Three portraits (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Left to right: Father Raul Zamora of Nicaragua, Holocaust survivor Irene Weiss, and the Rev. Nguyen Cong Chinh of Vietnam are all victims of religious persecution. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Father Raul Zamora gave 150 students shelter in the Divine Mercy Church in Managua earlier this month as Nicaraguan police and troops fired on the church for 16 hours. Two students were killed and the church destroyed.

“The church’s role is to stay with those who suffer,” said Zamora. He said Nicaraguan authorities see the Catholic Church as an enemy because the church supports students who are protesting policies of President Daniel Ortega.

Zamora is one of the survivors of religious persecution from nations around the globe who are participating in a three-day ministerial conference on religious freedom sponsored by the State Department. They are joining government and religious leaders, rights advocates and civil society to identify concrete means of countering persecution and discrimination and ensuring greater respect for religious freedom for all.

Group of people standing in courtroom (© Bernd Thissen/AFP/Getty)
Irene Weiss (right of center) at a court proceeding against former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning in 2016. (© Bernd Thissen/AFP/Getty)

“The United States will not stand by as spectators,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, announcing the conference. “We will get in the ring and stand in solidarity with every individual who seeks to enjoy their most fundamental of human rights.”

Irene Weiss was 13 years old in 1944, one of 425,000 Jews deported over two months from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of Weiss’s family of eight, only she and her older sister were not killed in the concentration camp. The two sisters were moved to another camp from which their captors eventually fled as Soviet troops approached. She and her sister immigrated to New York in 1947.

Weiss said those who persecute people on the basis of religion “miss the idea that one God can listen to many kinds of prayers. I would not accept a God who is so petty as to discriminate between my religion, the Hindu religion and the Muslim religion.”

Other survivors who shared their stories include Marziyeh Amirizadeh and Maryam Rostampour, who were arrested for being Christian. North Korean defector Ji Hyeon-A was detained and tortured for having a small Bible that her mother gave her.

Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh is a Lutheran minister who spent years in a Vietnamese prison on charges of undermining national solidarity for practicing his religion. Even before prison, he and his family were subjected to beatings and their home was destroyed because of the religion they practiced.

“Each nation’s government has a responsibility to protect and uphold religious freedom,” said Chinh, through a translator. “Religious freedom is a need that mankind feels. Without true religious freedom, this world will become a place without order or harmony.”