April 18, 2017
Wilberforce A!ert: When Faith Leads to Prison
On April 6, I attended the launch of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) Religious Prisoner of Conscience Project. In countries such as Burma, China, Iran, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam, among others, people are imprisoned by their governments for what they believe.
The list of prisoners that USCIRF has adopted for this project only begins to describe the vastness of the problem, but as USCIRF Chair Father Reese, S.J. said, “it is individuals who are often devastated by unjust laws.” Each USCIRF commissioner has picked one individual to champion.
In Burma, Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt are two Muslim interfaith peace advocates. They went on a mission of peace to a Christian state in Burma, but Buddhist Nationalists took umbrage and pressured the government to arrest them under an emergency edict. When they were set to be released, another charge was brought against them. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of Burma, and ironically herself a former prisoner of conscience, needs to stand up against these actions.
Beyond activists, religious leaders themselves can be targets. The head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Patriarch Abune Antonios, has been detained for nearly 10 years. His crime was that he would not excommunicate parishioners who had criticized Eritrea’s government. His case is particularly grave because of his advanced age and poor health, as well as because it is an example of the government stepping across the religious freedom of an entire denomination and subsequently installing their own leader.
Another country that has detained a faith’s leader is China. Unlike in Eritrea, China kidnapped a six-year-old boy. Tibetan Buddhists believe Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is the Panchen Lama, the second holiest after the Dali Lama. Both he and his family were detained in 1995. Because of his importance to a faith the Communist Party is trying to control, he has had his entire childhood stolen from him.
In Vietnam, evangelical pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh was a strong advocate for Christian evangelism, democracy, and supported ethnic minorities. In 2011, he was falsely accused of trying to overthrow the government. Now he is physically and verbally abused in prison and has recently been remanded to solitary confinement. He has five children. The government has also harassed and beaten his wife, Mrs. Tran Thi Hong.
These individuals are spread around the world, and as USCIRF Commissioner Kristina Arriaga noted, “Their names may sound foreign, but they want the same things as all of us.” Instead, they are “stuck in the most horrible prison systems in the world."
There is hope, though! Advocating on behalf of individual prisoners does work. We can challenge these systems. Let’s continue to work so that the many unjustly imprisoned around the world can break free from prisons of conscience.