Survivors of religious persecution tell powerful stories

Nyima Lhamo, the niece of Tibetan religious leader Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, seeks the truth about her uncle’s death in Chinese custody in 2015. For that she and family members were detained and continue to face harassment by authorities.

She is among the survivors of religious persecution who shared their stories at the State Department’s second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington. Some risk retribution at home. But they speak out to fight restrictions on religious freedom around the world. “This conference that the Department of State has organized and participated in by many governments gives me hope,” Lhamo said.

Jeffrey Meyers, a rabbi at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 congregants were murdered in 2018, said, ”It is only through … compassion, empathy and one-on-one relationships that the artificial fences that we create to exclude anyone not like us will dissolve.”

Meet a few others who participated in the conference:

Couple in crowd holding hands (© Emre Tazegul/AP Images)
(© Emre Tazegul/AP Images)

Evangelical Christian pastor Andrew Brunson was detained for two years in Turkey on charges of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.” Brunson, an American citizen, had resided in Turkey for more than 23 years before his arrest. After intense international pressure and high-level engagement by the United States, Brunson was allowed to return to the United States.

Man talking on mobile phone outside (© Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)
(© Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

Mohib Ullah is a survivor of the 2017 ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. He and others work in the refugee camps, building a tally of killings, rape and arson committed by the Burmese military against Rohingya. Ullah is now the chairperson of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, the largest grassroots human rights organization created by Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.


Man and woman carrying children leaving aircraft (© Riccardo De Luca/AP Images)
(© Riccardo De Luca/AP Images)

Mariam Ibraheem is a Sudanese Christian who was sentenced to death for refusing to recant her faith. In prison, Ibraheem discovered she was pregnant, and her torture and execution were postponed until after the birth of her daughter in 2014. International appeals helped to secure her release shortly after. She eventually moved to the United States with her family. Since her release, Ibraheem has sought to advocate for those who are persecuted for their faith.

Woman in crowd (© Joel Mason-Gaines/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
(© Joel Mason-Gaines/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Irene Weiss lived through the Holocaust but lost most of her family in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp. She often speaks to groups about her experiences there. “We need to have a government that stands up for freedom of religion for all people,” Weiss said at last year’s ministerial.

People walking behind man in wheelchair past house (© Edgar Su/Reuters)
(© Edgar Su/Reuters)

Dr. Farid Ahmed survived the terrorist attack on his mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, but his wife did not. She was gunned down when she returned to her husband, who uses a wheelchair, to help him leave the mosque. Fifty-one people were killed that day during the back-to-back shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center. At a March 29 memorial service, Ahmed said he forgave the shooter. “I don’t want to have a heart that is boiling like a volcano. A volcano has anger, fury, rage; it doesn’t have peace, it has hatred. … It burns itself within and it burns the surroundings. I don’t want to have a heart like this and I believe no one does.”