Coronavirus Response Reveals Character of Governments
April 2, 2020
by Jonathan Imbody
American novelist James Lane Allen wrote, “Adversity does not build character; it reveals it.” The response by the governments of countries around the world to the COVID-19 Coronavirus is revealing the fundamental character of those governments.
As the U.S., state and local governments and healthcare professionals labor tirelessly in compassionate and effective efforts to protect American citizens from the spreading COVID-19 Coronavirus, governments in certain countries instead are reportedly exposing persecuted religious groups to the threat.
So charges the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in a just-released report, “The Global Response to the Coronavirus: Impact on Religious Practice and Religious Freedom.”
China demonstrates contempt for religious minorities
Chinese Communist officials clearly view religion as a threat to the power of the state. Besides rampant and systematic persecution of individual pastors and believers, the Chinese government literally has dynamited Christian churches. The persecution extends to adherents to virtually any religion besides the state’s de facto religion, Communism.
The USCIRF report now notes, “Human rights advocates are concerned that COVID-19 — and the [Chinese] government’s response—risk exacerbating ongoing religious freedom violations. As noted in USCIRF’s 2019 Annual Report, the Chinese government has detained more than 1 million Uighur and other Muslims in concentration camps in Xinjiang since April 2017. The combination of limited access to medical resources and large concentrations of elderly detainees could lead to a humanitarian disaster if the virus reaches any of those camps.
“In addition, there are reports that authorities have forced Uighurs to work in factories throughout the country to compensate for decreased output during the quarantine. In January, authorities quarantined millions of people across Xinjiang without advance warning. There are reports that some Uighur residents in the city of Ghulja have limited access to food and local officials have demanded payments in order to bring supplies.”
Iran charged with ignoring risks to religious prisoners
Government officials in Iran, another religion-repressive regime, now are charged with intentionally putting religious minorities at risk.
USCIRF reports, “Iran has long imprisoned hundreds of people who are members of religious minority groups. Activists have expressed concern that prison authorities are not taking sufficient precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which has already appeared in Evin, Urmia, and Ghazalhesar prisons.
“On March 3, Iran announced it would release 54,000 prisoners on furlough, and it later released a total of 70,000. However, 16 Sufi prisoners at Great Tehran Penitentiary (GTP) reportedly were moved to a ward with known cases of COVID-19, and 8 Sufis from Evin prison were moved to the same ward within GTP. Additionally, eight Sufis in Ghazalhasar Prison were moved to an overcrowded ward at that prison where they are at an increased risk of contracting the virus.”
Why American Christians care
Why do Christians in the United States care about the persecution of non-Christians in countries well beyond our borders?
- Because religious freedom is a God-given right, we must protect this freedom for all
My friend and colleague Luke Goodrich, an attorney with Becket who has represented CMDA in court, explains this right in his book, Free to Believe:
“This understanding is also consistent with how God created us and interacts with us. God never forces anyone to love Him, because forced love is not love at all. And if God doesn’t force anyone to love Him, how much less should the government try to do so?”[i]
“So when the government needlessly interferes in our relationship with God, it is committing an injustice in two respects. First, it’s exceeding its God-given realm of authority and attempting to exercise authority that belongs to God alone. Second, it’s taking away something every human being deserves—an opportunity to respond freely (even if erroneously) to God.”[ii]
- Because the United States also can lose religious freedom.
The record of other countries and history provide us with a roadmap of how religious freedom can be advanced or restricted.
Consider two revolutions, for example: The French Revolution and the American Revolution. In France, radical secularists guillotined clergy during a merciless purge of religion. China and Iran demonstrate a similar anti-religious, totalitarian character today.
By contrast, after the revolution in America—a country settled by persecuted religious groups—our founders enshrined religious freedom in our Constitution. Though imperfectly implemented through the years, this protection has produced a freedom and prosperity previously unknown in history.
Yet today we face increasing onslaughts in the United States against our historic religious freedom—typically under the guise of eradicating discrimination. For example, the U.S. House Oversight Committee recently held a hearing entitled, “The Administration’s Religious Liberty Assault on LGBT Rights.”
But the strong arm of the U.S. government is hardly aimed at oppressing the LGBT community, which arguably has become one of the most culturally celebrated groups in the country. No, government assaults and coercion have been overwhelmingly against persons of faith, who simply decline to comply with demands that compromise their most deeply held convictions. A few examples:
- Under the vast governmental powers granted by the Affordable Care Act, the previous administration attempted to force the Little Sisters of the Poor Catholic nuns to participate in its contraceptives mandate.
- The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission during that administration attempted to dictate the hiring practices of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School.
- In Colorado, the government prosecuted cake artist Jack Phillips for sexual orientation discrimination simply because he had declined to create a same-sex wedding cake, despite serving LGBT customers otherwise.
- The Obama Dept. of Health and Human Services gutted the conscience freedom rule that helped protect health professionals from coercion to participate in abortion and other morally controversial procedures.
- The state of Washington prosecuted flower shop owner Barronelle Stutzman for acting consistent with her faith when she declined to use her creative skills to celebrate the same-sex ceremony of a longtime customer.
The list of government coercion of religious conscientious objectors goes on, with each instance holding a corrosive potential to erode our fundamental religious freedoms. Full-blown government persecution can begin with just such a gradual erosion of religious freedoms. Government incursion into our fundamental freedoms will never advertise itself as a path to persecution. These incursions will always be perpetrated under the guise of something that sounds good—like preventing discrimination, ensuring “reproductive freedom” or protecting health.
So as we ponder this new, invisible enemy, let us pray and work to prevent the literal virus we now face from serving as an international transmitter of government coercion.
Thankfully, a number of outstanding U.S. government officials who are persons of faith are leading the charge for international religious freedom. I have had the privilege of meeting with each of them, even on a regular basis, to discuss programs, developments and strategies.
Please pray for these individuals in our government and the many more in the U.S. and around the globe who are working tirelessly to preserve our God-given freedom to believe:
- Sam Brownback – Ambassador at Large For International Religious Freedom;
- Tony Perkins – Chair, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom;
- Mike Pompeo – U.S. Secretary of State; and
- Roger Severino – Director, Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Dept. Health and Human Services.
[i] Goodrich, Luke. Free to Believe (p. 153). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Ibid., p. 154.