LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The fires of Christian persecution have been fueled by the indifference of believers and government leaders in the United States, lamented Nina Shea, director of the Puebla Program on Religious Freedom, during the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission’s 1997 national seminar March 3.
“It is shocking that so few Americans know about the worldwide global persecution of Christians,” said Shea, an international lawyer and head of the Puebla Program, a human rights group dedicated to defending religious liberty around the world. “Our government is indifferent, even hostile, to the plight of these persecuted Christians.”
The Puebla Program on Religious Freedom is part of the Freedom House, a Washington, D.C., organization founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie in 1941 to oppose Nazism and communism in Europe.
Shea, speaking at the Christian Life Commission’s annual seminar on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world.
“When I talk about persecution, I’m not talking about discrimination or bigotry, I’m talking about torture, enslavement, rape and murder,” said Shea, noting countries with communist influence or militant politicized strains of Islamic faith have the worst records on Christian persecution.
Since the end of the Cold War, Americans have turned inward, Shea said, mistakenly believing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union signaled the end of religious persecution around the world.
A “secular myopia” renders many in America unable to comprehend a worldview akin to Christianity that is willing “to sacrifice liberty and life and freedom for the sake of their beliefs,” said Shea, author of “In the Lion’s Den,” a recently released book detailing international Christian persecution and martyrdom, published under the Baptist Sunday School Board’s Broadman & Holman imprint.
“Our leaders and the media elite are captured by the image of the young man in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square (in China),” Shea said. “They see him as a democracy hero, yet they think that the evangelicals who will lay down their life in China or Sudan for Jesus Christ must be crazy.”
The U.S. government has not made the persecution of Christians an issue, Shea insisted, calling on President Clinton to deliver “a major speech on the global persecution of Christians.”
Shea, recently appointed to the new Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom to the President and Secretary of State, expressed hope the committee would impact U.S. foreign policy for good. Repeating her fear the advisory committee would be “little more than a debating society,” she called again for appointment of a special advisor to the president on religious liberty.
“There are powerful trade lobbies at work,” Shea said, most of them arguing against linking trade to human rights. She expressed reservations there would be further congressional action on the issue, saying Congress has been “bought off” after arm-twisting by business interests with a stake in maintaining the status quo in the offending countries.
She said the United States was willing to put pressure on China over the pirating of computer software and compact discs but was unwilling to tackle the issue of religious freedom for Chinese Christians.
China has the largest Christian population of any country in the world except the United States, Shea said, noting nearly 60 million believers in the underground house church movement risk their lives and their freedom to worship independently.
“Thousands of Christians are in religious gulags there,” Shea said, “imprisoned because they dared to read the Bible, preach or sing hymns in public.” She explained Chinese leaders see Christians as their biggest threat to political stability, noting Christians in China claim persecution has been greater in the past 12 months than in any time since the post-Mao Tse-tung period in the late 1970s.
Christians in Vietnam, as in China, are imprisoned for spreading “religious propaganda” — a popular charge leveled by government officials against evangelical Christians in Indochina, Shea said. During the last four months, Shea cited four known cases of American Christians being arrested in Vietnam for “singing hymns in a private home and reading the Bible with Vietnamese in their hotel room.”
“Blasphemy laws which bring an automatic death penalty are regularly brought against Christians in Pakistan,” Shea said. And a jihad, holy war, is being waged by the radical Islamic government in the Sudan against Christians, Shea said, recounting accounts of slavery of Christian women and children in “open-air slave markets” documented by surreptitious fact-finding missions in the northeast African country.
Christians in Pakistan suffer through a reign of violence and discrimination, Shea said, relating the story of a youngster whose sole crime was converting to Christianity.
At the age of 12, Salamat Mashi was charged with defacing a mosque — a crime punishable by death. Although no evidence was ever submitted to substantiate the charge, Mashi was sentenced to death. Acquitted by the Pakistani government, the youngster fled the country. Now, two years later, the youngster remains in hiding in Germany, as Muslim extremists have offered a bounty for his capture and death.
As recently as two weeks ago, Shea said, 12 Egyptian Coptic Christians attending a youth leaders’ assembly were murdered.
“Christian churches must take the lead. This must be a grassroots effort,” Shea said, pointing out in a democracy citizens have the right and obligation to demand the U.S. government do something about the persecution.
“As the spiritual heirs of Roger Williams,” Shea said, “it is entirely appropriate for Southern Baptists to take up this issue.”