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Religious Freedom and International Law PDF Print E-mail

Michael Horowitz
Hudson Institute

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

When young people — or even us older ones — are asked to identify events of the last half of the 20th century that will impact on the 21st century and define the new millennium, two answers immediately spring to mind. One is the collapse of communism and the corresponding growth of democracy. The other obvious development is the information age and the triumph of computers. Those two “C’s,” computers and communism, are thought to be recent defining events that will shape the century to come.

And yet, no matter how well read and presumably educated analysts are, I think they miss a third “C” that will shape the 21st century, perhaps even more than the prior two. It is a “C” whose roots are with us as we look at the second half of the 20th century. That “C” is Christianity. We are now witnessing the largest explosion of Christianity in all its recorded history. Christianity has become the largest faith in the world, and clearly the most widely dispersed.

Its numbers, as Don Argue indicated, are growing. Yet, if one reads the press, even the Washington Times at times, one doesn’t get a sense of this powerful, historical fact and extraordinary phenomenon. The explosion of Christianity, indeed of faith itself, at the end of the 20th century is likely to continue as a powerfully factor dynamic in the new millennium. This sets the background for the growing movement in the United States, this prairie fire of a movement, to deal with the worldwide problem of religious persecution. This movement will fundamentally alter, over the screaming objections of all the professional diplomats, American foreign and human rights policy, as well as international law.

At the end of the 19th century, looking at the coming 20th century, German philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche said that the great event casting its shadow over Europe and the world was the death of God—the loss of credibility of the Christian God in the eyes of man. Now Neitzsche understood that the death of the traditional God would not mean that men would not worship. He understood that we would choose a different god—a secular and political one. He understood that the totalitarian clergyman has committed many a sin in the name of God and in the name of Christianity and would become a totalitarian politician instead, and his creed would be in the worship of the god of politics rather than the God of faith.

That phenomenon of the 19th century, as it was ending—witnessing the death of the traditional God of faith in the minds of man—was a great a predictor of the rivers of blood that flowed in our 20th century. The reverse of that phenomenon is now occurring, and we will see a far more promising explosion of faith, a return to the tradition of worshiping the traditional God of faith—as the 20th century ends and shapes the world in the 21st century.

I am a Jew, not a Christian. My people have been sinned against by Christians, often in the name of Christianity. Yet I understand one thing in its most profound sense. The rooted Christian decency of the West in American culture is, in the end, a prime reason why I am not a lampshade, or a bar of soap. I understand the danger, indeed the evil, of seeking to define faith or Christianity in terms of the sins that have been committed in their names—this rather than understanding their larger, their civilizing, their democratizing impact on the West, and on all the world’s culture of religious belief and Christian faith.

People at the State Department don’t get it. For them the hero in China and the singular symbol of human rights is that brave young man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square. A columnist in the New York Times watched our movement in the United States on the part of church groups to end religious persecution, saw our growing passion to ensure that American policy takes religious persecution into account as we deal with other countries. He said, “How dare you do this! You are going to stand in the way of, detract from, the greatest symbol and hero for liberty in the world today, the great Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng.” Wei was then in jail in China.

The State Department, true to form, at least did something half-right, looking to release Wei before the summit meeting—as if to show to the world that China was improving. When American diplomats sat with Chinese diplomats, they said, “Look, you have to prove to the world that you care about liberty and that you are making progress. Therefore, release the political dissidents.” It never occurred to the people in the State Department that the Catholic bishop getting his fingernails pulled out, or the evangelical leader who was getting tortured was at least as much a symbol of liberty and hope and democracy — and modernity — as were the political dissidents.

Yet here is what is so fascinating. I had lunch with Wei Jingsheng not long ago. He is an extraordinarily brave man. I went to him and I said, “What was it like being in jail for those 14 or 15 years?” He said, “It was very difficult.” I said, “But it must have provided some comfort to you to have known that people around the world cared about you and were with you. Didn’t you know that? Didn’t you feel that?” And he said, “Not for the first 14 years.” This man endured for 14 years without knowing that anyone cared. But so did Catholic Bishop Zu, who has been in jail for even longer than Wei was in jail. So is evangelical leader, Peter Shu, now in jail in China.

Guess who understood that the freedom of the churches was indivisible from, if not greater than, the freedoms of political dissidents? A man who professed no religious faith, the great Wei Jingsheng, he knew. The Chinese Communists also knew. In the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, there is a famous quote. They first asked, why communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and they answered: “It was the Pope. It was the Pentecostal churches that brought down communism.” The Chinese paper then said, “We can’t let that happen here. We can’t be destabilized by faith.” So, speaking of the house church movement, the official Chinese newspaper said, “We must strangle this baby while it is still in the manger.” This has remained the policy of Chinese Communists, and much as I love Don Argue, it is not dialogue that will make those people change their ways. It is the great moral pressure of an aroused America that says, if you want relations with us, you must stop persecuting churches.

Of course, the Chinese understand the dilemma. Permitting religious freedom would be destabilizing. The thugs of the world persecute vulnerable communities of faith not because they are dumb but because they are shrewd. They understand that people in communities who live beyond the reach of the bribes and threats on which they rely to stay in power are, by their very existence, threats. They stand as symbols for everything that tyrants are not.

The tyrants understand. The political dissidents understand. But our State Department people just don’t get it. I met with a very high official in the State Department and he said, “Why are you people working so hard on this issue of religious persecution? Don’t you understand how divisive this is? You know we are working to promote democracy. We are working for the right to vote. Don’t you understand that when we have the right to vote, people will be able to go to church?”

He wasn’t quite right on that score, but you could almost hear him saying, “Give us a chance so that people will be able to go to church. . .or go bowling or. . .do their own thing.” You could almost hear him add, “not that I would think of doing any of those myself, you understand.” In his mind, in some patronizing way, religion was a form of therapy. The State Department thinks that free church worship might be a good idea, but the key is the right to vote.

I said, “You don’t understand history. Don’t you know why we have democracy in the West? We don’t have the right to go to church because we had a right to vote. We have the right to vote and we have democracy because of the most radical political message of all time that is embedded in our Judeo-Christian faith. We haven’t always been living up to it perfectly, but nonetheless, our faith has made democracy real and possible.

The notion that all men and women are created equal in the eyes of God, deeply believed, is why we have democracy. Our elites think religion is something divisive and problematic. They think it is something that ought to be quarantined inside the four walls of a building called a church. So far as they are concerned, if you go bowling or take sacraments, it is all the same to them. They don’t understand the powerful force of religion.

They even go on to say, “You know there is a lot of persecution because there is poverty in the world. Why don’t you help us get a few billion dollars more for our foreign aid programs. Then we will eliminate poverty, and religious communities won’t be persecuted because everybody is going to have lots of money and be comfortable.”

You want to shake this guy! You want to say, “Have you read Protestantism and the Capitalist Ethic by Max Weber? Have you read Michael Novak’s latest book on Christianity and the market capitalist ethic? Do you understand that embedded in the Judeo-Christian ethic is the notion that all men are accountable—that all men are free and independent. The idea that people owe something to their fellows is at the heart of successful market economies.”

Look at Korea. Do you think its dramatic economic success is an accident? Do you think that its success was separate from the growth of Christianity that took place there? “For God’s sake, man!” you want to tell these guys at the State Department, “Just read a bit of history. Don’t be clueless as to why we, in the west, have our democracy and why we have productive societies. Much of it comes from the fact we worshiped the God of faith, much of it came because religion was central to our culture. The Judeo-Christian tradition is central to our success and our better angels”.

The totalitarian clergyman, who made life miserable for thousands in a world where faith was at the center of things, became a totalitarian politician and, free of the constraints against evil that religion constantly put in his way, didn’t just make life miserable for thousands. He murdered millions. That is the story of the 20th century. We cannot let it be the story of the 21st century.

In our battle to end religious persecution, to end the hunting licenses in the radical Muslim and communist countries against communities of faith, against Christian communities in particular, we are shaping the 21st century. We are shaping law in ways that the State Department and our policymakers—the people who hold the Washington dinner parties to which I am proud to say I no longer get invited—will never understand.

There is something else of extraordinary significance. As we fight for the rights of religious people and seek to end the persecution of Christian countries by some of the radical Muslim countries, we are accused, by some people, of being “Muslim bashers.” Here is an interesting fact. The most poignant expressions of gratitude, that we have received, since beginning this great movement in the United States—a movement that now has evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and the Campaign for Tibet, all organized behind a common effort to support an extraordinary, historic piece of legislation now being considered by Congress—has come from Muslims. They have come to us and said, “There is a battle for the soul of Islam going on in the world today between the intolerant, anti-intellectual Ayatollah Khomeinis and those leaders within Islam who represent another and a stronger element of its history.” That part of Islam was as hospitable to strangers as Christianity and Judaism had been. That part of Islam had a great tradition in the arts, music, literature, and the sciences. It is this tradition that was represented by an Anwar Sadat of Egypt and others like him.

Today the Khomeinis are assassinating and displacing and demoralizing the Sadats of Islam. It is western silence, in the face of the murder of fellow religionists—the Christian community’s silence in the face of the slaughter of its own people in Muslim countries—that in significant measure, is responsible for the triumph of the radical Muslim thugs who are as oppressive to Muslims as they are to Christians. What do you think happens? The thugs turn to the moderate Muslims and say, “I am tearing out the fingernails of preachers! I am burning down churches! I am persecuting ministers, and the so-called Christian West doesn’t care. What do you think is going to happen when I turn to you? You better start saluting me right away.”

There is a famous statement in the Holocaust Museum by Pastor Martin Niemuller. It says, “They first came for the Jews and I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t a Catholic. Then they came for the Protestants, but there was nobody left to speak up for me.” In fighting for the end of persecution of Christians, Christians are not only fighting for their own people. They are fighting for freedom and democracy and hope and possibility for all—for believers and for nonbelievers both. The vulnerable Christian communities of today are forces for freedom and modernity for all.

Let us remember also the story of the campaign against Soviet anti-Semitism—that great campaign in which Christian churches joined passionately with the American Jewish community to end the persecution of Jews in the former Soviet Union. The effect was extraordinary. When the word went out that those 10-foot-tall communists couldn’t even beat up a few Jews because the aroused conscience of the West refused to allow it to happen. Cracks suddenly began to develop in the walls the communists had built around the churches and political dissidents. The campaign against Soviet anti-Semitism was a critical, historic opening step, not only in letting my people, Jews, emigrate from the Soviet Union but in bringing freedom to all and in beginning to show that tyrants could be brought down. Guns didn’t do it so much as the aroused moral conscience of the United States, led by Senator [Henry] Jackson, as it opened up hope and freedom for a small minority of Jewish believers. When they could no longer be persecuted, everybody else sensed that freedom was possible for them. Maybe they could take some chances in resisting Communist tyranny. That is what today’s campaign for religious freedom means for everyone.

Of course, that is why some members of the Establishment are so scared, most of all those who are bigoted against believers. These people want to define Christians as regressive bigots who are committed to yesterday’s superstitions. It is difficult for them to deal with this issue of religious persecution, because dealing with it forces them to acknowledge that the bad people in the world fear communities of faith. It forces them to acknowledge that faith in Christianity is not yesterday’s superstition but a great force, for modernity in today’s world.

Think of it, Washington dinner parties won’t be able to patronize Christians. What did the Washington Post call them? “Poor, undereducated and easily led.” That is how the Post defined evangelical Christians—the entire community—in the United States. Instead, the Post should see them as modern forces, as forces for democracy, as forces for hope for all.

I remember when I first started to write and speak about Christian persecution and found no response from the Christian community. I wrote to mission boards and said that I thought that things had to change, and the reason I thought so, was because of parallels between today’s persecution of Christians and the persecution of my people—parallels both extraordinary and terrifying. Evil men killed too many Jews for us to be useful as scapegoats for the world’s thugs. Now, Christians have become the Jews of our time, are becoming the Jews of the 21st century, scapegoats of choice for evil men, whether in Sudan or China or other parts of the world. You are the Jews of the 21st century, Christians! You’d better stand up for your people! And all of us had better not be silent in the face of their persecution or we will reap the whirlwind just as the world did because of its silence over the persecution of my people.

The Establishment is against persecution. They are good people. But you can almost hear them say of Christian victims, “Gee, I wouldn’t want them as neighbors. They probably bring it on themselves. Aren’t they zealots? They don’t fit in. Yes, they shouldn’t be persecuted, but gee, I can understand why the Chinese and others don’t like them. I don’t either.” You can hear that said at the dinner parties I used to get invited to!

Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, word for word, nuance for nuance, that is exactly what was said about Jews at comfortable dinner parties that were conducted when Hitler was rising to power. The same Establishment reaction, and stupidity, even when its own interests are directly concerned, as is the case of Christian persecution.

Finally, Christians were afraid to blow the trumpet. Leaders would say, “Of course, it’s a terrible problem, but my followers, the people in the pews, don’t care about much past the point of their noses. So if I blow the trumpet, it will just show that nobody cares. Let’s just have more quiet diplomacy and case-by-case approaches. We can’t create a national movement and shouldn’t try to do so.” Well, the lack of belief of leaders of the Christian community in the moral passion of their own people was a lie, and I knew it was a lie. The proof is this extraordinary explosion of concern about religious persecution, which has forced Congress to listen.

When Hitler was rising to power, Franklin Roosevelt was president. The word went out that he was going to appoint a Jew to the Supreme Court. Roosevelt was visited by a delegation of the leading Jews in America saying, “Don’t appoint this man! It will make Jews more visible and provoke anti-Semitism. Also, it will make Hitler really angry.”

That kind of timidity, that same lack of faith in the capacity to ignite the moral passions of America and the West, was there in some measure with some Christian leaders, but this is now rapidly changing. The evidence of the change is the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act. The bill simply says and does two things.

The first is in regard to Sudan, which is a genocidal, murderous regime, the most evil regime in the world today. No other country comes close. Sudanese are murdering Christians, starving them. You can buy a Christian kid as a slave for the price of a few chickens in an open-air slave market. The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act mandates that the same legislation that brought down apartheid in South Africa should be applied to Sudan. We don’t think that the murder of black Christians is politically correct whereas apartheid against blacks in South Africa was something the world had to care about. We have to care at least equally about it, and this law will put that to the test.

With regard to all other persecutors, the bill does not cut off trade relations. Instead, if any country is involved in widespread and ongoing persecution—hard-core persecution of religious communities—it loses American non-humanitarian foreign aid. Taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing thug regimes that murder, torture, rape, enslave, starve and crucify believers. That seems pretty simple. Yet the staff director of the International Relations Committee told me that the Administration has waged a more intense campaign of opposition to our legislation than it has to any other bill that has come before his committee.

The business community has been opposing the bill intensely. You can’t pass through the halls of Congress without running into some lobbyist getting $300 or $400 an hour to tell members of Congress why they shouldn’t vote for this bill.

The foreign embassies have also come forward in opposition, such as the Saudis. Sudanese lobbyists are all over town. And, on the other side, there is ragtag group, not organized, with no fancy offices, meeting in little rooms. When the vote finally came up two weeks ago in the committee, which is where opponents expected to kill the bill, we thought we might win by 2 votes or so. The vote was 31 to 5 in favor of the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act. It stung the administration and the business community and the foreign lobbyists.

We discovered something. We don’t care what gets said on the network evening news as long as we can carry our message on Christian radio stations. We don’t care what the major newspapers say, as long as we have a few good newspapers and most importantly, denominational newsletters. Today’s movement is like a prairie fire. Every politician understands that the ground is shifting. That is why the State Department is forming committees on religious persecution. That’s why it suddenly got interested in sending Don Argue and two others to China. That’s why it’s trying to act like it is ahead of the parade. They won’t, of course, and they will always remain a day late in their efforts, because those efforts are at root designed to replace and defeat a national, church and synagogue-based movement that won’t go away, that is determined to make history.

America is going to hold the State Department’s feet to the fire and change the nature of human rights policy. And if the French think that they are going to exploit this movement in the United States and court the murderers of Christians to get contracts for their businesses they risk that we will boycott them. If the French think they are going to exploit our movement by getting contracts for their companies, you are going to find ministers from thousands of pews in this country telling their people not to buy French products. We will see if the French would rather sell a plane to China or export their wines and cheeses to the United States.

This will be a coming century of faith. It is exploding. And it is time for the Establishment to understand it, adapt to it, and change the U.S. policies to reflect that reality. The hope of our children depends on this.

My final point for America is this. Look at the contempt that the world has for the Swiss today. In order to get a business deal here, a deal there, they traded with and appeased the Nazis. Now, as the facts come out, the Swiss are paying a price. I don’t want America and the West to be on the wrong side of history. Those brave communities of faith now being persecuted for their beliefs will win without us, even at the cost of more blood and added torture of millions if we don’t speak up. The believers will ultimately win. The question is, when they win, will they look at us as people who were like the Swiss—ready to let them be tortured and murdered so we could sell Coca-Cola? Or will they think of us as people who were brothers and sisters, who made their lives of faith protected and secure? That is the way we ought to be, and need to be seen. If we in America are to be true to our faith and our own national interests, we must do this. The American people are now sending out clear signals. Politicians who don’t recognize them are going to be defeated. Those signals say that faith counts, that communities of faith count, and— for their sakes and ours—that we must stand with them.