Tina Ramirez is the president and founder of Hardwired, Inc., a Virginia-based nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom in law and policy. She shows leaders and lawyers in other countries how to defend religious freedom, and also works for the release of imprisoned victims.
Why did you call your organization “Hardwired”? I believe everybody is hardwired for living for something bigger. God wired me to stand up and defend religious liberty. I want everybody to be free to come to know the truth about God.
Sex trafficking is a hot topic among college students these days, but religious persecution is not. The Barna Group did a study that showed the youngest generation of adults is the least interested in religious freedom issues of any generation, yet religious oppression internationally and even in the United States is growing. Many social injustices around the world—trafficking, violence against women, the treatment of children, hatred of others—all have their base in religious oppression.
Religious persecution may seem to students theoretical, high up on the ladder of abstraction: Tell us about some accomplishments of Hardwired at ground level. In the past year I’m most proud of what we’ve been able to do in Sudan. We trained 17 Christians who lead churches and Bible colleges—many people don’t even know that there are Christians left in Khartoum, but there are—in how to draft a law to protect religious freedom, not just for them, but for everybody in Sudan. They drafted it and brought a whole group of Muslim human rights advocates to a second conference that we had, where we trained them in principles for religious freedom.
You still have a long way to go. We’ve been working on Sudan for so many decades. This is the one glimmer of hope that I’ve seen there in so long.
You work alongside women’s and gay rights groups that often don’t work with Christians. Has that been productive? In Sudan we’ve worked with Muslims and activists from across the board who recognize that all of their rights are tied into each other’s. Muslims who came to our conference hadn’t realized how Christians suffered as a result of their faith in Khartoum. The Christian men didn’t realize that Christian women faced persecution even worse than they did. In a country like Saudi Arabia, the government teaches in its textbooks how to kill Jews and Christians. It also teaches you to throw homosexuals off the cliff, but they’re human beings and shouldn’t be treated in that way, so we would stand in their defense in saying they shouldn’t be oppressed in that way. They have the right to come to know the truth just as every human being does.
You’re out-front with your Christian beliefs. Do some Christians think you should only be defending other Christians? I believe God made all of us to come to know Him, and without the freedom to come to know Him or to worship Him, how do Muslims come to know Him freely, or have the joy of worshipping Him in freedom? They might not choose what we choose, but they have the right to choose. I don’t believe in forcing Christ upon people. He wants people to know Him, and if they reject Him, then they’ve chosen their own future.
What have you done in India? We are training groups where there has been significant persecution against Christian, Muslim, and Sikh communities, and bringing them together in coalitions to document the violence. A lot of the violence there hasn’t been documented, so there hasn’t been a public awareness of the pattern of violence and impunity for which the government then can hold people accountable.
‘In Sudan … we broke down just what religious freedom is … how religious freedom intersects with freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of political participation, all of these other rights that they hadn’t really thought about.’
How horrific is the violence there? One Hindu leader called all of his students and followers to go out and to attack different villages. Thousands followed him in mobs, village by village. Local supporters would point out the church, and they’d attack the church first. Then they would go home-to-home to each of the Christians and would attack and burn the homes. One man that I interviewed there … his paralyzed brother was burnt alive in his home, because he couldn’t get out, and the man had to watch it from the fields with his family as he was trying to escape. Without documenting the violence and giving Christian and other minority communities a way to defend their rights and to get out of the poverty, they will only continue to be marginalized and oppressed.
So you document the violence, but how do you help them to defend their rights? We teach that you have dignity that’s ingrained in you as a human being, and no one can take it away from you. I tell them where the dignity comes from, that God imprinted it on them and created them. If they choose to believe something else, that’s fine, but that’s what we tell them.
As Christians, we know that everyone is created after God’s image, but when you talk to people from other worldviews, on what basis do you make that argument? I talk to them about the universal declaration of human rights, and explain that their government has signed on to agreements stipulating human rights, and we help them understand what their national laws say.
Let’s talk Turkey. What’s going on there? Young people fear it’s becoming too Islamist. Another issue is whether the Kurds will be recognized as a domestic minority in Turkey. Hardwired is opening up a dialogue, and training lawyers and advocates and religious communities to engage in that dialogue. We say you don’t have to become all secular or all Islamist. Religion can flourish in a free society, and here’s how to do it. It’s all a matter of how the state and the people see the role of God and the state in the lives of individuals.
Is there any understanding that religious freedom is the first freedom and underlies other freedoms? I don’t think other countries see it that way at all. In Sudan we worked with some human rights advocates but their training was limited, so when we broke down just what religious freedom is, they recognized how religious freedom intersects with freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of political participation, all of these other rights that they hadn’t really thought about.
If a college student reading this thinks, “When I’m in my 30s, I want to fight religious oppression,” what should that person be doing now? You need to qualify yourself to do that. So study— politics, international law, human rights, those arenas— and be able to offer a strong defense of your faith, knowing what you believe and why. On the professional side, do internships and give yourself experience and the exposure to the world. That’s really important.