For a conference that wasn’t primarily about Jews or anti-Semitism, the Holocaust featured fairly prominently at the U.S. State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom last week — and not in a Godwin’s Law sort of way. Perhaps that reflected survivors of religious violence visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last Monday, but “Never Again” was referenced repeatedly. As survivors of religious violence shared their powerful personal stories, it was clear that, no, most of the world never absorbed that central, crucial lesson of the Holocaust.
They referenced Rwanda and Darfur, as well as more recent atrocities (plural), some of which are ongoing. We learned that 83% of the world continues to live in places where religious freedom is under threat or altogether absent, and the most persecuted group by numbers? Christians. The persecuted church includes 250 million people worldwide.
The multiday event included representatives from more than 100 countries discussing the urgency of promoting religious freedom worldwide. In introducing the ministerial, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback explained, “This is not an exercise in trying to achieve a universal theology. We want everyone to come together around the concept that religious freedom at all times is everyone’s right.” And speakers did. Remarks hewed to the specifics, describing the suffering of minority faith communities worldwide, while they also embraced the universal, welcoming solidarity and support from other faith communities and countries.
Encouragement of Unity, Respect, and Love
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue spoke about his community’s lingering trauma, observing that “the killer stole 11 lives and the faith of countless Jews. Brick and mortar can be repaired, but how do you repair or restore one’s faith in G-d?” Myers referenced the outpouring of support his congregation has experienced, as well as the importance of government leaders modeling behavior that upholds societal norms and of all religious and civic leaders foreswearing bigotry. Myers shared that he took a pledge two weeks after the October attack to stop using the word “hate.” He recommends toning down the severity of our language, lest emotional language lead to emotional responses, such as murder.
Dr. Farid Ahmed talked about the March attack on his New Zealand mosque that took his wife and left many children motherless or fatherless, and for which he made news by forgiving the man who took 51 lives. Ahmed told the audience, “Love pulls us together. Hate destroys us. One who has hate has a heart like a volcano, filled with rage and fury, burning within, trying to burn the outside.” Ahmed advised that if we want to be at peace, we can decide to change together, and politicians will follow. “We’re one human family. We must treat one another with love, respect, and fairness.”
Yamini Ravindran, the legal and advocacy coordinator for the Sri Lankan nongovernmental organization National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, or NCEASL, recalled the Easter Sunday attacks that killed 259 and injured hundreds more in Sri Lanka. She talked about children who had just been asked by their Sunday school teacher how many were willing to die for Jesus — nearly all — moments before that became a reality. The victims live with ongoing trauma, but they don’t fear forgiveness. Ravindran called on faith leaders to collaborate and oppose violence within their own communities, disseminating affirmative speech to counter hate.
More Atrocities Abroad
2018 Nobel Peace Prize-winner Nadia Murad detailed the horrors she and her family experienced when the Islamic State invaded her homeland in northern Iraq five years ago. The invasion included mass killings, forced conversions, and widespread sexual violence against women. ISIS made the Yazidi Murad a sex slave, but she refused to convert. Among Murad’s suggestions for ensuring she’s the last woman with such a story: Prosecute ISIS soldiers in international court.
Meanwhile, Jewher Ilham painted a bleak portrait of Uighur life in China. Ilham’s father, a Uighur scholar who encouraged peaceful coexistence with the Han Chinese, is serving a life sentence in jail. The Chinese government has put more than 1 million people in concentration camps, where prisoners’ organs are harvested, and Uighurs are forced to give up their language, culture, and religion. Ilham wants the international community to demand that China release all prisoners’ names, so families know where their relatives are.
Who Will Condemn Anti-Semitism?
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s remarks disappointingly tiptoed around the anti-Semitism embroiling his own political party and endangering Jewish life in Europe. The ministerial’s breakout session on anti-Semitism addressed Europe, though, including northern European efforts to ban or restrict religious circumcision and ritual slaughter, which threaten religious freedom for Muslims and Jews.
Vice President Mike Pence unequivocally condemned anti-Semitism as “evil,” noting its existence domestically and abroad. For example, “Jewish community leaders report that media associated with the [Nicolás] Maduro regime often cast coverage of Israel in anti-Semitic tones and trivialize or even deny the Holocaust.” In his round-the-globe remarks, Pence addressed numerous persecuted groups and practical steps the U.S. government is taking to combat religious violence, such as placing sanctions on two Iranian-backed militia leaders and visa sanctions on two top Burmese military leaders for mass atrocities against the Rohingya.
All of these atrocities bring us back to Ján Figeľ, special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion for the European Union, who commented, “Never again means never again, but I’m sitting here because there was a genocide in the Middle East.” Figeľ noted that wherever indifference, ignorance, and fear are present, evil can succeed, and he asked, “Do we commit to this [the U.N.’s Genocide Convention of 1948], or is it just paper?”
Markus Grübel, Germany’s first global minister for religious freedom, may have offered the best answer to that question. He said through his translator that promoting religious freedom requires three things: 1) monitoring (to make violations widely known), 2) sparking an outcry, and 3) forging alliances (for a greater reach and higher degree of legitimacy).
This conference certainly brought many pressing issues to the fore. Let’s hope it lit a spark for change because “Never Again” should never be just paper.