The head of the U.S. National Council of Churches (NCC) has a burden on his heart for prison inmates...if they are former al-Qaeda or Taliban operatives at Guantanamo Bay.
In his www.middlechurch.net blog, NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar records his chagrin that the U.S. government has denied his request for a visit with the Gitmo prisoners.
“’I was in prison and you visited me,’ Jesus says in Matthew 25:36. But the detainees at Guantánamo are not permitted visitors. I know this from personal experience,” Edgar blogged. “The National Council of Churches requested to visit these children of God simply to see how they were being treated,” he piously shared. “We simply wanted to visit these prisoners as our Lord commands in Matthew 25:40.”
Edgar’s and the NCC’s interests in prisoners seems to be very specifically confined to the dozens of interned terrorists at Guantanamo. But there are millions of prisoners around the world, most of them are genuinely criminal. But tens of thousands of them are incarcerated only for their political or religious beliefs, including thousands of Edgar’s fellow Christians.
My colleague Faith McDonnell, a prominent religious liberty advocate, has appealed to Edgar to take a break from his Guantanamo preoccupation and look at 12 or so specific Christian prisoners of conscience, several of whom are facing death sentences for believing in Jesus. The prisoners she identifies include several Chinese, a Vietnamese, three Indonesians, an Egyptian, a Cuban, an Eritrean, and a North Korean, all of whom suffer because they defied Communism or Islam. These sufferings interest the NCC not at all.
The Guantanamo prisoners are cause celebres with the anti-American international Left. While the detainees’ dietary and religious needs are carefully tended to, leagues of lawyers advocate on their behalf, the international media report their every hiccup, and ostensible human rights groups devote tens of thousands of man hours to argue for their legal protections. In return, the al-Qaeda and Taliban hooligans probably have only contempt for the Western secularists and leftist Christians who plead on their behalf. In a world governed by al-Qaeda, church officials like Bob Edgar would be beheaded, and the NCC suppressed into dhimmitude, i.e., subordination to Islamic law.
Meanwhile, the 350 Montagnard Christians imprisoned and tortured by the Vietnamese communist regime do not have much hope of media attention or international visitors. Neither does Pastor Gong Shengliang, formerly pastor of a 50,000 congregation, now into his fifth year of wasting away in a Chinese communist prison. Coptic Christian Hesham Azmy Iskender and six of his fellow Copts have been in an Egyptian prison since April, after their arrest at a Christian funeral for the victim of an Islamist knife stabbing. Eritrean Gospel singer has spent much of the last two years incarcerated in a shipping container for her evangelical beliefs. Indonesian Sunday school teacher Rebekka Zakaria is serving time with two of her Christian friends after being accused by Islamists of trying to convert Muslim children.
Western church officials love to visit Fidel Castro’s Cuba, but so far, not many have pressed to visit Christian dissident Jorge Luis García Perez Antunez. He’s been im prison for 16 years, often confined to a “tiny, sealed cell with no light or bedding, typically overflowing with excrement and infested with rats and insects,” according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Unfortunately for him, as with the others listed above, they are not enemies of the United States. So Bob Edgar and his U.S. church council are not agitating for visits or disseminating news releases on their behalf.
In vivid contrast, a quick search of the NCC’s website finds two dozen statements about the Guantanamo prisoners.
For example, in March 2004 the NCC organized a press conference and “silent walk” through Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Guantanamo prisoners, in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union, family members of the prisoners, and actress Vanessa Redgrave. Folk singer Peter Yarrow even joined in by writing a special song. The NCC renewed its request, first made in December 2003, for an “interfaith delegation” to visit to monitor the “physical, mental and spiritual condition of the detainees.”
“The National Council of Churches has said that the denial of rights that inhere in the worth of human beings before God are not only a crime against humanity,” Edgar declared at the 2004 press conference. “They are a sin against God. All faiths share this basic teaching…All persons are connected in the family of God. My rights, your rights and the rights of the detainees are inseparable.”
Already by January 2003, the NCC had endorsed a friend of the court brief for the U.S. Supreme Court demanding that Guantanamo detainees be empowered to challenge their detention. “The National Council of Churches has a long tradition of advocating for civil liberties and human rights,” asserted Antonios Kireopoulos, the NCC’s Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace.
Early this year, the NCC “emphatically supported"” a United Nations report demanding that the U.S. close the detention center at Guantanamo. For the third time, Edgar asked permission for a “small interfaith delegation” just to peek in at the prisoners. “Today we renew that request, not only for the benefit of the detainees but for the benefit of the reputation of our country in an increasingly skeptical world,” Edgar intoned.
Almost amusingly, in late 2004, Edgar denounced the U.S. for detaining Chinese Uighur Muslims at Guantanamo. The Uighurs had been in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Having found them no longer a threat, the U.S. wanted to release them, but could not return them to China, where they would have been imprisoned or killed. Edgar demanded that they be given immediate refugee status in the U.S., since Uighurs are a “persecuted minority” in China. It was a rare and no doubt grudging admission for Edgar that all is not well in communist China. Rejecting Chinese demands for their return, the U.S. ended up sending the Uighurs to Albania, about which Edgar appears not have commented.
Edgar had offered the services of the NCC’s relief arm in the Uighurs’ potential U.S. resettlement. Such hospitality! The NCC has also helped to transport family members of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. for media events. Who knows how much the NCC has spent on its Guantanamo advocacy, but it is a safe assumption that this budget line item is exponentially larger than the NCC’s line item for persecuted Christians.
“We have a long way to go before we can truly stand as a beacon of Christ’s light for the rest of the world,” Edgar penned in his blog about Guantanamo. “I pray that Congress and the Supreme Court may continue to apply pressure on the president to meet the basic standards of the Geneva Convention; I pray that those people of faith who courageously wrote letters, rang phones on Capitol Hill, and spoke boldly about the love of their Lord may be given the gift of perseverance.”
We can also pray that persecuted Christians, whose imprisonment, torture and death sentences do not much interest Edgar’s Guantanamo-obsessed NCC, will also be given “the gift of perseverance.”
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