Time to Take Religious Freedom Seriously


Two years into his administration, President Barack Obama still has not filled the post of roving US ambassador for religious freedom.

Meanwhile in Pakistan the government's only Christian cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated for suggesting that the country's blasphemy law should be changed.

Urged to pass a resolution condemning the persecution of Christians, the European Parliament instead approved a vague statement, worded in general terms, decrying intolerance of all faiths. Meanwhile in Egypt Copts were slaughtered, in China "house churches" were raided by police, in Nigeria a Christian village was torched.

In Iraq, Chaldean Christians are hunted down and executed, gangland-style, by Islamic zealots. In Afghanistan a Christian man faces the death penalty for the "crime" of conversion from the Islamic faith. And these are countries where American troops are shedding their blood in defense of freedom!

The Pope's Plea

In his message for the World Day of Peace this year, Pope Benedict gave the world's leaders a much-needed reminder that religious liberty is an essential aspect of human freedom. It follows logically that to pursue freedom without acknowledging religious liberty is to embark on a hopeless quest. In fact, the Holy Father observed, it is a downright dangerous quest, because false conceptions of freedom beget new threats to human rights, new threats to peace.

Unfortunately the leaders of the Western world have not yet recognized the force of the Pontiff's argument. The policy-makers of Europe and America cling to the illusion that they can somehow promote freedom, both at home and abroad, while ignoring religious affairs. This approach will not work. It cannot work. It is a recipe missing an essential ingredient.

For too many years now, we in the West have pursued a foreign policy based on the presumption that other societies are as thoroughly secularized as our own. Our political executives and diplomats and scholarly analysts have paid little attention to the role of religion in the Middle East and Asia, because the same opinion leaders pay only so little attention to religion at home (except during election campaigns). So we have formed alliances of convenience with regimes that mistreat their religious minorities. Yes, we are distressed by their repressive policies, and occasionally we protest. But the diplomatic pressure we exert in favor of religious freedom is rarely intense, and still more rarely effective.

Because of our blind spot, we in the West are often caught off guard when a religious moment crops up in a foreign country – or even when a secular movement arises in a society we regard as profoundly religious. Early in 2011, when a wave of popular uprisings spread across the Middle East, we were unable to discern whether public opinion would press for democracy or for Sharia law. We could only watch: hopeful that the mass demonstrations would produce more responsive governments, fearful that Islamic fundamentalists would seize the opportunity to impose a more repressive regime, powerless (or at least feeling powerless) to influence the course of events.

We should not be so helpless when confronted with manifestations of faith. Without playing sectarian favorites, we in the Western nations can support the regimes and the political movements that promise freedom of worship. We can adopt the promotion of religious liberty as an essential goal of our foreign policy: a cause more important than cheap exports or low trade barriers.

The Brunt of the Persecution

Without playing sectarian favorites, we in the Western nations can support the regimes and the political movements that promise freedom of worship. We can adopt the promotion of religious liberty as an essential goal of our foreign policy: a cause more important than cheap exports or low trade barriers.

In his World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict made another important point about the state of religious freedom around the world. "At present," he observed, "Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith." The reality that Christians bear the brunt of persecution seems improbable to those of us living in the West, in countries where liberal secularists are accustomed to depicting Christians as the oppressors rather than the oppressed.

Sometimes the persecution of Christians is accomplished by governments, as in Saudi Arabia or China, where police routinely raid illegal church meetings. Sometimes the violence is done by extremist groups that the government cannot or will not control, as in Pakistan or Iraq. Sometimes the distinction between official persecution and unchecked gang violence is blurred, as in India, where police stand by while Hindu mobs attack churches. But in all these cases, government policies are to blame: for carrying out, or encouraging, or winking at, or failing to stop the persecution.

The persecution will surely continue, if the governments of the Western world do not exert more diplomatic pressure. And our governments' policies are not likely to change unless we, the Christians of the West, demand it.




Phil Lawler. "Time to Take Religious Freedom Seriously." Catholic World Report (April, 2011).

Reprinted with permission from Phil Lawler.

Catholic World Report is an international monthly news magazine that tells the story from an orthodox Catholic perspective. It is the leading Catholic journal of news, analysis, and commentary – a hard-hitting magazine that doesn't shy away from the toughest topics. Subscribe here.


Phil Lawler is Director of the Catholic Culture Project. Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil Lawler attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. Phil Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees; and a candidate for the US Senate.

As a journalist, Phil has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. From 1993 through 2005, Phil Lawler was the editor of Catholic World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996, recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic World News: the first online Catholic news service.

Phil Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics most recently The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.

Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven children.

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