Long before Pope John Paul II inspired one quarter of a million catechumenates with the words, “Be not afraid,” a sect of bishops cast off to the Special Purposes Prison Camp on the Solovetsky Islands took a stand for religious liberty.
Exiled off the shores of the White Sea, having survived coercive forms of conversion through bludgeoning, the bishops drafted an open letter to the Communist government opposing the forcible closure of churches, synagogues and temples and the “assailing of every visible form of church life from the public eye”.
The Solovetsky Monastery Prison Letter, which linked religious liberties to human rights, stands as one of the founding documents of democratic opposition to the Communist regime.
Decades later the basic human right of religious expression was more concretely drawn into political context with the inception of the Helsinki Accords. What began as an agreement to finalize post-World War II boundaries evolved into a “manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement, a development totally beyond the imagination of the Soviet leadership.” The West insisted the Soviets abide by the terms and conditions of “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.” The results of their insistence were “unexpected, and far more significant” than anyone had imagined. It has since been argued that insistence upon Soviet adherence to human rights was more trenchant in the fall of the Communist system than any other binding nuclear agreement or economic sanction.
In the quest for viable peace between the West and Muslim world, there are some in Washington who see human rights, in the context of religious liberty, as a strategic underpinning for conciliation.
Representatives Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) introduced legislation that would protect the rights of religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. The Religious Minorities Special Envoy Bill called for a special envoy, with direct access to the President and Secretary of State, to “advocate on behalf of vulnerable religious minorities” in Muslim-majority countries.
“The U.S. government needs an individual who can respond and focus on the critical situation of religious minorities in these countries whose basic human rights are increasingly under assault,” Wolf said. “If the international community fails to speak out, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance in the region are bleak.”
After a two and a half year struggle to get the bill passed in the House, the legislation stalled, having yet to be brought to the Senate floor by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
There was once a special envoy employed by the Department of State who acted in an advisory capacity to the President and Secretary of State. Unfortunately the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom was demoted, having to instead report to the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, not directly to the Secretary of State.
The little heard from Reverend Suzan Johnson Cook proved ineffectual in her role as advocate for the persecuted and tortured when Coptic Christians were massacred at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Johnson Cook was impugned by international human rights attorneys for failing to speak out. It was “shocking” that Johnson Cook “would be utterly silent and not speak about the largest, single persecution of the largest single religious minority in the Near East in 1,300 years.”
Johnson Cook countered criticism citing security concerns, “[Details] couldn’t be openly discussed because of security clearance issues, and it wasn’t my job to cross those lines.”
Sadly, this selectivity of consciousness is not limited to the Senate Majority Leader and the Ambassador – the President, too, suffers from a disinclination to discuss the human rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.
It took the occasion of Religious Freedom Day for the President to acknowledge the attacks on Coptic Christians. Rather than condemn the assailants, President Obama offered a chastisement:
“Then in Egypt, the terrible New Year’s Day bombing of an Alexandria church that left 25 Christians dead and scores more injured has unleashed a wave of anger among the minority Copts directed at the government and Muslim countrymen.”
Prefacing his remarks, the President displayed his penchant for moral equivalence when he rebuked the United States for “sometimes falling short of the weighty task of ensuring religious expression and practice.”
To the President, the cleansing of the Copts evinces his vision for Christian degeneracy and Muslim ascendance. The violence witnessed in Alexandria was social justice actualized. To him, to speak out against the actions of any one religious sect is beyond his duty as President; he leaves the exacting of justice in the capable hands of those who he finances.
Like the Solovetsky bishops who ignited a movement among the clergy, laity and populace, who demanded religious freedom for those who were denied it at the end of a gun; those of us who do not suspend our critical thinking skills to benefit the ambiguous must demand legislation that puts religious freedom into political context as well.
Representatives Wolf and Eschoo must be supported in their efforts to pass religious minority legislation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee needs to mount pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring the Religious Minorities Special Envoy Bill to the floor for a vote.
The conscientious among us must demand strongly worded language that makes it clear that any Muslim-majority nation who venerates violence against Christian minorities will be met with swift condemnation, sanctions and defunding. No more debating over loose language that benefits the morally ambivalent who deliberate endlessly over what constitutes a coup and what does not while the non-convergent are cleansed from the face of the earth.
The U.S. must make adherence to human rights and religious freedom a contingency for aid and acceptance within the modern world and drag 7th century adherents into the 21st.