A couple of weeks ago I was at an interfaith gathering wrestling with questions about religion and peace. Someone, an elderly faith-filled individual who has worked in inter-religious dialogue for decades, suggested that globally we are moving into a time where religious persecution and oppression is increasing around the world and toward numerous different religious communities. Religious fanaticism seems to be ruling the day. Could this possibly be true?
Certainly with the daily news about ISIS and the growing persecution of Christians and other minority groups in Iraq, the world is concerned. This summer, the New York Times reported that the last Iraqi Christians were forced to flee Mosul as ISIS dispelled their communities and threatened them with death. By late September, almost 2 million refugees -- Christians, Yezidi, Shabak and other minority groups -- had been displaced. The United Nations reports thousands of civilians killed. News of egregious human rights violations against women and children comes out of the region. The persecution and suffering is severe.
The current crisis in the Middle East surrounding ISIS has caused alarm, outrage and a deep sense of helplessness among many people. The name itself causes some confusion. ISIS, Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, has also been referred to by President Obama and others as ISIL -- Islamic State in Iraq and Levant. The Arabic name is often identified by the acronym Da'ash (or Da'esh). Does this fundamentalist group represent rising fanaticism and the shifting tides of increased persecution of Christians and other minority groups in the 21st century? Some believe the oppression of Christ followers around the world is now reaching unprecedented proportions never before seen in modern history.
When groups such as ISIS rise to power and claim the headlines with their brutal atrocity, this violence fuels a widespread Islamophobia if we are not intentional in acknowledging the difference between terrorists and the majority of people who follow a certain religion. Many Muslims around the world have spoken out ardently against the actions of ISIS. There is a social media campaign called "Not in My Name..." where devout Muslims have condemned the actions of Islamic extremists and fundamentalists. Yet, global acts of persecution against Muslims have been on the rise. This year the Dalai Lama called for an end to violent attacks against Muslims which have increased significantly in Southeast Asia and in several Buddhist countries. Other incidents of religious persecution include anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka and Islamic believers freeing Northern Ireland in an attempt to escape violence. Even a Christian news source in the United States posted and article called "Why I am Absolutely Islamophobic" The post was removed after a #TakeDownThatPost campaign on Twitter. The former pastor called for three possible solutions to "deal" with Muslims: conversion, deportation, or violence.
Christians and Muslims are not alone in their religious persecution. Acts of anti-Jewish anti-Semitism have also increased around the world this year. According to the Anti-Defamation League, incidents of hatred toward Jews range from graffiti, including swastikas, on a Jewish cultural center in Argentina; to young people shouting "Kill the Jews" at a group of Jewish five-to-12 year olds in Australia; to teargas attacks of Jewish teenagers in France; to the May 2014 shooting in the Jewish Museum in Brussels which killed four people as an unknown assailant opened fire. Many global acts of violence against Jews claim to be in response to Israel's treatment of Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza. These horrific acts of violence must stop. It is critical to realize that anti-Semitism is not only a reality of Jewish history, but continues to exist around the world today.
What can be done about these horrors of religious persecution?
Stop Killing and Violence in the Name of God.
Human history is full of religious violence -- from the wars of the Old Testament to the Christian Crusades of early antiquity to the expansion of the Islamic empire during the Muslim conquest, from the European Inquisition until modern expressions of religious fundamentalism. Religion and the name of God must never be used to justify killing and violence. We must do all that we can to resist the tide of religious fanaticism in our own faith tradition and in other religions.
Listen and Seek to Understand Religions Different from Your Own.
Gross generalizations get us into trouble. As Christians, we must speak out against negative assumptions about other religious groups. We must seek to know our neighbors of different religions and nationalities and listen to their perspectives and experiences. We must learn and understand the difference between radical terrorist groups like ISIS and other believers of the Islamic faith. Learning about global realities affecting the three Abrahamic faiths and other religious groups does not necessitate any compromise in our own theological framework and beliefs. Might we value and esteem our neighbors of different religions while at the same time seeking to share the love of Christ?
Love your neighbor. And love your enemy.
Jesus provided the greatest example: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." My hope and prayer is that Christians would lead the way in repenting of ways we have adhered to negative assumptions, racism, and fear toward Muslims, Jews, and religions outside of our own. Let the greatest testimony of our love for Christ be the way we seek to not only love our neighbors, but also respond to those who seek to kill and destroy.