Aid for the Church in Need, an international organization that provides assistance on the ground to persecuted Christians throughout the world, has issued a report on religious freedom. Who is most endangered? Who has paid the most? What might be done? These are all questions I discuss with Ed Clancy, director of outreach and evangelization for the organization’s U.S. branch. (We spoke about Christians in Iraq this past August here.)
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s the breaking or most alarming news on religious freedom from your report?
Ed Clancy: The sheer number of countries that are restricting religious freedom — 116 out of the world’s 196 countries.
Lopez: Why was it significant that your report includes something from Paul Jacob Bhatti?
Clancy: He has done what many of us are afraid to do: He has put himself in harm’s way after the assassination of his brother, who did the same thing. We are called to speak up for religious freedom, but some of us take enormous risks in doing so.
Lopez: What is most important about the report? What are you heartened to see getting covered? What are you shocked is not?
Clancy: Most important is that light is shed on the lack of religious freedom around the world — religious freedom is something we take for granted in the West. The bulk of the restrictions on it and the bulk of outright persecution involves Christians.
Lopez: “Where there has been a change concerning religious freedom, that change has almost always been for the worse.” What simply should not have happened that the report records?
Clancy: Obviously, any worsening of the lack of religious freedom is a cause for concern. We hope that this report will prompt more action on the part of governments around the world, and that Christians in the West will become more aware of the high stakes involved.
Lopez: “In the 196 countries analyzed, change for the better is noted in only six countries.” What’s going right there? Any pointers for others? For international pressure?
Clancy: There has been some improvement in Cuba, Iran, and Qatar — but these are obviously countries that have far to go toward fully granting liberty to all believers. Arguably, international pressure has forged change in Cuba and Iran. But much more should be done.
Lopez: “Deteriorating conditions are recorded in 55 countries (or 28 percent).” Are there any common denominators here? Trends?
Clancy: In the Middle East, of course, it is the rise of extremist Islam that has brought so much suffering for Christians, with ISIS driving more than 100,000 Chaldeans from their homes being a prime example, alongside the jihadists that are persecuting Christians in Syria.
Radical Islam is also on the march in a number of African countries, with Boko Haram in Nigeria drawing most of the media attention. There is Pakistan, which just witnessed the brutal killing of a Christian couple accused of burning pages of the Koran.
Lopez: What have you learned about religious freedom since arriving at Aid for the Church in Need?
Clancy: The strength of the faith of Christians who face persecution. . . . Throughout all of the tragedy in Iraq and Syria, for example, not one Christian has converted to Islam. The story is similar in Pakistan and Nigeria.
Lopez: Why are Christians the most persecuted in the world?
Clancy: They are most often persecuted in countries and regions where they are a tiny and hence very vulnerable minority. More significant is that Christianity insists on the dignity and freedom of the individual, which is anathema to totalitarian rule, whether driven by atheist regimes or governments that are fully or strongly identified with a particular faith — be it Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.
Lopez: Is it hard for Americans to appreciate? Or do we just not want to know?
Clancy: Yes, because we have such freedom here, even with challenges to traditional institutions. Americans, in general, do not come face to face with the violence and oppression that confronts Christians around the world. Perhaps if there were more coverage of Christian persecution in the mainstream media, this situation could change. But the U.S. churches have a big role to play as well.
Lopez: What to do about North Korea?
Clancy: Unfortunately, the international community did not act in the 1990s, when we had a chance to destroy their nuclear capability when it was still in its infancy. Today, we are confronted with both a military threat and a humanitarian tragedy. Iran could soon become a similar problem.
Lopez: What might surprise Americans the most?
Clancy: The pervasiveness of the lack of religious persecution freedom in so many countries will come as a big shock.
Lopez: Why profile Meriam Ibrahim?
Clancy: Her plight made her a symbol of the absurdity and extremism of radical Islam. The strength of her faith and her courage to risk death makes her a powerful example.
Lopez: What other case studies ought to be household names?
Clancy: There was the horrific murder of more than 100 Christians in Orissa state, India, in 2008. Many of the identified perpetrators have not yet been brought to justice. Of course, there is the case in Pakistan of Asia Bibi, who was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and was condemned to death.
Lopez: What more can Americans reading the report — or this interview — do?
Clancy: They can speak up. They can petition their legislators to take meaningful action. They can call on the president, for one, to appoint the envoy for Middle East Christians and other religious minorities, a position that was authorized by both the House and the Senate.
Lopez: What can the U.S. do that it’s not doing?
Clancy: Unfortunately, the U.S. military effort has to expand.
Lopez: What are the latest reports from Iraq and Syria?
Clancy: Sad to say, the situation in both countries remains dire. More than 100,000 Chaldeans are stranded in Kurdish Iraq, while Christians in Syria remain trapped between ongoing fighting between various factions.
Lopez: How might parishes go about crowdfunding for Christians in Iraq?
Clancy: Aid to the Church in Need has launched the United In Faith initiative, which facilitates the creation of parish teams to do fundraising. A generous donor of ACNUSA will match every dollar up to the campaign’s target amount of $500,000. Every dollar given will go entirely to help Christians in Iraq or Syria.
The process is supremely easy. Everything happens online, and the entire process is managed by us. Those who want to help can go to the “United In Faith” page at the ACNUSA site to see how a parish team can be created. This effort is especially critical with the approach of winter.