Across Latin America last Sunday, Roman Catholic churches held a special day of prayer, seeking protection for the faithful in Nicaragua – from their own government. Since April, at least 280 Nicaraguans have been killed by the Ortega regime in response to street protests. When Catholic leaders there condemned the violence this month, the church itself came under violent attack. Many priests are now in hiding and many churches have been defiled by armed gangs.
The church’s regional day of prayer was an attempt to find a spiritual answer to this sudden assault on religious liberty as well as to a deteriorating situation in Nicaragua. The people in that country have risen up against President Daniel Ortega over his economic policies and his authoritarian rule. Now they are angry over his persecution of Catholics.
Nicaraguans are not alone in trying to safeguard religious liberty. Worldwide, 83 percent of people live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion, according to the latest findings from the Pew Research Center. From China to Turkey to Myanmar, people of faith are struggling against repression – and in how to respond in a religious way.
This week, the State Department convened a global summit of some 350 representatives from 80 countries for the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The event, which will be repeated next year, may help start a global front against such persecution, as well as support innovative ways to respond.
“We must commit to using all the might, the machinery, and the moral authority we have to stop those nations and actors who trample on free souls,” Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told the conference.
Vice President Mike Pence used the event to criticize Russia for its suppression of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The administration has also put sanctions on military figures in Myanmar for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, a religious minority. And it has threatened Turkey for the arrest of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson.
Mr. Trump has decided to promote religious liberty as a primary and universal human right. While critics say the president is simply playing to evangelical voters, they cannot deny the need for leadership to reverse a global decline in religious freedom. At the conference, the United States announced a special fund to help restore Iraq’s Yazidi population after an attempt by Islamic State to wipe out that religious minority. It will also set up a global fund to support religious liberty.
Such measures require religious motives. It is not enough to simply denounce religious persecution or call for a tolerance of differences. “We must move to a place where people genuinely care and love one another no matter our differences,” says Ambassador Brownback. Religion, he says, helps unlock the “spiritual capital” of a people, helping them to do good works in health and education as well as care for the poor.
In Nicaragua, after the regional day of prayers, church leaders have decided to keep trying to mediate between the government and protest leaders, despite the attacks on the church.
Doing good may be their best answer to the regime’s hatred.