Sunday, February 5th | 14 Shevat 5783

January 6, 2014 12:23 pm

Religious Freedom is a Universal Truth

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avatar by Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Adlerstein

A burning church in Egypt. Photo: IPT News.

Pope Francis may share a problem with an 18th-century Hasidic rabbi, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. The rabbi once commented on a campaign he launched to help the needy of his city: “I’m halfway there. The poor have agreed to accept assistance. Now I only need to convince the rich to give.”

Not everyone received the pontiff’s recent statements about the evils of uncontrolled capitalism with enthusiasm. He may have convinced the wrong group of people.

With all our holiday shopping now behind us, many might concede that rampant consumerism did not propel us to spiritual heights. Still there is no denying that December is a special month. So many people seem happier, kinder and more considerate to each other that time of year. Is it despite the trips to the mall — or because of them?

Many gave gifts because they took time to consider who and what is important in their lives. Invoking our shared Judeo-Christian heritage, we could say that any act of giving has the potential to push the boundaries of our egos outward, creating the space to include others in our hearts and minds.

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Whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, we could not fail to recognize over the past weeks how important faith is to so many, and how the ability to practice it is an undeniable part of their very humanity. We realize that we would not want to live in a country that persecutes people for their observance. We reflect on how many people do not enjoy the freedom of living according to their convictions.

In the past 10 years, three-quarters of all Christians have fled Iraq, including the world’s oldest Christian communities, after a campaign of church bombings and killing of priests. This continues the campaign that began in 1948 that succeeded in driving out virtually all Jews who had lived throughout the Arab world for centuries.

In Syria, Christians experience an additional dimension of brutality on top of a human tragedy of mind-boggling proportions. Historic Christian villages are attacked by both government and Islamist forces.

Christians in the Central African Republic are being robbed, sexually assaulted and killed.

Islamists pull motorists out at phony roadside checkpoints in Nigeria, executing those with Christian names on the spot.

In Pakistan, churches are burned, and Christians live in perpetual fear of fabricated charges under a sweeping blasphemy law that safeguards Islam and terrorizes others. A similar law in Iran has led to the incarceration of Christians and Baha’is.

Muslims have been attacked in Myanmar; the same holds true of Hindus in Bangladesh.

In Egypt, the Christian Copts — a full 10 percent of the population — suffer church burnings, expulsions from villages and kidnapping of their daughters by Islamist extremists.

In Europe, 70 years after the Holocaust, polls estimate that more than 100 million Europeans harbor extreme anti-Semitic views. More than 20 percent of European Jews are afraid to wear a yarmulke in public.

Shiite and Sunni Muslims target each other, especially around religious pilgrimages.

Open Doors, an international organization that supports persecuted Christians, estimates that more than 100 million Christians are persecuted worldwide. According to a recent Pew Research study, more than 5.1 billion people were living in countries with high levels of religious restrictions. That is equal to 74 percent of the world’s population.

The threat of religicide (the intentional, systematic and institutionalized effort to eliminate a religious belief and its followers from a country or region) is growing around the world, not easing.

What can be done? Today, every country in the community of nations can be and should be called upon to safeguard the religious rights of all minorities. Like many other problems, headway will be made only when enough people care sufficiently to demand action.

In 2014, the protection of the rights of religious minorities should be treated as a core human right by everyone, including those who do not believe in God.

We ask everyone whose heart was moved by the season that just passed to bring two other people into the conversation. Speak to family members and co-workers about the deplorable conditions and threats to life that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Baha’i and others face every day.

Hanukkah and Christmas have both passed, but it is not too late to generate some love and devotion beyond the season. Through it, we can offer a gift to the tens of millions who deserve safe passage to and from their houses of worship, whether on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, where Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith affairs. David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA in Santa Ana, Calif.

This article was originally published by The Washington Times.

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