In their tragic slide toward the far left in the 1970s and 1980s, America’s Mainline churches and their ecumenical councils largely lost interest in religious freedom and even the plight of persecuted Christians. Engagement with communist regimes and their allies took priority. In more recent years, liberal Protestants often have preferred similar collaboration with Islamist regimes rather open advocacy in defense of their Christian and other minority religious victims.
Of late, there have been some small, refreshing exceptions to the scandalous church silence about persecuted Christians, at least by the National Council of Churches, World Council of Churches, and the United Methodists.
In mid-October, Sudanese church leaders were hosted by the National Council of Churches (NCC) in New York. Not so many years ago, the NCC infamously hosted Fidel Castro, who assured a largely sympathetic church audience there was no religious persecution in communist Cuba. These Sudanese doubtless offered a very different message. Mostly from southern Sudan, which is majority Christian, these church leaders have survived decades of Islamist persecution by Khartoum. The Islamist regime’s war against southern Sudan, which the Bush Administration helped negotiate to a precarious truce, killed 2 million. In January, southern Sudanese will vote on potential autonomy for themselves, amid widespread doubts that Khartoum will peacefully respect the result.
American Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and human rights groups championed southern Sudan in the 1990s and early 2000s, which helped bolster the Bush Administration’s focus. But liberal religious groups, especially Mainline Protestants, were usually quiet. In the mid-2000s, liberal religious groups eagerly touted the plight of Sudan’s predominantly Muslim Darfur region in the west. Standing with Darfur’s victimized African Muslims against Khartoum’s more Arabized Islamists evidently did not discomfit liberal religious groups as much as supporting Christians against Islamists. Commonly, Khartoum’s Islamist motivation was ignored, and the Bush Administration was faulted for somehow failing to impose a peace in Darfur.
In an NCC news release, NCC chief Michael Kinnamon boasted the National Council of Churches has “for years” campaigned against the killing in Darfur, where more than 300,000 have died from Khartoum’s war. Oddly, the news release cited Darfur’s struggle between Khartoum-backed militias and “black Christian and animist Africans,” obviously confusing Darfur’s mostly Muslim population with southern Sudan’s mostly non-Muslim people. Kinnamon insisted the NCC’s concerns extend beyond Darfur to all Sudan. Referring to the Save Darfur Coalition, which an NCC official now heads, Kinnamon explained: “While this coalition started as a Darfur organization because of the genocide, our mission has evolved into an all-Sudan policy, including…the upcoming referendum.” He promised about the Sudanese Christians: “We support our sisters and brothers during this difficult and unpredictable period.”
Kinnamon referred to the NCC having passed a resolution about southern Sudan almost a decade ago, which vaguely urged “religious tolerance among Christians, Muslims and those practicing African Traditional Religions” in Sudan, without mentioning that the real problem was Khartoum’s Islamist ambitions. Now, the NCC seems more serious in its interest in southern Sudan. The Sudanese church delegation that visited the NCC in October included Sudan’s Anglican primate, two Catholic bishops, and the head of Sudan’s council of churches. They rightly warned, as the NCC news release noted, that “the safety and human rights (including the right to freedom of religion) of southerners living in northern Sudan [i.e. mostly Christians] are in jeopardy before, during and after the referendum.”
Interestingly, the delegation also included Samuel Kobia, a Kenyan Methodist pastor who recently departed as head of the Swiss-based World Council of Churches, which, like the NCC, rarely evinced interest in southern Sudan under Kobia or his predecessor. The WCC’s new chief is a Norwegian pastor who is steering in a somewhat different direction. An October WCC news release refreshingly spotlighted the plight of an escaped North Korean Christian who addressed the recent evangelical Lausanne Congress in South Africa.
The 18-year-old North Korean woman reportedly moved her audience to tears when describing how her father, a former aide to Kim Jong-Il, became a Christian and has probably been executed by North Korea on charges of treason and espionage. “This is often the fate of confessing Christians in North Korea,” the WCC news release accurately admitted. In previous years, the WCC and other Western ecumenical groups have fawningly visited Pyongyang, obligingly visited its show churches, and blamed America for North Korea’s poverty, with nary a word about religious persecution.
“Brothers and sisters here in this place, I humbly ask you to pray that the same light of God’s grace and mercy that reached my father and my mother, and now me, will one day soon dawn upon the people of North Korea, my people,” the young woman implored, as the spellbound audience erupted into applause.
Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church’s lobby office denounced China for banning Chinese Christians from attending the same evangelical conference in South Africa at which the North Korean woman had spoken. “No government should have authority over the church,” a spokesman with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society asserted. “Thus, the actions by the Chinese government to restrict travel and intimidate Christians are an offense against the basic rights of all humanity.”
The Methodist agency, with the collaboration and probable prodding of a United Methodist evangelical group, even commended the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. It urged prayers for “brothers and sisters in Christ” who are “suffering through persecution in places like Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan, Vietnam, Burma and Iran.” Also citing Sudan and North Korea, it noted that Christians in these countries are “economically and politically marginalized, physically brutalized, and even killed simply because they follow Jesus.”
Over 20 years ago, purported North Korean Christian clerics dispatched by North Korea’s communists were hosted by the United Methodist lobby office on Capitol Hill to gain legitimacy for North Korea’s communist tyranny. Today, that office, and other Mainline Protestant agencies that once routinely apologized for North Korea, are now advocating on behalf of persecuted Christians in North Korea and elsewhere where they are imprisoned and martyred by communists and Islamists. The new found interest in religious freedom may be incremental, but it is progress.