One of the most crucial steps to addressing evil, injustice and persecution in our world today begins with the willingness and courage to call evil by its name; to speak out and condemn governments and regimes that are persecuting minority faith and ethnic groups; and to call out terror groups and other non-state actors for committing genocide and targeting minorities for murder, rape and torture.
Yet all too often we witness the opposite. Instead of vocal condemnation of evil, we watch as evil unfolds, uncoils and spirals out of control, all while government leaders remain silent, or even worse, deny the very existence of the evil that is unfolding in front of their eyes.
But encouragingly, earlier this week there was a break in the pervasive silence on one of the greatest moral issues of our time: religious persecution. I was heartened to watch on Tuesday as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stood up and called evil by its name.
While releasing the 2016 U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report, Tillerson addressed those who would deny the immensity of the suffering faced by Christians, Yazidis and other victims of ISIS. “To remove any ambiguity from previous statements or reports by the State Department,” he began, “the crime of genocide requires three elements: specific acts with specific intent to destroy in whole or in part specific people, members of national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups. Specific act, specific intent, specific people.” Tillerson went on to add and confirm that, “ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled.”
The Secretary of State then called out countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and China, among others, for gross violations of religious freedom. He addressed the ongoing plight of persecuted religious minorities in Pakistan, stating, “Religious freedom is under attack in Pakistan, where more than two dozen are on death row or serving a life imprisonment for blasphemy.”
The annual U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report addresses the ongoing persecution of people around the world. As Tillerson correctly noted in his remarks, around 80 percent of the world’s population “live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion.”
In my role as president and CEO of Open Doors USA, I encounter this reality firsthand on a daily basis. My role takes me to the frontlines of persecution all around the world—places were evil has an ever-tightening grip, where people suffer for the mere act of worshiping according to their conscience, where fear of rape, death, kidnapping and torture for one’s faith lurk around every corner.
Open Doors USA was on the ground from the start of the horrifying evil spread by ISIS throughout Iraq and Syria. In the earliest days of the mass displacement in the Nineveh Plain as Christians ran for their lives, we met them with blankets, food, shelter and clothing. We helped construct camps to shelter those who had to flee their home villages. We provided trauma counseling. We listened, cried and provided hope whenever and wherever we could.
At every step of the way, we witnessed the evil that was perpetrated on a mass scale against Christians and Yazidis—mass murders, kidnapping and brutal rape of Yazidi women, kidnapping of children, burning of churches, beheadings of Christian believers, and the list goes on.
The atrocities faced by Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East are horrendous. That is why Tillerson’s vocal condemnation of the genocidal acts of ISIS is a heartening first step.
But it is going to take more than words to improve the desperate plight of Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Kaka’i and other groups who have faced relentless persecution and near destruction at the hands of ISIS. What is the United States planning to do to address the sprawling growth of religious persecution in the days, weeks, months and years to come? We need more than words; we need action.
To that end, Open Doors has launched a campaign titled One Million Voices of Hope for the Middle East, built upon the specific action steps requested from Christians throughout the Middle East. As we seek justice and sustainability for the Christian population throughout this volatile region, we urge the U.S. government to prioritize international religious freedom in a stronger way than ever before.
On Tuesday Tillerson also announced that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback—newly nominated by President Trump as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom—will be the highest-ranking official ever to take on this role. I am encouraged that Tillerson appears to grasp the great importance of this role within U.S. foreign policy and join him in urging swift confirmation for Brownback, who is highly qualified for his new assignment.
The confirmation of Gov. Brownback as the new religious freedom ambassador is a crucial next step, the outcome of which will be felt by Christians and other religious minorities in the worst of situations as the U.S. shows up in a stronger way to the worldwide threats against religious freedom.
Today Open Doors USA is helping some of the Christians displaced by ISIS years ago return to their newly liberated hometowns in the Nineveh Plain. As the rebuilding and renewing begins in these areas, I hope the United States will find a renewed commitment to leading and leveraging global relationships to strengthen the state of religious freedom around the world.
As Tillerson said, “We cannot ignore these conditions.” The necessary next step is action. That is what I will be looking for from the U.S. government in the coming weeks as we address evil for what it is and seek to protect our brothers and sisters from facing cruelty simply because of their faith.
David Curry is the president and CEO at Open Doors USA, a global advocate for persecuted Christians that works in the most restrictive and oppressive countries for Christians.