As American families put up our Christmas trees and start playing carols, it’s perhaps easy to forget that the first Christmas wasn’t all that silent of a night.
The birth of Jesus happened, after all, in something of a war zone. A tyrant sought to maintain his power and used violence against innocent bystanders — in this case, the children of Bethlehem — who stood in his way. This year, perhaps more than most, Americans should go into the Advent season with a sense of weight, knowing the bloodshed currently erupting in the land of Jesus’s birth.
Both of us are of the Christian faith, and are reminded of the fact that tens of millions of our fellow Christians face violence, oppression or harassment in more than 100 nations around the world, making Christianity the most persecuted religion on Earth, according to the Pew Research Center.
Pope Francis said last year there there are more Christians martyred in recent years than in the early centuries of the faith. This is especially true in the Middle East, where due to the scourge of radical Islam, some churches that have existed since the Book of Acts are on the brink of ruin.
We’ve all watched the news with horror in recent years as the Islamic State and other jihadist groups have led a ruthless religious cleansing campaign. Their tactics are to bomb churches or convert them to mosques, to violently drive Christians and other minorities from their homes, force conversions to Islam, or require compliance with Islamic apostasy and blasphemy codes. Such violent persecutions come not only from non-state terrorist organizations, but also from repressive governments the world over.
Despite all of this, we find far too little attention paid to the plight of these Christian communities in peril. Reports suggest that the State Department is ready to designate the Islamic State’s terror against the Yazidis as genocide, which it clearly is, but they might not to do so for equally embattled Christian communities. This is only one part of a refusal to come to grips with the full weight of these facts.
We, of course, care deeply about defending our fellow Christians, but one does not have to share our religious conviction to see the moral obligation that belongs to us as Americans. With our many blessings comes a duty to stand on the side of the oppressed, which is why a pillar of American foreign policy has always been moral clarity. Sadly, today that pillar is crumbling.
To combat this troubling trend, the two of us have worked closely together toward the successful re-authorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is an independent body tasked with monitoring religious freedom abroad and making recommendations to the president and Congress. But as important as this commission’s work is, it can only do so much without a president or State Department willing to take its counsel seriously.
This starts with leaders who are unafraid to send a message to the world by meeting with embattled Middle Eastern Christians, political dissidents and former prisoners of conscience. Our political leaders should have the courage to hold adversaries and allies alike to a high standard. For example, China must be made to understand that its suppression of religious freedom will no longer be shrugged off as a mere “internal affair.” And nations throughout the Middle East — including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — should be challenged on their blasphemy laws.
Our commitment to global religious freedom is not just about strong diplomacy. On the issue of the Islamic State, for example, our moral obligations and our national defense objectives intersect. Dismantling this murderous terrorist organization through force will help protect the American people while also preserving ancient communities in the cradle of Christianity.
In the meantime, we need to recognize the importance of U.S. foreign assistance, which comprises less than 1 percent of our federal budget, in helping to support and protect Christian refugees fleeing persecution. Some of this assistance needs to be targeted to religious minorities who have been forced to leave their homes and are now seeking safe haven elsewhere in the region. The president should also require the State Department to apply the “Country of Particular Concern” designation and its sanctions to all nations with rampant persecution.
We must remember, however, that this is not simply a matter for those who are political leaders, like one of us, or church leaders, like the other. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas in the United States, let’s remember the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote that the church is a body made of many parts, and if one part of the body suffers, we all do. So we ask you to join us in praying openly for all of those who are forced to pray in secret.
Pray for those who huddle together to worship in house churches, constantly fearing the knock on the door. Pray for the family who must hide their Bible under the floorboard of their home.
Pray, too, for our own nation — that the rights of our people will be protected today so they can endure tomorrow. Pray that in this time of terrible affliction, our nation may be a force for justice, for peace, and for healing throughout the world.
Marco Rubio is a Republican senator from Florida and a presidential candidate. Russell Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.