religious liberty

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Early in the Iraq war, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana took part in a congressional fact-finding trip to meet with U.S. troops.

Some of the lessons he learned during his first trip to that troubled land had more to do with religion than with warfare. While meeting with local officials, for example, Pence watched the local imam rush to embrace a friend -- the Catholic bishop in southern Iraq. A translator said the imam thanked the bishop for staying in touch after the recent death of his mother.

That was enlightening, said Vice President Pence, during the recent "Help the Persecuted" summit in Washington, D.C. But he also learned a crucial fact that day. 

"I turned to the diplomatic aide who was with me," Pence recalled, "and said, 'So there's a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'Yes, yes there is.' And I said, 'How long has there been a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'About 1,500 years.' "

That's a sobering fact, since Iraq's Christian population has fallen 80 percent since that 2004 meeting, said Pence. The Christian population of Syria has fallen 50 percent in the past six years.

"As you all know, no people of faith face greater hostility or hatred than followers of Christ," said the vice president. "In more than 100 nations, spread to every corner of the world … over 245 million Christians confront intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion, abuse, assault or worse."

Nohere is this onslaught more evident than in the "ancient land where Christianity was born," he added. "In Egypt we see the bombing of churches during Palm Sunday celebrations. In Iraq we see monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul clinging for survival. In Syria, we see ancient communities burned to the ground and believers tortured for confessing the name of Christ. … Christianity now faces an exodus in the Middle East unrivaled since the days of Moses."

Pence has made similar remarks before, but these statements rarely gain traction outside the world of Christian media. The problem is that the words "religious persecution" -- especially when linked to suffering Christians -- remain controversial among some public officials and journalists.

In Britain, for example, immigration officials ruled against the asylum claim of an Iranian national who had converted to Christianity. Here's what made headlines: The Home Office backed this action with claims that Christianity is not a religion of peace, quoting Leviticus 26:7 ("Ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword") and the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:24 ("Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword").

Meanwhile, the Christian Broadcasting Network and other conservative groups have noted, in recent weeks, the deaths of an estimated 120 Christians in central Nigeria.

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

After one trip into Libya as a migrant worker, Tawadros Youssef Tawadros reported that he had been warned that his Christian name -- "Theodore," in English -- might anger Muslim radicals.

His widow, Maleka Ayad, recalled him saying: "Anyone who starts changing his name will end up changing his faith."

Malak Ibrahim Seniut was more blunt, in a final talk with his priest. Told that Christians could be witnesses by living a long, faithful life, the young man replied: "That's not enough for me. I want to do it through death."

On Feb. 15, 2015, both were among the men beheaded by Islamic State soldiers on a beach in Libya. All 21 -- 20 Egyptian Copts and a Ghanan who professed his Christian faith -- were soon declared martyrs by the Coptic Orthodox Church. This is the latest chapter in a long drama, detailed by writer Martin Mosebach, of the German Academy of Arts.

"The Coptic Church, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, is among the earliest manifestations of Christianity. In 1,400 years of suppression after the Islamic conquest, it has still preserved its original form and it has proven to have the most amazing vitality," he said, at an event this week in New York City, marking the release of the English edition of his book, "The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs."

"The faith found in this church was and is stronger than all of the economic and social disadvantages Christians have to suffer. The Coptic Church has never been broken by political oppression. The Christianity of the first millennium is still to be found there and is … a living reality."

After immersing himself in the village culture surrounding these new saints, the Catholic author reached this conclusion: For these men, liturgy and martyrdom were "two sides of one and the same coin."

There was something truly iconic about those 21 men in orange jumpsuits kneeling on that beach, said Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London.

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Once again, Coptic Christians faced bloody bodies in the sands of Egypt, as terrorists killed seven pilgrims who had just prayed at the Monastery of St. Samuel.

No one was surprised when the Islamic State took credit for that November attack south of Cairo. After all, 28 pilgrims were massacred near the same spot in 2017.

In Syria, Orthodox believers marked the fifth anniversary of the kidnapping of Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church -- who were trying to negotiate the release of priests seized weeks earlier. Today, their followers know less about the identity of the attackers than they did in 2013.

In the Nineveh plains of Iraq, Christians slowly returned to communities in which their ancestors had worshipped since the first century after Christ. Zero Christians remained in Mosul after ISIS demanded that they convert to Islam or pay the jizya head tax, while living with brutal persecution.

But nothing remained of the 1400-year-old Dair Mar-Elia (Saint Elijah's Monastery), after invaders blew it up twice and then bulldozed the rubble.

Try to imagine the faith it requires for believers to carry on after all this has taken place, said the Prince of Wales, speaking at a Westminster Abbey service last month celebrating the lives of Christians who endure persecution in the Middle East.

"Time and again I have been deeply humbled and profoundly moved by the extraordinary grace and capacity for forgiveness that I have seen in those who have suffered so much," said Prince Charles, who has worked to build contacts in the ancient Christian East.

"Forgiveness, as many of you know far better than I, is not a passive act, or submission. Rather, it is an act of supreme courage, of a refusal to be defined by the sin against you. … It is one thing to believe in God who forgives. It is quite another to take that example to heart and actually to forgive, with the whole heart, 'those who trespass against you' so grievously."

The persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East was not one of 2018's big news stories. Instead, this parade of horrors became a kind of "old news" that rarely reached the prime headlines offered by elite newsrooms.

Ties that bind: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Russia and Fatima

Ties that bind: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Russia and Fatima

The world was buzzing with rumors about U.S.-Soviet talks as President Ronald Reagan flew to Italy for a global economic summit in the summer of 1987.

There were only two events on Reagan's schedule before the Group of Seven sessions -- a June 6 meeting with Pope John Paul II and a hush-hush briefing beforehand by U.S. Vatican Ambassador Frank Shakespeare.

The secret topic, at Reagan's request: The visions of Our Lady of Fatima to three children in Portugal in 1917, including prophecies linking St. Mary, Russia and, the world would later learn, the shooting of a "bishop in white." This was crucial information about John Paul II.

The pope believed Mary intervened to save his life on May 13, 1981, when an assassin tied to Bulgarian spies and Soviet military intelligence gunned him down in St. Peter's Square -- on the 64th anniversary of the first Fatima vision.

The pope needed six pints of blood to survive. Reagan required eight pints during surgery after he was shot six weeks earlier, on March 30th. He was convinced his survival was part of a divine plan, which Reagan called the "DP."

Reagan met John Paul II for the first time a year after the shootings. He told the pope: "Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened."

Clearly, the Soviet plans "backfired," said author Paul Kengor, in an Oct. 22 lecture at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.

"The Soviets were worried about an alliance. Right? So they wanted to end this alliance -- especially by getting rid of the pope," he said, speaking on the feast day of St. John Paul II.

Instead, these men went on to hold five strategic meetings, backed by an unknown number of back-channel contacts. Kengor's book about their friendship, "A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and the Extraordinary Story of the 20th Century," was published in 2017.

"Well, you really screwed this up," said Kengor, who teaches at Grove City College. "Now, these two -- they've got the world's most exclusive, mutual prayer society. They've got a bond that no pope and president may ever have."

There was no translator present in the 1987 Vatican meeting between Reagan and the multilingual John Paul II. The president told aides that they discussed U.S.-Soviet relations, nuclear arms control and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But in his public statement afterwards Reagan also included strong words about the future of Poland. John Paul II was days away from another trip to his homeland.

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

For millions of American evangelicals, a recent Oval Office photo-op was a perfect example of the political realities they face.

A day after his release from a Turkish prison, the Rev. Andrew Brunson knelt and prayed for the president who helped focus a global spotlight on efforts to free him. Brunson had been accused of backing critics of the Turkish regime.

The pastor asked God to give Donald Trump "perseverance, and endurance and courage to stand for truth. I ask that you to protect him from slander from enemies, from those who would undermine. … Fill him with your wisdom and strength and perseverance. And we bless him."

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to smile.

Trump, in jest, asked Brunson and his wife: "Who did you vote for?"

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to groan.

In the current news theory of everything, few numbers in American political life have received more attention than this one -- 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Politicos have paid less attention to signs that many evangelicals cast those votes with reluctance, and some with a sense of dread.

"This was really a faith-based vote -- faith that Trump would operate as a conservative on the issues that mattered the most to evangelicals," said World Magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky, a Christian conservative who, citing character flaws, openly opposed Trump getting the GOP nomination.

"I still don't like him at all, but I have to say that he's coming through. … It's a kind of politics by gesture, but he's pulling it off."

Praying with Brunson was "a perfect gesture," he added. But if Trump had "blown it on the Supreme Court, his support among evangelicals would have plummeted."

Before the election, World consulted 100 evangelical "leaders and insiders" and half of them said they wouldn't vote for Trump, "no matter what." The other half said they would watch for signals that Trump sent about the U.S. Supreme Court.

What comes next for religious liberty, after the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision?

What comes next for religious liberty, after the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision?

The Pulitzer Prize winning "Angels in America" has long been a touchstone for gay spirituality, so it wasn't surprising that actor Andrew Garfield celebrated winning a Tony Award in the play's revival with remarks mixing faith and politics.

It's crucial, he said, to celebrate the play's "spirit that says 'no' to oppression. It is a spirit that says 'no' to bigotry. … It is a spirit that says we are all made perfectly."

Garfield concluded: "We are all sacred. … So let's just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked!"

The baker behind the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Masterpiece Cakeshop decision has heard pronouncements of this kind many times since that fateful day in 2012 when he declined to create one of his handcrafted, personalized cakes to celebrate the same-sex marriage of Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

"The biggest myth I hear all the time, pretty much, is that I turned away a gay couple. But the truth is, I never turn away any customers. I do, sometimes, have to decline to create cakes that violate my faith, and that was the case here," said Phillips, in a Lutheran Public Radio interview soon after the June 4 decision.

"The two gentlemen that sued me were welcome in my shop that day. I told them, I'll sell you cookies, brownies, birthday cakes, anything else, custom cakes -- it's just that I can't create this one, because this was a cake that goes against the core of my faith."

While this was a 7-2 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion (.pdf) focused on evidence that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had demonstrated open hostility to Phillips and his Christian faith. Thus, he avoided a broader ruling on First Amendment protections of free speech and the "free exercise" of religion.

Naturally, church-state activists have argued about the significance of this much-anticipated decision. At least four camps have emerged so far.

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

It's hard for anyone -- let alone a former president -- to visit Liberty University these days without mentioning President Donald Trump.

Sure enough, former President Jimmy Carter opened his recent Liberty commencement address with a quip linked to Trump's claims that his inauguration crowd was as large, or larger, than that of President Barack Obama.

The set-up: Trump addressed the school's 2017 graduates.

"This is a wonderful crowd," said Carter, after being introduced by Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr. "Jerry told me … that it's even bigger -- I hate to say this -- than it was last year." With a slight grin, he added: "I don't know if President Trump would admit that or not."

The crowd laughed, and some people cheered. Carter avoided any further Trump references -- at least by name.

The key to this day was that Carter and Falwell treated each other with respect, and even affection, setting the tone for an encounter between the evangelical left and right. In 2015, Falwell also made headlines by inviting Sen. Bernie Sanders to speak on campus.

Calling the 93-year-old Carter the "world's most famous Sunday school teacher," Falwell praised his declaration of born-again Christian faith while in public life and his legacy, as an ex-president, of serving others. Liberty's leader stressed that Carter showed political courage, and paid a high price among Democrats, when he signed the Hyde Amendment banning the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions.

"The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person, and to give my political support to a person," said Falwell. "Policies are important. But candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today."

Carter's visit, he added, was an example of Christians "uniting … on issues where they agree, rather than fighting about issues where they disagree."

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

Through the decades, the Rev. Billy Graham was known for saying three words over and over -- "The Bible says."

But the world's most famous evangelist quoted another authority during his 1994 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- Shirley MacLaine. A year earlier, Graham noted, the actress, and spiritual adventurer told the editors that religion plays a major role in news worldwide and that it's high time for journalists to accept that.

"What has happened to us?", asked MacLaine. "Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age? Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?''

"Amen," said Graham. Journalists and preachers, he stressed, both communicate news about what's happening in life and culture. Both care about people and truth. Both care about injustice, racism and corruption.

"I believe that this is why the founding fathers included both freedom of religion and freedom of the press in the same First Amendment," he added. "In the long run, the loss of one freedom will bring about the loss of the other."

It isn't every day that a religion writer gets to quote Billy Graham and Shirley MacLaine making essential points about journalism.

Then again, this isn't just another column for me. This week marks my 30th anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column. The first piece ran on April 11, 1988 and focused -- wait for it -- on arguments about evangelicals and White House politics. Turn, turn, turn.

Three decades is a long time, so allow me to pause and make something clear. I still believe that if journalists want to cover real news in the real lives of real people in the real world then they need to get real serious about religion.

Yes, there are problems.

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Unity was the theme during the 1992 Democratic Convention, with nominee Bill Clinton, and his wife Hillary, joining hands with delegates as they sang an anthem called "Circle of Friends."

But there was a problem in the Pennsylvania delegation, where two-term Gov. Robert Casey was feeling excluded. An old-school Catholic Democrat, Casey had been denied a speaking slot during platform debates. On the convention floor, delegates were selling buttons showing him dressed as the pope -- since he opposed abortion.

Months later, a coalition formed to explore whether Casey should challenge President Clinton in 1996, running on progressive economics and cultural conservatism. Pro-life Democrats like Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver were involved, but Republican Jeffrey Bell -- Ronald Reagan's first full-time campaign staffer in 1976 -- emerged as a team leader.

Why would a Catholic Republican back a Democrat? In a 1995 interview, Bell told me that he was worried many religious voters -- especially evangelicals and Catholics -- had already decided they had no choice but to support GOP nominees.

"Republicans, unfortunately, have good reason to feel complacent," said Bell, after Casey's failing health prevented a White House run. As for evangelicals and traditional Catholics, Republican leaders "pat them on the head," and "buy them off easy," because cultural conservatives have few political alternatives.

"Why do Republicans have to address the concerns of moral conservatives? They have Bill Clinton. They have Hillary Clinton," he said. "They're right here in Washington, working full-time to make sure they have someone to vote against. …

"Someday, this is going to cause BIG problems for evangelicals and conservative Catholics."

Casey died in 2000, after major heart problems closed his career.

Bell died in February, after a career in which he ran for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey -- in 1978 and 2014 -- but was better known for work behind the scenes helping others, following beliefs that escaped easy political labels.