I live in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where 400 years ago the Mayflower first dropped anchor in the New World. The Pilgrims tried to make a home here before finding Cape Cod too inhospitable and pushing off for Plymouth; the Mayflower Compact was written and signed in Provincetown Harbor. So I have a particular interest in the presence of the Pilgrims here, and their motivations for risking everything to make such a perilous ocean voyage.
Why did they do it? Very simply—to worship God in their own way. And this week we recognize them, and people around the world and throughout history, who have wanted the same thing as we mark National Religious Freedom Day.
I grew up going to a Catholic school, but that didn’t stop me from making friends in my neighborhood, and I remember my first brush with the issue when I learned that my friend Martine and her family had had to emigrate to France because, as Jews, they’d been harassed in their country of origin. It seemed inexplicable to my mind: Martine was in so many ways like me, what was the problem? But as I moved into my teens and began taking on volunteer projects, projects that took me out of my city and out of my comfort zone, I heard stories that shocked me. Kids my age who’d been thrown out of schools, their parents unable to find employment, their homes covered with hateful graffiti. Kids who were called names, spat upon, bullied. Like Martine, they were in so many ways just like me, except that they weren’t Catholic. They were Jewish. They were Muslim.
I didn’t understand it then, and to be honest, I still don’t understand it now. As Catholics, we consider freedom of religion to be the most basic of human freedoms. In the papal document Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration of Religious Liberty, Pope Paul VI asserted that “the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”
This religious freedom is never something we can take for granted. Various Roman emperors devastated the early Church; the French Revolution, the reign of Henry VIII of England, fascism and communism in the 20th century, all of history tells us that tolerance and freedom can disappear in a heartbeat.
And at the same time, when it works… I’ll never forget the pictures of Muslims and Christians encircling one another in Cairo’s largest evangelical church during the Arab Spring, protecting one another so they could pray.
That is humanity at its best. That is what we’re called to.
“Religious freedom, an essential requirement of the dignity of every person, is a cornerstone of the structure of human rights,” said Saint John Paul II, “and for this reason, an irreplaceable factor in the good of individuals and of the whole of society as well as of the personal fulfillment of each individual.”
While we celebrate Religious Freedom Day this week, it’s sobering to realize just how few of us are assured of that freedom. Violence that runs contrary to the tenets of every world religion seems to be running rampant through extremist thought and acted upon with frightening regularity. Acts of violence based on religion or belief are on the increase globally. This includes atrocities that amount to genocide and crimes against humanity.
We’re all painfully aware of a recent and dramatic rise in worldwide anti-Semitism; we’re also seeing ongoing violence flowing out of anti-Muslim feelings and activities. But many of us don’t realize that, according to Open Doors International, eleven Christians are martyred somewhere in the world—every day. In North Korea, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea, India, Iran, and Pakistan, Christianity is officially or unofficially outlawed. While acts of violence and severe deprivation of human rights affect all religious groups and especially minority religious groups, over the recent months report after report has been raising issues that relate to the persecution of Christians globally. According to former British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, the persecution of Christians in parts of the world is at near-genocide levels.
Genocide seems to run through the fabric of human existence. Nazi Germany attempted the genocide of Jews. During the 1990s, Christian Serbs massacred 8,000 Muslim men and boys in what is now known as the worst atrocity in Europe since WWII. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were raped, their homes burned, and denied citizenship in Buddhist Myanmar. Over one million of China’s Uighur Muslims are currently held in internment camps, tortured for being Muslim. There seems to be no end to the way people are willing to censure and attempt to eradicate those who believe differently.
But there is a better way. There is a way to live and respect each other as children of God, however, we choose to name him.
In My Antonia, author Willa Cather writes,
Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seeds as they went. The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had a sunflower trail to follow… sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom.”
The question we ask ourselves should not be, “do you live in fear?” Instead, we should ask ourselves if we can be the ones to scatter those sunflower seeds, if we can make a road to religious freedom for everyone to follow.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Image by Timothy Eberly for Unsplash