Pastor Jesse Johnson of Immanuel Bible Church just outside Washington, D.C., has a new appreciation for religious freedom in the United States after a recent trip overseas. He shared his insights with The Daily Signal about the fight for religious freedom around the globe and here at home.
“It is in light of the resurrection and God’s sovereignty that we have freedoms, and in light of that the government doesn’t tell you what to believe,” Johnson said. “There’s a reason the First Amendment is the First Amendment. It starts there because other freedoms come from that.”
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Johnson, who has just returned from a trip to India says what he experienced in the South Asian country reminded him of the importance of religious freedom throughout the world.
“I was only there a few weeks, but while I was there churches were being torn down, government was occupying churches, and some newer churches that were being built up were torn down,” Johnson said.
In December, religious freedom in India was called into question after a Bharatiya Janata Party member of parliament declared on Christmas Day he would hold a Hindu conversion ceremony, where Christians and Muslims would be publicly pressured to abandon their faith.
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“Unfortunately, concerns about the state of religious freedom in India are often only addressed when it is politically expedient to do so,” says The Heritage Foundation’s Olivia Enos.
Forced or manipulated religious conversions constitute an infringement of religious liberty. However, adopting a national anti-conversion law would likely be counterproductive. Muslims and Christians have protested against anti-conversion laws that have been adopted by a handful of Indian states, alleging that these laws are often misused to intimidate religious minorities and justify mob violence.
Johnson also noted that “The first western missionaries went to India, and many of them were martyred,” Johnson said. “But for the last 100 years, there’s been a balance in India—they have non-conversion laws, so a Muslim can’t convert to Hindu, a Hindu can’t convert to a Christian. That’s they way India has gotten along with relatively peaceful harmony [during that time].”
The hope for the United States when it comes to religious freedom lies in our rights as citizens.
“India has never had grounded religious freedom in their country’s DNA,” Johnson said. “There’s always been these toleration and laws against conversion whereas in the United States it’s almost like our freedom of religion flows out of the freedom to convert people and that’s where freedom is really seen.”
India’s constitution also provides protection for religious minorities and the country has thrived as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy since it gained independence 67 years ago. That is why the recent reports of mass “re-conversion” ceremonies in which Muslims and Christians are converted to Hinduism, and a series of church desecrations that occurred in New Delhi last December, were so troubling.
In an effort to reaffirm his government’s commitment to protecting religious minorities, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech in February acknowledging the importance of guaranteeing religious freedom in India. But Modi will have to back up his statements with action to demonstrate his government is serious aboutreligious freedom for all peoples in India.
*This article has been updated since its original publication.