Praying with the International Religious Freedom Report

Today’s report of nineteen more Christians being killed in Nigeria hastened along a post I’ve been meaning to write for a week or so: in which I tweak some advice that Karl Barth may or may not have given and encourage readers to join me in spending some time praying with the Bible in one hand and the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 in the other.

Hillary Clinton, 2011While the Obama Administration has incurred criticism for what some perceive to be its insufficient commitment to religious freedom at home and abroad (e.g., the president did not nominate an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom until June 2010, a nomination that Senate Republicans held up until last year), and there are inevitably questions about why certain countries are or aren’t (India?) included on the list of “Countries of Particular Concern,” the IRFR remains a significant resource for activists, scholars, and others concerned about human rights around the world. And Obama administration officials underscored the significance of this particular set of rights in presenting the report on July 30th.

In her comments, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described religious freedom as an “essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies,” stressing its correlation with “economic development and democratic stability” and how it helps create “a climate in which people from different religions can move beyond distrust and work together to solve their shared problems.” While she highlighted some positive developments, she generally painted a bleak picture of declining religious freedom:

It’s particularly urgent that we highlight religious freedom, because when we consider the global picture and ask whether religious freedom is expanding or shrinking, the answer is sobering. More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom. New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools for cracking down on religious expression. Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that the pressure is rising. Even some countries that are making progress on expanding political freedom are frozen in place when it comes to religious freedom. So when it comes to this human right, this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies, the world is sliding backwards.

Suzan Johnson Cook
Amb. Suzan Johnson Cook – Creative Commons (Eric Bridiers)

The U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, Baptist pastor Suzan Johnson Cook, argued that restrictions on religious freedom put other rights (e.g., expression, assembly) at risk: “…for this reason, religious freedom is often the bellwether for other human rights. It’s the canary in the coalmine.”

It’s well worth browsing the entire report. In a recent post at Patheos, historian Philip Jenkins singled out the sections on Nigeria and Vietnam for particular praise, but called the IRFR as a whole “the best resource of all” among the many excellent publications from the State Department. (To get an older but still useful nongovernmental perspective — and perhaps to check State Department claims of progress or regress in recent years, see the December 2009 report from the Pew Forum, “Global Restrictions on Religious Freedom.”)

Understandably, many Christians will read the State Department report and gravitate to the sections highlighting the persecution of fellow believers in places like Nigeria, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan. In this respect, we can certainly use the IRFR to help live out an early Christian admonition that is as essential in the twenty-first century as in the first: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb 13:3).

As a way to pray not just for those suffering persecution but with them, try praying the Psalms. For example, Psalm 18, which Eric Sarwar, a Pakistani Presbyterian pastor and victim of persecution himself, has called the most popular psalm among that country’s Christian minority:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
and I have been saved from my enemies.
The cords of death entangled me;
the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
the snares of death confronted me. (Ps 18:2-5, NIV)

Anglican cathedral in Lahore
The Anglican cathedral in Lahore, Pakistan – Wikimedia

(Pastor Sarwar also suggested Psalms 4, 16, 20, 23, 31, 34, 40, 46, 62, 121, 139, 141, and vv. 81-88 and 153-60 of Ps 119.)

At the same time, let me urge readers to pray for non-Christians suffering violations of religious freedom as well. I suggest this, first, as an evangelical Christian who teaches a course on human rights and recognizes that activists in that realm often suspect that Christian emphasis on religious freedom is (in the words of legal scholar Joel Nichols — from an article I blogged about this spring) a “‘Trojan horse for promoting Christianity.” (Nichols points out that evangelicals and other Christians played a leading role in convincing Congress to pass the 1998 act that set up an international religious freedom office and ambassadorship and requires the annual report that just came out. At the same time, he draws heavily from Allen Hertzke’s Freeing God’s Children for evidence that evangelicals are not simply using human rights as a means to an end.) If Christians are truly committed to a human right of religious belief and practice — or if they’re not, but they believe that we should love all those created in God’s image, then we ought to pray as fervently for Muslims in India and Uzbekistan, Buddhists in Vietnam and Tibet, Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan, Bahai’s in Iran, and Jews in too many places to name as we do for those who confess Christ as Lord. That’s all the more true when the persecution takes place at the hands of Christians, as in Nigeria, where some Muslims are victims rather than perpetrators of violations of religious liberty.

Harder still… If we can and should pray for fellow Christians experiencing degrees of persecution that we First Worlders can’t begin to imagine, then perhaps we ought also pray for their persecutors. For governments like those of Iran, Sudan, and North Korea. For radical groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram. (Which, the IRFR concludes, “has likely killed more Muslims than Christians.”) In his excellent book on Prayer, Philip Yancey contends that “True followers of Jesus… hold in common his stunning command to love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us. In so doing, we join together to extend the widening circle of God’s love to those who may experience it in no other way” (p. 312).

Stained glass image of the stoning of St. Stephen
Stained glass from the Cologne cathedral showing the stoning of St. Stephen – Creative Commons (Raimond Spekking)

Scripture provides models for this kind of prayer as well, from Jesus on the cross (“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” Luke 23:34) and Stephen being stoned (“Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” Acts 7:60). I’m also taken with the Eastern Orthodox “prayers for our enemies” discussed by Scot McKnight in his Praying with the Church(pp. 98-99), including this Kontakion inspired by Stephen:

As thy first martyr Stephen prayed to thee for his murderers, O Lord, so we fall before thee and pray: forgive all who hate and maltreat us and let not one of them perish because of us, but all be saved by thy grace, O God the all-bountiful.

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