14 January 2013

At home and abroad: religious freedom under threat

The Guardian's Rupert Shortt reminds readers that Christianity is by no means foreign to the Middle East: In the Middle East, the Arab spring has given way to a Christian winter.

The line about the American general meeting the Arab Christian isn't as familiar as it should be. "When did your family convert?" the general asked. "About 2,000 years ago," the Arab answered wryly.

The general's ignorance is widely shared. Take but one example from closer to home. Over-zealous teachers in London have recently been pulling Syrian Orthodox refugees out of school assemblies in London, on the basis that Arab children must by definition be Muslims. The truth, of course, is that Christianity is an import from the Middle East, not an export to it. Christians have formed part of successive civilisations in the region for many centuries – they were, as Rowan Williams has pointed out, a dominant presence in the Byzantine era, an active partner in the early Muslim centuries, a long-suffering element within the Ottoman empire and, more recently, "a political catalyst and nursery of radical thinking in the dawn of Arab nationalism".

Today, though, the religious ecology of the Middle East looks more fragile than ever, as the Arab spring gives way to Christian winter. [Emphasis mine]

Sad to say, the numbers of Christians in the region have steadily declined over the centuries, with emigration accelerating over the past decade. Threats to Christians continue, not only in Egypt, but also Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, China and many other countries.

Here in North America, the threats to religious freedom are not as overt, and most people appear not to recognize them as such. Nevertheless, well-known author and pastor Rick Warren has come to the defence of a beleaguered Christian-operated business, as indicated in this report: Hobby Lobby Delays Obamacare Fines for Now; Avoids $18.2 Million Penalty.

Warren, author and pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., has described the company's battle against Obamacare as "nothing less than a landmark battle for America's FIRST freedom, the freedom of religion and the freedom from government intervention in matters of conscience."

Warren said in a statement earlier this month that every American who loves freedom should "shudder at the precedent the government is trying to establish by denying Hobby Lobby the full protection of the First Amendment."

He blasted the government for trying to reinterpret the First Amendment "from freedom to PRACTICE your religion, to a more narrow freedom to worship, which would limit your freedom to the hour a week you are at a house of worship." This, he added, is not only a subversion of the Constitution, "it is nonsense," because "any religion that cannot be lived out … at home and work, is nothing but a meaningless ritual."

Warren predicts that "the battle to preserve religious liberty for all, in all areas of life, will likely become the civil rights movement of this decade."

We have an obligation to support our Christian brothers and sisters, with both prayer and political action. If we are serious in our confession that our whole lives must be lived obediently to God's will in gratitude for our salvation in Jesus Christ (Col. 2:6-7), we dare not acquiesce in either an artificial narrowing of the scope of religion at home or in overt attacks on religious freedom abroad.

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