According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released Aug. 9, almost 2.2 billion people live in nations where restrictions on religion have substantially increased, according to the Lauren Markoe of the Religion News Service. These are shocking numbers — almost one-third of our globe — and are often overlooked in this nation where we have such a long history of religious tolerance.
To be sure, we still have plenty of work to do in this nation. Catholics, Jews, Mormons Native Americans can testify to dark periods of religious persecution, as can people of Muslim faith in our day. We are not beyond being suspicious and intolerant of people who practice their faith, or no faith, differently than we do. Nevertheless, we are the envy of much of the world when it comes to the freedom to practice one’s religion by one’s own set of standards.
I continue to read about the plight of the church in China, where the only accepted way to practice Christianity is through the approved state churches (The Three-Self Movement for Protestants and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association for Roman Christians). The Chinese Catholic (government) church is now rebelliously consecrating bishops without the approval of the hierarchy in Rome. Anybody meeting in unauthorized house churches is subject to harassment, arrest, seizure of assets and imprisonment. In terms of Muslims, the state has been particularly heavy handed in the outlying Western Provinces of China.
Such repression hits far closer to home in Cuba, where their freedom of thought, conscience and religion has been held in close check since 1959. Armando Valladares, later named United States ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, was imprisoned by Castro for 22 years for minor infractions of expressing his own opinions. His story, documented in his gripping book “Against All Hope,” testifies to the brutality of the Cuban regime.
More recently, a group of Cuban women have protested against the Cuban government to release many political prisoners, some of whom include their husbands, sons and daughters. These women, dubbed “The Ladies in White,” gather after Sunday Mass at the Havana cathedral carrying gladiolas and marching in silent procession to influence the government and public opinion. For this “crime” they have been arrested and assaulted. According to a Wall Street Journal report by Mary Anastasia O’Grady, there are 82 Ladies in White in Havana and 34 more in Santiago. Would you be willing to join that group, knowing that a prison sentence of 28 years could be awaiting you?
Thanks to our founding fathers, we have unparalleled religious freedom in this nation, a right that was radical and heatedly debated in its time. Some who most vociferously protested against guaranteeing such a right were in the church and were particularly insistent that officeholders, voters, etc. must be limited to those who professed faith in Christ. I’m glad their side failed to carry the day.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.