It's a joyous time of year, and I'm grateful we live in a country where we are free to observe and celebrate our traditions and our faiths -- a country where people of different faiths can respect one another. It's something we often take for granted here in America, for the same cannot be said in many other parts of the world. Too often people endure daily slights for their religious beliefs -- or worse. In many cases, they live in fear of persecution, imprisonment or death for what they believe. Millions are denied what we believe to be a basic right: the right to live their faith freely in a free society.
Our Founding Fathers themselves were witness to much religious persecution and, therefore, sought to create a nation that treated freedom to worship as a fundamental right, the first freedom. In the Declaration of Independence, our founders highlighted our inalienable rights -- which come from our Creator, not government. As the leaders of free people around the world, it is my hope that we would advance our founders' vision and serve as voices for the millions around the world who are oppressed.
But sadly, I'm too frequently reminded that this is not happening. Either it has not been a priority or our leaders don't truly believe in protecting this first freedom. Either way, this is unacceptable. For example, on multiple occasions, President Barack Obama has chosen not to raise concerns with Chinese leaders about their frequent imprisonment of human rights advocates or treatment of Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong members -- all of whom have been oppressed because the Chinese government views them as a threat. The administration also has chosen not to speak out on the one-child policy.
But notwithstanding the recent admission by the Chinese government that the country has aborted more than 336 million unborn children -- many by force -- over the past four decades, China's treatment of minority religions is nothing like the oppression suffered by millions in the Middle East today. A recent study by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that just 4 percent of people in the Middle East and Africa are Christian, down from more than 20 percent a century ago. In the cradle of Christianity, nearly all of the Christians have fled. In Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Iran and Pakistan, among many others, there come reports of the tormenting and murdering of Christians. And we have basically abandoned them. Despite the president's now quite famous 2009 speech in Cairo -- in which he committed to upholding religious freedom around the world -- we have done almost nothing to help these people as radical and intolerant Islamist regimes come to power.
Throughout these Muslim countries, religious minorities are being purged from lands they have occupied for 7,000 years. In recent months in Nigeria, as many as 50 Catholic churches have been destroyed by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group. They also reportedly have targeted and killed Christians and intend to "Islamize" the country. Across the region daily, reports such as the one from Egypt in which a family of eight was sentenced to 15 years in prison for converting to Christianity are very common. You probably won't hear much from our leaders or the mainstream media on this, though. But please know that not all enjoy the freedom to worship that we do.
During his recent trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, President Obama said he would do his best to help the people of the Holy Land keep the Christian presence there. His visit was met with appreciation from Christian leaders in the region, one of whom described the visit as a "pilgrimage" to a place that is "important for the whole of mankind." Time will tell whether his words were more than hollow gestures. I pray that they are.
Throughout history, our great nation has confronted and defeated threats to human rights here at home and abroad. From civil rights to defeating the Nazis and liberating the concentration camps to going toe-to-toe with the Soviets, we've had leaders who, when they've seen injustice and egregious violations of human rights, have stepped up and, in the spirit of our founders, have protected our first principles and beliefs as a nation. It's time our leaders stood up for the equal treatment of women and the freedom of conscience of religious minorities around the world, for example. And we must stand up against violence in the name of religion. Perhaps more importantly, we also must recognize that religious liberty is under assault by not only Muslim radicals but also radical secularists who are intolerant of expressions of faith. Many of these secularists hold prominent public positions in Western nations.
I ask Americans of all faiths to take a moment to cherish the freedoms and comforts and opportunities we have. Millions aren't so fortunate as we are, and it's my hope that we can recognize this and push our leaders to say and do the right things, as our founders would have expected.
Former Senator Rick Santorum is the author of It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. He is writing a second book on the “Gathering Storm of the 21st Century” – the war against a radical, Islamic fascist enemy and its growing alliances around the world.
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