Freedom of Religion
by Weam Namou
“The recent controversy over Article 26 in Iraq has exposed an important problem in the Middle East,” said Tina Ramirez, president and founder of Hardwired, an organization that goes to some of the darkest places in the world in countries like Nepal, Sudan, and Iraq, and provide people on the frontline of religious oppression an understanding of what their rights are so that they can stand up and defend them, for themselves and for others.
“In the Middle East, individuals are not identified by their humanity but by their religion,” she said. “And consequently, they are also divided by their religion.”
Ramirez, who lives in Virginia, flew into Michigan on Thursday, September 29 to visit members of the Chaldean community at the Chaldean Community Foundation (CCF) in Sterling Heights. Along with myself, present at the meeting were Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, and Wendy Acho, director of strategic initiatives at the CCF.
Ramirez is an award-winning humanitarian whose passion for religious freedom began in college while studying at the International Institute for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, decided in 2013 to start an organization to end religious oppression. Around the world today, 5.3 billion people are living under religious oppression and that number is growing.
“For many refugees from the region who have resettled in the U.S., it will take a while to fully understand that most Americans do not know what religion they are by reading their name or looking at them,” she said. “And they likely will not care.”
She explained that Americans have been heavily influenced by a Protestant worldview that views religion as something that can be changed, challenged, and reformed. Religion may influence their lives, but it is not an immutable characteristic like race and ethnicity so it would never be placed on a government driver’s license or identity card like it is in the Middle East.
“Its absence does not mean it is not valued,” she said. “But it is valued as an individual choice and not as a means to classify and stratify people.”
Hardwired focuses on specific leaders in the community, which range from advocates and lawyers to media personnel and religious leaders, to make a ripple effect and influence others to embrace the idea of freedom of religion.
“One of the challenges for individuals we work with around the world who identify others by their religion is that they often fail to see the common humanity they share,” she said. “The commonalities are what ensure that each person has the basic rights and freedoms to live according to a particular religion or belief in peace with others, even those with whom they may disagree.”
Earlier this year, Hardwired brought together ten teachers from around the world representing seven different religious communities in the Middle East so they can teach their students in that region about freedom of religion and belief.
“A couple of teachers who joined us were Yezidis from northern Iraq, who themselves had experienced persecution for their beliefs,” said Ramirez.
The two men development an activity where they took a group of displaced students to choose flowers. They told them to pick whichever flowers they wanted but to keep a few yellow flowers. After the students did that, the teachers expressed how the same situation happened to their country when ISIS came and destroyed everyone except the people who believed and looked like them.
This activity enabled the teachers and students to discuss issues about their countries and what vision they had for it. The students had the opportunity to then plant their own garden and to go around and learn as much as possible about one another. Throughout the process, one of the young Yezidi boys, who didn’t like Muslims, shared something with the teacher as they went back to the garden that was replanted with colorful flowers.
He told his teacher, “I didn’t know that other Muslims had suffered the same way we have.”
He had done a project with a Muslim boy learned that they had both been attacked by ISIS.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work to plant the seeds of freedom in that society,” she said, “but it’s worth it and it would make them feel safer in the future.”
There are several ways one can become involved in this program by signing a petition, joining the Hardwired team and becoming an ambassador for freedom, hosting a screening, or investing to the program. To learn more, visit http://www.hardwiredglobal.org/