In 1621, the Plymouth colonists joined with the Wampanoag Indians in a celebratory thanksgiving feast to reflect on their often difficult circumstances and their many blessings. As a nation, we have faced immense challenges since that first Thanksgiving Day, but throughout the triumphs and tragedies, we have always been able to join together as Americans to give thanks. Today, many of us look forward to football games, turkey dinners and meeting distant friends and family. In our land of plenty, it is easy to focus on our current blessings and take for granted some of the foundational values of this great country, the very values that bind us together as individuals. One such value is religious freedom—a cornerstone of democracy and the first of all freedoms.
Across the world, many are denied this fundamental right. We have traveled a long, difficult path to create and sustain our free and fair society; others have a long way to go. Nations like Saudi Arabia, China, and Cuba still play host to particularly egregious violations of religious freedoms.
In Saudi Arabia, freedom of religion does not exist and is not recognized or protected under the country’s laws. Citizens are denied the freedom to choose or change their beliefs, and citizens who do not adhere to the officially sanctioned practices face severe repercussions at the hands of the Saudi religious police, or "muttawas." Prabhu Isaac, an Indian Christian in Saudi Arabia, is one of many who have experienced the horrific reality of a society without protections for religious expression. Isaac awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of Saudi muttawas raiding his home. The muttawas confiscated Isaac’s computer, photographs, Bibles and songbooks and then separated he and his wife for more than three hours of austere interrogation before taking Isaac away to prison. Isaac spent more than six months in a Saudi prison before being deported to India.
In some areas of China, authorities use threats, extortion, interrogation, detention, and at times beatings and torture to harass leaders of religious groups. Practitioners who refuse to recant their beliefs are sometimes subjected to horrific treatment in prisons and "reeducation" through labor camps. Chinese Pastor Gong Shengliang, the leader of the South China Church, was sentenced to death in 2001 because of his beliefs. His case has been reduced to ‘life in prison,’ but he has been repeatedly beaten inside the prison and now suffers from internal injuries and has lost the hearing in one ear. Gong remains in prison today.
Former Senator Rick Santorum is the author of Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works.
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