As persecution of faithful rises, so does the religious response

Even as reports show a global rise in restrictions on religion, those of faith are defending those of other faiths. This helps confirm why freedom of religion is a universal right.

Demonstrators from various religions gather during a protest against militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in Arbil, north of Baghdad July 24.

Two recent reports about the restriction of religion around the world have come to the same conclusion: It’s getting worse. And not only for Christians, as is widely perceived. Muslims may be the most harassed by government, at least by number of countries (83). And when Islamic militants in Gaza rain down rockets on Israel, Jews rise up the ranks of those most harassed.

The numbers are easy to collect. In its latest report, the Pew Research Center reported hostilities involving religion have risen since 2007. More than three-quarters of the world population live in places with high restrictions on religion, up by 12 percent.

And in its latest report on religious freedom, the State Department said that 2013 saw “the largest displacement of members of religious communities in recent memory.” The biggest problems are in just a few countries, such as the Central African Republic, Syria, and Iraq.

The exodus of hundreds of thousands of Christians from their Middle East churches may be the most dire in that faith's history. Muslims in Myanmar (Burma) and China are facing acute persecution. Tajikistan bans anyone under 18 from participating in any public religious activity.

All this may explain why President Obama said earlier this year that “freedom of religion matters to our national security.”

But little has been reported about the religious response to this persecution – the prayer vigils, the courageous few who protect those of another faith, or the activists who seek to change government policy.

The Kurds in Iraq are welcoming Christians forced to flee from the Islamic State, the group formerly called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In Pakistan, after a deadly church bombing, Muslims formed human chains to protect Christian worshipers. After attacks on mosques in London, Jews formed neighborhood watch teams to enable Muslims to attend services. In the Central African Republic, Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders have teamed up to protect people fleeing sectarian massacres.

Those seeking spiritual truth have much in common. These days, that may entail defending the universal right to freedom of religion. Such acts call for spreading the good news.

[Editor's note: This editorial has been altered to give the correct number of countries in which Muslims have been harassed by government.]

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