Life-or-Death Religious Freedom

By Scott Stearman

We talk a lot today about religious freedom. Recently, such conversations have devolved into discussions such as whether the owner of a bakeshop in Colorado was required to provide a personalized wedding cake for a gay couple as required by state law. The merchant claimed the statute deprived him of his free exercise of religion. Or whether a monumental cross erected in Maryland to honor veterans of World War I violated the constitutional prohibition of an establishment of religion. 

These conversations are important. They matter to people of faith. They shouldn’t be discounted. But we should also put them in perspective. For millions of people around the globe the lack of religious freedom isn’t just a matter of having to serve a population they dislike. Nor is it debating a religious symbol on public property. It’s a matter of life or death. 

For example, the Yazidis of Iraq and Syria have experienced the kind of persecution that is hard to fathom. For centuries this peaceful and pastoral people have experienced periodic hatred by neighboring Muslims and Christians. The Yazidis are a monotheistic ethnic group that originated in the Kurdish region of Iraq and are considered by the Kurds to be a minority Kurdish group. But the Yazidis are not Muslims and do not consider themselves Kurds. While they are monotheists, they are different enough to have been labeled “devil-worshipers” by superstitious neighbors. 

In 2014 ISIS fighters in Iraq killed approximately 7,000 Yazidis in a genocide that baffles the mind. Shortly thereafter the ISIS fighters started taking Yazidi girls and women as sex slaves. Still today, some 3,000 such young Yazidi women are missing. 

Possibly you saw the video clip of the young Yazidi woman, Nadia Murad, a co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, who discussed her situation with President Trump last week. Her story is tragic, a tragedy multiplied by the fact that many others like her are still missing. Let’s pray that indeed the president will “look into it.” 

In June Paula Dempsey of the Alliance staff, along with Becky DeLaune and Sara Kelm of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Tex., and I went on a pilgrimage to Tbilisi, Georgia. Our host was Georgian Baptist leader Malkhaz Songulashvili, who has developed good relations with the Yazidi people residing in the Tbilisi area. We were there on Orthodox Pentecost, which coincided with an international Yazidi festival at the temple in Tbilisi. 

The four of us Americans, with our Georgian hosts, were guests of the Yazidis and treated as family. The festival included prayers, a flag-raising ceremony, and an introduction to a new theological institute – along with lots of very good food. However, the most significant part of the day for me consisted in the many conversations we had with the Yazidi people – many of whom had come in from Iraq, Syria, Germany and other surrounding areas. 

On the lighter end was the Yazidi businessman from Iraq who came up to Malkhaz and me requesting a photo. He’d never before met Christian clergy! I was glad he considered meeting us a positive thing! 

On the darker end of that very full day were the conversations we had about the missing 3,000 young women and girls and the fear that the Yazidi people living in Iraq don’t have any sense of real protection from persecution because of their faith. Some of the missing young women have been recently ransomed. Some family members don’t have the means to negotiate ransoms. The situation is complicated by a religious “liberty” law. The law in Iraq dictates that any child born to a Muslim man is Muslim. This complicates the reception of these women and children back into the Yazidi villages. 

For this people group, religious liberty isn’t a cake or cross issue. It is life or death. We should hope that the current efforts of the U.S. Department of State to advance religious freedom will progress. And in particular we should do what we can to encourage the U.S. government to do all it can to assist the Yazidi people. The United States bears unique responsibility in Iraq. 

Those of us who had tearful conversations with the Yazidi people have promised to do all we can to advocate for action. This effort has begun and will continue at both the State Department and the United Nations. 

Remember these efforts while keeping in mind that religious liberty is far from a luxury issue for far too many of the world’s people. There is hope in growing awareness. One of the United Nations’ newest “international days” is the day of remembrance for victims of religiously-based violence on August 22. May memory and awareness lead to life-saving freedoms. 

Scott Stearman is pastor of Metro Baptist Church in New York City and serves as a presence for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Baptist World Alliance at the United Nations where he currently heads the Human Rights Cluster of the NGO Major Group.

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