As we mark the National Day of Prayer today, we exercise the universal right that was secured for us in our founding: the right to religious liberty. As men and women of faith, we have a duty to protect this right for our children and ourselves. We also have a duty to speak out on behalf of those around the world who are denied this right – those who live under the growing shadow of religious persecution.
Faith minorities, especially Christians in the Middle East, are being targeted with increasing ferocity around the world. With the latest available data from 2013, Christians were harassed and discriminated against in half of the countries in the world. Pope Francis recently stated that there are more Christians martyred in the present day than there were in the first century of Christianity.
We've seen harrowing examples of persecution in just the last few months, particularly in areas dominated by radical Islam. In February, a video was released by ISIL with the title "A message signed with blood to the nation of the cross." It shows 21 Christians being marched across the beaches of Wilayat Tarabulus in Libya, then pushed face down into the sand and beheaded.
Another ISIL video, this one released just weeks ago, shows fifteen more Christians beheaded on a beach, and another fifteen shot to death elsewhere. A man dressed in black and clutching a pistol stood behind some of the victims and said, "To the nation of the cross: We are now back again."
These attacks are part of a ruthless religious cleansing campaign by the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations, which profess to view Christians as "infidels" defiling the land of Islam by their mere existence. Their tactics are to bomb churches or convert them to mosques, to violently drive Christians from their homes and towns, to force them to convert to Islam or die, or to require them to comply with Muslim apostasy and blasphemy codes.
The challenge comes not just from terrorist organizations, but also from repressive governments. From the Middle East to Asia, religious minorities often must hide their beliefs from the leaders who should be protecting them.
Our current president has declined to take meaningful action to respond to these violations of basic human rights. He has even, unbelievably, used the stage at a national prayer breakfast to chastise Christians for being on a "high horse" in condemning the atrocities of radical Islam. We need a president who will use every available tool to stand for the persecuted. This includes ensuring that we actually defeat ISIL and other terrorist organizations instead of just talking about our intent to do so.
Last year, Congress mandated a new Special Envoy position to address religious persecution in Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, but our current president still declines to fill it 8 months later. America's next president must fill this position and take immediate action to ensure our humanitarian aid reaches religious minorities. He must also require the State Department to apply the "Country of Particular Concern" designation and its accompanying sanctions to nations where religious minorities are persecuted.
America did not set out to be the world's leading power, but that is exactly what our liberties, our blessings and our people have made us. In the Gospel of Luke it is written, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded." America has been given much. We have a responsibility to use our unique gifts to bend back the shadows of persecution and subjugation that constantly push in on the world.
We can begin today. On this National Day of Prayer, I ask that you pray openly for all those who are forced to pray in secret. Pray for the family who has to hide their Bible under the floorboards of their home. Pray for the woman who has to pretend to adhere to another religion to avoid execution. Pray for the father who fears for his children's safety every time they step on church grounds. Pray for the cradle of Christianity, that it not lose any more of its Christians.
Pray, too, for our own nation – that the rights of our people are protected today so they can endure tomorrow; that America continues to stand as a beacon of hope to nations wrung by oppression and violence and extremism; and that in the century ahead, our people – and our leaders – will have the courage to face our challenges, the wisdom to lead, and the faith to carry on.