Until very recently I had never heard of the Yezidis. This has, however, changed in past two weeks. The news has been dominated by stories about the atrocities committed by the extreme IS-movement against the Yezidis, and we have constantly been bombarded with images of thousands of Yezidis without food and shelter in the inhospitable Sinjar mountains. The encyclopedias that I consulted have told me that there are a few million Yezidis in the world. Most of them live in Iraq and neighboring countries, but there is a colony of about 30.000 Yezidis in Germany, while there allegedly is also a group of 5.000 in the Netherlands. Most of the Yezidis are Kurds, with a religion that is a mix of Christian and Islamic elements, plus ideas derived from other ancient religions of the region. The world has every reason to worry about what is currently happening in Iraq and I was pleased to read the statement of a few days ago, issued by Pastor Ted N.C. Wilson, the president of the Adventist Church, in which he condemned the violence and the utter disregard for the human right of freedom of religion.
The way in which the Yezidis are treated is one of the most lamentable examples in our times of persecution of a religious minority. Unfortunately, there are many other areas in the world where religious freedom is seriously lacking. We know the list of countries that are mentioned again and again as places where religious liberty is totally non-existent or severely restricted: Birma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North-Korea, Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The list could easily be augmented with other places where all is not well with regard to freedom of conscience and religious liberty.
There are no exact statistics of the total number of Christians and other believers who each year lose their lives because of religious persecution. In Syria alone 1200 Christians were killed in 2013—only because they were Christians. Since 1968 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been systematically persecuted in the East-African country of Malawi, with large numbers of martyrs as a result. Through the centuries anti-semitism has been the cause of death of millions of Jews, but it has not disappeared—as we saw when just a few months ago four people were killed in an attack of the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
Seventh-day Adventists attach great value to religious freedom. They do much—publicly and by means of silent diplomacy—to promote freedom of conscience and religion and to defend the rights of the victims of intolerance. This makes me proud and I hope that my church will continue to play an important role in the war against religious intolerance.
Adventist often point to the danger that exists, also in western countries—where people enjoy a relatively large degree of freedom—that in the future religious freedom might be restricted. In this connection there is a frequent reference to attempts to give Sunday observance a higher profile, if necessary even through legislation. Each time the pope or some other high Catholic dignitary makes a remark about the sanctity of the Sunday, Adventist media—especially at the fringe of the church—warn the church members that this surely is a ‘sign’ that tells us that the time is coming when Sabbath observance will be obstructed—or worse.
It would, however, seem to me that Sabbath keepers do not yet have to worry unduly. Nonetheless, it is advisable to remain vigilant and keep our ears to the ground with regard to what is being said and being initiated concerning the weekly day of rest. It also remains useful to keep reminding the world of the fact that, even though for a large majority of the people (that is, in the western world) the Sunday has a special importance, there is also a significant population segment that attaches great value to the Saturday. Yet, we should always see things in the right proportions. Currently, the greatest threat to our religious freedom does not originate in the Vatican, but rather in some extremist Islamic circles. Anyone who doubts this, would be advised to check this fact with the Christians in Northern Nigeria and with the Yezidis!