by Rick Love

This is part four in a series on freedom of religion. Click here for part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Release Asia Bibi images

The self-proclaimed “Islamic State” of Iraq (ISIS) warns the Christians of Mosul: convert, pay tax, leave, or die.

A Sudanese judge orders Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag to be hanged for apostasy and given 100 lashes for adultery.

A Pakistani court sentences Asia Bibi to death by hanging for blasphemy against Islam.

Headlines like these infuriate us and break our hearts. But stories like these are merely the tip of the religious freedom iceberg.

Most Americans understand that religious freedom is inextricably tied to our country’s founding and development. Most Americans believe that everyone should have the right to follow his or her conscience without fear. But too few Americans show concern for the plight of other people persecuted for their faith around the world.

Christians should see things differently. Why? Because lack of religious freedom is an attack on God’s image-bearers.

Every person in our global community is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28), and inherent in humanity is freedom to choose. To coerce an image-bearer against his or her will is an affront to a person’s humanity. So since all people are created in God’s image, religious freedom must apply universally.

Dr. David Gushee makes this point in his brilliant book, The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision is Key to the World’s Future:

“Human life is sacred…. Through God’s revelation in Scripture and incarnation in Jesus Christ, God has declared and demonstrated the sacred worth of human beings and will hold us accountable for responding appropriately…. It includes offering due respect and care to each human being that we encounter. It extends to an obligation to protect human life from wanton destruction, desecration, or the violation of human rights. A full embrace of the sacredness of human life leads to a full-hearted commitment to foster human flourishing” (page 33).

So how is respect for the sacredness of humanity playing out in the world?

Not so good. Burmese Buddhists brutally persecute Muslims. Iranian Muslims violently persecute the Baha’i. Open Doors claims that “100 million Christians in over 60 countries are persecuted for their faith.”

In the annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), 16 countries were singled out as countries of particular concern because of their systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom:

  • Burma
  • China
  • Eritrea
  • Iran
  • North Korea
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Sudan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Egypt
  • Iraq
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Syria
  • Tajikistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Vietnam

But the good news is that we can make a difference. Through much prayer and advocacy, the charges against Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag (noted at the beginning of the blog) have been dropped and she was released (see here and here).

So let’s pray for the release of Asia Bibi! I have contacted my Pakistani Muslim friends about Asia Bibi, urging them to intervene on her behalf. Here’s a petition you can sign asking for her release.

Freedom of Religion images

Most of those persecuted for their faith, however, are not high profile cases like Meriam or Asia. Unknown billions around the world are trapped and oppressed. This is the humanitarian crisis you never hear about.


(Stay tuned as I continue this series on religious freedom.)


There are many kinds of peacemaking out there and many ways to do it. We at Peace Catalyst identify ourselves specifically as Jesus-centered peacemakers, and in this video our President Rick Love talks about what that means and what distinctives characterize us as people who do peacemaking in the way of Jesus.

For more Peace Catalyst videos, visit our YouTube channel.

chris seiple headshot


Recommended blog post: A New Vision for US Foreign Policy

Religious freedom is one of the most important peacemaking challenges of the 21st century, and Chris Seiple is on the cutting edge. Chris serves as President of the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), an organization that focuses on building respect, reconciliation, and sustainable religious freedom worldwide.

I first met Chris when he invited me to speak at The Global Leadership Forum on “Evangelicals & Muslims: Perspectives on Mission and Partnership” in 2010, shortly after the birth of Peace Catalyst International. This conference indicates something of Chris’s personality and calling: he is a devout follower of Jesus who works tirelessly for religious freedom – everywhere and for all. As a former Marine, he meets difficult issues head on, but he does so with wisdom, nuance, and intellectual depth.

Under Chris’s leadership, IGE hosts numerous conferences aimed at enhancing Christian-Muslim relations and produces a world-class journal of which everyone involved in peacemaking should be aware: The Review of Faith and International Affairs.

Chris served as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps for 9 years, his last assignment at the Pentagon, where he helped develop the Marine Chemical-Biological Incident Response Force during the ’96 summer Olympics. He also serves as Senior Advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry’s working group on Religion and Foreign Policy.

Chris is a graduate of Stanford, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Fletcher School for Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he received a Ph.D. His doctoral dissertation was on the relationship between the U.S. and Uzbekistan, and Chris continues to work with a focus on religion and realpolitik, speaking regularly at military schools and within the intelligence community about national security and social-cultural-religious engagement.

Check out Chris’s book, U.S. Military/NGO Relationship in Humanitarian Interventions.

Jeremy Courtney held the crowd in rapt attention as he shared about ISIS (the “so called” Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) at a recent peacemaking event in Denver. Jeremy has lived in Iraq since 2006 and spoke from painful experience.

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Rick: Jeremy, thank you so much for taking time to do this interview! Before I ask you any questions about ISIS, why don’t you explain how you ended up in Iraq and what you do there.

Jeremy: We were living in the region when, in 2006, the civil war between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq peaked and violence wracked the country. It was the devastating stories of the widows and orphans, coupled with the stories of hope, cooperation, and God’s supernatural intervention that compelled us to move our family to Iraq, in hopes of being part of the solution.

Soon after moving, we met a couple of kids who were terribly ill. One of them was a little girl who needed a lifesaving heart surgery. But years of dictatorship and war had left Iraq without a doctor or hospital that could perform the surgery she needed. As our family and friends came alongside her family in an effort to save her life, we became aware of a backlog of thousands of children like her waiting in line for these lifesaving heart surgeries. So we’ve devoted our lives to making sure these children get the surgeries they need through our organization, the Preemptive Love Coalition.

Rick: What do you think mainstream media has right when it describes ISIS?

Jeremy: ISIS is terrifying. It currently maintains vast swaths of land, power, and natural resources across Iraq and Syria. ISIS has talked about worldwide dominance, and it seems to be something that is more than bluster—this is something that should be taken very seriously. Their current capabilities for global jihad are, as yet, unproven, but we can scarcely afford to take this lightly.

Rick: Could you fill us in on some of the important details about the background of ISIS?

Jeremy: “ISIS,” as it has become known today, was preventable. Now, it is a formidable foe. It is crucial that we not allow this discussion to take place in a vacuum, and it is crucial that our conversation not resort to mere partisan rhetoric that blames “Bush” or “Obama.”

The former Iraqi Prime Minister, Maliki, had a significantly deleterious effect on the psyche of Iraq, taking us back to a macabre Shia-version of Saddam Hussein’s infamous Sunni “Republic of Fear.” Maliki has sanctioned many of the atrocities of Shia militias, leading Sunnis to complain about undue arrests, lack of due process, occupation by Shia-led security forces, and other disenfranchising, pound-of-flesh behavior. As the US continued to back Maliki, we not only gave Iran a greater foothold in the country but we helped alienate the people who now live in all the areas dominated by ISIS—the Sunnis of Iraq.

Rick: What are the most important things about ISIS that you think people need to know?

Jeremy: Most of the people who have acquiesced and now appear to “support” and live under the control of ISIS are not terrorists, violent, or Islamists. They choose to “live” under ISIS rule because life on the run as a “displaced person” is excruciating. It seems nearly impossible for anyone in the West to understand how someone would “stay behind” and “accept the rule” of ISIS without actually being a terrorist themselves. But I understand. If you gave me the option of getting along with ISIS or taking an uncertain trek across the desert (where still more ISIS are marauding) in hopes of finding food, water, and shelter with my wife and kids, I would think very long and hard about doing whatever ISIS wanted. Sometimes all the options are just bad: for Obama, for the people of Iraq, for the aid organizations trying to make things right, etc.

Rick: I enjoyed hearing you speak about ISIS, but you startled everyone when you said, “the peacemaking community is sometimes completely out of touch with reality. Although I find this hard to say as a student of peacemaking, in the case of ISIS advancing on the city of Erbil, it seems to be that
there did need to be a military response.” Please explain.

Jeremy: The U.S. left itself with no good options in Iraq due to numerous foreign policy decisions of the

  • In 1953 the CIA helped overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mossaddegh and installed the Shah.
  • After the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein’s Sunni government against the Shia Iranians through the 1980s.
  • In 1991 the U.S. and its Allies waged war against Saddam’s regime and then the U.S. continued violent sanctions against Iraq through the 1990s.
  • In 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq claiming that Saddam’s regime was hiding WMD (weapons of mass destruction).
  • Paul Bremmer dismissed the Ba’ath party and all its government functionaries.
  • The U.S. then blindly backed Al-Maliki’s second term.

There are innumerable domestic and regional factors we can blame as well. But this is what each president has inherited, acted upon, and often made worse, while trying to do what is right.

So we need to admit the world is broken and we (the U.S., Christians, humans) cannot fix it in our own power.

I’m sober-minded about what the airstrikes will actually accomplish. We absolutely cannot bomb our way to peace. There are ideologies involved that only proliferate under violence. There are economic realities that cannot be healed through violence. There is a desire to be known, seen, and included in the political and social fabric of society that has been trampled underfoot. This stuff is highly combustible, and dropping bombs, even when it is necessary to stop further violence, only fuels the fire in other areas.

As long as we are honest about the specious efficacy of violence, and do not (as Christians, at least) celebrate the obliteration of our enemies through violence, I am willing to mournfully and repentantly
say that sometimes enough is enough and otherwise innocent people need to be protected through military force.

Rick: I have often said I am a Just War theorist with a strong Pacifist leaning. So I appreciate what you are saying. We need to use both hard power (military might) and soft power (diplomacy and persuasion) when it comes to addressing violent extremism. But I think our country relies way too much on hard power. And we certainly do NOT adhere to Just War guidelines in most cases. I think we also need to confront the ideas behind the bombs and bullets of groups like ISIS. What do you think?

Jeremy: Agreed. But the “we” includes Muslims! We need to tackle this together. We need to understand the way this violence rips through “the mosque.” We need to realize how devastating this is to Muslim clerics and communities. We (the Christians) need to make relationship with Muslims a higher priority. Because Muslims are by far the best among us to address these radical ideologies and behaviors. And Muslims ARE denouncing ISIS, violence, and Islamism. But I think we would make the job much easier on them if they knew we were standing with them, supporting them, spurring them on toward love and good deeds. They shouldn’t have to constantly keep one eye looking over their shoulder for their Christian enemies and the other eye looking within for the jihadi Muslim enemy. Better to join arms and undertake this peacemaking work together, in harmony.

photo (26).JPGI visited my friend Dr. Sayyid Syeed recently in Washington, DC to discuss ways we could deepen our partnership. I wanted to explore how we could promote religious freedom and counter violent extremism. Syeed directs the interfaith initiative of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) – the largest Muslim network in the U.S.

We planned to meet at the ISNA office, go to Friday prayers together (which are held in a room at Capital Hill), then discuss our partnership over lunch. But God interrupted our plans when a delegation of leaders from India (sponsored by the State Department) stood up to introduce themselves at the end of the Muslim prayers.

As a Kashmiri Muslim, Syeed speaks Urdu, so he warmly welcomed these dignitaries. Syeed often tells me how American Muslims can influence Muslims worldwide, but now I got to see him in action. Here was an unscripted and unexpected opportunity to “do his thing!”

He introduced me to the group and then invited them to lunch with us at the café located at the Supreme Court. As we walked through the Supreme Court, Syeed was the master tour guide. He pointed to stone carvings in the hallway where the Prophet Muhammad was acknowledged as one of the great lawgivers in history (along with Moses and others).

Syeed waxed eloquent about how democracy works in the U.S. and how American Muslims live out their faith here. At one point, he smiled and said to our guests, “India is the largest democracy in the world, but remember ours is the oldest!”

I enjoyed hearing Syeed’s earnest commentary and watching the captivated expressions on the faces of our guests. I was proud of Syeed. I was equally proud of the State Department. Here was a practical, long term way to work toward peace and counter violent extremism, especially in light of Al Qaeda’s recent attempt to start a new branch in India.

My time with Syeed illustrates two tools in the peacemaking tool box — both of which highlight the importance of personal relationships.

    1. Track II diplomacy.
      Track I diplomacy refers to official, formal discussions of high level political and military leaders. Track II refers to non-governmental, informal, and unofficial dialogue and problem-solving activities between private citizens. Track II diplomacy, especially between religious leaders, has as we seek to counter violent (22a).JPG
    2. Soft Power. Hard power refers to military might – the power to coerce. Soft power refers to the power to attract and persuade (Harvard professor Joseph Nye was the first to coin the term). Soft power is one of the most undervalued, underutilized dimensions of statecraft. Hard power may thwart a group like the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) for a short time, but it will take soft power to thwart the violent extremist ideology and procure a long-term peace. Syeed’s description of Muslims in America and his enthusiastic endorsement of American democracy demonstrates soft power.

Muslim peacemaker + track II diplomacy + soft power = a long term strategy to counter violent extremism and establish sustainable peace