By Kurt Jensen Catholic News Service
A two-time Academy Award-winning actor lent his support July 16 to the religious freedom struggle in the Middle East.
Mahershala Ali, winner of the supporting-actor Oscar for both “Moonlight” (2017) and “The Green Book” (2018), addressed an evening reception of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Congressional Caucus, co-sponsored at the U.S. Capitol with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
His words could apply equally to Christian sects who face discrimination, violence and marginalizing.
“Our most valuable real estate is our minds, our bodies, our spirit,” Ali said. “The residual effects of those who fall outside the limits … have had an indelible impact on communities around the world.”
“Freedom,” he added, is “the right to move toward your holistic self. It is shocking that in 2019, we have political leaders who think that we can legislate or define love of God or faith.”
Ali, born in California, converted to the Muslim faith in 2000 and became an Ahmadi, a branch of Islam that is often targeted in nations that are majority Sunni Muslim, such as Pakistan. The Sunnis call Ahmadis blasphemous, forbid them to worship in groups and often subject them to mob violence.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has, in the past, written letters to the Pakistani government and the U.S. State Department asking both to support religious tolerance.
“The United States, which has long been a place of refuge for many faiths, can lead in this fight,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California.
The Ahmadiyya caucus, founded in 2014, has 35 members from both parties. Speier and Rep. Peter King, R-New York, are co-chairs.
A Pew Research Center study released late July 15 found a grim outlook for religious freedom: “Government restrictions on religion have increased globally between 2007 and 2017 in all four categories studied: favoritism of religious groups, general laws and policies restricting religious freedom, harassment of religious groups, and limits on religious activity. The most common types of restrictions globally have consistently been the first two.”
The level of religious restrictions, the report found, “is highest in the Middle East-North Africa region,” and “includes instances such as such as criminal prosecutions of Ahmadis or members of other minority sects of Islam.”
But they are increasingly being highlighted in Europe, including France, which the Pew study said “scores higher than Qatar when it comes to general government harassment of religious groups, which includes enforcing restrictions on religious dress.”
The result of the study, said Rep. Thomas Suozzi, D-New York, “sends a strong message to the United States that we’re not going to tolerate religious persecution.”
Religious liberty, said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, “is not the only human right — nor would we be able to protect it if it were.”
However, “it is not a license to discriminate against those who believe differently or not at all. Muslims, Jews, Sikhs — are they safe in the United States? I don’t believe they are safe enough.”
His anger grew during his recent tour, along with other members of Congress, of the border detention camps in Texas. “Do you realize that most of those people are Christians? Catholics, to be precise.”
“Since the beginning of this administration, U.S. settlement of religious minorities has fallen sharply. We need to change that,” McGovern added.
Lord Tariq Ahmad, the British prime minister’s special envoy for religious freedom, observed that the “true test” of one’s own faith is “when you stand up for the rights of others” in a different faith tradition.