Human rights advocates warned that the U.S. government is failing to recognize the religious nature of violent conflicts in countries around the world, calling for more stringent U.S. foreign policy.
Persecution of religious minorities cannot be ignored because “lives are in the balance,” said Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, an organization that works to serve persecuted Christians worldwide.
Moeller spoke about religious oppression at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on May 3.
He was joined by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who warned of the “growing scourge” of religious-based oppression.
In many areas of the world, the situation is “actually getting worse rather than getting better,” Rabbi Adlerstein said, as limitations on religious freedom for minority groups have become a “political tool” for many regimes.
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., also spoke at the event, noting the important link between religious freedom and other important liberties such as freedom of speech.
The speakers said those who value freedom must make defense of religious liberty abroad an important priority in their foreign policy work.
Moeller pointed to a recent Pew Research study that found about 70 percent of the world’s population living in areas that lack religious freedom.
Oppression based on religion is the “horrible, murderous reality for millions of people around the world,” he said, adding that Christians are particularly targeted in many parts of the world, where they face “unimaginable hardship.”
The persecution is so extreme that it can even be considered “religiocide” in places such as Iraq, where Christian communities are being intentionally and systematically eliminated through both violence and fear, he said.
“This is not a small campaign,” he added, stressing that religious freedom is restricted not only in the Middle East but in many other regions of the globe as well.
In Nigeria, the situation is particularly dire, Moeller said. While the Southern part of the country has a vibrant community of Pentecostal Christians, the North is largely controlled by extreme Sharia law, he explained.
Persecution of Christians in the country is “driven by Islamic extremism,” especially the group Boko Haram, which is committed to completely eliminating all Christians from the country, he said.
While Church bombings are on the rise, religious persecution affects not only the ability to worship, but also the ability to go about daily life, he said, offering the example of a business in Nigeria that had been bombed because its owners were Christians.
Bombings and murders are simply the “tip of the iceberg” for religious minorities who are subject to an “entire culture” of oppression and marginalization, he explained.
Given the serious nature of the situation, Moeller said that he was alarmed to hear Johnnie Carson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, say in a recent speech that religion is not driving extremist violence in Nigeria.
This assertion is contrary to what the facts clearly show, that such violence “is not random,” but is targeted and “intentional,” argued Moeller.
A failure to recognize the reality of religious persecution is a “major blind spot” in American foreign policy statements, he said.
Moeller called on President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney make religious freedom an important part of political discussions in the upcoming year.
“This is not a political football,” he said. “These are lives at stake.”