A Rare and Tenuous Freedom: An Interview with Nina Shea

Nina Shea has served as an international human-rights lawyer for over twenty years. She joined the Hudson Institute as a senior fellow in November 2006, where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom. For the ten years prior to joining Hudson, she worked at Freedom House, where she directed the Center for Religious Freedom, which she founded in 1986.

Since 1999, Shea has served as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency. She has been appointed as a U.S. delegate to the United Nation’s main human rights body by both Republican and Democratic administrations. She recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.

Religion and Liberty: There are many anniversaries related to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe this year. Those countries were appropriately referred to as the “Captive Nations.” What thoughts do you have as you look back at that time and remember some of the great figures who toiled for political and religious freedom?

Nina Shea: It was thrilling to come to know some of the heroic champions of freedom from that historic period—Soviet human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov, Lithuanian Catholic priest and long time political prisoner Fr. Alfonsas Svarinskas, former Jewish refusnik Natan Scharansky, Romanian poet Dorin Tudoran, and many other less familiar political dissidents, clergy, and writers of samizdat literature. Of course, many others I would only know by reading about because they never made it out of the gulag and labor camps. In the struggle for individual rights and freedoms, they were uncompromising and self-sacrificing. They were not mere victims, they were defiant leaders of the freedom movement—a movement that stretched from the East to the West; their nations were captive, but their minds were free.

Andrei Sakharov
Andrei Sakharov on the cover of Time and Natan Sharansky meeting with President Reagan

Whatever their religious perspective, these figures understood that communism’s false philosophies of human nature and the human condition were insupportable. They understood that their societies would flourish with freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and democratic freedoms. They brought profound insights into the deep moral destructiveness and corruption of a totalitarian political system in which the individual was deemed irrelevant. With their voices, pens, and prayers, they rebelled against the mistrust and fear generated by the communist system that permeated every level of society. They knew in an integral way, from living within it, that the communist system only managed to survive because of the state’s willingness to use coercive power against its own people.

I had the privilege of personally working on behalf of Andrei Sakharov, the great founder of the Moscow Human Rights Committee, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and top physicist in the Soviet Union. I helped present his case to the United Nations in the early 1980s, after he had been forcibly exiled to Gorky, a closed city, because of his work in documenting individual stories of oppression and persecution. Even some of the West Europeans thought it was bad form—destructive of international bonhomie—to raise these cases. After I introduced Dr. Sakharov’s adult children in the U.N. Human Rights Commission one year, a representative from France denounced me for “poisoning the atmosphere of the United Nations.” Later, during perestroika, I was overjoyed to have had the opportunity to meet Sakharov. After suffering so much KGB persecution, he went on to win election as a member of parliament where he continued to serve the human rights cause until his death in 1989.

Religion and Liberty:How did the moral struggle for freedom in communist countries affect your own life and what kind of impact does it have on your life today?

Nina Shea: The struggle for freedom behind the Iron Curtain opened my eyes to how rare and tenuous individual freedoms are in the world, and how living without freedom is so deeply corrosive not only to society but to the human spirit. In a certain sense, I am multi-cultural, but I am not culturally relative. The powerful witness of Christians in Eastern Europe—Pope John Paul II foremost among them—deepened my faith, and during this period I returned to the Catholic Church after having drifted away as a teenager.

Nina Shea
Nina Shea in Washington D.C.

The sudden and astonishingly peaceful fall of Soviet and East European communism taught me three important lessons: First, no matter how difficult and intractable the human rights problems of today seem, they are not hopeless. No one in the West predicted that the entire Soviet system would implode over the course of a year or two. Second, ending serious political repression requires both an indigenous freedom movement and external support. The Helsinki committees, Charter 77 and the other human rights actors of the Soviet bloc delegitimized the regimes there in a way that no one in the free world could. And on the outside, American and Western actors like the U. S. government’s Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, the AFLCIO, the Pope, and human rights groups gave invaluable support to them and amplified their voices. And third, religious freedom really is the “first freedom.” The easing of religious persecution, the freeing of religious prisoners, allowing the refusniks to go to Israel, the public visit to Poland of the Pope, all of these were the first indications of the process of liberalization.

I remember these lessons today in the context of Sudan. Sudan’s government led by General Omar al-Bashir is basically responsible for two genocides, one ongoing in Darfur, and one during the 80s and 90s in the south where two million Christians and animists were killed. Bashir was also responsible for multiple famines and for harboring terrorists, including in the past, Osama Bin Laden. The United States has been generously giving food aid, trying to ease Sudan’s recurring and government-manufactured famines. But it is America’s diplomatic measures to bring peace through elections and a referendum that will really matter. As long as Sudan’s very bad government remains, the famines, conflict and misery continue. Under the US-brokered peace agreement of 2005, South Sudan is to have a referendum next year that could result in it separating from the North and establishing its own government. This could be a pivotal moment. We can best help South Sudan by supporting heroic figures like Catholic Bishop Macram Gassis and other Christian leaders of the South, those leading institutions such as the University of Juba and others, who like the human rights heroes of the Cold War are indispensable to changing history for the better.

Religion and Liberty: Have things improved for Christians and other people of faith in countries still under communist rule? Nations such as North Korea and China especially come to mind. What are some of your biggest concerns now at this moment?

Nina Shea: North Korea and China rank at the bottom of the State Department’s and USCIRF’s lists for religious persecutors. I don’t see any improvement in North Korea where the few church buildings that exist are government props to impress international visitors. Imprisoning religious believers is reportedly common. An estimated 6,000 Christians are held at one prison alone, Prison Number 15, in the north, where prisoners have no soap, medicine, socks, or underwear. Third generation members of Christian families caught praying in the 1950s and 60s are still incarcerated as prisoner-slaves. Specific case information is hard to come by in this closed society, but in 2006 we know that a man, Son Jong Nam, was sentenced to death for spying because he had converted to evangelical Protestantism and that in prison he has been severely tortured. The big change in the North is that a few have been able to escape to South Korea and the West and reveal some of the horrors of what is taking place there. Their stories have been compiled and reported by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and others, and they are heart breaking.

Guards from Cultural Revolution
Three young Chinese Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution

In China, there have been certain improvements since the Cultural Revolution when religion was prohibited altogether and many religious leaders were in prison camps. I have learned of that dreadful period from the late Cardinal Ignatius Kung, and Harry Wu, who served three and two decades in prison camps, respectively, for peacefully exercising basic freedoms. Since then, the government’s goal has shifted from stamping out religion to controlling it until it withers away. The state continues an official policy of hostility to religion; it views religion as a superstition that impedes scientific and economic progress and poses a threat to political stability.

Beijing requires churches to submit to government oversight of their religious message and, through the mechanism of registration in the state religious apparatus, closely monitors and imprisons those who deviate in their preaching from what the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department allows. Speaking out against the government’s forced abortion and one-child policies—the latter affects most families in China—for example, is a criminal offense. Ten elderly Catholic bishops, who in the phrase of Pope Benedict XVI “opt[ed] for clandestine underground consecration,” are now imprisoned in the government detention centers. No one knows where Bishop Su Zhimin of Baoding is held; he hasn’t been seen since 1997 after being taken into custody for celebrating Mass without state authorization. Evangelicals independent of the state church often lack Bibles, and their pastors are at times arrested, beaten, and tortured. On February 4, 2009, Gao Zhisheng, the heroic Chinese lawyer who defended persecuted Chinese Christians, was forcefully taken from him home by police, and has not been seen since.

Religion and Liberty: The church in North America is often mentioned as a great resource for aiding Christians elsewhere with material help and assistance. What can the church in North America learn from the suffering church and why are they so important to our own life and witness?

Nina Shea: I remember Bishop Macram Gassis from Sudan saying to an audience in Washington, “We are not a mendicant church.” Of course, there was a lot of money coming from the United States to support Central and South Sudan. But he was pointing out that the Sudanese church was giving too. Sudan’s Christians were offering to die as martyrs for the faith, and they were praying for us. I realized that Sudan’s Christian herdsmen and farmers were indeed bearing witness, standing up to intolerant forces and saying, yes, I’m a Christian and being starved to death, enslaved or killed outright for it. This is a great force of inspiration and a spiritual gift. At the same time, if you only think of it in those terms, I think this creates a certain complacency or confusion within North American Christians—that somehow suffering persecution is a good thing and we can walk away from it feeling satisfied. Religious persecution is not good. It’s evil. And we must do what we can as members of the Body of Christ to help them and not show indifference. That kind of ultimate witness for the faith is going on right now in Nigeria, in Iraq, in Pakistan and Egypt, for example. In Vietnam, Father Lee, a Catholic priest, is imprisoned for calling for greater religious freedom, and he has suffered two strokes recently and is being denied medicine.

Last week I received a visit from a wonderfully articulate and committed Baptist preacher from northern Nigeria, Rev. John Hayab, whose life is under constant threat because he is a Christian leader living under extreme Islamic rule. Mobs have killed hundreds of Christians in his area in recent months.

Religion and Liberty: That’s a good point. When I was in seminary it seemed some wanted to glorify their suffering and hold them up as such a superior example to North American Christians.

Nina Shea: It’s a confusing concept because you should honor their sacrifice, you want to draw inspiration from it, and there are spiritual gifts from it. At the same time, we are bound by our faith to visit the imprisoned and comfort the afflicted and to reject evil and that’s certainly at work in causing such suffering.

Religion and Liberty: In early June, President Obama made a much heralded speech to the Muslim world in Cairo. Were you satisfied with the speech? What, if anything, would you like to have heard that you didn’t hear?

President Obama
President Barack Obama speaks in Cairo

Nina Shea: I thought it was good he mentioned human rights, and he did make mention, though barely, of Egypt’s Christian Copts. Until then, there was concern that he wouldn’t even do that because human rights and religious and other freedoms have not been foreign policy priorities for the Obama administration. But, he did it in a very weak and half-hearted way. He didn’t give any specifics and drew false moral equivalencies between the United States and the Muslim Middle East. For example, he criticized U.S. restrictions on some Muslim charities without explaining that Muslims can give to charity, they just can’t give to certain ones suspected of funding terrorists. He should have called for Egypt’s government to allow Copts to restore and build their churches, and to give Copts basic justice when they suffer attacks from Muslim mobs, as they do with increasing frequency. He should have criticized the rampant anti-Semitism in the state media, the arrests of dissidents Kareem Ameer and other Muslim bloggers, for “insulting” Islam, the repression against the northodox, liberal Koranists, and the persecution of the Baha’i’s who are barred from even acknowledging their faith in Egypt.

The other pressing issue right now in the Muslim world—and it’s beginning to threaten the West—is the blasphemy issue, that is the ability to speak freely, even critically, about Islam and human rights, women’s rights, individual freedoms, democracy, and other issues, including by Muslims themselves. We have defended journalists in Afghanistan imprisoned and facing death for blasphemy for criticizing the blasphemy law there, itself. We have found that the lives of these Muslim freedom champions can be spared when there’s an outcry by the international community. At the present time, the head of one of the Netherlands’ most popular political parties, member of Parliament Geert Wilders, is on trial for religious hate speech because he made a film that is harshly critical of the Koran, and called for its ban. This can only be seen as a blasphemy trial.

It is the most recent in a growing list of such trials in Western Europe. The West should not return to the dark ages of blasphemy prosecutions. As we see in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and other countries that have blasphemy bans, the definition of blasphemy expands over time, hinging as it does on feelings and sensibilities of authorities, to encompass an ever widening list of subjects that cannot be discussed. Such bans empower extremists, encourage mob violence, and undercut political and economic development.

The movement to ban blasphemy against Islam is strong at the United Nations. Egypt and Pakistan—both recipients of enormous U.S. aid and both deeply troubled societies—are the leaders of this push, working through the fifty-seven member Organization of Islamic Conference. They aim to create a new human right for Islam to be protected from “defamation,” negative stereotyping and insult, in other words, a universal criminalization of Islamic blasphemy laws. If their proposals become international law, they will actually supplant individual religious freedom and individual freedom of expression as internationally recognized human rights. The danger has increased since the Obama administration supported a resolution jointly with Egypt this past October at the U.N. Human Rights Council that urges all countries to enforce religious hate-speech laws. The United States, of course, doesn’t have religious hate-speech laws. We have strong constitutional protections on free speech. But what this joint U.S.-Egypt resolution does is urge states with weak protections for speech to make them even weaker by imposing bans on what can be said about Islam.

Religion and Liberty: What can Americans do in a concrete way to help religious communities around the world that are suffering from repressive regimes?

Nina Shea: The greatest thing the United States can do is use its foreign policy to defend freedoms of religion and expression and explain how they are linked. The United States has tremendous influence in the world when it chooses to use it. And so, what Americans should do is exercise their rights as citizens to influence foreign policy. The United States should speak up for repressed religious minorities in the Muslim world, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Americans need to become better informed about the situations in these other countries, and they should inform others by organizing speaking engagements or book study groups in their churches and social circles. They should write to their members of Congress about these issues. And they should support groups and individuals abroad that are working to expand religious freedom in their countries.

I would like to add that Iraq is a situation of deep concern for religious minorities, particularly those without militias to defend themselves, and it is one place where the United States through its enormous military and civilian assistance programs does have direct influence.

Read this article on the Acton Institute Religion and Liberty website. Reprinted with permission.

Date posted: April 26, 2010