Friday was Religious Freedom Day in America, but for thousands around the world, it's another day of suffering for their faith. President George W. Bush signed the 16th annual presidential proclamation earlier this week, encouraging Americans on January 16 to give special thanks for their religious liberties.
Some 5,000 miles away, Dimitri Shestakov sits in an Uzbekistan prison, serving the second year of a four-year sentence for spreading Christianity. Secret police arrested the evangelical pastor and charged him with "incitement to religious hatred" and "distributing materials promoting religious extremism" for his Christian evangelistic activities.
Uzbekistan is one of dozens of hot spots for religious oppression, says Ann Buwalda of the Jubilee Campaign, an advocacy organization for persecuted Christians. Buwalda says Jubilee is also concerned about countries like Iran and Sri Lanka-both likely to pass anti-conversion laws soon. The law in Sri Lanka could extend beyond restricting local Christians' activities to prohibiting outside Christian groups from distributing aid.
Also disconcerting: A resolution passed by the U.N. Human Rights Council last year to protect Islam. A group of Islamic nations promoted the resolution that spoke generally of protecting religious freedom, but only mentioned Islam. Opponents called the resolution one-sided, and Buwalda says such resolutions could inhibit the free speech of Christians and others who speak against Islam.
As President Bush steps down next week, Buwalda is concerned about whether religious persecution will remain a high priority for the Obama administration. She hopes the consistent support Jubilee enjoyed from Bush will extend to the new president, and her organization is already re-grouping to form relationships with the new Democratic majority. That means phone calls, visits, literature, and tenacity: "We need to maintain a constant vigil."