Washington Wednesday: Persecution around the world

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s January 25, 2023.

I am delighted to have you on board for today’s issue of The world and everything in it. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

First: freedom of religion around the world.

One man who knows is Sam Brownback. He has served as a congressman, senator, governor of Kansas, and US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. Today he is co-chair of the International Religious Freedom Summit.

REICHARD: WORLD’s Carolina Lumetta recently spoke to Brownback at our Washington studio to discuss religious freedom. Here is the edited interview.

CAROLINA LUMETTA, REPORTER: Mr. Brownback, thank you for joining us today.

SAM BROWNBACK, GUEST: Sure, happy to join.

LUMETTA: So let’s do a kind of world tour to start with, if you will. It has been almost two years since the Taliban took over Afghanistan. They have made many promises about upholding democracy and freedom of religion. How would you rate your leadership so far?

BROWNBACK: Terrible, almost genocidal. Terrible for women. If you belong to a religious minority, you had to flee Afghanistan. Now. If you’re a Hazara, Shia Hazara, maybe there are enough of you in a certain concentrated area that you haven’t fled, but the Sikh community is gone. If you’re a Christian, hide yourself. I’ve been working a lot over the last year with a kind of small core group of people trying to extract individuals. And we got a bunch of them out and found other countries to go to. But basically, if you disagreed with the Taliban philosophy and were a religious person, you were either arrested or killed, family members were harassed or imprisoned, or you fled.

LUMETTA: What needs to happen next?

BROWNBACK: When they say a tiger doesn’t change its stripes, that certainly applies to the Taliban, they didn’t change their stripes. And we have allowed a genocide of religious minorities to actually take place before our eyes. And because we get tired of an issue in the West, it’s like people just say, “I’m looking the other way, I’m tired.” And yet you can in a country like Afghanistan, which can be stable with minimal Western presence , but has to have some western backbone, just don’t see it that way or it will relapse into those horrible tribal ways that are deadly to anyone that doesn’t agree with the majority.

LUMETTA: Well, moving to another continent. Explain to me what you saw in Ukraine. Can you clear up reports that the Russian Orthodox Church is being attacked amid the war there?

BROWNBACK: You need a context for that. About five years ago, the Ukrainian people wanted to establish a Ukrainian Orthodox Church through their government. Orthodoxy is a kind of franchise religion. And it’s not appropriate to call it that, but I don’t know how else to describe it. But there is a Bulgarian Orthodox Church, a Russian Orthodox Church, a Greek Orthodox Church, but it’s kind of different from country to country. And throughout history, the Russian government has often used the Russian Orthodox Church for espionage and soft power projection and manipulation within a country. So the Ukrainians didn’t want that anymore, especially after the Russians invaded the eastern part of Ukraine in 2014. So they pushed and were granted what was called autocephaly to establish a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Well, that has taken place. And I think that was really something that really upset Vladimir Putin. Uh, he didn’t want Ukraine to see itself as an independent people. He saw them as just part of Russia, they should be part of the Russian Orthodox Church, and 40% of the members of the Russian Orthodox Church are in Ukraine. I think it was honestly one of the real strikes that really upset President Putin that Ukrainians broke away from Russia. They are trying to become their own country. He just saw him as part of Russia, it’s time to move in and crush that. And he did.

So I really think you’re trying to sort through this development of civil society and the split in orthodoxy in Ukraine, and you’re getting a lot of people talking, pushing, pushing, pushing, back and forth in this debate. My hope is that at least in terms of religious freedom, the religious freedom of all is guaranteed, which one is allowed to practice under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church, but if one is not allowed to do so for the Russian government’s soft power projection or something to use.

LUMETTA: So look at the globe as a whole. Based on your research, what would you say are some underappreciated areas where freedom of religion could be attacked?

BROWNBACK: Nigeria gets quite a lot of coverage but I still think it’s underestimated because the whole Sahel region of West Africa is the target for the next caliphate for the radical Islamic fundamentalists who want to destabilize those governments in the region. They want to create a caliphate, it is now governed weakly. They have a group of people called Fulani who are nomads who have a number of teenagers who have recently been armed and often went in and attacked, mostly Christians but not exclusively.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. The fault lines in Africa now are no longer tribal, they are religious, they run between Christianity and Islam. And I think it’s totally underestimated given the scale of human suffering and migration that we’re going to see if this takes root and starts to go.

I don’t think we look at places in Latin America the way we should. Cuba, certainly for one that has long been standard, but Nicaragua, you see a lot more persecution of the Catholic Church.

Finally, just the general issue of religious freedom. We’re just not strong enough for it. Because often in a country that is left as a civil society, the religions are the only institution big enough to actually hold their own against a government. That is why the Chinese are at war with faith. And they are at war with everyone. They are at war with the Muslim Uyghurs. They are at war with the Tibetan Buddhists. They are at war with Falun Gong and they are certainly at war with Christians. But why are they at war with everyone? Do you hate them all? Well, that’s because this is the only institution in the country that could actually oppose or overthrow the government. And we, as Americans who are freedom-loving people, should look at that and say, well, then we have to stand up for religious freedom.

LUMETTA: You have outlined many stories that are very distressing and involve a lot of human suffering. Are there stories of hope, any places where things have really improved in the last year or five?

BROWNBACK: Why actually, I think it’s a matter of hope that religious freedom is more of a focus now. And there is a grassroots movement for religious freedom that didn’t exist. I’ve been talking about this for 20 years, and 20 years ago there were four people in a room. At the end of this month, a thousand people from around the world will stand up for religious freedom at the Washington Hilton. We’re trying to get this movement to the grassroots. And there is more recognition in the foreign policy community that this is an important foreign policy issue, not just this little side issue. A guy once gave me an example that was really helpful. And I kind of bemoaned him, “I don’t know, I just don’t know what to do. What, what’s going on?” and the guy was Bahá’í. He said, “You know, maybe I’ll give you another perspective on that, Iranians know where all the Bahá’ís are. And if you didn’t, and the West and other people didn’t stand up for freedom of religion, they would kill them all. As it is, what they do is haunt them, they don’t let them go to college in certain places, they have difficulties at work, but they live. And if it weren’t for the religious freedom movement, they’d be dead.” And, you know, you kind of hope that, well, I mean, we’re keeping people alive. It’s a basic human right, it was recognized in the 1948 Convention on Human Rights, every country has signed it. Right now we must make this right come true for the people.

LUMETTA: Absolutely. Thank you for sharing your time and thoughts today.

BROWNBACK: With pleasure.

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