Sitting in a coffee shop the other day, I watched a young couple helping their toddler daughter learn how to walk.
The child’s tiny fists gripped her mother’s fingers tightly as she staggered forward. Her face shone with utter joy.
But what sort of world is she stepping into in 2010? A hurting one, where thousands of children her age die each day of malnutrition and preventable diseases. Where millions experience violence or the threat of it. Where half the people of Haiti existed on a dollar a day even before the killer earthquake struck Jan. 12.
And where nearly seven of every 10 people live in countries that significantly restrict religious faith and practice — through laws, social pressure or both.
That shameful statistic comes from a report released in December by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Of 198 nations studied, 75 put official limits on religious evangelization. Nearly 180 require houses of worship to register with the government; in 117 of those, the requirement causes problems for religious believers.
Christians are by no means the only targets of such restrictions, but they are the most widespread on a global scale. In many places — primarily but not exclusively communist and Muslim-majority lands — Christians continue to pay in blood for their faith, particularly if they dare to lead others to follow Jesus.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of that document states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Article 19 is inseparably related, just as the freedoms of speech and religion are inseparable in our own Bill of Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
For the fifth year in a row, however, the U.N. General Assembly has violated the letter and the spirit of its own declaration. At the urging of the 56 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference — including some of the most notorious abusers of religious rights in their own countries — the assembly endorsed a resolution in December against the so-called “defamation of religion.”
The controversial, non-binding resolution passed with less support than in previous years. But it passed, providing continuing philosophical aid and comfort to those who seek to silence free religious expression.
“Essentially the resolution [seeks] to criminalize words or actions that are deemed to be against a particular religion, namely, Islam,” said Lindsay Vessey, director of advocacy for Open Doors, an international ministry that supports persecuted Christians. Wherever the resolution gains the force of law, Vessey warned, citizens won’t be “free to preach the Gospel [or] to say what they believe, even if they’re not trying to evangelize. But it’s also going to impact missionaries and foreign workers who go into these countries to evangelize.”
In November, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) joined more than 100 other organizations in opposing the “defamation” resolutions then being debated in the United Nations.
The statement endorsed by the ERLC and others — ranging from the Baptist World Alliance and American Jewish Congress to the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and the American Humanist Association — said the “defamation of religions” concept undermines “the fundamental freedoms of individuals to freely exercise and peacefully exercise their thoughts, ideas and beliefs.”
The “defamation” resolution also provides an international sanction for national laws that prohibit so-called “blasphemy.” It’s no secret that accusations of “blasphemy” amount to a potential death sentence against both Muslims and non-Muslims in some Islamic nations.
“Blasphemy” can be defined “by the laws which seek to outlaw it,” writes Jeremy Havardi in The Guardian, a leading British newspaper. “In countries across the world, these laws clamp down on those … whose words and deeds insult the prevailing religious culture. Looked at in this way, blasphemy laws are a dangerous anachronism — a blight on any society that values freedom of speech.
“Ideas must be defended in the court of public opinion, not in a court of law. That is why the U.N. resolution on the defamation of religion is similarly flawed.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it this way when she expressed the United States’ opposition to such measures: “An individual’s ability to practice his or her religion has no bearing on others’ freedom of speech. The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions. These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse.”
The “international community,” as represented by the U.N. General Assembly, apparently doesn’t see it that way.
Religious believers — particularly Christians who spread the Gospel — will continue to endure persecution with or without “defamation of religion” laws, of course. They always have. For the church universal, suffering is historical, normal and biblical, as an expert on global Christian persecution stated recently.
The real victims of those who attempt to silence the Good News, he asserted, are the multitudes who have yet to hear it.