“I wish you a happy New Year!” We sometimes use these words without thinking—they’ve become a formulaic greeting; a cliché we use at the beginning of each year.
But what do these words really mean for someone who promotes and defends religious freedom? What will 2012 bring for the families of those killed in Northern Nigeria as bombs ripped through churches where Christmas services were in progress? Or for the young lady in Pakistan who was raped, and then given the choice between marrying her attacker or being stoned for adultery?
What would be an appropriate New Year’s wish for the many millions of people around the world today who experience discrimination, persecution, or even execution, just because of their religious convictions?
I was deeply moved by the story of an elderly woman in Orissa, India, who bravely confronted a group of religious fanatics. They saw her as an apostate and believed themselves to be defenders of the “true faith.” They gave her a choice: “Give up your religion or die.” The woman chose a violent death rather than to betray her conscience.
Did she make the right choice? No magazine or newspaper has published the story of her courage; her face has never appeared on cable news. Soon, the memory of her heroism will fade.
When we realize that this woman’s story is just one of countless others—many of which will never be known or told—we may be tempted to ask, “Is the struggle and the pain worthwhile? Wouldn’t it be wiser for these men and women to surrender; to give in to the will of the majority? Wouldn’t it be better for them to just accept the reality of intolerance and fanaticism? To put aside their quest for freedom and to aim simply for survival?”
Yet ordinary people around the world continue to choose the path of faithfulness, no matter what the cost.
Is choosing to die for your faith an act of supreme courage or supreme futility? Can one person’s sacrifice make a difference? Does it make sense? Is it worthwhile?
Remember for a moment the iconic image of the unknown man in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, who stood alone, holding a flower, in front of a line of tanks. From one perspective, his act was completely futile. He wanted to stop the tanks, but the tanks ultimately rolled on. He didn’t stand a chance against the overwhelming power he faced.
But on another level, he achieved something even more significant than turning back the tanks. He presented the world with a startling and potent image—a contrast between those who courageously seek freedom, and those who brutally suppress it.
The unknown woman in Orissa didn’t stop the fanatics, but her death did have meaning. Like the man in Tiananmen Square, she exposed the true nature of those who stand against freedom. She revealed the inextricable link between intolerance and violence; between fanaticism and brutality. Through her sacrifice she unmasked her attackers. They were revealed not as “defenders of truth,” but as criminals and murderers.
What is my wish list for 2012? That politicians and leaders in every country of the world will understand that religious freedom is a universal right—a precious freedom that must be respected and protected. That more people of goodwill—believers and non-believers alike—will work together to accomplish this goal. That this year’s 7th IRLA World Congress in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, will significantly advance the cause of religious freedom.
And in all our efforts, I pray that we will remember and honor those who’ve faced the forces of fanaticism and have refused to back down. May their sacrifice not be in vain.
–Dr. John Graz, Secretary General, International Religious Liberty Association