.
Undergirding the report is the work of the State Department's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. Its members include mainline and evangelical Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Christians; Jews; Muslims; Mormons; and Baha'is. I am privileged to be part of that committee.
Together, we are moving toward greater appreciation of each other's commitment to religious freedom for all.
This is remarkable, given a history of sometimes bitter conflict on the issue. Now, around a common table, we are looking at each other with new eyes and acknowledging that each of us has a contribution to make. We are learning the importance of listening more closely to each other and of taking action together.
Putting 'together' into action
For me, that word "together" is key when we look at "next steps" for people of faith and the United States government to take to end religious persecution. Within the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, accusations concerning blind spots and insensitivities are giving way to acknowledgment that no single one of us has the whole story on persecution.
US mainline, evangelical, and Roman Catholic bodies relate to different segments of the Christian community around the world. Other US faith communities have their global counterparts. Each of us knows a part of the world's religious community, and each of us knows a part of its story.
For example, the ecumenical councils, including the National Council of Churches (NCC), historically have related to mainline Protestants in China and the Soviet Union, along with Orthodox Christian bodies. These include the 1,000-year-old Russian Orthodox Church and the 1,700-year-old Armenian Apostolic Church. Our unbroken ties through their darkest hours under oppressive regimes gave encouragement to those brothers and sisters who preserved a faithful Christian witness until the reopening of their societies. These churches still need support as each day brings new challenges.
We are lending a hand to "registered" churches in the former USSR as they reclaim and refurbish houses of worship and update their Christian education materials for the first time in 80 years.
We rejoice with the "registered" (state-sanctioned) China Christian Council as its membership grows - from 5 million adherents in 1980 to 11 million today. We support its efforts to meet the staggering demand for more pastors, more Bibles, more hymnals. We talk with each other about problems Chinese and Russian Christians still face.
As the State Department report makes clear, religious persecution affects people in many countries. The NCC has stood up time and time again for attacked believers in places as diverse as Burma and the former Yugoslavia, Colombia and Indonesia, to name only a few.
We also support those who are working for change. For example, the NCC relates to both Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Evangelical Christians in Egypt. We work in partnership with the Coptic Evangelical Association for Social Service to support rural development committees that include both Christians and Muslims. Participants say that addressing common problems has brought the two communities closer together.
Here are other implications, for me, of the word "together":
The persecution of Christians must be seen in the broad context of religious persecution and human rights abuses. Those of us who are Christians are, of course, concerned in a special way about the persecution of Christians. But because our Lord called us to see every person as our neighbor, we must extend concern to all who suffer, often at the same hand.
Right to practice religion
We need to hold all governments to the whole Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to profess and practice one's religion.
Americans must work in close partnership with people of faith in countries where persecution is occurring. How do they say we and our government can best be helpful? Would economic sanctions help, or hurt? What other channels exist for pressure and protest?
We believe the federal office charged with primary responsibility for addressing religious persecution should be insulated, so far as possible, from partisan political pressure. So we oppose the proposal that those who monitor religious persecution be appointed by Congress and located in the White House.
Praying together for persecuted Christian brothers and sisters, and others who suffer religious persecution and human rights abuses, is essential. That is why the National Council of Churches supports the World Day of Prayer Against Religious Persecution, sponsored by the World Evangelical Fellowship.
The US State Department's report and the ongoing work of the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad place the issue of religious persecution front and center on our nation's agenda, and rightfully so. These initiatives put countries around the world on notice that the United States cares about people of faith and the way they are treated. Our hope for ending religious persecution can be realized - if we continue to act together.
* The Rev. Dr. Joan B. Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and American Baptist Churches.