Religious Liberty: From 2005 into 2006
by Elizabeth Kendal
The Centrality of Liberty
Just as the industrial revolution brought changes that made the world a smaller place, the changes being brought by the revolution in communications and information technology are making the world a more open place.
But change rarely comes easily. Change can generate tension and conflict between new competitors, as well between those who benefit from and endorse it, and those who are threatened by and reject it.
As the world opens up, people find they have choices. But choices cannot be appreciated without liberty. While multitudes of people do or could benefit from liberty and therefore endorse it, dictators and false ideologies are threatened by it and therefore reject it.
These days it is liberty, not territory or even resources, that is central to most conflicts.
The Power of Openness
In the past, isolation has been a powerful weapon with which to control and basically imprison and subjugate entire populations. But for isolation to be an effective controller of the people it must be absolute. In the past isolation was achieved (with various degrees of success) through sealing off the outside world—thus imprisoning the nation—and then frequently purging the population. In this age of globalisation and information technology, isolation is increasingly difficult, if not impossible to achieve or maintain.
Openness, whether overt of covert, breaches prison walls. It lets light and fresh air in; cries and odour out.
Thanks to openness, the free can see in and the prisoners can see out. Openness presents people with choices. As people faced with real choices demand real liberty, pressure builds—eventually reaching breaking point. The length of time this takes depends on the depth of darkness, the strength of the fortifications, and the nature of the breaches (overt or covert). After watching the explosion in Eastern Europe that shattered the Soviet Empire, the Chinese Communist Party chose to defuse internal pressure quickly and decisively. The Tienanmen Square massacre prevented a similar explosion in Asia. Asia now monitors and controls internal pressure: minimising it through state repression, and defusing it through persistent persecution, primarily incarceration and violent intimidation. But these days, the power of openness is such that isolation is like virginity—once lost, it simply cannot be regained.
Protecting Failing Systems
In this increasingly open world, information, knowledge, and ideology are on trial like never before. Only truth is strong enough to withstand scrutiny, which is why Christianity is not, and never has been, threatened by openness or liberty. Truth defends itself.
Regimes and ideologies that cover-up or falsify history and use deception, repression and persecution to hold on to power, should see their dependence upon those means as evidence of their inherent weakness. The prison, which is built on a foundation of power-lust, protects the dictator, the regime, or the ideology, not the masses.
In the early part of the 7th Century, Mohammad attempted to bring religious reform to the pagan Arabs. He preached a message of monotheism and decried the Arabs' idolatry which was economically sustained by its idolatry industry. While Mohammed wanted to be recognised and followed as God's prophet, he was instead rejected and persecuted.
Eventually Mohammad and his small band of followers were forced to flee to Medina. There Mohammad re-invented himself. No longer would he be rejected and persecuted. In order to secure the allegiance he believed, or at least claimed, he was owed, Mohammad established and strictly applied repressive laws. Mohammad's laws pertaining to blasphemy, criticism, apostasy and other liberty issues enabled him to crush opposition, obliterate scrutiny, engender compliance, and sustain a dictatorship by denying liberty to both his followers and his subjects. Because Mohammad decreed that his laws were from Allah, he secured for them (in the hearts of Muslims) a divine, eternal and universal authority, inseparable from Islam.
Right to this day, Islam secures the allegiance of Muslims through threat of death. Right to this day Islam demands protection from openness and scrutiny, and bunkers down behind a fortification of repressive religious laws which include the denial of religious liberty. In this age of openness this is not only unacceptable and unreasonable, it is also increasingly unmanageable. Islam does not fear the battlefield—Islam only fears liberty. But Islam will be scrutinised, just like everything else. Islamic resistance, though it may shed much blood, will be in vain.
Tribalism, Nationalism and Now Anti-NGO-ism!
In recent years, tribalism and religious nationalism have been employed to resist change. While these have led to an increase in persecution, they have not been able to resist openness and prevent the flow of information.
Those who hope to keep "their people" in some degree of isolation and ignorance for the purpose of wielding power over them find non-government organisations (NGOs) a real nuisance. The NGOs educate or enlighten the people, thus generating (often inadvertently) internal pressure. They also report to the outside world (possibly only to their international headquarters) thus generating external pressure. Christian NGOs also expose people to sacrificial, non-sectarian humanitarianism, something modeled by Christ and integral to true Christianity but not generally found in Empire building, warrior, self-serving or fatalist religions. This generates extreme religious tension and jealousy in those religious dictators who find the hearts of "their people" gravitating towards those who sacrificially love and serve them.
In Sri Lanka, Buddhist nationalists have, for several years, been escalating their persecution of the Church. In recent years they have been campaigning to criminalise conversations and ban Christian witness. Recognising the problem presented by openness, they have also targeted foreign NGOs, especially World Vision, and were making real inroads until the Boxing Day Tsunami rendered Sri Lanka in desperate need of all the NGO assistance it could get.
But need does not quieten all dictators, religious or otherwise.
Many would sooner see "their people" homeless, drug addicted, and dying of preventable disease than risk losing their influence over them. Islamic religious dictators in tsunami-devastated Aceh are extremely hostile to the NGOs. On 26 December, The AGE (Melbourne, Australia) published Mark Forbes' report on his Christmas Day in Banda Aceh: "Police with machine-guns guarded Banda Aceh's churches … Thousands of foreign aid workers in Banda Aceh for the tsunami reconstruction were warned to keep Christmas celebrations low profile and no Christian charities held public events. Two days ago 100 Islamic students demonstrated in the capital, calling for Christian charities to leave, alleging they were converting Muslims." Forbes comments on the enthusiastic Christmas service in Banda Aceh's Catholic Church and then notes, "At the nearby Methodist church, many of the congregation had returned from Sumatra where they fled when their homes were destroyed. Twenty baptisms were performed, a reflection of the increased post-tsunami attendance."
During 2005, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Belarus and Russia all advanced their isolationist policies and enacted laws that severely restrict the activities of NGOs. In each case the stated aim is to rid the nation of "Western spies" and "subversive elements" and "cultural imperialists" for the sake of "national security" and "social harmony" and "cultural integrity". In this age of openness via radio, satellite, mass media, Internet and mobile phone, it may be possible to restrict, minimise and slow down the flow of information, but it is impossible to stop it. Vain attempts to stop the flow of information can only heighten suspicion, and exacerbate internal unrest, repression, persecution and conflict.
Dictators Extend Fortifications by Forming Alliances
Dictators are forming alliances to bolster themselves against the forces of openness and liberty. This strategy of forming alliances to remove the leverage of open, free, reform-advocating nations has existed within the United Nations for some time and is beginning now to function openly in the relationships between nation states.
Because of these alliances, advocates of religious liberty (and liberty in general) will increasingly find their voices drowned and their actions frustrated.
Zimbabwe, Libya, Sudan, Belarus, Iran, China, Russia, Central Asia, Cuba and other repressive, resistant states are developing their alliances and support structures. Thanks to the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) even small, poor nations like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can thumb their noses at the United States and its Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, because they now have China and Russia as committed allies. China and Iran have both offered support to Belarus' President Lukashenka as he seeks to prevent a popular uprising and preserve his repressive, Soviet-style dictatorship. Iran even promised to help Belarus resist Western pressure! What on earth does that mean? Belarus will hold a presidential election on 19 March 2006—maybe we will find out the.
One commentator has described the SCO as "a huddling of harried elites". Well it may be expected that in their vain battle to maintain the status quo and preserve their fortresses, more and more dictators will seek to find strength and comfort in "huddling". But ultimately, no amount of huddling can resist such powerful and pervasive winds of change.
Choosing, Resisting, and Preserving
The revolution in information technology is bringing us into a whole new era in world history. It is now very easy to imagine the 21st Century being the century when the gospel will reach into every corner of the world via indigenous church planter, foreign humanitarian, radio, film, CD, DVD, MP3, television, satellite, mass media, literature, Internet, and mobile phone.
The enemies of liberty have a vested interest in resistance. They will continue to purge their ranks, silence opposition, crush dissent, terrorise the masses and plug the breaches. This is already happening in Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Eritrea, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba and other states where dictatorial regimes are stepping up the fight against openness and liberty through systematic repression and persecution. It is also happening in India, Sri Lanka and the Muslim world as religious dictators from religious organisations fight libertarians, crushing multitudes in the process.
The battle has also begun to boil over in the West as the religious dictators within Muslim communities fight libertarians for the religious liberty to remove religious liberty. But in North America and Western Europe it has also been Muslims who have been the loudest, most informed, impassioned and powerful voices against the Islamic religious dictators. So it is not really a choice of standing for or against the Muslim activists. Rather it is a choice of which Muslims do we stand with: the Islamic religious dictators or the Muslims appealing for liberty? The only justice is in liberty. It is imperative that we CHOOSE liberty.
The only way to defeat darkness is with light and the only way to defeat error is with truth. Yet we see Christians and Western leaders surrendering, in the name of political correctness and tolerance, to the demands of religious dictators to keep religious criticism or the gospel of Jesus Christ out of earshot of "their people" allegedly because it offends their religious sensitivities or infringes their right not to hear it. This is both a disaster and gross abuse of the fundamental human right of religious liberty.
So too is surrendering to the dictate that we indiscriminately and uncritically tolerate, even respect, all cultural practices. But Western multicultural societies have already judged and rejected many foreign cultural practices, religious and otherwise.
Cannibalism, hallucinogenic drug taking, caste and untouchability, suttee (the Hindu practice of burning a widow on her husband's funeral pyre), FGE (female genital mutilation), honour killing, forced marriage, as well as many other barbarous or abusive practices are not respected and not tolerated. They are banned so rights and liberties can be preserved.
Surrendering to the dictatorial demands of religious dictators is akin to re-building prison walls around people who desire and deserve to be free. That Christians and Western leaders are falling for this ploy of religious dictators to keep "their people" isolated, ignorant and enslaved, is outrageous. These measures, to repress religious information and deny religious liberty to multitudes, are ultimately all about power, control, and religious dictatorship. These calls must be RESISTED and liberty PRESERVED.
Truth does not need to be protected behind a fortification of repression and persecution. Religious liberty does not deny anyone the right to reject the message. But religious liberty emphatically denies that anyone has the right to enslave and imprison another through the removal or denial of their fundamental liberties.
Advancing openness and liberty is the most important thing we can do—not simply liberty to vote, but liberty to write and read, to preach and hear, to think and learn, and to believe. (In reality, and for effectiveness, these should ideally come first.)
If we actually believed that political dictators or military might were God's vehicle for the fulfillment of his promises, then we would have grounds for serious despair, or at least profound confusion. However, the risen Lamb is not threatened by dragon or sword. His Spirit cannot be restrained. God has made promises that will be fulfilled not by political dictates, and not by might or force, but by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Church of Jesus Christ as she prays, preaches, advocates, loves and serves in obedience to his will.
As long as the gospel of salvation is repressed and the God's children are persecuted and imprisoned, the Lord will cry from Heaven, "LET MY PEOPLE GO!" Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who firmly believed that God shares the suffering of his people (Isaiah 63:9, Acts 9:5), believed it was imperative that a Christian "stand by God in his hour of grieving".
And so as we enter 2006, the exhortation is to "stand by God" who declares that his salvation is free (Isaiah 55). And let's faithfully, courageously, energetically, passionately, sacrificially and expectantly persist in prayer-empowered advocacy and mission, and scripture-inspired prayer for the preserving, empowering and expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ and for religious liberty everywhere.
"Let these false prophets tell their dreams, but let my true messengers faithfully proclaim my every word. There is a difference between chaff and wheat! Does not my word burn like fire?" asks the Lord. "Is it not like a mighty hammer that smashes rock to pieces?" (Jeremiah 23:28-29. NIV)
I pray that you will begin to understand the incredible greatness of his power for us who believe him. This is the same might power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honour at God's right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else in this world or in the world to come. And God has put all things under the authority of Christ, and he gave him this authority for the benefit of the church." (Ephesians 1:19-22. NLT)
"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen." (Ephesians 3:20-21. NIV)
Elizabeth Kendal, is the Principal Researcher and Writer for the World Evangelical Alliance's Religious Liberty Commission. She lives in Melbourne, Australia and is the mother of four children. While she has degrees in Music and education, God gave her a painful passion for the persecuted Church and for religious liberty, and a calling to devote her life to helping keep the Church informed about what is going on in the world in terms of religious persecution and repression of religious freedom. She firmly believes that informed prayer has a strategic role to play in God's fulfilling his of promises, through the Church. All her work is posted under "Religious Liberty" on the website of the Australian Evangelical Alliance: http://www.ea.org.au
Used with permission from: World Evangelical Alliance—Religious Liberty News & Analysis
All WEA RLC material is archived at http://www.ea.org.au/ReligiousLiberty/NewsAnalysis.aspx.
Prepared for the Pneuma Foundation website by Todd H.