State of the Church update received with mixed feelings

By May 31, 2013

International (MNN) — If you follow religious freedom issues, you are already aware of the connection between government restrictions on religious freedoms and countries prone to violence toward religious minorities.

That's been backed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Research cited in this year's International Religious Freedom Report points out the strong correlation and goes on to note that governments who repress religious freedom also create a societal intolerance toward those who are discriminated against. Worse, the seeming latitude seems to embolden hatred and violence toward this minority population.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released the annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world as required by the U.S. Congress International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. It follows recommendations submitted to the State Department by the independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

IRFA requires the United States annually to designate as CPCs those governments that "engage in or tolerate" systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. Todd Nettleton, a spokesman with the Voice of the Martyrs USA, says, "It'll be interesting to see what happens with that. The Secretary of State was a part of the release of this report, made some comments about it, but the last time that our government designated Countries of Particular Concern goes all the way back to 2011."

IRFA provides a range of options for such action, adds Nettleton. "Now, they push it into the hands of the Secretary of State and say, ‘Okay. You've got the report; you've got the evidence; it is documented what's going on in these countries. Now it's time to designate which countries are Countries of Particular Concern.' That, then, opens the door for additional actions by the U.S. government including, even up to the point of sanctions." However, the United States has not made CPC designations since August 2011.

There is some urgency behind the designation because the clock is ticking. Sanctions on the currently-designated CPCs will expire in August 2013.

The countries singled out for special mention for violation of religious freedom in the 2012 report were: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. Nettleton admits to some mixed feelings about the report. On the one hand, they're raising awareness of the problems. Still, "The disappointing thing is some of the countries that were left off. When you're singling out religious freedom abuses, how do you leave out Egypt? How do you leave out Nigeria? How do you leave out Pakistan?"

Given the combination of government changes and insurgencies, along with the resultant targeting of Christians, Nettleton wonders, "Some of the countries that were left off, you [wonder], ‘How did that happen? Who missed the boat to leave those countries out of specific mentions of the abuse that's going on there?‘"

The main themes of this year's report are: (1) Governmental restrictions and abuse; (2) Laws covering blasphemy, apostasy and conversion; ( 3) A rise in Anti-Semitism; ( 4) Societal Intolerance and Violence; ( 5) The problem of impunity for those who violate religious liberty.

Yet, none of this comes as a surprise to ministries coming alongside the persecuted Church. Open Doors releases an annual list of the top 50 countries known for their persecution. All of the countries spotlighted are on the list, most of them in the top 20.

With the State of the Church in such dire straits, is anyone sharing Christ's story? Is anyone responding to it anymore? Nettleton observes, "The Gospel is not dependent on political things. It is not dependent on the government; it's not dependent on freedom. People are spreading the Gospel regardless of what the government is doing, regardless of what the U.S. State Department says about religious freedom there."

In other words, he says that God is still at work. That means the job of the Church isn't finished. "Hopefully, as we shine the light on these abuses, and as we speak out on behalf of religious freedom, we can have an influence as the nation to improve those situations." How to influence? For one thing, suggests Nettleton, you can pray. But "beyond our prayers, which is obviously the most important thing that we can do, I think it's good for us to have a voice with our own government, with our own senators and even our State Department."

This is the part where you can engage. Write a letter, send an e-mail, or call. Tell your representatives in Washington that religious freedom is an issue that matters to you, explains Nettleton. "That really is the language of Washington: Who cares about this? How many people is this important to?"

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