For 38 years, Mervyn Thomas has worked with Christian Solidarity Worldwide in the pursuit of justice for the oppressed; especially the persecuted church. Gavin Matthews spoke to him for Solas, about CSW, religious liberty, justice and the UNITED NATIONS.
Solas: What is CSW and what do you do?
Mervyn Thomas: Christian Solidarity Worldwide is a religious freedom organisation, working through advocacy and human rights in the pursuit of justice. So we are an advocacy organisation.
77% of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religious freedom; according to the secular International Society for Human Rights, 80% of those are Christians. We travel to countries, and compile detailed reports of persecution, then we disseminate that information. We tell the church what is happening, so that they can pray and protest, we tell the media what is happening so that they can advise the rest of the world, and we tell the politicians. I sit on the Foreign Secretary’s Human Rights Advisory Group, we’ve got contacts with various government ministers, with the European Parliament and the United Nations, and on Capitol Hill. We are able to raise awareness, bring policy recommendations, here in the EU, the USA and UN.
Solas: Is Religious Liberty the forgotten liberty?
Mervyn Thomas: Yes, and no. I think more people are aware of the curtailment of religious freedom than 38 years ago when I started this work. Over the last seven years, we’ve had more debates in the British Parliament on persecution, specifically on the persecution of Christians, than ever before. We’ve got an all-party parliamentary group which focuses on freedom of religion, and there’s now a world-wide group of concerned parliamentarians. So, it is the forgotten liberty, but it is less forgotten than it once was.
Solas: How do you prevent CSW getting caught up in other disputes, in which freedom of religion is a factor – and getting ‘played’, by one side or the other? So, say you do some work on Cuba, someone will say, you’re are taking a line from America which is ‘anti-Cuba’. How do you maintain your independence?
Mervyn Thomas: Simply by going to the countries and meeting the people ourselves, so that all of our testimony is authentic. We are not swayed, and maintaining our independence is really a discipline. People say, “I’ve just come back from holiday in Cuba, everything’s fine.” And you’d have to say they have fallen for the line of the Cuban government! Although some churches are functioning, many are not, many leaders are not. Certainly those who speak out about human rights are not. So we are fiercely independent of all governments. We take a little money from the Foreign Office, or the State Department, but I would never want it to be too much, because I would never want to be accused of being a puppet of either. Whenever we take money, it is only for specific projects that we want to do. Sometimes they might suggest we change our proposal to fit their agenda; but unless it’s in keeping with what we want, then we would rather lose the grant, than compromise our project. If they want to help fund what we want to do – fine, but we are fiercely independent. We make up our own minds, and are actually respected for it, not least by those very governments who might want us to tow their line.
Solas: CSW started during the Cold War, supporting Christian believers; but it has grown and changed, with more of a global focus, and now also supporting people of all faiths who are persecuted. How has change come about?
Mervyn Thomas: OK. Big question!
We started supporting Christians, in the old Eastern Bloc, but when communism fell we questioned our role. Supporters wrote to us saying ‘there’s no need for CSW, persecution has gone away’. Nobody then knew much about persecution in Islamic Countries because, while there was plenty of information from organisations like Keston College about Eastern Europe, there was little else available. So we looked beyond and saw what was happening to the church in other countries.
We first started reporting persecution of other faiths in Burma, as we realised that alongside the problems for Kachin and Karen Christians, the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State were suffering. Did we ignore them and say, “we’re only here for the persecuted Christians”? I don’t think you can do that. If you had two groups of people in desperate need of food, you wouldn’t say, ‘Christians over here, others over there – we’re only going to feed the Christians’. Of course you can’t do that. So we began to speak up for the Rohingyas. We sort of fell into, speaking up for people of other faiths. Initially I worried about what our supporters would think. I thought, ‘are evangelical Christians going to understand why we are speaking up for others?’ ‘Are they going to think we’re a syncretist organisation, a Liberal inter-faith thing…?’
Solas: And that’s not where CSW has gone?
Mervyn Thomas: No, no, no.. not at all!
Personally I understood the strategic reasons for speaking out for all. If we were to speak to a parliament, or at the UN, and speak about one persecuted group, but not the other, we would really not be authentic. Initially, I understood the strategy, but didn’t really get the theology. About two years ago Joel Edwards, did some of his doctoral research with us. I asked him to take us through the theology of speaking out for other people. Galatians 6:10 was important, which says, “Do good to all, especially to the household of faith”, which we try to do. When Proverbs 31 talks about “speaking out for those who are unable to speak for themselves”, it doesn’t say, speak up for believers, or ‘God’s Covenant People’, it says speak up for the vulnerable. Of course the greatest story about looking out for your neighbour is The Good Samaritan. The guy came to Jesus and said “Who’s my neighbour?” He hoped Jesus would narrowly define ‘neighbour’, so that he could easily tick the box; but Jesus insisted that everyone was his neighbour – and therefore ours too.
So, we speak up for all people, because we are Christians, not despite that! Now, I absolutely believe that Jesus is the only way to God the Father, but I believe that everyone else has got the right to believe what they believe. We are now being much more open about that, because speaking up for people of other faiths is actually missional. People we defend who are not Christians keep asking, “Why would you do that for me?” It’s very unusual. Many faith groups talk about a belief in Freedom of Religion, but don’t actually put it into practice. When we help others, their first reaction is always, “Why would these Christians do that?” We visited an atheist in prison in Indonesia, and he said, “Why would you come and see me?”. We’re able to say, “It’s because we are Christians. We’re speaking out for you because it’s what Jesus told us to do. We’re looking out for you because you are our neighbour.”
Solas: One significant thing in CSW has been gaining official UN recognition which was quite a struggle, ..
Mervyn Thomas: Yes, we started trying to get NGO recognition in 2001. Application goes through the ECOSOC NGO committee. But the ECOSOC committee is made up of a majority of countries who abuse human rights.
Solas: So they weren’t very pleased to see you…
Mervyn Thomas: No they weren’t!!
The rights-abusing countries kept deferring our application, until eventually we got the Greek government to force a vote, knowing that we would lose. We lost the vote, but could then appeal to the main ECOSOC committee. It’s made up of between 40 and 50 members, who weren’t all abusing human rights, and they upheld our appeal.
Now we’ve got that status it enables us to speak at the human rights council at any time, at the General Assembly, to hold side-events, and to have access to the all the UN mechanisms. We’ve always contributed from the margins, but are able to influence things now.
Solas: Some Christian commentators like Barney Zwartz have been very critical of the UN and said that its’ work is sometimes a cover for horrible human rights abuses. Is that fair?
Mervyn Thomas: The United Nations leaves a lot to be desired but it is the only worldwide mechanism that we’ve got. North Korea is a case in point. First we pressed for a ‘Special Rapporteur’ on human rights in North Korea and we got that. Then, called for a Commission of Enquiry into Crimes Against Humanity there, and we got that. An extremely good report was produced which said that there was no parallel on earth to the abuse of human rights going on in North Korea. It also said there was ‘ethnic cleansing’ against Christians. The UN General Assembly has endorsed that, but no further action has been taken. Kim Jong Un should be in the International Criminal Court, but the UN cannot refer him, until the Security Council agrees, which I doubt it will with China and Russia as permanent members. So the statement you made is probably a bit unfair, but still the UN is all we’ve got to work with on an international level.
Solas: What are the key issues at the moment and where is CSW working?
MT: We have between 25-30 ‘focus countries’, from The Middle East; Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran to North Korea, Eritrea, and Laos.
Oppressive governments are realising that the international community doesn’t like freedom of religion cases, involving ‘apostasy’ charges, so people in places like Sudan and Iran are getting charged with ‘national security crimes’ instead. Then we’ve got countries like North Korea and Eritrea where there is total abuse of religious freedom, and utter disregard to what the rest of the world is saying. Most countries do care about their reputation, and have some kind of conscience about being exposed, but Eritrea and North Korea do not.
Some countries place governmental restrictions on religious freedom. These are typically communist countries like China, Cuba, Laos or Vietnam. Then you have countries where societal violence is the problem, in places like Northern Nigeria where the Fulani Militia, and Boko Haram, are attacking Christians and inciting violence. Thirdly there are places which have got a mixture of the two, where there is societal violence, but the government turns a blind eye to it. This happens in Pakistan, and in India.
Obviously, political Islam is a huge threat throughout the world.
Solas: Christians often want to do something, but don’t know where to start….
Mervyn Thomas: The “P’s” !
Number one is Prayer. When you ask what you can do for the persecuted, they always say, “pray”. The second thing is “Protest”, by joining in a campaign. The third thing is “Provide”. But I don’t want people giving a fiver, thinking that that absolves them of their responsibility to pray and act! Another way to provide is by writing letters of encouragement. We publish “Connect & Encourage“, which is an address book of the persecuted. Finally, “Proclaim”; people are often completely ignorant of what is going on. When I speak in churches, people say, “I had no idea”. We need to tell them so that they can Pray, Protest and Provide too.
CSW’s Pray, Protest and Provide information is at: http://www.csw.org.uk/