We must fight for religious freedom

Published 8:42 am Wednesday, April 1, 2015

By U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne

For many Christians, this week marks Holy Week, as we prepare for Easter Sunday. We remember the death and crucifixion of Jesus and celebrate his resurrection.

In the United States and many other countries around the world, this is an occasion marked with steadfast reflection, prayer, worship and fellowship. It is a time we spend with our loved ones, but do we spend enough time cherishing our ability to worship freely? In far too many corners of the world, the freedom of religion is nowhere to be found.

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As you read this, in the Middle East, the brutal, self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIL) is attacking Christians and destroying sacred religious sites. In the very land where Jesus once walked, Christians are becoming extinct. From Iraq to Syria to Egypt, Christians are under attack because of what they believe.

The city of Mosul in northern Iraq paints a clear picture of the threats posed to Christians. In 2003, over 35,000 Christians lived in Mosul. Today, that number is down to almost zero. Christians were faced with the choice of converting to Islam or being executed. Imagine being faced with that threat. It is truly chilling.

As a Judeo-Christian nation and the greatest force for good on the planet, our nation has a moral responsibility to combat Christian persecution. As the Christian communities in the Middle East and Asia continue to be decimated, we cannot turn a blind eye to this injustice. Apathy is not an option.

From Congress to the White House to the State Department, the United States must reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom around the world. President Obama must stop with the ambiguity on this issue and make clear that the United States will not tolerate Christian persecution.

Last year, Congress passed legislation to create a special envoy responsible for helping ancient Christian communities and other religious minorities who are under attack in the Middle East. Months later, the Obama administration has still not filled that position. It’s a symbolic reminder of how the United States is refusing to confront the brutality of Christian persecution.

The issue of religious freedom is about more than just Christians. The ability for people to exercise their faith without fear of retribution is the key to a stable democracy. Our national interests are best served when the world is stable and individuals aren’t deprived of basic freedoms.

Sadly, the problem of religious persecution is getting worse, not better. In 1914, Christians made up 28 percent of the Middle East. Today, that number is closer to 4 percent. That is heartbreaking.

As we know all too well, Jesus Christ himself was persecuted and ultimately died for his religious beliefs. And now, Christians in the Middle East and across the globe are facing that same fate. We cannot stand by and allow this injustice to continue.

That’s why I have joined the bipartisan International Religious Freedom Caucus in Washington. I also recently co-sponsored House Resolution 139, a bill condemning violence against religious minorities in the Middle East and any action that limits the free expression of faith. These are important actions, but more work will be needed.

So this Easter, in addition to your regular reflections, be sure and say a special prayer for our brothers and sisters who are under attack in the Middle East. And say a prayer for our country and our leaders, that we may realize the struggle and no longer sit idly by while individuals are attacked simply for their religious beliefs.

From my family to yours: Happy Easter and may God continue to bless our great nation.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne represents the 1st Congressional District of Alabama, which includes Escambia County.