This Muslim NBA vet is marching for persecuted Christians on Saturday
Former Celtics player Enes Kanter Freedom will be the keynote speaker at the March for the Martyrs, | Freedom: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Martyrs: Screenshot from the National Catholic Register
NBA veteran Enes Kanter Freedom has been using his platform as a professional basketball player to take direct aim at the Chinese Communist Party for its egregious human rights abuses.
“People need to understand this … the Chinese Communist Party does not represent the Olympic values of excellence, of respect, of friendship. The whole world knows that they’re a brutal dictatorship and they engage in censorship, they tread on freedoms, they do not respect human rights, and they hide the truth,” Freedom told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham in February.
But with no team signing a contract with the 6-foot-10, 250-pound center since February, he, and others, say that he’s paying the price for his activism — activism that includes explicitly calling out the NBA, his former team the Boston Celtics, and other players in the league for hypocrisy, citing their relationship with, and failure to condemn, China.
The 30-year-old seems more determined than ever to work in defense of human rights.
Freedom, a practicing Muslim from Turkey, will be speaking at Saturday’s March for the Martyrs in Washington, D.C., an event dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of persecuted Christians around the world.
“His voice in this generation is so important,” said Gia Chacon, founder and president of For the Martyrs, the organization running the march. Chacon told CNA Aug. 25 that Freedom “had the world at his fingertips,” but added that he “sacrificed everything to advocate on behalf of the voiceless.”
Chacon said that the March for the Martyrs exists to “combat the silence” around the issue of Christian persecution. In addition, its goal is to bring the attention and prayers of Western Christians to the persecuted church across the globe.
But why did Chacon choose a Muslim to speak at an event advocating for persecuted Christians?
She says it’s because a bridge needs to be built between Muslims and Christians.
“For him to speak about persecuted Christians; to talk about the importance of freedom of religion makes this issue that much more powerful,” she said.
“And,” she added, “it’s a message to Muslims — not just in the United States, but around the world — that we need to build a bridge between Christians and Muslims,” especially given that Islamist terrorists are among the top persecutors of Christians around the world.
Freedom also recently launched his foundation — the Enes Kanter Freedom Foundation — in June, which, according to the Washington Times, advocates for civil rights in authoritarian countries like China and Turkey. The Times reported that Freedom will be taking on the foundation’s work full time.
In a June 22 Facebook post, Freedom said: “I’m so excited to announce my new foundation that aims to promote #Freedom, Universal Values, Social Harmony, Poverty Alleviation #HumanRights & #Democracy around the GLOBE.” On Freedom’s website, there is a page to donate to the foundation.
Freedom was born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey before coming to the U.S. to play basketball. He was drafted by the Utah Jazz as the third overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft and made his debut that same year.
The Bleacher Report recently called him one of the most underrated players of the last 10 years, citing his top 10 performance in career rebounding and offensive rebounding plus his general awareness on the court.
Freedom is a longtime critic of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, often calling him a dictator. Although his family still lives in Turkey, Freedom has said in past interviews that he hasn’t spoken to them in years, which hurts him. But he says that communication must be cut off because of the political climate there and his criticism of the regime.
While he was with the New York Knicks, Freedom said in 2019 that he skipped a team trip to London because he feared being killed, while calling the Turkish president a “freaking lunatic” and a “dictator.”
Other speakers at the March for the Martyrs event include Chacon; David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA; Esther Zang, a survivor of Christian persecution in China and North Korea; Jacob Coyne, founder of Stay Here, an organization dedicated to ending the mental health crisis and suicide; Father Simon Esshaki, a Chaldean Catholic priest; Jason Jones, a filmmaker, humanitarian, and founder of the Vulnerable People Project; Shane Winnings, CEO and president of Overcomers Inc., an evangelical organization that helps Christians preach and teach the Gospel; Russel Johnson, pastor of The Pursuit church; and Ryan Helfenbein, executive director of the Standing for Freedom Center.
Delivering another keynote address will be evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who worked to spread Christianity in the Middle East for years before he was imprisoned in Turkey for two years.
His experience as a pastor in the Middle East, in addition to his imprisonment, will be the topic of his speech, Chacon said.
As many as 1,000 people are expected at this year’s march, which begins at 3 p.m. with an opening rally before moving from the National Mall to the nearby Museum of the Bible. A new addition to this year’s event includes free busing for any group of 50 people located three or four hours from the march.
The buses will pick the groups up and drop them off at the end of the night, Chacon said. Groups interested can email email@example.com.
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In addition to the march, Chacon’s organization leads an annual mission trip to visit persecuted Christians around the world. In 2021, Chacon and her team went to Iraq.
The organization spreads awareness of Christian persecution through online content, especially through videos. It also sponsors various development projects overseas to help persecuted Christians such as a computer lab in Iraq for internally displaced Christians, Chacon said.
According to Open Doors USA, an organization dedicated to serving persecuted Christians across the globe, more than 360 million Christians around the world face extreme persecution and discrimination because of their faith.
The organization, which compiles a “World Watch List” of “The top 50 countries where it’s most difficult to follow Jesus” lists Afghanistan as the top persecutor of Christians in the world, citing “Islamic oppression.”
The other countries that make up the top 10, in order, are North Korea, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Eritrea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, and India. China is ranked 17th on the list. Turkey is ranked 42.
Joseph Bukuras is a journalist at the Catholic News Agency. Joe has prior experience working in state and federal government, in non-profits, and Catholic education. He has contributed to an array of publications and his reporting has been cited by leading news sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America. He is based out of the Boston area.
Egypt’s Christian minority has long been regarded as a second-class group among the Muslim majority populace, and in recent years several major terrorist attacks have targeted the Coptic Christian community.