Evoking the moral apathy and failure of the past, U.S. Representative Frank R. Wolf (R-VA) recently asked church leaders around the United States to use their influence for those who are persecuted. In his January 9, 2013 letter to over 300 Catholic and Protestant leaders, Wolf reminded them of the words of German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis during World War II. Bonhoeffer, when “faced with the tyranny and horror of Nazism, famously said, ‘Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act,’” recalled Wolf.
“And that is precisely what many in the church did, or failed to do, as Hitler unleashed his murderous plans,” Wolf continued. Writing with passion and urgency to such representative Christian leaders as the U.S. Catholic bishops, the leaders of Protestant denominations, and the pastors of some of America’s largest “mega-churches,” the congressman then told the story of a German Christian shared in the book When a Nation Forgets God:
I lived in Germany during the Nazi Holocaust. I considered myself a Christian. We heard stories of what was happening to the Jews, but we tried to distance ourselves from it, because, what could anyone do to stop it?
A railroad track ran behind our small church and each Sunday morning we could hear the whistle in the distance and then the wheels coming over the tracks. We became disturbed when we heard the cries coming from the train as it passed by. We realized that it was carrying Jews like cattle in the cars!
Week after week the whistle would blow. We dreaded to hear the sound of those wheels because we knew that we would hear the cries of the Jews en route to a death camp. Their screams tormented us.
We knew the time the train was coming and when we heard the whistle blow we began singing hymns. By the time the train came past our church we were singing at the top of our voices. If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more.
Years have passed and no one talks about it anymore. But I still hear that train whistle in my sleep. God forgive me; forgive all of us who called ourselves Christians and yet did nothing to intervene.”
There are admirable exceptions, but many church leaders have not spoken out for the persecuted consistently and forthrightly or even called their churches to regular times of prayer for the persecuted. Yet Wolf has seen time and time again that committed, organized advocacy can make a difference. The congressman represents Virginia’s 10th District, but he also represents persecuted Christians and other targeted religious believers around the world. He is known for championing religious freedom and other human rights for people in Sudan, China, Egypt, Pakistan, and elsewhere. His advocacy is as long as his tenure in Congress. As he recounts in the book, Prisoner of Conscience: One Man’s Crusade for Global Human and Religious Rights, written with Anne Morse, Wolf’s advocacy efforts began with Ethiopia, Romania, and with refuseniks, Christians, and other dissidents being persecuted in the Soviet Union.
Wolf is also known for challenging U.S. Christians to accept their responsibility to speak out on behalf of co-religionists and others around the world. He once declared that church members should be confident of their influence with Congress because “there are more churches than Chambers of Commerce in the United States.” But in today’s morass of moral equivalence and political correctness, it is increasingly difficult to find religious leaders – let alone political ones – who will speak the truth. And when and if they do, there are always repercussions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel discovered this when her statement that “Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world” in a November 2012 address to the Lutheran Church Synod provoked outrage.
Wolf’s letter revealed that in addition to ongoing advocacy for the persecuted around the world, this new session of Congress he will reintroduce a bill to create a special envoy position within the State Department to advocate on behalf of religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia. His previous bill passed overwhelmingly the House of Representatives, but was blocked in the Senate because it was opposed by the State Department and by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry.
Arab “Spring” has exacerbated conditions for the Middle East Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Mandaeans, Baha’I, and others for whom Wolf and U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA) formed the Congressional Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East in 2008. Wolf noted that while there were some 150,000 Jews in Iraq in 1948, today there are less than 10. Likewise, there were over 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2003 and possibly as few as 500,000 today. “Over the span of a few decades, the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, was virtually emptied of Jews,” Wolf wrote. “The same thing will happen to the Christian community if the current trajectory holds true,” he lamented.
Conditions are no better for minority believers in Pakistan. Wolf finds inspiration in the late Pakistani federal minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who, he said, “boldly followed Jesus in spite of unbelievably hostile circumstances.” Bhatti was brutally assassinated for his outspoken defense of Christians and other minorities and his condemnation of Pakistan’s egregious Blasphemy Laws.
Although Wolf knows a special envoy cannot solve the persecution problem, he told the church leaders, “It certainly can’t hurt to have a high-level person within the State Department bureaucracy who is exclusively focused on the protection and preservation of these ancient communities.” The right envoy can make a difference. For instance, former Senator Jack Danforth, the first Sudan Special Envoy appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001, helped to create the conditions that led to Sudan’s north/south peace settlement. If nothing else, a special envoy would raise the profile of the marginalized. Wolf added, “To do nothing is simply not an option.”
“The Church globally is under assault,” Wolf wrote. “Our response must not be to simply sing more loudly thereby drowning out the cries for help from our brothers and sisters. Rather we must speak out, advocate and act on their behalf.” But Wolf confessed that from his perspective, “the Church in the West, specifically in America, is failing in this regard.” He said that “the silence of many in the West is deafening” and that stories of religious persecution “receive scant attention in the mainstream media, and perhaps more strikingly, are rarely spoken of from our pulpits.” Wolf admitted that much information about the persecution of Christians and others under Islam is silenced by what British-based think tank Civitas calls “the logical error that equates criticism of Muslims with racism, and therefore as wrong by definition.”
“Can you, as a leader in the Church, help?” Wolf asked. “Are you pained by these accounts of persecution?” he demanded. “Will you use your sphere of influence to raise the profile of this issue—be it through a sermon, writing or media interview?” he challenged. He told the leaders that he welcomed their thoughts and invited their engagement “in this monumental task.”
Although it is tempting to merely express outrage or sadness at the persecution of religious believers and then move on to helplessness and inertia, Wolf does not afford church leaders that luxury. There is something they can do. There is something that they are called to do – and not just by a Virginia Congressman. But their voices and influence can help encourage other members of Congress to join that Virginia Congressman and others like him in legislative and diplomatic measures to defend religious minorities around the world.
Many individual Americans have been defenders of the persecuted and have mobilized other concerned citizens to both prayer and advocacy. But in targeting church leaders, Wolf hopes to spread that influence even more broadly, as well as to encourage church leaders to endorse and bless the advocacy that is already taking place by their parishioners and others.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” said Wolf, quoting from The Book of Proverbs. “The Chinese bishop under house arrest cannot speak. The North Korean believer enslaved in the gulag can’t speak. The Iraqi nun fearing for her life cannot speak,” he declared. Rather than leading their congregations in indulgent hymns of self-preoccupation, focused only on the local church and its issues, Church leaders must join their voices in advocacy for the persecuted and oppressed – a hymn as ancient as the Church itself.
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