Category archives: Religious Liberty

4 Reasons Why the Founders Valued Religious Freedom

by Arielle Del Turco

May 10, 2021

Contemporary debates over proposed legislation like the Equality Act and over COVID-19 church restrictions draw attention to the so-called “first freedom” listed in the Bill of Rights—religious freedom. This core right in the U.S. Constitution has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and passed down to contemporary Americans intact.

But as debates over how Christians and those of other faiths should live out their faith in the public square increase, questions about religious freedom will remain relevant. Understanding how religious freedom became a core value of the American Founders is critical to understanding its place in the United States today.

Here are four reasons that Americans in the Revolutionary era valued religious freedom and protected it for future generations:

1. The truth concerning religion is deeply important.

In advocating for religious freedom, its proponents did not embrace moral relativism. Isaac Backus, a Baptist preacher, argued that it is precisely because there is objective truth concerning religion that every individual deserves the freedom to discover that religious truth for themselves. Backus wrote:

The true liberty of man is, to know, obey and enjoy his Creator, and to do all the good unto, and enjoy all the happiness with and in his fellow-creatures that he is capable of; in order to which the law of love was written in his heart, which carries in its nature union and benevolence to being in general, and to each being in particular, according to its nature and excellency, and to its relation and connection to and with the supreme Being, and ourselves.

For Backus and others of his day, part of the definition of liberty itself is the freedom for an individual to “know, obey and enjoy his Creator.” Thus, policies protecting the ability to seek religious truth were a natural extension of this understanding of truth and the freedom to pursue it.

2. Respect for individuals’ consciences.

Former diplomat Tom Farr argues that human nature “impels us to seek answers to profound questions about ultimate things. If we are not free to pursue those answers… we cannot live a fully human life.” Many of the American Founders understood religious freedom in much the same way.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776, was drafted by George Mason and was influential when Tomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence. The Virginia Declaration of Rights stresses the importance of religious freedom to each individual’s conscience:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

The declaration affirms the importance for all individuals to choose their religious beliefs for themselves, according to the “dictates of conscience.” This highlights how the lack of religious freedom is a very personal assault on the rights of every individual. It is wrong for the government to try to control what goes on in someone’s head, heart, or soul.

John Leland, a Baptist minister, argued for robust conscience protections and asserted that the state had no right to be involved in religion in part because every individual must make himself right with God and no government can answer for the souls of men. In 1791, Leland said:

It would be sinful for a man to surrender that to man which is to be kept sacred for God. A man’s mind should be always open to conviction, and an honest man will receive that doctrine which appears the best demonstrated; and what is more common than for the best of men to change their minds?

Creating a political order with a state-established religion is not fair to the children and grandchildren who will come later because it may violate their conscience, which was not free to choose their faith since it was mandated by the government.

3. Establishment of religion is harmful for religion.

Many early American pastors were at the forefront of societal protests against the establishment of religion. They did so not for secular but religious reasons. Backus famously argued that a legally established religion or church corrupts “the purity and life of religion.”

Many religious leaders promoted religious freedom not just because the freedom to believe affects the conscience of individual Christians, but because the state establishment of religion can have negative affects on the established religion itself. When a state forces religious practice, it waters down churches with individuals who do not truly believe but rather are practicing the faith externally because they are compelled to do so.

Utilizing the force of government to require individuals to practice a religion is ineffective at making true religious believers. In 1675, William Penn said, “force makes hypocrites, ‘tis persuasion only that makes converts.”

Religious persecution doesn’t only harm those outside the religious majority, it harms the authentic practice of the majority religion. This makes the establishment of a state religion not only pointless, but also oppressive and detrimental to the religion the government associates with.

4. All people are equal under the law.

George Washington affirmed the inherent natural right to freedom of religion in a letter to a Jewish congregation. While president, he told the congregation, “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” Washington strongly repudiates religious persecution and emphasizes the equality of all religious groups and believers under the law.

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The embrace of religious freedom has contributed to what makes the United States unique in the world. Wherever religious freedom is not protected around the world, oppression and misery clouds society.

The world is better off because of the successful example of religious freedom that the United States has set. America’s promotion of international religious freedom has released religious prisoners, rebuilt religious communities devastated by genocide, and offered hope to the oppressed.  

This serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining religious freedom here at home. Our Founders enshrined robust religious freedom protections into law because they believed everyone’s right to seek the truth and live according to their beliefs was deeply important. This is worth protecting—for ourselves, for future generations, and for those around the world relying on our advocacy on their behalf. 

Beijing’s War on the Bible

by Arielle Del Turco

May 5, 2021

The Great Firewall allows the Chinese government to censor any content it feels does not suit its purpose. Their latest target is the Bible. Bible apps have been removed from the App Store in China. It now requires the use of a virtual private network (VPN) to download Bible apps in China.

Popular Christian accounts on the Chinese app WeChat were also recently removed. Users who tried to access the social media pages saw a message that the pages had violated “internet user public account information services management provisions.” Others report that Bible apps have been entirely removed from the platforms of Chinese tech companies Huawei and Xiaomi.

Physical Bibles are also unavailable for purchase on Chinese websites. In March 2018, China’s largest online stores, including Taobao, Jingdong, Amazon.cn, and others, suddenly stopped showing results for searches for the Bible.

In December 2020, four Chinese Christian businessmen from Shenzhen were tried in court for selling audio versions of the Bible online. The businessmen were arrested as part of a campaign to “eradicate pornography and illegal publications.”

Earlier that same month, Christian businessman Lai Jinqiang was tried in Shenzhen on charges of “unlawful business operation” for his business which sold audio Bible players. His company, the “Cedar Tree Company,” reported the highest sales of audio Bible players in China, distributing around 40,000 units per month.

Instead of allowing people to choose what they will read and how they will access their religious texts, China requires that all Bible sales be funneled through official channels only. Bibles can be purchased at state-approved church bookstores regulated by the government.

Even worse than suppressing the Bible is the Chinese government’s attempt to change the Bible. As a part of its five-year plan to sinicize religion and make it more acceptable for the goals of the government, one strategy is “reinterpreting the Bible and writing annotations for it” from a socialist viewpoint.

Though the full text has yet to be revealed, the Chinese government’s previous manipulation of the Bible has been bizarre. In one textbook at the government-run University of Electronic Science and Technology, John 8 was shamefully distorted.

In the biblical version, an adulterous woman is brought to Jesus, and her accusers ask if she should be killed by stoning for her sins. Jesus disperses the angry crowd with his response, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (ESV).

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) version states that the crowd leaves, yet Jesus tells the woman, “I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead,” before stoning her himself. This retelling of a famous biblical passage proves what should be obvious—communists can not be trusted to re-translate the Bible.

Former communist countries have a long history of hindering access to the Bible. Missionaries like Brother Andrew famously served persecuted believers living under communist repression in the Soviet Union. Now, the CCP continues the legacy of communist crackdowns on the Bible.

As its attacks on the Bible continue to mount, the Chinese government should know they will never succeed. No earthly forces can crush the power of the gospel and the hope it has brought to millions of Chinese believers. As the Chinese government continues in its futile and oppressive efforts, American leaders should be bold in articulating that it is unacceptable for any government to control, suppress, or manipulate its people’s access to the Bible.

Religious Freedom is a Matter of Human Dignity

by Arielle Del Turco , Mary Szoch

May 4, 2021

A new report by Aid to the Church in Need found that religious freedom was not respected in 32 percent of the world’s countries. Furthermore, approximately 5.2 billion people live in countries that experience serious violations of religious freedom, including populous countries such as China, India, and Pakistan. Christians in all three countries face a certain amount of risk for simply living out their faith in the public square. 

Such concerning numbers warrant attention. Yet, we can tend to take concepts like “religious freedom” for granted and fail to grasp the full significance of this fundamental human right.

At its core, religious freedom is the freedom to choose and change one’s religion and to live in agreement with those beliefs. Attacks on religious freedom target one’s conscience—the very core of their being, making it uniquely important that religious freedom be protected.

Protecting religious freedom is essential not only because it is a fundamental human right but also because it is a vital component of respecting human dignity.

Humans are inherently drawn to seek out answers to life’s biggest questions and to find meaning beyond this temporal existence. As a being with an innate sense of right and wrong, man is led to continuously search for truth. Seeking truth is an expression of freedom, which is what makes man unique.     

While man cannot be forced to contemplate truth, humans are unique precisely because no other creature has the ability to do so. Though some may choose not to embark on the quest to find truth—all men have a right to do so. Allowing a person to live according to his pursuit of truth is fundamental to acknowledging that person’s participation in the human species—respecting the search for truth is foundational to respecting a man’s dignity. To do otherwise would be to treat man as less than human.        

Man’s determinations regarding truth lead to both interior and exterior expressions of deeply held beliefs. While the path to discovering truth is certainly, at times, a personal journey—it is not exclusively so. The connection with others who are also pursing truth is a natural and necessary component of this journey. Thus, the answer to the question, “what is truth?” is often found through religion.

For Christians, the concept of Imago Dei, taken from Genesis 1:27, refers to the fact that every human person is created in the image of God—who is Truth. Because we are created in the image of Truth, we long to find truth.  

While only Christians identify this search for truth as a component of being made in the image of God, this reality extends to people of all faiths as well as those of no faith. All people, because they are made in the image of God, possess inherent worth and deserve to be treated as such.  

For a government to fully affirm the dignity of the human person, it must allow individuals to live out their faith in the public square according to their conscience without government restrictions or social harassment. As James Madison expressed, man’s duty to search for truth, man’s duty to God, comes before man’s duty to government; thus, the government has the duty to respect man’s pursuit of truth.

Christians should advocate for religious freedom for all people because any effort to coerce individuals to believe or abandon any faith violates the conscience of a precious person created in God’s image who is deserving of respect.

In the United States, we are fortunate to have robust constitutional protections on religious freedom and founding documents that affirm basic rights. The Declaration of Independence recognizes the God-given equality of each and every human person, and the “unalienable rights” that flow from that. Let’s pray that human dignity is advanced through the expansion of religious freedom to people of all faiths in all countries of the world.

6 Times the Supreme Court Has Ruled Against California Church Restrictions

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

April 29, 2021

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a case challenging restrictions California imposed on houses of worship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Monday’s order marks the sixth time that the Supreme Court has ruled against unfair restrictions that treated California churches more strictly than secular businesses.

For months, California churches faced particularly complicated and onerous restrictions that limited church attendance and inhibited religious exercise. In multiple cases, churches and pastors faced fines or the threat of imprisonment for holding indoor worship services. However, following Justice Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court in October 2020, California churches have started to experience relief. As of April 23, 2021, California’s guidance for houses of worship states that “location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended. Additionally, the restrictions on indoor singing and chanting are recommended only.”

The Supreme Court’s willingness to defend religious liberty is a welcome development. Because of the Court’s guidance on this issue, more and more states are relaxing their worship restrictions. As of April 26, 2021, 41 states impose no restrictions on in-person indoor worship. Only nine states and the District of Columbia still impose a percentage-based limit on indoor worship. D.C. is the last remaining jurisdiction that imposes both a percentage limit and a numerical cap on the number of people who can congregate for indoor worship services. However, these restrictions were enjoined by court order in March 2021, and the D.C. government has announced it will remove the numerical cap beginning May 1, 2021.

What follows is a timeline of the six times the U.S. Supreme Court has issued opinions or orders upholding the rights of churches against California’s COVID-19 restrictions.

1. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom

On February 5, 2021, the Supreme Court enjoined California’s total ban on indoor worship in Tier 1 counties (i.e., those where the risk of COVID-19 transmission was said to be widespread). The Court’s decision allowed churches in these counties to reopen at 25 percent capacity but left the state’s ban on indoor singing and chanting in place. In a separate statement, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, noted that “California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses.”

2. Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom

On the same day, the Supreme Court partially granted an injunction that prevented California from enforcing its total ban on indoor worship services against Harvest Rock Church while the case was being resolved in the lower courts. The decision allowed Harvest Rock and other churches in Tier 1 counties to reopen at 25 percent capacity, but it kept California’s ban on indoor singing and chanting in place. Although they joined the majority’s order, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch stated that they would have granted the injunction against the capacity limits and the ban on singing and chanting as well.

3. Gish v. Newsom

On February 8, 2021, the Supreme Court vacated a California district court’s dismissal of a case that challenged various state and local orders banning indoor worship services. The Supreme Court directed the lower court to reconsider the case in light of its recent South Bay decision.

4. Gateway City Church v. Newsom

On February 26, 2021, the Supreme Court granted an injunction that prevented enforcement of California’s restrictions against Gateway City Church. Noting that the “outcome [was] clearly dictated by [its] decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom,” the Court admonished the lower court, saying its “failure to grant relief was erroneous.”

5. Tandon v. Newsom

On April 9, 2021, the Supreme Court granted another injunction against California’s restrictions. This time, the Court addressed California’s requirement that at-home religious gatherings could not contain more than three separate households. In its opinion, the Court emphasized that “government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable … whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.” The Court added that some secular activities being treated worse than religious ones is not a defense. It also stressed that the government bears the burden of showing “that measures less restrictive of the First Amendment activity could not address its interest in reducing the spread of COVID.” Because California “treat[ed] some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise” and the lower court did not find that religious activities posed more of a threat than the secular activities, the Court found that the “[a]pplicants [were] likely to succeed on the merits of their free exercise claim” and that an injunction was warranted.                                                                           

6. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom

On April 26, 2021, the Supreme Court returned to South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s case. The Court vacated the judgment of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of its decision in Tandon v. Newsom.

It is unfortunate to have seen so much discrimination against religious gatherings over the past year. For a full list of such instances, see here. May we continue to work and pray toward the protection of our freedom to gather as believers and live out our faith during this time.

Texas Takes a Stand for Religious Belief

by Katherine Beck Johnson

April 28, 2021

Liberal states have been attempting to demand total adherence to their ideology for a while now. The Left is no longer interested in co-existing, but rather in demanding every person adheres to their views on sexuality and marriage. The latest target? Texas. But California should know better than to mess with Texas. The Lone Star State is fighting back.

This case arose from the following string of events: California banned state-funded or state-sponsored travel to Texas. Why? Because Texas respects the religious beliefs of those who believe marriage is between a man and a woman and that a mother and father is best for children. Texas acknowledges the religious freedom of faith-based child welfare providers within its own border. California is so bothered by Texas allowing its own citizens to freely live out their faith that they have decided that nobody can travel there if their travel is being sponsored by the state. It’s unclear if California would allow any state-funded travel to China, where an actual genocide is occurring. Yet, California is taking a hard stance again Christians living out their faith in Texas.

Texas went straight to the Supreme Court to file a complaint against California’s unconstitutional action. Texas was not alone, as 19 other states joined an amicus in support of Texas standing up to the demands of the woke. While the Supreme Court denied what is known as a “bill of complaint” earlier this week, Texas did not fully lose the case. The Court’s denial simply means that Texas needs to go through the lower courts first, as the Supreme Court did not have the proper jurisdiction at the moment—a point with which Justices Alito and Thomas disagreed. No justice commented on the merits of the case, but Alito and Thomas would have accepted the case without it working its way through lower courts.

For now, Texas lives to fight on another day, and we can expect to see this case and the issue it deals with arise again in the future.

Thinking Biblically About Religious Freedom

by David Closson

April 28, 2021

On “Worldview Wednesday,” we feature an article that addresses a pressing cultural, political, or theological issue. The goal of this blog series is to help Christians think about these issues from a biblical worldview. Read our previous posts on Unity, Safety“Christian Nationalism”LoveCourageForgivenessthe Resurrection and the Social GospelLoyalty, and Identity.

Last week, Montana joined 21 other states in passing legislation that requires the government to have a compelling reason for violating its citizens’ sincerely-held religious beliefs. Montana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—like the federal version passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1993—says that when the government must restrict religious expression, it may only do so using the least restrictive means possible.

Lawmakers in Montana, including Gov. Greg Gianforte, were criticized for approving the legislation. This is not surprising; recent attempts to pass RFRAs in other states, such as Indiana in 2015, have elicited passionate responses. Although it received relatively little national attention, Montana’s RFRA was still opposed by over 250 businesses, including national corporations like Google, Amazon, and Verizon.

Why are efforts to protect religious freedom encountering so much opposition nowadays? The political left’s opposition to RFRA laws has become predictable. However, a well-known pastor and seminary chancellor recently stunned evangelicals when he called religious freedom “idolatry.” The United States of America was founded in part by those fleeing religious persecution, but it seems our society’s understanding of the value of religious freedom has been lost.

How should Christians think about religious freedom? Is religious freedom worth defending? Moreover, does the Bible provide a rationale for a policy of broad religious freedom?

First, it is important to define our terms. Religious freedom is the freedom to hold religious beliefs of one’s own choosing and to live in accordance with those beliefs. Religious freedom protects individuals’ ability to come to their own conclusions about matters of utmost importance—such as God, the world, and themselves—free from government coercion.

An important implication flows from this definition: religious freedom does not privilege one religion over the other. Religious freedom protects people of every faith and people with no faith affiliation. Although its detractors often characterize religious freedom advocacy as the attempts of a dominant faith group (e.g., American Christians) to acquire more power or rights, this is simply not the case. Properly understood, religious freedom levels the playing field and protects the conscience rights of everyone.

Now that we have established what religious freedom is, we must ask ourselves: is it biblical? Can a biblical case be made for policies that protect religious freedom? In short, yes. Although no one verse in the Bible expressly demands religious freedom on its face, I would argue that the concept is implicit on nearly every page of Scripture.

How did I reach this conclusion? First, it is important to recall what Christian theology teaches about the interior nature of faith and the futility of coercion in matters of religion. Consider someone’s relationship with God. Although outside forces can certainly influence a person’s perception of God, a person’s inner beliefs are ultimately only known to the person himself (and, of course, to God). The spiritual nature of faith makes it impervious to outside control. This is why an aggressor can torture, abuse, and persecute a believer’s physical body without affecting that believer’s core beliefs. External pressure may be successful in producing outward conformity, but external forces can never change inward belief.

Scripture passages that underscore these truths include Jesus’ parable of the tares (Mat. 13:24-30) and the story of the rich young ruler (Mat. 19:16-30). In the parable, Jesus explains that the wheat (representing believers) and weeds (unbelievers) must be allowed to grow together. Although the unbelievers do not belong to the community of faith, they should be left alone because God’s judgment is eschatological (i.e., it will happen at the end of days). At the end of the age, God will root out the weeds (unbelievers) for their unbelief. Likewise, in the story with the rich young ruler, Jesus allows a potential disciple to walk away instead of coercing or scolding him. By honoring the man’s choice, Jesus underscored the personal nature of faith.

Further evidence that the Bible supports religious freedom is the persistent language of appeal and persuasion in evangelism. For instance, Paul reasons and debates with his listeners in Athens (Acts 19:8, 26). Throughout his ministry, Paul never attempted to force anyone to believe the gospel; he knew such a move would be futile and counterproductive. Rather, he used the means of persuasion and pleaded with people to follow Christ. Paul sought to be faithful with the gospel without being confrontational in encouraging conversion.

In short, the Bible can be said to support a broad conception of religious freedom.

As secular society increasingly misunderstands religious conviction, a growing number of people are content to restrict religious liberty protections. This is reflected in the opposition to the RFRA legislation passed last week in Montana—legislation modeled after a federal bill that once passed Congress with strong bipartisan support. Thus, there is an urgent need to explain to our society why protecting everyone’s ability to believe and live out those beliefs without consequence or restriction serves all people—religious and non-religious.

For a more extended treatment of the Bible’s teaching on religious freedom, visit frc.org/belief.

Urgent Prayer Alert: Six Somali Christians Face Life-or-Death Trial for their Faith

by Lela Gilbert

April 19, 2021

The East African country of Somalia is infamous for several reasons:

For hosting the bloodthirsty Islamist al-Shabaab terrorist group.

For being the site of the well-known “Black Hawk Down” battle which devastated U.S. military personnel and American efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the country.

And when it comes to human rights, poverty-stricken and war-torn Somalia has another particularly ugly mark against it: According to Open Doors’ World Watch List, Somalia is the third worst persecutor of Christians in the world.

Right now, April 19, 2021, a trial is taking place in Hargeisa, Somaliland that could cost the lives of six Somali Christians – all of them courageous converts from Islam who have been accused of “crimes” that may carry a death sentence.

Please pray with us for these Christians now and in the days to come.

According to court documents, the accusations against these believers include the following:

…disrupting the religious activities of the republic of Somaliland (Islamic religion), uniting and inciting against the law…because you have all been involved in spreading the Christian Protestant religion in Somaliland, and disrupting the faith of the Muslim community in the Republic of Somaliland by proselytizing and encouraging them to leave Islam and convert to Christianity…”

The court’s evidence for these life-and-death accusations includes:

  • Two books about Christianity and written in Somali that were taken from the house of accused;
  • A letter written in Somali about the Christian religion;
  • Bibles written in English and Bibles written in Amharic;
  • Numerous other books and extensive data from the defendants’ computers.

For Christians under such circumstances, the threat is not insignificant. As the U.S. State Department 2020 report explained regarding the situation in Somalia:

Al-Shabaab continued to impose its own interpretation of Islamic practices and sharia on other Muslims and non-Muslims, including executions as a penalty for alleged apostasy in areas under its control, according to media and UN sources.”

I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that Christians were attacked in Somalia. More amazing to me was that after so many battle-scarred years and violent incidents, any Christians remained there at all. And not only do they remain, but according to reports, there are hundreds of new believers who continue to worship in secret underground churches – small gatherings comprised entirely of brave and faithful local converts from Islam.

Please take time today to pray for these brave and bold Christians who are facing a potentially painful future. Join us as we thank the Lord for their courage and remarkable faith. And ask the Lord to guide, protect and intervene for them – today and in the days to come, in Jesus’ name.

Terrible News for Nigeria’s Christians as Violence Increases

by Lela Gilbert

April 16, 2021

On Friday, April 16, the Washington Post reported that tens of thousands of Nigerians have fled deadly attacks by armed groups, making the shocking statement that “the latest rebel attack on Wednesday drove out as many as 80% of the population of Damasak, according to the U.N. refugee agency, who said up to 65,000 people were on the move… . Assailants looted and burned down private homes, warehouses of humanitarian agencies, a police station, a clinic, and also a UNHCR facility… .”

Trying to verify this almost unbelievable story, I wrote to my Nigerian Christian friend Hassan John – who actively reports about the ongoing tragedy in his country. He replied, “Yes, the attack on Damasak and surrounding villages has been intense in the last two weeks. Most Christians have fled in the last four weeks as the intensity of the fight increased. Boko Haram has now taken over control of most of the region around Lake Chad up to the Cameroonian boarders. They are now moving in towards Mauduguri.”

Family Research Council continues to actively document the deteriorating security situation here, as explained in our full report on Nigeria updated earlier this year. The report explains, “1,202 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first six months of 2020. This is in addition to 11,000 Christians who have been killed since June 2015. Such violence has reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide—a ‘slow-motion war’ specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation.”

The stories that emerge from Nigeria are always terrifying and similar: heavily armed jihadis suddenly appear in the dead of night. They attack house after house, breaking down doors, shouting “Allahu Akbar.” They shoot the elderly and able-bodied men. They rape, mutilate, and murder women. They kidnap young boys and girls, often using them as slaves and concubines. They torch houses, schools, and churches.

Some villagers manage to flee into the bush. Too many of them are never seen again, while in following days it’s difficult to say for sure who is still alive, who has fled, and who has been kidnapped. Photos of survivors’ faces reflect the agony of trying to remember just what happened, exactly when the screaming and shooting began, and how they managed to escape with their lives after seeing friends and loved ones murdered or mutilated.

Beyond a doubt, there is a surging bloodbath in Nigeria. Murderous incidents are acted out with accelerating frequency and have long been attributed to two terror groups—Boko Haram and Fulani jihadis. Unfortunately, that picture is changing and worsening. The terrorist groups in Africa that enjoy major funding and notoriety are successfully reaching further into the continent, unifying their forces, absorbing other groups, and gaining greater power.

Olivier Guitta, Managing Director of GlobalStrat, ominously predicts the dawning of a new Caliphate. He writes:

Islamic State’s historical strong franchises have included the spinoff of Boko Haram in Nigeria that is part of Islamic State in West Africa Province. More recently the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has made huge progress almost supplanting al-Qaeda as the top dog in the region … the future looks unfortunately bright for Islamic State in a continent with lots of fragile, corrupt quasi-failed states that could allow the birth of a Caliphate in mini territories in Mozambique, the Sahel and possibly Nigeria.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest state and its most prosperous. The population is 53 percent Christian. And the Christian community is often intentionally targeted because of its religious faith. In many rural areas, residents report that they never go to sleep at night assured that they will not be attacked and murdered before sunrise. Those who have survived attacks report that the perpetrators shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they killed and destroyed.

Meanwhile, while nearly daily reports of kidnappings, murders and massacres continue to appear, WSJ explains that Islamic State is transforming itself into a different kind of enemy by “embracing an array of militant groups as if they were local franchises. After its dreams of imposing draconian Islamist law in a self-declared state in Syria were crushed, Islamic State successfully injected itself into localized conflicts in Nigeria, Libya and across the Sahel, the semiarid belt running east-west along the southern edge of the Sahara.”

As American Christians, we often focus our attention solely on our own country and its increasingly anti-Christian leadership and legislation. However, as we watch, pray and respond to opportunities to push back against ungodly forces in our homeland, let’s also keep in mind that there never has been a more dangerous and deadly time for Christians all across the world.

Britain’s Guardian reports that “more than 340 million Christians—one in eight—face high levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith, according to the 2021 World Watch List compiled by the Christian advocacy group Open Doors. It says there was a 60% increase over the previous year in the number of Christians killed for their faith. More than nine out of 10 of the global total of 4,761 deaths were in Africa.”

As we pray and lift up America’s present concerns, we ought also to remember to lift our eyes beyond our borders. Let’s pray for those who are endangered in faraway places—like long-suffering Nigeria—as if we were suffering with them.

4 Tips for Praying for the Persecuted

by Arielle Del Turco

April 13, 2021

Global persecution of religious believers is an immense and complex problem with diverse causes, legal factors, and cultural and historical dynamics. This can make the scriptural mandate to remember and pray for persecuted believers an intimidating task. But it shouldn’t be.

Here are four tips to keep in mind when you pray for the persecuted.

1. Pray for specific people, countries, and situations. 

When you know of a specific person abused or imprisoned for their faith, pray for them by name. Consider the cases of Huma YounusWang Yi, and Leah Sharibu.

When you don’t know of individuals in need of prayer, pray for situations. Pray for Christians facing blasphemy charges in Pakistan, for young girls held hostage by Boko Haram in Nigeria, for Christians detained in labor camps in North Korea, or churches in China facing harassment from the government. Voice of the Martyrs has a convenient Global Prayer Guide with a summary of the challenges in every country with laws targeting Christians and countries where Christians experience dangerous social hostility.

There are hundreds of thousands of persecuted believers whose names the outside world may not know and may never know. Yet, God knows their names and the trials they have suffered for Him. It’s okay, and beneficial, to pray for the persecuted even when we are unaware of specific situations. These people need our prayers as well.

2. Consider what you might want prayer for if you lived in a persecuted context.

Many Christians live in a country where it can be dangerous to follow Christ. Open Doors estimates that 340 million Christians live in such places. Not all methods of persecution are life and death. Many are relatable. Christians may be facing discrimination in employment, as many do in Pakistan. Or, they may be attending a church service on a religious holiday with a gnawing fear of an attack, the likes of which are all too common in the Muslim world. Or, they may live in a restrictive country where they are afraid to share their faith.

Depending on the context, pray for persecuted believers the way you would want someone to pray for you if you were in the same situation. Pray that God would meet both their physical and spiritual needs.

3. Pray that religious freedom would become the universal standard across the globe.

In addition to praying for persecuted individuals and situations, pray for greater religious freedom around that world.

Further, pray for the leaders of other countries that persecute believers—that they would have a change of heart and that their plans to oppress religious groups would be thwarted. Also, pray for the leaders of free countries, including the United States—that they would be given effective policy ideas and solutions to advance international religious freedom.

4. Remember why we pray for the persecuted.

Scripture calls Christians to remember and pray for the persecuted.

In Ephesians 6:18-20, the Apostle Paul instructs believers to “keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”

In this passage, Christians are asked both to pray for all other Christians as well as to pray for Paul, who was imprisoned for his ministry at the time he was writing. In prison, Paul was concerned for his Christian witness and requested prayer that he would have the right words to use. Similarly, we can pray that missionaries and believers in persecuted contexts would represent Christ well with their words and actions and be granted wisdom to operate in their contexts.

Praying is also a significant way to love our neighbor (Mark 12:31). Like Paul, many persecuted Christians express a desire to know that others are praying for them and remember them. American pastor Andrew Brunson felt this way while he was held in a Turkish prison for two years. Consistent prayer is a meaningful way to treat people the way we would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12).

If you are still unsure of how to pray for persecuted believers, feel free to draw from this sample prayer:

Father God,

I ask that You would comfort and protect Christians around the world today who are intimidated, detained, and attacked for their belief in You. Please give them the physical strength and spiritual endurance to withstand persecution. Be present with them in their hardship and remind them to find peace in You. I pray that You would use the situations that their persecutors intend for evil for good.

I thank You that You give us all the freedom to follow You and that You beckon us with love. I ask that there would be greater religious freedom around the world and protections for those who wish to live out their faith. Please show me how to better serve You and the precious members of Your church suffering for Your name. Amen.

Why Is Religious Freedom So Uniquely Important?

by Arielle Del Turco

April 12, 2021

At the heart of many recent contentious debates from the Equality Act to COVID-19 church restrictions is the issue of religious freedom. But what exactly is religious freedom, and what makes it so uniquely important?

At its core, religion is the search for truth about questions of ultimate meaning. Common to most religions is an organized collection of beliefs, behaviors, and practices that connect or relate humanity with the divine. Religious freedom, then, is the freedom to believe what you want in terms of doctrine and theology and the freedom to order your life according to your deepest convictions about ultimate things.

In other words, religious freedom protects the ability of individuals to choose and change their religious beliefs and align their lives in agreement with those beliefs.

Religious freedom is not relativistic, nor does it profess there is no truth about God. Rather, it affirms the deep importance of truth and upholds the right of individuals to come to their own conclusions about what is true of God, humanity, and the world.

Attacks on religious freedom target one’s conscience—the very core of their being. This makes religious freedom a unique and essential right. Tom Farr says, “Our nature impels us to seek answers to profound questions about ultimate things. If we are not free to pursue those answers, and to live according to the truths we discover, we cannot live a fully human life.”

Thus, religious freedom is not merely the right to attend church and practice your religion within the walls of a church, synagogue, or mosque. Rather, it is the ability to live out your faith, including in the public square.

This broad conception of religious freedom is enshrined in the United States Constitution. The First Amendment protects this basic right, often called our “first freedom.” The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Beyond this key constitutional protection, religious freedom is also a fundamental human right, one recognized by international resolutions and treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

Religious freedom is a widely recognized right around the globe. Yet, laws in many countries put qualifiers on the legal right to religious freedom, empowering governments to crack down when the beliefs of a community or an individual are perceived to oppose the government.

For Americans, these aggressive international violations remind us of the importance of protecting religious freedom at home. Yet, they also demonstrate the importance of promoting religious freedom in our foreign policy.

Societies that embrace religious freedom and pluralism tend to be more prosperous and secure. This makes sense. Societies that embrace individuals’ freedom to express their own viewpoints and live according to their beliefs are going to attract, rather than repel, talented people abroad as well as global economic engagement. Pluralistic societies that value human dignity and do not view religious groups or beliefs as a problem to be eliminated will not suffer from the violence that is fostered by religious discrimination.  

Religious freedom corresponds with and affirms other basic freedoms, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The right to openly express your most deeply held beliefs is essential to religious freedom, as is the right to peacefully assemble in houses of worship and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the concept of religious freedom is often misunderstood. This is seen with increasing frequency with activists who pit religious freedom against the demands of the moral revolution. For example, those whose beliefs about gender and sexuality are influenced by their faith are caricatured as intolerant and their beliefs are perceived as subversive. The resulting tension threatens to erode support for religious freedom as a freedom that benefits everyone—religious and non-religious.

Amid increasingly heated cultural debates, it is critical for those who value our first freedom to affirm its importance. Religious freedom will not endure by laws alone, although the law should include robust protections for religious freedom. Religious freedom also relies on cultural support.

By consistently living out our faith in the public square, we can foster a culture that respects religious freedom. So, pray in public, share your faith, and do not compromise your beliefs. Your constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion protects your ability to live according to your convictions. So, use it. Live according to your faith and defend the rights of others to do the same.

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