Daily Dispatches
Burmese Christian meet to pray St. John's Catholic Church in Yangon, Myanmar.
Associated Press/Photo by Khin Maung Win
Burmese Christian meet to pray St. John's Catholic Church in Yangon, Myanmar.

International religious freedom needs a champion

Q&A

Founded in 1977 by Baroness Caroline Cox, Christian Solidarity Worldwide is a human rights organization specializing in religious freedom. Benedict Rogers represents Christian Solidarity Worldwide in what is perhaps the roughest neighborhood on the planet when it comes to religious liberty concerns, East Asia. His 2013 book, Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, includes an introduction by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Rogers has traveled to Burma more than 40 times in the past 15 years. He contributes regularly to The Guardian, International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. I had this conversation with Rogers in Florida at a conference hosted by Christian religious liberty law firm Alliance Defending Freedom.

What got you started in this work with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and your work with the oppressed generally? It was 20 years ago, in 1994, when I was a university student in London, just a couple of months after I had become a Christian. I heard the person who is the patron of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Baroness Caroline Cox, member of the British House of Lords. She spoke in my university chapel about Sudan. She also spoke about the situation in a place I had never heard of at that time, called Nagorno-Karabakh, a small Armenian enclave, where there was a war going on between Armenia and Azerbaijan. She talked about going into both places at the height of war, the risks she’d taken, but most particularly the suffering of the people in those two places. My reaction to that, I sometimes describe it as a feeling as if somebody had poked me in the ribs with a sharp pencil. When someone does that, it forces you to sit up right, and you’re alert and you react. That’s the affect her talk had on me. I just had this overwhelming sense of God saying to me, don’t just sit there and listen and think this is an interesting talk. Do something.

I approached her at the end of the evening and said, “This is how I feel.” One thing led to another, and I found myself a few months later traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh, this place I had never heard of. U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., was on that trip as well.

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That’s how it all began. In Nagorno-Karabakh, people in Christian Solidarity Worldwide asked me if I would get more involved in that work, and for some years I did that on the voluntary level as a student, then as a journalist, and then I went full time. I’ve been full time for the last 10 years.

Historically, America has been seen as a positive force for religious liberty around the world. However in recent years, the United States has developed a reputation for ineffectiveness. Is America still a force for good in countries where there are human rights problems? I’m an America-phile. I love America. Over the years of doing this work, I’ve always looked to America and deeply admired America’s stand on freedom, including religious freedom. But under the current administration, definitely the leadership not been there or has been there less.

President Barack Obama spent part of his childhood growing up in Indonesia, and I had thought that made him ideally placed to raise the issues of the threats to Indonesia’s religious freedom and tradition of tolerance, in a way that no other presidents could do. He could point to his own childhood in Indonesia. To my knowledge, he’s completely failed to do that when he has visited Indonesia.

I’ve certainly been concerned that both the president and also former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her memoirs have held Burma up as a great success story of U.S foreign policy. I would say that’s far too premature and euphoric. Yes, there are some positive things that have happened in Burma in the last couple of years, but to hold it up at this stage as a success story is premature. There are a lot of very bad things still happening in Burma. 

I think there is a tendency by this current administration to shy away from championing freedom and human rights. Maybe it has something to do with wanting to distance themselves from the previous administration and from the previous administration’s reputation in the world. In my view, they’ve gone way too far in jettisoning everything that has gone before.

What do you think America should do? I would like to see America be much more assertive and self-confident about the values that America stands for. Of course, I think it's right that America should listen to other countries and should balance its assertiveness with humility and with collaboration with others.

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