In many respects, one could argue that advancing technology has enabled lifestyle improvements that would suggest we must be living in the best of times.
Unfortunately, however, those of us who spend our professional lives monitoring religious freedom developments -- and fighting to protect those freedoms -- see the other side of the coin. Just using the last 12 months as an example, from a religious liberty standpoint, one could say we are living through the worst of times.
2014 was a year marked by barbaric beheadings, kidnappings, mass murders and other terrible acts targeting religious minorities. The most violent year ever for religious persecution? Quite possibly, but more to the point, the overall trends are worsening in recent years and even as I pray for an easing of this violence and for greater understanding and increased brotherhood among people of all faiths, I can't help but wonder whether 2015 will be as horrific as has been the past year.
Before we completely pivot to the future, I think it's worth a look back at several of the key developments in the world of religious freedom circa 2014:
UN Passes Resolution Condemning North Korea
Just last month the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution that condemned the "ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights." As the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Katrina Lantos Swett, said in a statement supporting the resolution, "Many have been arrested, tortured, and executed, and thousands are imprisoned in North Korea's notorious penal labor camps, including refugees wrongly repatriated from China."
North Korea remains one of the world's leading government-sanctioned violators of religious freedoms and many around the world will be closely watching -- and praying -- for any signs of improvement in 2015.
Myanmar Government Proposes Restrictions on Interfaith Marriage
Also in December, the president of Myanmar, U Thein Sein, proposed a draft law to "protect race and religion" by restricting marriages between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men. Opponents quickly noted that love and marriage are social issues -- even when laden down with pressures from parents, families and friends -- and not matters to be regulated by the government. The law is expected to be debated by the Parliament this month.
This is another disturbing example of governmental attempts to restrict the ability of private citizens to make their own decisions about how to practice their faith.
Continued Violence from Boko Haram
On November 28, Boko Haram -- the terrorist group best known for the kidnappings of Nigerian schoolgirls early in 2014 that sparked the #BringBackOurGirls campaign -- extended its year of horrific violence with an attack on worshippers at Kano's Central Mosque that killed or injured more than 100 people.
By some estimates, Boko Haram attacks resulted in more than 11,245 deaths in northern Nigeria in 2014, in part aimed at Christians and other groups not aligned with Boko Haram's goal of imposing Sharia law.
China Mandates Life Sentence for Uighur Muslim Scholar
When China sentenced the prominent Uighur Muslim scholar Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment for "separatism," it was widely seen as flying in the face of Chinese claims to be a country that believes in the rule of law. Critics claimed the sentence violated international law and called for the government to reverse course and release Tohti, rather than continue to suppress Uighur Muslims and other peaceful human rights advocates.
ISIS Orders Christians and Others to Convert, Leave or Die
As the terrorist group ISIS seized additional territory in Iraq over the summer of 2014, they issued an ultimatum against Christians in Mosul demanding that they convert, leave, pay a tax, or face death. This, despite the fact that Christians had enjoyed a peaceable existence in Mosul for more than 1,700 years. In addition, ISIS's persecution of the Shi'a and Yazidi communities, as well as Sunnis who rejected ISIS's extremist ideology, resulted in more than half a million people fleeing the area by the middle of June. Those who didn't flee were subject to killings, rape, torture, and kidnappings.
This was yet another horrific example of religious persecution in 2014, and part of what motivated United States intervention in the region later in the year.
Myanmar Proposes "Religious Conversion Law"
Already considered one of the worst countries on religious freedom matters, the Myanmar government in May developed a draft law that would create a government Registration Board that would be required to approve all religious conversions by citizens. To outside observers, the law clearly was designed to discourage conversion into a different faith, with proposed penalties of up to two years in jail for people applying to convert "with an intent to insult, disrespect, destroy, or to abuse a religion." Myanmar has a long, troubled track record when it comes to religious freedom and continued to oppress people throughout 2014.
My heart breaks as I think about everything the victims of religious violence and persecution experienced in 2014 -- and make no mistake, I have only touched on a few representative examples here. Many thousands of other members of religious minorities were forced to suffer or even die in 2014 just because they happened to believe differently than their oppressors.
As we turn now to the year ahead, let us all, as people of faith, pray for a more just world in 2015, one in which more people in more parts of the world, are allowed to follow their conscience as they see fit.