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FIRST-PERSON: Religious liberty in the Arab world

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)--As revolution sweeps through the Arab world, a deeply troubling trend is emerging -- the absence of religious liberty as a key element in the transitioning governments and the failure of our government to publicly and vigorously defend this most fundamental of liberties. This reality is especially disturbing in Iraq and Afghanistan, nations liberated at great cost of American lives and treasure.

Baptists know something about the struggle for religious freedom -- and we should model a vigorous defense of the freedom of conscience pertaining to faith to our government and to those who wish to influence our government's policies, as well as to the Arab world as it grapples with the meaning of freedom in post-dictatorial regimes.

The fall of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is both a sign of hope and concern for Christians in Egypt.

In the last two years there has been a "dramatic upsurge" in attacks on Christians, known as "Copts," according to Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and a leading expert on religious liberty. One example of the attacks on Christians in Egypt was the Jan. 1 suicide bombing that killed 23 people at a church in Alexandria.

With the fall of Mubarak, Christians are concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political group previously banned whose slogan is "Islam is the solution," will result in greater persecution of Christians, which currently represent 6-10 percent of the population, according to Christianity Today.

On the other hand, numerous reports indicated that Christians and Muslims joined together in the protests that ultimately resulted in Mubarak's departure, signaling the possibility of improved relations in a new Egypt.

The status of Christians in Iraq and especially Afghanistan is much worse.

In Iraq a "religicide" campaign against Christians is underway, according to Open Doors USA President Carl Moeller.


"Targeted by insurgents and Muslim militants since the 2003 war, a large percentage of Iraq's ancient Christian population have fled their conflict-ridden country," Christianity Today recently reported. "Many fear that Iraq's centuries-old Christian community is on the verge of extinction."

Moeller compares today's Christians in Iraq with efforts to eliminate Iraqi Jews in 1948.

"Many Jews fled and today virtually nothing remains of the once-vibrant community," Moeller told CT. "People of all faiths must unite to prevent this from happening again. We must fight for freedom of religion for all imperiled faith groups in Iraq."

In Afghanistan, where the Christian population is almost non-existent, one Christian is on the verge of execution by the government. His crime? Conversion from Islam to Christianity.

Said (or Sayed) Musa was among 25 Christians arrested last May, four days after their Christian worship service was featured on Noorin TV, according to Paul Marshall, a religious freedom expert who has co-authored with Nina Shea the forthcoming book, "Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide" (October 2011).

Writing for National Review Online, Marshall summarized the brutality experienced by Musa since his arrest: beatings, sexual assault and sleep deprivation. A letter from Musa has been smuggled to the West detailing his peril.

The Afghan government is defiant, insisting that citizens who convert from Islam to Christianity must be punished with death.


In his letter, Musa appeals to "President Brother Obama" for relief -- merely requesting that he be transferred to a different prison, even while saying he is willing to die for his faith in Jesus Christ.

In recent days, a Twitter movement has been waged urging President Obama to publicly intervene in Musa's case. Many have noted Obama's silence on this matter while he and other high-profile leaders of his administration publicly spoke out last summer against the Gainesville, Fla., pastor who planned to burn the Quran.

Musa was to have faced the possibility of execution as early as Feb. 20.

That these campaigns against Christians are happening in nations that were liberated by and are still today extremely dependent upon America is deeply troubling.

Equally disturbing is the failure of our government to forcefully speak out in defense of religious freedom in lands we have liberated. But it's not just our government; even some of the most influential thinkers influencing our government seem to have forgotten the importance of religious freedom.

Charles Krauthammer -- one of my favorite conservative writers -- recently suggested a "Freedom Doctrine" our government should adopt when dealing with emerging Arab democracies.

"We need foreign policy principles to ensure democracy for the long run," Krauthammer wrote Feb. 10 in his nationally syndicated article for The Washington Post.

Expressing concern about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and noting that Islamism and its anti-democratic elements can achieve power democratically, Krauthammer outlined principles for a "Freedom Doctrine."


Incredibly, Krauthammer fails to include religious freedom, although he does insist upon a free press, the rule of law, freedom to organize, and the establishment of independent political parties.

"We are, unwillingly again, parties to a long twilight struggle, this time with Islamism -- most notably Iran, its proxies and its potential allies, Sunni and Shiite," Krauthammer concluded. "We should be clear-eyed about our preferred outcome -- real democracies governed by committed democrats -- and develop policies to see this through."

But such democracies without protections for religious freedom are not real democracies.

It's no coincidence that religious freedom is the first of the liberties in our Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. And, the protection of religious freedom is enshrined in our Constitution due in no small part to the efforts of Baptists.

Persecuted Baptists of Colonial America were influential in convincing political leaders -- most notably James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution -- of the need for expressly delineated protection of religious freedom, and they were actively involved in the politics of their day to see to it that religious liberty was honored by our then-emerging democracy.

Governments do not grant religious freedom, which is an innate right enjoyed by all humanity by God's design. Instead, rightly ordered governments recognize, constitutionally protect and vigorously and continuously protect religious freedom.


As rightfully concerned as we should be about religious freedom developments in the Middle East, we should remember America's struggle for a "more perfect union" with respect to religious liberty was not easily achieved -- nor is it ever finally attained.

If "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," it's especially so for religious freedom.

James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, where this editorial first appeared. Visit it online at

Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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