How Willing Are We to Defend the Victims of Religious Persecution Worldwide?

COMMENTARY: It's time to remind ourselves that the cause of international religious freedom is a foreign-policy priority.

EWTN anchor Tracy Sabol moderates a panel discussion at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington on July 15.
EWTN anchor Tracy Sabol moderates a panel discussion at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington on July 15. (photo: Screenshot from EWTN News Twitter, last visited 7/19/21)

“If you were put on trial because of your faith, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” This is a question every person of faith should ask themselves. For a growing number of people, the first part of the question is no longer hypothetical. Religious persecution is spreading across the globe. How willing are we — as people of faith and as a country — to defend its victims? 

In the middle of July, hundreds of people gathered together in our nation’s capital, and many more were connected virtually, to discuss religious freedom. The International Religious Freedom Summit wasn’t partisan: Its organizers represented a bipartisan group of American leaders and politicians. Participants came from a variety of faith traditions. This was not a gathering of Washington insiders. The persecuted were also invited.  

One of the summit’s speakers was Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Catholic mother of five who was imprisoned for years on charges of blasphemy. She was raised in a village in Pakistan. Her Catholic family, the only Christians in the village, faced constant pressure to convert to Islam. One day, while harvesting berries, Bibi went to get water from a well. Another farmworker saw her drinking from a cup her co-workers had used. Bibi was told that Christians — even ones who labor on the same piece of land as Muslims — must not use the same cup as Muslims. Bibi spoke up in defense of her beliefs and her own dignity. Bibi was convicted of blasphemy as a result of the argument in the field that day. The crime of blasphemy in Pakistan carries a mandatory death sentence, and Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging.

After more than eight years of wasting away in virtual solitary confinement, Bibi’s conviction was overturned by the country’s high court in late 2018. She has since left Pakistan and now lives in Canada. Bibi told summit attendees that she “wants to be a voice for Christian people, Christians in prison, and in difficulties.” 

Although the Pakistani government has never executed a person under the blasphemy law, most Pakistanis accused of blasphemy don’t live long: Mob rule executes a supposed blasphemer long before the government has the chance to do so. A recent policy report issued by the Religious Freedom Institute highlights the destructive effects of blasphemy laws in the Muslim-majority countries of Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey and Bibi’s Pakistan. Policymakers, the authors urge, should “avoid passing blasphemy laws, suspend implementation of existing laws, and repeal existing laws.” They also encourage U.S. government officials working for religious freedom to “convince governments and international organizations to foster an international commitment to institutional religious freedom as a universal value and to uphold a global understanding that blasphemy laws contravene this universal value.” A side event at the IRF Summit highlighted the report’s findings as well as its important call to action.      

Tursunay Ziyawudun, a Uyghur woman, also spoke to summit attendees. Ziyawudun is one of just a handful of Uyghur Muslims who have made it out of one of China’s notorious internment camps. She endured months of interrogations. Her long hair was cut, she was forced to watch hours of state propaganda, and her every movement was filmed by security cameras. “I was locked up in camps two different times. The second time was even more inhumane than the first, and my experiences in these Chinese camps have left indelible scars on my heart,” she said. “In the camp, we passed the days in fear, listening to the sounds of screaming and crying voices, wondering whether what was happening to them would happen to us too.” Ziyawudun, like other detained Uyghur women, was raped by officials in the camp. After nearly 10 months without ever being charged with a crime, Ziyawudun was released in December 2018. She is one of the few lucky ones to have left the camps alive. “I have come to see it as my duty to be the voice for those people who are in the camps, those who died in front of my own eyes, and those who are being held unjustly in prison,” Ziyawudun told the summit audience.

China has incarcerated more than a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in hundreds of internment camps in its far-western region of Xinjiang. Many are sterilized and in forced labor while there. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on his very last day on the job, formally declared that China’s policies on Muslims and ethnic minorities in the western Xinjiang region constitute a “genocide.” President Joe Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, agreed with Pompeo’s assessment. 

The horrible persecution Bibi faced in Pakistan and Ziyawudun endured in China are cruel consequences of the lack of genuine religious freedom. These women continue to show incredible courage by coming forward. They hope to stop the cycle of religious persecution in their homelands and throughout the world. But they cannot do it alone. 

In the summers of 2018 and 2019, Pompeo and Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, hosted two ministerials on international religious freedom, bringing together leaders from around the world. Their task was to “discuss the challenges facing religious freedom, identify means to address religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, and promote greater respect and preservation of religious liberty for all.” Last year, Poland hosted the third-annual ministerial. No country assumed the responsibility this year. Perhaps that is why Brownback decided to organize July’s IRF Summit. 

It's time to remind ourselves that the cause of international religious freedom is a foreign-policy priority for the United States, thanks to the unanimous passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the IRFA established the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department, led by an IRF ambassador-at-large. In 2016, the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act amended the 1998 law to require that the IRF ambassador report directly to the secretary of state. 

Secretary of State Blinken told the participants of the IRF Summit that President Biden will soon announce his nominee to replace Brownback. It’s an urgent priority, one that transcends ideology. For a world in which women like Asia Bibi and Tursunay Ziyawudun can live in tranquility, the president must choose, and the Senate must confirm, someone with Brownback’s zeal for advancing the cause of “religious freedom for everyone, everywhere and all the time.” Fresh atrocities are being committed every day; there is no time to waste.