Religious persecution, coexistence in sight


Brittany Cornelison

Though it may be out of mind and sight to many now, September 11, 2001 is one of those days that will go down in history as the day devastation reaped across America. 2,752 people from the pinpointed north and south World Trade Center towers, 343 New York City firefighters, 23 New York City police officers, 37 Port Authority officers; in all, 2,977 people died in this traumatic slaughter.

Each year, as people commemorate this day, their talk is filled with mourning for the Americans who lost their lives in result of this act of terrorism. Yet, on this day Islamic members of the al-Qaeda group changed the American view on Islam indefinitely. Muslims around the nation felt glaring eyes and whispers behind their backs; they became victims of persecution and prejudice based solely upon the faith claimed by the 9/11 terrorists.
Samira Salim, a sixth grade science teacher at Lange Middle School in Columbia, Mo., remembers this day vividly. Though she lived over 1000 miles away from the target site for this extremist terrorism, she still felt the ripple of tragedy felt by those around her her who were affected personally and emotionally by this event. She recognizes that there has been a great level of catastrophe felt by all members of all nationalities and a plea for greater security.
“From 9/11, I recall that is was an exceedingly  tragic day for every person, reaching to affect lives across the nation,” Salim said. “Regardless of ethnicity, background, or religion, every person felt the aftermath and devastation of this day. I think a lot of people were in mourning for the many lives lost, and also, as a nation, we felt shock and fear at the realization of the grave danger endured that day.”

 Salim is also a Muslim, and this adds more meaning to that September day 12 years past. Each day she must stand firmly in her faith, knowing that following what she believes is more important than the pigeonholing of those around her. 9/11 does not define Salim, and she wants to live in such a way that shows others that everyone in her religion doesn’t have the same motives of those who pinpointed those planes into the towers that day.

“In my opinion, due to a lack of presenting a clear, complete story of the situation through the media, our nation experienced the widespread stereotyping and generalizing of Muslims. The wrongful actions of a select minority that incorrectly portrayed themselves as “Muslims” on 9/11 ended up causing Muslims in America to suffer the consequences of their evil actions. Muslims are the complete polar opposites of the antagonists of 9/11,” Salim said. “I do believe that a lot of people were on edge after the devastation of 9/11 and may have been prone to jump to make incorrect assumptions out of fear and desperation in the wake of such a tragedy. As a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, I am a consistent, walking reminder of my religion everywhere I go. Muslim women wearing the hijab represent Islam and thus may have been wrongly stereotyped by ignorant individuals as having anything to do with 9/11, after the Islamic persecution that occurred following the devastating event.”
Though 9/11 was an experience in which the United States as a whole was terrorized, Muslims were specifically targeted in the faith-tie with the terrorists. Yet, there are instances of religious persecution all across the world.
Travel to Iraq, India, Egypt, France or even certain parts of the United States and encounters with religious persecution are more frequent. The United States is known to be dominantly Christian and it’s because of that fact that their persecution takes more to identify, said Eric Epperson, program director of Christ In Youth Programs (CIY). Epperson has worked his whole life to amplify this message.
CIY released a film, directed by Epperson, in 2011 titled “Love Costs Everything.” This documentary took a deep look at Christian persecution around the globe. Starting at the beginning of history with the first known martyrs of the faith, then diving into seven modern-day stories of true persecution, Love Costs Everything aimed to get the word out about the prevalence of this issue.
“The vision for the film started with Jayson French, our [vice president] of programs here at CIY. He went on a trip to India years before, saw the persecution of Christians and felt that it was a story – a global story – that needed told,” Epperson said. “That faith is worth the sacrifice. Love costs everything and it is worth it.”
The documentary talks through emotional real-life stories of religious intolerance ranging from an Islamic woman trying to convert to Christianity and severely outcasted by her husband, to a husband and wife ministry team who were thrown off the side of the road and beaten to death for their intent on sharing the gospel. These featured stories worked to showcase the courage and confidence that these men and women had in their own faith, according to Epperson. Though these are only a couple examples of religious persecution from this film, the goal of the movie is to get the word out and spur viewers to act upon this issue.
“I recently met a lady who watched the film and decided to go be a missionary in a closed-country. That kind of stuff blows our minds,” Epperson said. “It’s complicated and different in every country. But it’s usually based on a desire to remain in power and fear of the gospel message. In India, for example, people who convert to Christianity often opt out of the caste system, the social structure that assigns worth to people. When low-caste people convert, they are no longer able to be controlled by those in power. Take Iraq for example, where it is illegal to convert. That’s in place to protect Islamic rule. Really, freedom of religion is a pretty great thing.

Here in the U.S., people receive religious freedom the written words of the Constitutional First Amendment. We are not allowed to make a law respecting an establishment of religion, therefore giving us freedom, in abundance.

However, modifications of religious persecution happen on a day-to-day basis in schools, homes and workplaces. Though murdering someone for the religion they commit to would seem heinous in the United States, there is no law against negative talk about a religion.
“I think it depends on where you are because I think in the United States it’s seen more as, like in subtle put downs and things and that’s something you can see within the public school,” senior Karina Kitchen said. “But then in other countries, people are being killed for their beliefs still today, so there’s a huge spectrum of severity.”
Another variation of this persecution may come because of being misinformed. Senior Sarah Belzer said she has even felt somewhat responsible to inform her teachers of what is right about her religion of  Christianity.
“Whenever I was in Classical Ideas and Religions, whenever we were learning about Christianity, even the teacher would sometime get facts wrong and I’d be like, ‘actually, that’s not how that went, these are actually the facts, that didn’t actually happen…’” Belzer said. “I’ve had to correct a teacher or even talking about evolution … and you do have to stand up for that, like, ‘nope that’s not what I believe.’”

 More than nine of 10 people in American who claim to be religious associate themselves with a Christian denomination according to a poll conducted by in 2012. This may be why Belzer feels as though she is not directly persecuted because so many of those around her are affiliated with her same religion. However, affiliation doesn’t always dictate beliefs. For those who don’t believe the same as Belzer, she must hold her ground in what she believes in her heart to be true.

“I feel like I haven’t really been, persecuted. Like there are definitely people that don’t believe the same things that I do, so we have our differences. You believe in somebody that they believe doesn’t exist, so they just think that you’re stupid or that you’re just randomly believing anything so maybe you’re naive,” Belzer said. “I think there’s a fine line between being accepting of them and accepting what they do, you know, or what they believe. Especially with, like, people who are gay, coming out and saying ‘I’m gay’ and you have to be accepting of them, not necessarily believing in their lifestyle … or even loving them for just being them, but not believing what they believe.”
It’s her acceptance of others that has broadened her friend circle and allowed Belzer to get to know about people from other religions as well. However this doesn’t only apply to Belzer, Kitchen feels the same way.
Performances are always nerve-wracking, but for Kitchen who participates in RBHS show choir, her performances consist of choreographed singing and dancing that can leave her nervous before stepping onto the stage. However, it’s because of intertwined religious values that brought Kitchen, who is of the Mormon faith, closer to several of her choir friends at a past show choir performance this year.
“A couple of the guys in the City Lights choir were talking about praying before going onstage … last year, a group of several choir members would all pray together and I would join them. However, this year no one had started such a group [to my knowledge]. So, when I heard [the guys] talking about praying before we performed, I got excited and asked them to include me,” Kitchen said. “After our warmup they found me and we prayed together. Though we each pray in different ways, it strengthened me to unite with fellow performers and put our faith in God.”
Kitchen’s Mormon faith has also endured great persecution throughout history. Though no faith is the same, it’s the differences in beliefs that led to the severe targeting that the Mormons felt. It seemed as though these persecutors felt that if anyone who didn’t believe what they believed they should be wiped out. There was even persecution specifically related to the midwest.
“Back in the 1800s, members were mocked a lot and were driven away from their property and mobbed and killed and raped and tarred and feathered and all kinds of terrible things. In 1838, there was an extermination order put out in Missouri that legalized the killing and driving away of Mormons in Missouri. Which, thinking about it now, it’s like, ‘how in the world did that get passed?’ They just hated Mormons,” Kitchen said. “It’s pretty unbelievable in a country where we have religious freedom, that something like that happened. It’s pretty sad.”
Kitchen doesn’t feel the same type of  persecution as her fellow believers in history did; however, her peers’ lack of education on her religion strikes her. She would rather they come to her and ask questions rather than assume things about her faith. They may not believe the same way she does, but she would like to explain to them why the reasoning behind why she holds herself to certain standards, different from those of other religions. Though acts of persecution can be seen, there are also several commonalities that bring people with different beliefs together to unite under one cause; religious tolerance.
“I look for similarities because even in religions that seem like they’d be really different, we have a lot in common and so sometimes people forget how alike we are. And then I also think about the Golden Rule, I want people to allow me to worship the way I have been taught to worship and so in return I let them do the same thing,” Kitchen said. “There are several other LDS kids at Rock Bridge, and so we can relate to each other. And then there’s also other Christian kids at Rock Bridge who are a lot more accepting and I can relate to them too.”
Though religion is diverse at RBHS, there also is a layer of peace in between them. Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Richard Callahan, believes that it’s not so much that entire religions truly are at unrest with another, it’s more individual than that.
“Many religious people can and do co-exist peacefully. I wouldn’t say that religions discriminate against each other, so much as some religious people do. In any religion you can find those who think that others — other religions, other cultures, other communities — are somehow wrong, evil, or a threat; but you can also find those who do not feel that way,” Callahan said. “There are all sorts of reasons for why some religious people might persecute or discriminate against others, including political, economic, and social factors that are intertwined with religious issues. Some people also hold theological positions that lead them to believe that there can only be one “true” way to be good, to be correct, or to live, and to believe that those who they perceive as not living in that way, or opposing that way, are wrong or need to be changed or removed.”This is an ideal that has held true throughout much of history. African Americans were persecuted because the white males were certain that they weren’t equal to them, women were persecuted because males felt the need to be superior, the poor continue to be discriminated against because of their lifestyle … the list goes on. Yet, despite all, freedom reigns.
“I feel like in America, since, you know, our motto is that everyone has the freedom to do whatever … I feel like for other countries like … mostly they’ve always been around so they have their religion established and nobody questioned it because that was like the leading religion, whereas in America, people came [here] from all over and so then everyone has their own religion which means we have to be tolerant of other people because there’s so many different religions and ethnicities here,” Belzer said. “I feel like in other places, people didn’t just migrate there, it just seems like everybody’s always been there, they’re more established as one.”
American religious tolerance may be acquired, but it’s something that has become normal, co-existing in order to make a peaceful society. Salim, in her islamic faith which includes accepting others, believes it is her duty to be tolerant of others and their beliefs. Holding a position as a teacher gives her many opportunities to witness those of other belief systems.
“Personally, my strong faith in my own religion has been the primary reason behind by continuous tolerance of all other religions. My religion of Islam is one that promotes acceptance of individuals of all faiths, and encourages Muslims to meet others with displays of utmost kindness and compassion,” Salim said. “In Islam, a gesture as simple as a smile to a passing stranger is considered a charity and a deed of high value. Specifically, as a teacher, it is my daily goal to ensure that I apply the principles of kindness in my religion to my students when I am instructing them. If I present myself as a kind, respectful individual who cares about their beliefs, it is my hope that this will shape them towards maintaining their tolerant and compassionate personalities towards all other people.”
Even after the wave of persecution she was to after Sept. 11th, Salim believes it’s in her best interest to continually try and promote peace. She did not walk away from this event unchanged, but she grew stronger because it brought about a sense of awareness for the true acceptance that she feels from her community.
“Since the event, Columbia has been such a wonderful, tolerant, and accepting city of individuals that do not succumb to the misrepresentation of the media. I have experienced nothing but the utmost kindness among my friends, strangers and also amongst my co-workers and students in CPS,” Salim said. “I am thankful for the respect I have received from those around me, without any traces of judgement or discrimination.”
Salim is grateful for the amount of acceptance she has received from those around her. However, disagreements have always existed and prove to be a continual part of life. How people choose to react to persecution and how they treat those who don’t agree similarly with them is what makes the difference between social harmony and disarray, Callahan said..
“Religion does not exist in a vacuum. Social, economic, political, and historical issues are entangled with religious beliefs, ideas, and practices,” Callahan said. “I think they are ever-changing, and many forms of both persecution and co-existence can be found at any given point in history.”
By Brittany Cornelison