US Must Remember Its Values and Stand Up for Religious Freedom

The U.S. Must Remember Its Values and Stand Up for Religious Freedom

Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, Chairman of Westminster Institute and International Director of Barnabas Aid

February 14, 2014

The United States has a noble history of upholding and defending civil liberties, religious freedom in particular. It has put these values at the heart of its relations with other countries, challenging those who do not share them. Presidents Roosevelt and Ford typified this in their dealings with the USSR during World War Two and the Cold War, putting religious liberty firmly on the table.

In 1941, President Roosevelt met with the Soviet Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov and other key figures over the wording of a proposed Joint Declaration by the Allies. The document was a pledge by the Allied nations to work together, employing their full resources in the fight against Hitler. It outlined what they were fighting for:

“Being convinced that complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands, and that they are now engaged in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world.”

Roosevelt insisted that the reference to “religious freedom” be added to the document, despite initial Soviet objections.

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union wanted international recognition of its frontiers in Eastern Europe. It sought an agreement with the US and its Western European allies over this. Western nations, led by US President Ford, accepted, but only on the condition that the Soviet Union agreed to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. The result was the historic Helsinki Accords of 1975.

Both Roosevelt, a Democrat, and Ford, a Republican, knew that they had to work with the Soviets in the international arena but recognised the evil of their system. So they remained committed to American values of human rights, religious liberty and justice, and insisted on these as a condition of co-operation.

I wish this were the case with Obama’s America, where both Democrats and Republicans see the US’s relationships with countries that deny human rights as essential and without any pre-conditions. In disregarding religious liberty and the rights of minorities, the US has lost sight of what it has historically stood for.

The US is now tied economically, militarily and politically to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and yet the US fails to use these ties to call for improvements in respect for human rights and religious freedoms.  The fact that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not democratic, deny human rights and religious liberty, and support Islamist terrorists has appeared to be of little concern to American policy-makers.

However, there is recent encouragement in President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on 6 February, which strongly affirmed the principle of religious freedom:

“. . . No society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities, whether they’re Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, or Baha’i in Iran, or Coptic Christians in Egypt. And in Syria, it means ensuring a place for all people – Alawites and Sunni, Shia and Christian. Going forward, we will keep standing for religious freedom around the world.”

Even more encouragingly, he specifically affirmed the vital freedom to choose or change one’s faith:

“Today, we profess the principles we know to be true. We believe that each of us is “wonderfully made” in the image of God. We, therefore, believe in the inherent dignity of every human being – dignity that no earthly power can take away. And central to that dignity is freedom of religion – the right of every person to practise their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practise no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear.”

Syrian Delegation to the US

The Westminster Institute and Barnabas Aid recently sponsored a delegation of senior Syrian Church leaders to visit Washington. It was the first time since the start of the civil war in March 2011 that such a visit had taken place.

The purpose of the delegation was to raise awareness of the deliberate targeting of Christians in Syria and also to try to persuade the US to stop its direct and implicit support for those who are persecuting our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Christians are being kidnapped, raped and killed by Islamic militants who are backed and armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – all of them key US allies.

The Syrian church leaders took their case to policymakers and officials at the State Department, Democrat and Republican members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and the US Institute for Peace.

They called on the US to recognise a new “axis of evil”, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, using the phrase coined by former President George W. Bush in 2002 to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea because of their support for terrorism.

Specifically, they urged the US to exert pressure on its allies to stop supporting and sending terrorist fighters to Syria. You would think that Washington would heed this call, especially given President Barack Obama’s claim in his State of the Union address on 28 January:

“In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks.”

But whilst our delegation was received sympathetically by many departments within the US administration, there were two messages that stood out:

1. The requirement that President Bashar al-Assad must go

2. The impossibility of considering any ally of Iran in a remotely favourable light

With these demands portrayed as non-negotiable, the administration has concluded that it cannot help the Christians of Syria. The fact that al-Qaeda and other Islamists now dominate the Syrian opposition is considered comparatively unimportant. The general consensus of those we met was that Assad must go and then everything will sort itself out.

Perhaps the single worst experience of our visit was a meeting with influential Republican Senator John McCain, who spoke heatedly against Assad with no reference to the atrocities being committed by the rebels. When he asked me for my recommendations and I began to say that the situation was complex, he lost his temper, shouted and started to storm out of the room.

Senator McCain, like many of those we met, whether polite and sympathetic to us or not, sees the world in black-and-white terms of 100-per-cent-good versus 100-per-cent-evil. So in this case, because Assad, Iran and Lebanon-based Shiite militant group Hezbollah are evil, everyone who opposes them is good.

McCain’s first solution was to bomb Syria, but as this lacks the support of the American people, his next best solution was to arm the rebels.

US Arming Syrian Rebels

Having previously provided only non-lethal aid to the so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria, the US has now started supplying them with weapons. A shipment, including guns, ammunition and anti-tank rockets, was approved in a secret vote in Congress, which also agreed to fund months of further deliveries.

President Obama had promised to provide arms to the rebels back in June, but this proposal was blocked by Congress, as members feared that US weapons could end up in the hands of al-Qaeda or other militant Islamists.

It is naïve to think that only “moderates” will be using U.S. weapons. The opposition in Syria covers a spectrum, with the Free Syrian Army towards the more secular, liberal end, and al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, at the radical Islamist end. The distinctions between the various groups in-between, such as the al-Nusrah Front, are extremely blurred. In any case, in this type of chaotic war situation, it is foolish to imagine that weapons will not pass from one group to another.

When asked if America will attack al-Qaeda in Syria, most of those we met said no, because America has no will to fight. It is holding out the vain hope that a small, secular wing of the rebels will defeat al-Qaeda, the al-Nusrah Front, ISIS and other Islamist groups – as well as the Syrian government forces!

Well-meaning Americans are effectively being used by the Islamists to defeat what it regards as the “greater evil” of Assad; they are in the absurd position of indirectly supporting the very people, i.e. al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups, who want to destroy the U.S. The position taken by the American Administration on Syria has in fact become a threat to the Republic.

In a recent video, Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most influential Islamic clerics in the world, sarcastically thanked the US for supporting the “freedom fighters” in Syria, adding, “Allah willing, your aid will increase.” He called for the US to intervene directly with a military strike against Assad, calling it “a stand for Allah”.

US Identity Crisis

The US is undergoing a major crisis. While it used to dictate the terms of agreements with rogue nations and totalitarian regimes, it is now indirectly strengthening them. The US is being perceived as a toothless tiger; it has power, but no influence.

Perhaps that is because it has forgotten what it stands for. America used to stand for justice, liberty and human rights. But it has become like Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. Perhaps all that some Americans have been thinking of recently is their own bowl of stew – self-interest, pleasure, materialism, luxury. Let us hope that President Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speech will help restore the US to focusing on its traditional values, and putting this into practice with regard to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The Church and Politics

Our delegation of Syrian Church leaders has faced fierce criticism for getting too involved in politics. But all they asked for was a political solution following the Geneva II process, rather than a military solution. They were erroneously reported to be pro-Assad and pro-Hezbollah because they highlighted the atrocities being committed against Christians by opposition forces. But they expressed opposition to all nations and groups engaged in violence in Syria. They went so far as to ask the US that no nation should be allowed to send in foreign fighters.

But the Christians of Syria face a potential genocide, and the US has indicated she will not intervene, but stand by and let it happen. How then can we be silent?

At a panel discussion that we participated in at the Heritage Foundation on 27 January, entitled, “Marked for Destruction: The Plight of Syria’s Christians”, the church leaders spoke of the atrocities that have been committed by rebel groups.

The Rev. Adib Awad, vice moderator of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, said:

“We can accept being marked for destruction if it’s by our Lord. But we will not accept it if it is by terrorists, whether Saudis, or from Qatar or any other nation.”

Some would say, “Why should clergymen and the Church be involved?”, but as members of our delegation argued, the Church must be prophetic, must stand for justice and righteousness. Sometimes taking such a stand can make a huge difference.

In the darkest days of the troubles in Northern Ireland, with British forces pitted against the IRA, clergy were at the heart of a grassroots movement from which a peace process was eventually able to emerge. In 1999, Presbyterian minister the Rev. Ken Newell and Catholic priest Father Gerry Reynolds, who brought people together in the cross-community Clonard-Fitzroy group, were awarded the Pax Christi International Peace Prize for their efforts.

We must believe today that the courage of my colleagues from Syria will one day bear fruit and that through their efforts, peace will come to Syria and ultimately Lebanon and the region. This would be a glorious day, not just for the beleaguered Christian communities, but also for the many good, decent Muslims in the region who yearn for peace and an end to religious extremism. Let us pray for the followers of Jesus Christ in Syria that they will exercise wisdom, courage and faithfulness.

When politicians and statesmen fail, it falls to the Church to stand in the gap.