On the heels of the release of the 2018 International Religious Freedom report, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission convened a congressional hearing to focus on the right to religious freedom, specifically for minority Christian populations worldwide. As one of four speakers asked to offer testimony and recommendations for U.S. policy, Open Doors USA CEO David Curry spoke on the plight of global Christians. The hearing, hosted by the commission’s co-chairmen Christopher H. Smith and James P. McGovern, also included remarks by Sam Brownback, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
Below, we share Curry’s testimony during this important hearing on Capitol Hill. He began his remarks by introducing everyone in the room to Zauna, a widow in Nigeria.
Today I’d like to tell you about Zauna. She is a widow. Her husband was one of the over 3,700 individual Christians who were killed in Nigeria due to their faith last year. Zauna’s village has been attacked three times by an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria. Before the an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria attacks started, Zauna lived a relatively peaceful life as a farmer with her husband and children.
One night, militants entered Zauna’s village near midnight. Somehow, an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria collected the names of many of the villagers before the attack. They called out names of specific people in the village—so that the village people would think they were friendly. But they were luring them out of their homes to kill them.
The militants eventually entered Zauna’s home by force. They took her husband and pushed him back into their home. Zauna was able to slip away in the night; she hid behind a wood pile near their home. Then she saw the members of an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria light the roof of her house on fire with Zauna’s husband locked inside. She escaped with her life, but lives with the trauma of seeing her husband burned alive in their own home.
Watch the hearing here. If the video doesn’t begin at David Curry’s introduction, skip to the 2:38:42 mark.
More must be done to help people like Zauna. Although Zauna’s story is horrific, it is not isolated. On the contrary, it is emblematic of a far wider issue that impacts hundreds of millions of men, women and children around the world.
For over 25 years, Open Doors has released the World Watch List documenting violations against Christians. We can only verify data that’s related to religious intolerance. Therefore, it should always be seen as a conservative baseline of religious persecution. 4,146 Christians were killed for their faith last year. 11 Christians were killed, on average, every day. Additionally 2,625 Christians were detained without trial, arrested sentenced and imprisoned. Over 1,266 churches were attacked.
This data is carefully collected through networks established throughout more than 70 countries over the past six decades. It is often reported or verified directly by our in-country field offices, who maintain regular contact with both survivors of religious persecution and the wider Christian community in their area.
Sadly, the number of violent incidents against Christians documented last year represents a dramatic rise over recent years. We believe it can be attributed to the following factors:
First, the spread of Islamic jihadist ideology. In Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, theologies of hatred toward Christians are widely propagated, leading to great suffering.
Second, the rise of nationalist agendas in Asia. India is 10th on the World Watch List because nationalist Hindu leaders are stoking the idea that Muslims and Christians cannot be truly Indian. That ideology has resulted in a shocking rise of attacks in Christian churches, with nearly 300 churches attacked thus far in 2019 and hundreds of cases of pastors held without trial—just for being Christian pastors.
Lastly, communist and post-communist systems. North Korea is the most oppressive place on earth to practice religious faith. Anything and anyone who challenges the leadership of the Kim regime is considered an enemy of the state. Many are imprisoned for their faith for even possessing a Bible. With over 100 million Christians, China also has the technology and political will to monitor and restrict expressions of faith like never before.
More Must Be Done
While Open Doors is working tirelessly to bring relief to those who suffer from severe religious freedom violations, more must be done to address the underlying factors that allow violations of religious freedom to occur in the first place. This is where the United States, including Congress and the executive branch, can play a pivotal role.
I have a few recommendations I’d like to offer, but first, I want to commend Chairman Smith and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for holding this important hearing. Hearings of this kind are a fundamental key to shining the spotlight on abuses and lay the necessary groundwork for advancing international religious freedom.
To better address religious freedom violations globally, both against Christians and other communities, we would prioritize the following recommendations:
- The U.S. State Department must ensure that Foreign Service Officers, detailees, and other appropriate staff at U.S. embassies and posts overseas are provided with, and required to, dedicate sufficient time and resources to develop a thorough understanding of religious freedom conditions in their respective postings and to build robust networks with faith actors in-country.
- This should be beyond the minimum time and resources required to draft their respective sections of the annual International Religious Freedom report. While there are many dedicated state department personnel who invest thoroughly in these issues, all too often our frontline diplomats are not allowed to, or not asked to, build the necessary networks and expertise needed to address the many grave religious freedom concerns that exist in their postings.
- We also strongly recommend that President Trump and Secretary Pompeo consider a more robust implementation of the Country of Particular Concern designations provided for by the International Religious Freedom Act. By statute, the administration is required to issue these designations 90 days after the release of the annual International Religious Freedom report. We urge the administration to seriously weigh options for targeted sanctions against individuals and foreign government entities responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom around the globe.
Today, Zauna has rebuilt her house, a small one-room hut, and her husband is buried inside. She farms her land, and she is thankful to God that she is alive. Yet she is traumatized and deeply misses her husband. She asks for your prayers.
There is much more yet to do to support Zauna. We look forward to working with this Commission and others in Washington to ensure that her story, and the many other stories like hers, are not forgotten.
Thank you for this opportunity to share with you today.