This week, Jewish communities around the world have been celebrating the holiday of Chanukah.
Although Chanukah is a uniquely Jewish story, its lessons about the importance of preserving our religious freedom are universal, irrespective of individual faith.
The ancient story of Chanukah itself occurred more than 2,000 years ago, around 2nd Century B.C., when the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, successfully repelled their Greek-Syrian oppressors, led by the ruler Antiochus.
Prior to the rebellion, Antiochus sought to forbid the practice of Judaism and ordered the Jews to instead turn to the Greek gods and pagan worshipping, the very antithesis of the Jewish faith, which gave birth to monotheism.
In a miraculous victory against all odds, the Jews fought back, defeating Antiochus’ army, restoring their right to worship and rededicating the Second Temple in their ancient capital Jerusalem.
So, what does this struggle for religious freedom teach us today?
In just a few days time, on 10 December, we will mark seventy years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. The historic document, for the first time, set out a number of fundamental human rights to be universally protected.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration clearly states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
However, as we assess the current state of religious freedom around the world, how does it measure up against this noble goal? A brief glimpse would suggest not particularly well.
Across the Arab Middle East, Christians are being persecuted and imprisoned, Churches are being burnt down and in some parts, even the mere practice of Christianity or conversion can be an offense punishable by death.
In Syria, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, Christian holy sites are being pillared and the community is beleaguered, caught up in the catastrophic bloodshed.
In Egypt, Coptic Christians continue to be slaughtered. Last month, Islamic terrorists ambushed a bus carrying Coptic Christian pilgrims, killing seven and leaving 19 injured.
Meantime, even the United Nations has acknowledged now that the terror group ISIS is committing a genocide, including ‘forced conversion campaigns’ in Syria and Iraq against the Yazidis.
In Mynmar, in southern Asia, the ruling military has been widely accused, including by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, of committing genocide against the local Rohingya Muslim community, where it is estimated at least 10,000 Rohingyans were murdered last year in the outbreak of ethnic cleansing.
Last month, Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman was acquitted of purported charges of blasphemy, after spending eight years on death row. However, the Islamists in Pakistan were so outraged, that they forced Asia and her family to flee the country, seeking asylum out of fears for their safety.
And across Africa, we have witnessed Islamist terrorists from Boko Haram in Nigeria slaughtering innocent women and children simply for being Christian, while in Eritrea, Chad, Congo, Somalia and throughout much of the continent, Christian communities and minorities are under relentless assault, fleeing from persecution and violence.
Even for many Jewish communities around the world, 2,000 years after the Maccabee revolt for our freedom, we are still being singled out and targeted for violence and bigotry, for one reason and one reason only – because we are Jews.
In Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Synagogue last October, a gunman murdered 11 Jews during the Holy Sabbath services.
While in Europe, seventy-three years after the end of the Holocaust, a devastating CNN survey just revealed Antisemitic stereotypes are alive and well. Meantime, a report scheduled to be released next week by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, will show that 85% of Jews in the EU consider Antisemitism and racism to be the most pressing problems they face.
Regrettably, 2,000 years after the Chanukah miracle and 70 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the evidence is overwhelming that religious intolerance and persecution is growing, not diminishing, with many people around the world are still being denied their most fundamental of rights – the right to worship freely.
In ‘Ethics of the Fathers’, the great Jewish sage, Hillel, says: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
Hillel teaches us that, not only must we stand up for our own rights, including the right to religious freedom and to worship freely, but so too must we stand up for those who are denied this very same right.
We must therefore speak out, loudly and unequivocally, against racism, hatred and religious intolerance.
We must never remain indifferent to the suffering of others or stand idly by in the face of violence and persecution.
And we must always give voice to the voiceless.
Like the Chanukah miracle, the light of religious freedom must prevail over intolerance.
Vladimir Sloutsker is the President & Co-Founder of The Israeli-Jewish Congress (IJC).