An Interview with Thomas Schirrmacher after testifying in the Swedish Parlament by the magazine ‘Eins’ (‘One’)
EINS: What is the World Evangelical Alliance doing to combat the restrictions on religious freedom around the world?
The question is sufficient to fill a special issue from cover to cover, since this comprises an enormous breadth of very different activities which are mostly organized into separate departments or handled by different institutions. There are eight of these subject headings: prayer – aid – ecumenism – media efforts – legal assistance – political action – peace talks – research.
EINS: Would you please give an example of prayer and aid?
The WEA’s Global Day of Prayer for the persecuted church at the beginning of November has been so successful in Germany that more and more large churches have incorporated a similar day into their liturgical calendar. Aid ranges from providing for affected families if the breadwinner is in prison, and it goes all the way to successful educational seminars put on by the WEA’s Religious Liberty Commission. This is where experienced leaders from countries where persecution occurs offer one-week courses to people in leadership.
EINS: Ecumenism? How can that help against the persecution of Christians?
On the one hand, theological discussions between confessions and denominations should not be an excuse for not helping other Christians. The WEA offers massive support politically and in the media for Orthodox Christians in the Near East, and the leaders of these churches have repeatedly and officially shown their gratitude for this.
However, it is also important that we coordinate our efforts against infringements on religious liberty. I discussed this with the Ecumenical Patriarch and many patriarchs and metropolits, in short with the old and the new Pope, as did WEA’s Secretary General. It is more and more seldom the case that one encounters what was common 20 years ago, which was that churches stabbed each other in the back if they were not themselves affected. Things operated under the motto of: “No wonder that they are persecuted, after all, they are . . . ”
And finally, there is no way around cooperation of all churches in connection to transnational organizations such as the EU, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), or the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, unless from the outset you do not want to accomplish anything. Therefore, the World Council of Churches and the WEA have recently conducted a joint hearing before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights against the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which is not only of benefit to Christians since Muslims are much more frequently falsely accused. I was recently with Coptic Christians before the EU Human Rights Committee. Each individual introduced a Coptic girl who had been kidnapped and forced to marry a Muslim. We had before and after photographs. By the way: We also do this sort of thing in the cause for the Bahai and atheists!
EINS: Let’s jump over the media efforts and come to legal assistance. Are Christians even allowed to take issues to court?
They may, but they do not have to. Paul is a good example for both. He was able to tolerate injustice, but in other instances he utilized his Roman citizenship and appealed to the Emperor. That is the equivalent of a Supreme Court today. The affected individuals have to decide for themselves when to go to court. However, if they want to have legal assistance, they should be assisted with a sign of international solidarity. Through ‘Advocates International,’ the WEA has a global network of thousands of lawyers who deal with smaller issues in like manner to the test cases they have won before the European Court of Human Rights. And by the way, not all of these cases won by Evangelicals were cases for Evangelicals, but for all kind of churches, eg Orthodox churches from Eastern Europe. You should also not forget: All the freedoms which we have today were at some point successfully contended for in the past and did not fall into our laps like fruit from trees.
EINS: Now to politics and peace talks. Should the state protect Christianity again?
First of all regarding the peace talks: In the realm of politics, the ‘Peace and Reconciliation Track’ of WEA is promoting joint dialogs and projects between adherents of different religions. These efforts promote peace, even in cases where the state is not actively playing a role. For instance, we are very strongly involved with this in Nigeria and in the Holy Land.
Now to politics: Since Christians are against the use of self-defense involving violence and advocate the state’s monopoly on force, along with the separation of church and state, they are not able to protect themselves by violent acts. Rather, they have to call upon countries to protect their human rights if their human rights are massively restricted or even find their lives endangered. In Germany, we call the police if someone sets a synagogue, a mosque, or a church on fire and do not take this into our own hands. When one’s own state does not intervene, Christian may turn to other states with the request to exercise pressure on those countries which are passive.
The state, however, should not protect people because they are Christians. Rather, they should protect them because they are humans with human rights, and they should naturally offer the same protection to adherents of all religions as well as those who are not religious! Christians do not ask for special rights, but just the rights that everybody has.
Unfortunately, the state often has to protect religious freedom by offering protection to religious and non-religious people against other religious or ideological people. But just to make things clear: In order to spread the Christian message, we do not need and do not want the state!
EINS: Is advocacy for all religions just a matter of political calculation in order to be heard or to receive credibility?
No, a part of the heart of Evangelical faith is that true belief in God can only occur as a result of personal conviction and not through state pressure, by means of coercion, by overpowering anyone, or by offering bribes. A conversion obtained by fraud or through coercion is not even a real conversion. Only an individual who trusts in God as his Lord and Redeemer from the bottom of his or her heart believes in the proper meaning of the word. It is completely in this sense that we issued a joint declaration with the Vatican and the World Council of Churches on missions efforts devoid of any kind of compulsion.
God has given us the mandate of witnessing to this faith and not, however, to punish those people who do not believe it or to pass final judgment on others. Fortunately, he has reserved that for himself, for, as he said to his prophet Samuel: “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Jonah as well as the Twelve Apostles wanted fire to come down from heaven. God and Jesus emphatically rejected that. When Peter cut off the ear of a soldier, Jesus said the following momentous words: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.“ This is demonstrated all too well by all the wars between religions.
EINS: I sort of hesitated with research: Weighty tomes against persecution? Footnotes against hate?
All other seven fields of activity, therefore also including prayer or legal assistance, presuppose qualified, credible information, which are even more important in the era of the internet when there are a lot of hoaxes and exaggerations in circulation. We can introduce a lot of questions before the United Nations, provided that we can document it well. Additionally, I consider it important that we not veil the truth through a one-sided set of Christian glasses. Rather, we should openly and honestly give an account of the situation as it is on the ground. How things are going for other religious and non-religious people is just as much a part of it as the influence exerted by economic elements, racism, or hostility towards women.
The International Journal for Religious Freedom, published by the International Institute for Religious Freedom, is a state accredited, recognized scholarly medium for which experts from all religions and many universities around the world write. The Institute itself has the task of making scholarly sound statements on the topic of religious freedom available, which are above all provided to the political world. Through the Institute, there are several universities which have set up their own research programs or have created a chair for these issues.
Together with the University of Tübingen’s Geographical Institute, and under the leadership of our Nigerian colleague, Joseph Yakubu, we have just begun a project on the topic of religious freedom at the University of Jos. There are many Muslim professors who are participating in the project.