The Australian Christian Lobby's annual National Conference is coming up at the end of October. One of the speakers is Elizabeth Kendal, a religious freedom analyst and advocate.
In this interview, Elizabeth talks about religious freedom and the realpolitik that prevents Western nations from addressing this issue adequately. The interview is in two parts.
DANIEL SIMON: The Australian Christian Lobby's National Conference is coming up at the end of October, featuring a range of top-class speakers, one of whom is Elizabeth Kendal. Elizabeth is a religious liberty analyst and advocate who has been writing and speaking on religious freedom issues for 16 years. She is the Director of Advocacy at Christian Faith and Freedom; she is an adjunct research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths; and she’s the author of a book Turn Back the Battle and she’s here to talk to us this morning, hello Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH KENDAL: Hello Daniel, thanks for having me.
DANIEL SIMON: Your topic at the conference is “Religious Freedom in an Age of Realpolitik”. This is an intriguing title, and without giving too much away, what can we expect to hear from you about religious freedom in an age of realpolitik?
ELIZABETH KENDAL: Well I think what I’m really trying to do is to awaken people to the reality of the times in which we live. Now more than ever religious persecution and religious freedom is going to increasingly be taking a back burner in politics. I think it’s a bit of an anomaly just in recent decades where we’ve had the US International Religious Freedom Act which was able to be wielded to the advantage of persecuted victims and minorities. We’ve seen some very effective political advocacy. I think these days might be coming to an end, or may have even come to an end, and we really are returning to what I think is the normal reality in this world, and this is the realpolitik, that is the politics of power and the pursuit of interests. Realpolitik reigns and that has real serious implications for religious freedom and how we should tackle it as Christians.
DANIEL SIMON: So what interests do you think are taking away from the focus on religious liberty?
ELIZABETH KENDAL: Well countries always have what they refer to as their “vital interests”. You’ll often see this in statements that are made, you know that countries have “vital interests” in the region. They’re usually talking about trade, free trade agreements, or oil is usually high on the agenda. There’s also geo-strategic interests. So during the Cold War, countries had interests of keeping strategic nations either in the Western sphere of influence or they would drift into the Soviet sphere. Today you’ve got countries like Indonesia. The West is keen to keep Indonesia in the Western sphere of interest and not to have it drift into the Chinese sphere of interest. The same happens with countries like Ukraine which sit in between two great powers, so geo-strategic interests are there as well.
And what you see is that these take centre stage, and they really dictate the religious freedom policy. So for example, you might have a country like Indonesia, say. A country that is wanting to woo Indonesia into its sphere of influence will not criticise its human rights record, they will not pick a fight on these things. So you’ll see in a country like Indonesia, the persecution of Christians in West Java, the virtual slow genocide of the Christians in Papua, is not talked about. In fact there are great efforts made to cover up the reality, because if the realities are exposed, that will impact negatively on the vital interests – the trade pacts, the various deals that have been made, might cause Indonesia to drift into the Chinese sphere. So these terrible abuses are literally covered up.
The same is true in a country like Burma. Burma sits on this sort of fault line between the Western sphere of influence and the Chinese sphere of influence. And whoever gets Burma – it’s like a prize, you get markets, you get resources, you get great point scoring on the geo-political stage. And because of that, human rights goes off the agenda. And the war against the Christian Kachin, the terrible human rights abuses against Christians in the Burma periphery are just brushed under the carpet.
DANIEL SIMON: I’m talking to religious freedom expert Elizabeth Kendal about religion in the age of realpolitik, and Elizabeth will offer further insights in Part 2 of this interview.
DANIEL SIMON: The Australian Christian Lobby’s National Conference is coming up at the end of October, and one of the speakers is religious liberty expert Elizabeth Kendal, who’s speaking on the topic “Religious Freedom in an Age of Realpolitik”. In Part 1 of this interview Elizabeth spoke about the realpolitik of the world today and the “vital interests” of countries that may keep them from addressing human rights abuses and religious persecution. This is Part 2 of the interview.
So Elizabeth, what you’re saying is it’s not politically expedient, it’s not economically profitable for Western governments to criticise other countries on their religious persecution, their human rights records. To what extent do you think Australia needs to improve in its engagement in these issues of religious freedom?
ELIZABETH KENDAL: Well I believe that we should be doing everything that we can. I believe in every single opportunity for mouths to be opened we should be speaking. We should be speaking to our politicians, we should be speaking to journalists, through talkback radio, through letters to the editor, through everything. And our politicians should be speaking to other politicians and our diplomats to other diplomats. This is a moral issue that we cannot let rest.
The thing is what I really believe strongly in is that while we do these things, we don’t put our faith in them. We don’t expect that they of their own merits will achieve very much in this world. The only success comes when God is in it. And so the church has to get really, really serious about praying through these issues, about doing everything in the paradigm of prayer, so that when our politicians do speak, God will answer our prayers and be at work, and maybe effect changes that are nothing short of miraculous.
DANIEL SIMON: Now we know, Elizabeth, we know about ISIS and the plight of Christians in the Middle East at the moment, and you mentioned a few other countries as well, such as Burma and Sudan. Where else, what other parts of the world are there serious concerns for Christians being persecuted, and what ideological forms are persecuting Christians at the moment?
ELIZABETH KENDAL: Well pretty well any country that has a totalitarian government will persecute Christians. When you have totalitarianism you’ve got a government that’s saying “we are the highest authority”. So atheistic, Communist regimes. And what we have now in countries like China and Vietnam and Laos and North Korea – it’s not so much an ideological Communism, which would have everybody having all things in common – it’s really a very capitalistic system, with high degrees of greed and really worship of wealth and money, and a greater gap between rich and poor, but you have a system that is totalitarian in terms of its power structures. It will not tolerate dissent. So anyone that speaks up about righteousness and justice or anyone who suggests that there is a higher authority to which governments are accountable, they will be persecuted by the state.
And you’ve also got Islamic systems. We’re seeing a massive revival or reformed, puritanical Islam.
In Hunduism – Hinduism doesn’t actually propagate violence towards Christians, but Hindu Nationalism, which is a political movement that basically creates a religious apartheid on the grounds of whether you are Hindu or not. And India now has a Hindu Nationalist government, so we’re expecting to see persecution of Christians escalate once again in India, we’re seeing it beginning already. There’s a whole string of villages that have been purged of their Christians in the tribal districts in the north. Religious nationalism is a very serious to threat to Christians in both Buddhist and Hindu states.
DANIEL SIMON: Elizabeth Kendal thanks very much for joining me, and we look forward to hearing you at the ACL National Conference.
ELIZABETH KENDAL: Yes, thank you very much.