Dmitri Bodyu, a Ukrainian American pastor, is a three-time religious refugee who last year added “Russian prisoner” to his list of life-or-death challenges.
As a teenager in 1989, Bodyu and his family fled religious persecution in the Soviet Union and moved to Texas, where they were given legal refugee status and eventually became U.S. citizens, free to worship as they pleased.
In the mid-2000s, he and his wife moved to Ukraine and founded a network of thriving evangelical Christians churches there.
While pastoring a church in Crimea in 2014, he was given 10 days to pack up and leave amid Russia’s invasion and annexation of the strategic port-filled peninsula. The couple and their children moved inland to the Ukrainian city of Melitopol and rebuilt their churches and ministry, only to have history repeat itself last year, this time with a far more brutal chain of events.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, Bodyu started sheltering some four dozen refugees at his church. That is dangerous work. Human rights experts say Russian soldiers have targeted pastors and churches first when taking over territory in Eastern Ukraine. In Russia, most Christians belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, and the church leadership, based in Moscow, views the breakaway Orthodox Church of Ukraine as illegitimate—and evangelical Christians like Bodyu and members of his Word of Life Church as apostates.
After rockets started hitting the city of Melitopol in early March, the U.S. Embassy called Bodyu and let him know he could leave and seek legal refuge in the United States.
“But I said that we’re not going to leave the church. We cannot leave the church and go,” he said. “So, I stayed, and my family stayed with me, and we worked the first few weeks when the war started in the city because it was like an Armageddon.”
Last March 19, at 6:30 in the morning, a group of Russian soldiers ransacked their home and churches and captured Bodyu, put a black bag over his head and took him to jail, where they alternately threatened to kill him and tried to enlist him into the Russian army.
Despite the bleak circumstances, Bodyu and his family prayed for his release, and after a number of days, the soldiers inexplicably released him on one of their commanders’ orders. Still, the soldiers continued to keep his house under surveillance, so the family fled to Poland, where they continue to assist church members and Ukrainian refugees.
Other fellow Christian ministers, priests, and their followers weren’t as fortunate, with reports of many being tortured and killed by their Russian captors.
“In occupied territory, we still have Christians there, and it’s very tough to be an evangelical Christian in occupied territory because they are hunting all the ministers, and they took our building [for a military base],” Bodyu said while speaking Jan. 31 on a panel at the International Religious Freedom Summit, a meeting of lawmakers and human rights advocates in Washington, D.C.
Bodyu’s harrowing experience was just one of countless personal accounts of religious and ethnic persecution spotlighted last week at the annual summit. The two-day gathering, which has taken place annually for the past three years, was organized by Sam Brownback, a former Kansas governor who served as President Donald Trump’s ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, and Katrina Lantos Swett, the daughter of the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress and a longtime champion of human rights.
Religious freedom is under a growing threat by China, Russia, and other totalitarian regimes, activists, officials, and lawmakers at the summit warned as they worked to confront and expose religious persecution around the globe.
Rashan Abbas, a prominent Uyghur activist, urged more action to stop the Chinese government’s genocide against her people, a Muslim ethnic minority in northwest China. In 2021, President Joe Biden formally declared China’s treatment of the Uyghur people as genocide, responsible for attempting to decimate the population through mass detention and forced sterilization.
A lifetime pro-democracy activist, Abbas left the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China and came to the United States to study at Washington State University in 1989. She continued her human rights advocacy and became a broadcaster for Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service and later testified before Congress about Beijing’s Uyghur forced labor camps.
After she appeared on a panel in 2018 at the conservative Hudson Institute, Abbas’ sister and aunt, who were still living in Xinjiang, disappeared from their homes. Since their disappearances, the Chinese government has confirmed that her sister, Dr. Gulshan Abbas, is being held in a prison inside China on alleged terrorism charges. Less information is known about Abbas’ aunt.
Abbas urged all Americans not to buy any goods marked “made in China” because it’s so difficult to determine if any of them were made by Uyghurs and then transferred to other parts of China for export.
“It hurts me to see people buying these things,” she told RealClearPolitics. “[I wonder], is that a product made by my sister in a forced labor camp?”
Another leading summit event focused on the ongoing slaughter of Nigerian Christians by Muslim militants and Boko Haram, one of the world’s deadliest Islamist militant groups that became known worldwide after its members kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in 2014. Only half of those girls, many of whom are Christians, eventually won their freedom, according to human rights experts, including former Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a now-retired House member who served for more than three decades and who now serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF.
In gripping testimony, Tassie Ghata, the director of Grace and Light International, a nondenominational Christian ministry in Nigeria, described her abduction in January 2020 by Boko Haram militants who threatened to rape her, but ultimately let her go after three days.
“I don’t know where the courage came from, because I was very scared,” she recounted. “I told them I was a Christian and to die would bring me much peace.”
Nigeria is the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, even though Christians make up nearly half of Nigeria’s population of 200 million, according to leading religious freedom advocates. The World Index of Christian Persecution states that Nigeria is where 89% of Christians killings throughout the world took place over the past several years. The report also notes that 7,600 Nigerians were reported killed between January 2021 and June 2022.
On Jan. 31, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a leading human rights champion in Congress, introduced a bipartisan resolution to add Nigeria to the State Department’s annual blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom. The Biden administration omitted Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” in its 2021 and 2022 International Religious Freedom Reports, attributing the slaughter of Christians not to religious persecution, but to a conflict over resources exacerbated by climate change.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and other leading human rights organizations ardently disagree. In December, USCIRF issued a statement expressing outrage over Nigeria’s “inexplicable” omission on the State Department’s annual blacklist.
“USCIRF is tremendously disappointed that the Secretary of State did not implement our recommendations and recognize the severity of the religious freedom violations that both USCIRF and the State Department have documented,” said commission Chairman Nury Turkel.
At the summit, several top human rights advocates called on Congress to pass Smith’s resolution, which is co-sponsored by Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, and French Hill, R-Ark.
“We can no longer permit what’s taking place in Nigeria to continue,” Wolf said in addressing the International Religious Freedom Summit gathering. The Virginia Republican called for the passage of Smith’s resolution and the appointment of a special envoy to focus on the mass shootings and slaughters of Nigerian Christians.
Despite pressing news on Russia and Nigeria and several other conflict zones around the globe, deep concern over China’s brazen and systemic persecution of all religions was the predominant theme of the two-day summit. You Si-kun, who serves as the speaker of Taiwan’s parliament, traveled to Washington and headlined Wednesday’s morning session, accusing Beijing of an “all-out assault” on faith-based liberty. His visit and religious freedom summit address was viewed as a bookend to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taipei in August.
In lengthy remarks, You also blamed Chinese President Xi Jinping for launching a disturbing new era of religious persecution, starting in 2014. China’s efforts to stamp out all religions include the decades-long repression of Tibetans and members of the Falun Gong, and efforts to stop millions of Christians from worshiping in underground churches.
More broadly, You made a case for continued U.S. protection of Taiwan, upholding the island’s thriving democracy as an important bulwark against the Beijing’s totalitarian regime in the Pacific.
“[Taiwan has] overthrown myths propagated by certain ethnic Chinese leaders, who maintained that human rights and democracy are imports from the West, and unsuitable for Asian nations,” he said. “Taiwan has shown that democracy, born of the West, can indeed flourish in Chinese-speaking regions.”
The top Republican and Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee spoke one day before You and hit on similar themes. Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the panel, said Xi and China’s communist apparatchiks were conducting an “all-out assault on religion” and committing genocide against the Uyghur Muslims.
“The stories of forced sterilizations, forced abortions, brainwashing and murder are horrifying,” he told the summit last Tuesday. McCaul vowed to continue working to fight religious persecution and praised the 2021 congressional passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which prevents businesses from importing any product into the United States unless they can prove the good was not mined, produced, or manufactured by forced labor.
McCaul also condemned numerous documented reports that the Chinese government is harvesting organs from both the Uyghurs and the Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline that preaches the virtues of meditation and forbearance and which was banned by China in 1999.
After his remarks, McCaul told RealClearPolitics that the forced labor prevention law is definitely helping prevent the import of goods produced in Uyghur forced labor camps into the U.S. But, he said, other countries need to step up and pass similar laws in order for the U.S. law to pack a real economic punch for China and possibly convince Xi to reconsider instituting forced labor.
“We need other countries to step up and join forces with us,” he said in a brief interview.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a longtime co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Congress, joined McCaul on stage, noting that he and the Texas Republican don’t agree on several pressing foreign policy issues, but have worked closely on religious freedom over the years because it’s one of the main topics that come before their committees.
“That’s because the right to practice one’s religion of choice is so frequently violated by governments all over the world,” said McGovern. “Some examples that immediately come to mind will be well-known to everybody—the Uyghurs and Tibetans by China, the Muslims and Sikhs in India, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Rohingya Muslims in Burma, Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, Baha’i in Iran, Yazidis in Iraq, Shia Muslims in Sunni-governed countries, Catholics in Nicaragua, Jews in France, I can go on and on and on. The list is way too long.”
Some of the most forceful remarks from U.S. officials came from those who have dedicated their careers to promoting pluralism and fighting religious persecution.
Samantha Power, who leads the U.S. Agency for International Development, said she learned firsthand about the role of religious persecution in war-torn regions when working as a young reporter in Bosnia in the early 1990s. She would go on to write a book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” about America’s complicit role in enabling several mass atrocities and the human rights advocates who risked their lives and careers in an effort to convince U.S. leaders to intervene.
“To see people pulverized strictly on the basis of religion insofar as ethnicity coincided with religion … and to see the mosques, just getting obliterated … And then in other parts of the country, to see Catholic churches firebombed from within, it was such an awakening for a young person,” she said.
In her remarks to the summit, Power called China’s Uyghur genocide a “devastating example” of “wholesale denial of religious freedom” and condemned forces worldwide trying to thwart attempts to bring more transparency to totalitarian governments’ persecution of their own people. These kinds of crimes, she said, “come coupled with full campaigns to shield the perpetrators of those crimes.”
“That isn’t helpful to create a culture of accountability, which is what we need when it comes to human rights more broadly,” she added.
As a practicing Catholic, McGovern said, safeguarding faith-based liberty is deeply important and personal for him. “I’m very aware that my right to freedom of religion is only as strong as that of my Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist neighbor,” he said. “In our diverse world, unless the right to freedom of religion exists for everyone, it doesn’t truly exist for anyone.”
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics.
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