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Haynes: To uphold religious freedom in 2017, do small things with great love

Farewell to 2016, arguably the worst year for religious freedom in living memory.

From genocide in Syria and Iraq to ethnic cleansing in Burma, religious oppression and persecution destroyed countless lives, exiled millions and fueled the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Most of the world’s population – more than 5 billion people – now lives in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom.

Meanwhile in the United States, many religious Americans felt under siege in 2016 as Islamophobia spiked, attacks on Sikhs and Hindus grew, anti-Semitism gained ground with the surge of White Supremacist groups, and Christian claims of conscience were too often dismissed and denigrated as acts of “bigotry.”

Bleak, but not hopeless: Beyond the numbing headlines of despair in the past year were signs of hope – small, but profound stories about the capacity of the human spirit to counter hate with compassion, destruction with healing, violence with peaceful coexistence.

Consider, for example, the Muslim and Christian faithful in Cameroon who began taking turns last year protecting one another from terrorist attacks by Boko Haram. On Fridays, Christians now guard the mosques during community prayer and on Sundays, Muslims protect churches during Sunday worship.

Or consider the Muslim farmers in a Punjabi village in Pakistan who used their meager savings last summer to rebuild a Christian church destroyed by monsoon floods. “Our mosque stands here from times past,” a Muslim villager told the Daily Pakistan, “but our Christian brothers also have the right to worship in their church.”

Closer to home, a broad coalition of religious groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee (ERLC), Sikh Coalition, National Association of Evangelicals, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey, joined to support a court challenge by the Islamic Society after the Muslim group was denied an application to build a mosque in Bernards Township, N.J.

When ERLC president Russell Moore faced criticism for supporting Muslims at the annual Southern Baptist Convention last summer, he responded first as a Christian by saying: “What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul liberty for everybody.”

Then Moore gave a short, but sweet civics lesson reminding his listeners that upholding the First Amendment for others also serves the best interest of Baptists:

“Brothers and sisters, when you have a government that says ‘we can decide whether or not a house of worship can be constructed based upon theological beliefs of that house of worship,’ then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches in San Francisco and New York and throughout this country who are not going to be able to build.”

Whatever the motives for standing up for others – religious faith, civic virtue or enlightened self-interest – religious freedom only works when a right for one is a right for all.

That was the takeaway from the protest at Standing Rock, a defining moment for religious freedom in 2016. Representatives from more than 300 Native American tribes converged to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota. The tribe argued that the route would threaten sacred sites and life-giving water.

Native American tribes stood in solidarity with the Sioux – supported by thousands of military veterans, Black Lives Matter activists, religious leaders, civil libertarians and citizens of different faiths, races and political beliefs. In December, the two-year battle for Native American religious freedom ended in victory (for now at least) when the Obama administration denied the easement needed to run the pipeline under the river.

In these acts of courage and compassion, religious freedom was nourished in 2016. But tragically, the avalanche of stories of violence and conflict largely eclipsed stories of hope last year. And the outlook for 2017 promises even more religious persecution abroad and religious division at home.

At Christmas, my household received a sign of hope – literally – when a kind priest gave us a wooden plaque with a saying from St. Teresa of Calcutta:

“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

So in 2017, when the headlines overwhelm our conscience with death and destruction, we will inevitably feel helpless that we can’t do the “great things” needed to end genocide, save the refugees or fully protect the many vulnerable Americans here at home.

But remember those villagers in Africa and Pakistan, the religious leaders in New Jersey and the veterans and activists standing with Native Americans in the Dakotas. And then emulate them by striving to do small things with great love.

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center. Email: chaynes@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @hayneschaynes

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