On September 23, 2019, eleven survivors of religious persecution traveled to New York City for the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly. Several of the survivors had attended the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom a few months earlier.
Rafida Bonya Ahmed is a survivor of terrorist attacks perpetrated by ISIS in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 26, 2015. Rafida’s husband, Avijit Roy, died from his injuries as a result of the attacks. Bonya and Avijit are closely involved with the Mukto-Mona, an internet community established for freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists and humanists of mainly Bengali and other South Asian descent. She is also the author of Biborton Er Poth Dhorey (Treading in the Path of Evolution), which is considered the premier book on the Bengali language of evolution.
Dr. Farid Ahmed is a survivor of the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. On March 15, 2019, he and his wife, Husna Ahmed, were attending Friday prayers at Al Noor Mosque, when a gunman opened fire. Mrs. Ahmed rushed to help the women and children of the mosque to safety and returned to her wheelchair-bound husband to help him leave the mosque. She was gunned down as they were approaching the exit, and Mr. Ahmed was likely saved due to her intervention. A total of 51 people were killed that day during the back-to-back shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center. Dr. Ahmed, a homeopathic consultant, had migrated with his wife to New Zealand 30 years ago from Bangladesh. At a national memorial service on March 29 in Christchurch, Dr. Ahmed said he forgave the shooter. He said, “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.”
Rabbi Faiz Algaradi
Rabbi Faiz Algaradi is among the last members of the Jewish community in Yemen, which has been systematically driven out by repressive policies and persecution. The rise of the Houthi rebels forced most of Yemen’s Jews into exile. In Yemen, he held rabbinical and government positions and served as the director of education and chief leader of Yemeni Jewry for more than ten years. Since immigrating to the United States, he has helped his members of his community to resettle while maintaining their ancestral and cultural ties. He is the author of Bechire Sagulah, a book in Hebrew that covers Yemeni culture and history from the time of King Solomon until 2014. Through his advocacy, Rabbi Algaradi has fought for the recognition of human rights for all, including equal rights for women and minorities.
Reverend Mario Félix Lleonart Barroso
Reverend Mario Félix Lleonart Barroso fled religious persecution in Cuba in 2016. Since 2013, Mr. Barroso has served as a Baptist pastor, blogger, and activist in Havana. He has endured years of harassment, detention, and multiple arrests on account of his faith activities. He founded “Instituto Patmos,” an organization dedicated to promoting interreligious dialogue, socio-theological reflection, and human rights on his native island. Since resettling in the U.S., Mr. Barroso has continued his work on Cuba and with Instituto Patmos. He currently serves as a pastor to a congregation in Waldorf, Maryland.
Helen Berhane, a gospel singer from Eritrea, was arrested in 2004 after refusing to sign a document pledging to end all participation in Evangelical Christian activities. Beaten and imprisoned, she spent 32 months in a shipping container without adequate ventilation, light, sanitation or food. While imprisoned, authorities regularly tortured Berhane. In 2006, a severe and sustained assault by a prison guard almost killed her and left her unable to walk. Eritrean authorities released Berhane from prison in 2006 and she then escaped to Sudan. Berhane wrote about her experiences in her autobiography, “Song of the Nightingale,” released in 2009. She ultimately received asylum in Denmark and continues to recover from her injuries.
Esther is a survivor of terrorist attacks in Northeastern Nigerian. In 2014, Boko Haram militants slaughtered hundreds of predominantly Christian civilians near the Nigerian-Cameroonian border. During the attack, they captured and enslaved Esther, then a teenager, and killed her father. The group forced Esther to work for a Boko Haram leader, raped her and her fellow captives, and later forcibly married her to a terrorist fighter. While enslaved, she witnessed horrendous atrocities against her fellow captives. Esther attempted several escapes, including when she was seven months pregnant, walking through the wilderness for three days without food, water, or shoes. In 2016, she returned to her extended family and gave birth to her daughter, Rebecca. Esther and her daughter face rejection from many in her community for giving birth to the child of a terrorist fighter. She has publicly spoken out about the stigma and continued persecution of former Boko Haram captives as well as the severe human rights violations committed by militant groups in Nigeria.
Pastor Andrew Brunson
Pastor Andrew Brunson, an American citizen who had resided in Turkey for more than 23 years, was imprisoned by authorities in October 2016 on charges of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.” He was a pastor for the Izmir Diriliş (Resurrection) Church, a small evangelical Presbyterian congregation in the city of Izmir. After intense international pressure and high-level engagement by the United States, Pastor Brunson was released from house arrest in October 2018 and was allowed to return to the United States.
Luong Xuan Duong
Luong Xuan Duong, a member of the Popular Council of Cao Dai Religion, was arrested and jailed for his advocacy for religious freedom in Vietnam. Cao Dai, who do not register with the Vietnamese government, face restrictions on their religious practices. Registered and independent Cao Dai members sometimes harass unregistered groups and members. Luong served 30 months in prison in 1996. In 2008, authorities issued an arrest warrant after he tried to convene a general assembly of Cao Dai followers. Duong escaped and went into hiding for eight years. In late 2017, he reunited with his wife and daughter in Dallas, Texas, where he continues to advocate for religious freedom in Vietnam.
Badreldin Yousif Elsimat
Badreldin Elsimat, originally from Sudan, was repeatedly arrested and detained by Sudanese authorities without charge for his advocacy of the separation of Islam from the state. Elsimat founded the Centre on Taweel Studies (CTS), an organization dedicated to studying the Quran and other sacred texts “through creative insight, and a new vision devoid of dogma and ritual.” Since its founding CTS has called for the separation of Islam from the state, and for the repeal of Sharia laws that have been implemented in Sudan since 1983. Badreldin was first arrested in 1976. In January 2019, he was arrested again without charge and detained for more than two months by the Omar al-Bashir regime. He was released in March and currently resides in Canada.
Pastor A Ga
Pastor A Ga oversaw 12 house churches associated with the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ of Vietnam in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The local police, border patrol, and government units surveilled him as soon as he embraced Protestantism in 2003 and attempted to prevent him from serving church members as soon as he began his pastoral duties in 2006. After several detentions and more than 40 police interrogation sessions, he fled to Thailand in February 2013 to seek protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since then, he has been assisting his fellow church members by collecting information on government persecution of the church and preparing religious persecution incident reports to submit to the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the U.S. Department of State. In 2018, the pastor, his wife and young son found asylum in the United States. He continues to serve hundreds of Christians, remotely, across three Central Highlands provinces.
Pastor Langjaw Gam Seng
Pastor Langjaw Gam Seng was arrested in 2016 for helping journalists report on Burmese Army bombings of churches in Kachin State. Seng served as a youth leader for Munggu Baptist Church in the majority-Christian Kachin State of Burma. Since 2011, conflict has raged in Kachin, with thousands of civilians killed and more than 100,000 displaced. Pastor Gam Seng was jailed and tortured by Burmese officials in 2012. On Christmas Eve 2016, security officials arrested Pastor Gam Seng and Church Deacon Dumdaw Nawng Lat, who were trying to help detained church members at Munggu Jail. They spent 15 months in Lashio Central Prison for helping and were released in April 2018. Gam Seng has returned to his pastoral duties at Munggu Baptist Church.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein is the founder of Chabad of Poway, California. On April 27, 2019 in San Diego, a gunman entered the synagogue, shot and killed Lori Gilbert-Kaye, and wounded the rabbi and two other congregants.
Father Thabet Habeb
Father Thabet began studying to become a priest in Baghdad in 2002. He went on to earn a B.A. in Theology from the Pontifical Urban University (Urbaniana) in Rome in 2008 and was ordained as a priest that same year in Karemlash. After ISIS’ invasion of northern Iraq in 2014, Father Thabet spent three years as an internally displaced person. Since ISIS was driven from the region, Father Thabet, has served as a professor of Theology and Patristics at Babylon College and has been working to rebuild the Christian community in Karemlash, Mosul and the Nineveh Plain.
Mariam Ibraheem is a Sudanese Christian who was imprisoned for her faith in December 2013 and later sentenced to death. She was born to a Christian mother and a Muslim father, but the government automatically considered her a Muslim because of her father’s religion. Sudanese authorities declared Mariam an apostate for refusing to recant her Christian faith and imprisoned her along with her 9-month-old son, Martin. In prison, Mariam discovered she was pregnant, and her torture and execution sentence was postponed until after the birth of her daughter. Mariam gave birth to her daughter, Maya, chained in a prison cell in May 2014. Mariam’s story has garnered international attention and many have advocated for her release. Mariam was freed soon after Maya’s birth and she eventually moved to the United States with her family. Since her release, Mariam has sought to publicly advocate for any and all those who are persecuted for their faith.
Farahnaz Ikhtiari was born in Helmand Province in Afghanistan and graduated from Naswan Girls High School in 2011. Following graduation, she received a full scholarship to attend American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in law in June 2017. On March 21, 2018, Farahnaz’s brother, fiancé, and future brother-in-law were among the 30 people killed during an ISIS suicide bombing targeting the Shia shrine of Karte Sakhi during a Persian New Year celebration (Nowruz). Ms. Ikhtiari currently works with an organization focused on human rights and preventing violence against women in Afghanistan.
Jewher Ilham is the daughter of Uyghur scholar, Ilham Tohti, an internationally noted advocate dedicated to bridging the gap between the Uyghur people and the Han Chinese. While awaiting a flight from Beijing to the United States in 2013, authorities detained Ilham Toti at the airport. At eighteen years old Jewher had to start a new life in Bloomington, Indiana while her father’s situation in Chinese custody rapidly worsened. In September 2014, authorities sentenced him to life in prison based on writings on his website that promoted peaceful co-existence between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. As an advocate for her father, she has testified before government bodies, authored op-eds, met with government officials, and received numerous awards worldwide on behalf of her father. In 2015, she recounted her experiences in the book, Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur’s Fight to Free Her Father. Jewher graduated in May 2019 from Indiana University. She is now the director of public relations of the Campaign for Uyghurs, a nonprofit organization working to promote and advocate for the human rights and democratic freedom of the Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic minority groups in China.
Illyong Ju, the youngest of three children, was born in Chongjin, in the northern part of North Korea in 1996. His parents listened to illegal South Korean Christian radio for almost 10 years, which inspired them to develop and explore their newfound faith. Encouraged and inspired by these broadcasts, Illyong’s parents decided to defect, seeking out a life where they would be free to live out their beliefs. Illyong’s father fled to South Korea to work and raise enough money to help the rest of his family escape. The entire family eventually escaped and reunited in South Korea in 2012. Today, Illyong is a senior studying Political Science and International Relations at Korea University in a religiously free environment. He is currently preparing for law school, and hopes to become a lawyer that works to advance human rights for North Koreans.
Nyima Lhamo is a human rights advocate and the niece of the late Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a highly revered reincarnate lama and one of the most prominent Tibetan political prisoners who died in a Chinese prison in July 2015. Nyima and her mother, Dolkar Lhamo, were detained by Chinese authorities for publicly questioning the cause of her uncle’s death and demanding an investigation. Nyima fled and arrived in India on July 24, 2016, leaving behind her mother and 6-year-old daughter. Despite the risks, she continues to speak out about her uncle’s death while in Chinese custody, appealing to the international community to call on the Chinese government to investigate the circumstances of his death. She has raised her uncle’s case at the UN Human Rights Council, briefed international officials, visited more than ten countries to pledge her case for her uncle, and testified before the U.S. Congress. Nyima’s family continues to face harassment by authorities, who threaten continued persecution of her family unless she stops her advocacy.
Susanna Liew is the wife of Raymond Koh, a Malaysian Christian pastor who was mysteriously abducted in February 2017. A video of the abduction showed black SUVs and motorcycles acting with military precision. Susanna has advocated for her husband’s release, and for religious freedom for Christians and other religious minority groups in Malaysia. In April, following a yearlong inquiry into his disappearance, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia released its findings, which concluded that Pastor Koh was abducted by state police. Susanna continues to fight for information on the whereabouts of her husband. She holds a diploma in early childhood education, and another in theology, and is the founder of Hope Community, a non-profit that works with the poor, needy, and marginalized members of society in Malaysia.
Manping Ouyang is the wife of Pastor Su Tianfu of the Living Stone (Huoshi) Church, an independent evangelical house church in Guiyang, China, founded in 2009. Chinese authorities consider the church illegal because the pastors, Su Tianfu and Yang Hua, refused to register it as part of the government-authorized church network. Local authorities froze the church’s accounts in 2015, seized their assets, and auctioned the church’s property. Authorities also charged the pastors with receiving “illegal income” from church donations. Pastor Su was sentenced to prison for two years and six months in 2017. A number of other lay church members were also imprisoned.
Nadia Murad, a member of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority community, was born into a farming family in the village of Kojo in the Yezidi homeland of Sinjar, Iraq. When she was 19 years old, ISIS attacked her village and killed 600 Yezidi men, including several of her family members. Nadia and other young women were taken prisoner and subjected to beatings and rape. She managed to escape and make her way to a refugee camp where she was offered the opportunity to move to Germany. She is the founder, chairperson, and president of Nadia’s Initiative, which helps women and children who are victims of abuse and human trafficking. She was appointed the United Nations’ Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking in 2016 and received numerous other accolades. In 2018, she was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers is the Rabbi and Cantor for the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh since the summer of 2017.
Last October, a gunman began a murderous rampage in the Tree of Life synagogue, taking the lives of eleven during Shabbat services. The event was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States. Rabbi Myers courageously led congregants out of harm’s way. Since then, he has set about sending the key message that love is stronger than hate.
Rabbi Myers is also a 2019 recipient of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Medal of Valor, given to those whose courage and bravery shine a light in the darkest of places. Because of his service and actions during and after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, Rabbi Myers received the medal, which is inscribed with words from the Talmud: “He who saves a single life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”
Wai Wai Nu
Wai Wai Nu became a strong advocate for human rights and the Rohingya Muslim community after serving a prison sentence in Burma’s infamous Insein prison. During her second year of law school at Yangon East University, she was arrested because of her father’s political activism. Wai Wai and her family were quickly convicted following a closed door hearing, where they granted any legal representation. They were also denied any opportunity for an appeal. Shortly after her release in 2012, Wai Wai founded both Women’s Peace Network Arakan and Justice for Women. Justice for Women – an organization that provides legal aid and education to Burmese women – focuses on reducing the amount of Rohingya women in prison. As a practicing lawyer, she has called for understanding and strengthening of the rule of law in Burma, especially in Rahkine State, where Rohingya Muslims were victims of mass atrocities at the hands of the Burmese military on account of their ethnic and religious identity.
Yamini Ravindran is the legal and advocacy coordinator for the Sri Lankan NGO National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL). NCEASL works to promote religious freedom for all individuals in Sri Lanka. On April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, a series of bombings at churches and hotels in three cities across Sri Lanka resulted in the killing of 259 people and hundreds more injured. In the aftermath of these horrific attacks, NCEASL became a vocal advocate of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, opposing any stigmatization of them as a result of the bombings. NCEASL forcefully condemned incidents of violence and discrimination against Muslims in the aftermath of the attacks.
Shaan Taseer is the son of the late Governor of Punjab, who was assassinated in 2011 for publicly calling for reform to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Shaan continues his father’s legacy in defending the rights of religious minorities through his advocacy and activism. Shaan has also been involved in multiple grass roots community projects, including the financial and legal aid of people who have faced persecuted because of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Pakistani authorities issued a fatwa calling for Shaan’s death in December 2016 because of his support of minority communities. Instead of resigning to fear, Shaan devoted himself to being a voice for the voiceless, and advocating against blasphemy laws, and religious discrimination in all its forms.
Abdul Shakoor is an Ahmadi Muslim from Pakistan, where authorities and fellow citizens consider Ahamdis apostates for claiming to be Muslim. In 2015, counterterrorism police raided the bookshop Mr. Shakoor managed. Abdul and the shop’s assistant, Mazhar Abbas – a Shia Muslim – were arrested and accused of selling Ahmadi commentary on the Qur’an, among other publications. Abdul and Mazhar were held in unknown locations and were not permitted to contact their families. In 2016, Abdul was sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy and five years under the Anti-Terrorism Act. He was ultimately released in 2018. Shakoor is married and the father of five daughters and two sons.
Dabrina Bet Tamraz
Dabrina Bet Tamraz is the daughter of Iranian Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz. Pastor Bet Tamraz led a Farsi-language church in Iran until the authorities shut it down in 2009. Rather than fleeing the country, Dabrina courageously continued his work on behalf of the Christian faith. In 2017, Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced him to ten years in prison for “acting against national security by forming home churches, attending seminars abroad, and proselytizing Zionist Christianity.” In 2018, the court sentenced Pastor Bet Tamraz’s wife, Shamiram Isavi, to five years in prison on similar charges. Later that year, the court sentenced their son, Ramiel Bet Tamraz, to four months in prison for “spreading Christian propaganda.” They are currently out on bail awaiting the results of their appeals.
Mohib Ullah is a survivor of the 2017 ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Since arriving in the refugee camps in the aftermath of the August 2017 violence in northern Rakhine State, Mr. Ullah and other leaders have gone from hut to hut in the camps, building a tally of killings, rape and arson committed by the Burmese military against Rohingya. Mohib is now the chairperson of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), the largest grassroots human rights organization created by Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Each morning, in the makeshift office of ARSPH, Mohib convenes an open meeting to discuss the Rohingya. In March 2019, he spoke before the UN Human Rights Council about his findings. He was born in Rakhine State, Burma. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Botany from Sittwe University, Burma, and was a high school teacher in Rakhine State.
Irene Weiss was born Iren Fogel in 1930 in Bótrágy, Czechoslovakia (now Batrad, Ukraine). Over a two-month period beginning in May 1944, nearly 425,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, including Irene and her family. Irene was 13 years old at the time. Upon arrival at the camp, her mother, three younger siblings and older brother were killed. Her father was killed a few weeks later. After eight months of slave labor in Birkenau, Irene, her older sister, and two aunts were forcibly evacuated on foot from Auschwitz in January 1945 to two more concentration camps. With the assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Irene, her sister and aunt immigrated to New York in 1947. Irene married Martin Weiss in 1949 and they moved to northern Virginia in 1953. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in education from American University and taught in the Fairfax County Public school system for 13 years. Martin passed away in January 2013. Irene has three children, four grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. A volunteer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Irene is a frequent speaker about her experiences. In January 2015, Irene was a Member of the Presidential Delegation to the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In July 2015, Irene was a co-plaintiff in the trial of former SS-Unterscharführer Oskar Groning in Luneburg Germany and a co-plaintiff in the trial of former SS-Unterscharfuhrer Reinhold Hanning in Detmold Germany in February 2016.
Dr. Yuhua Zhang is a Falun Gong practitioner originally from Nanjing, China. A professor and chairperson of the Russian Language Department at Nanjing Normal University in China, she was expelled from her post in 2002 after China began its crackdown on the Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual discipline in the Buddhist tradition. The government also terminated her qualification as deputy of the Twelfth National People’s Congress. Authorities arrested Dr. Zhang in 2011. She was sent to a labor camp and prison several times for a total of seven and a half years. In detention, she was severely tortured, and endured electric shocks, sleep deprivation, forced long-term standing, and forced injections/drug administration. In 2015, Dr. Zhang escaped from China and came to the United States. Dr. Yuhua’s husband is also a Falun Gong practitioner and he remains imprisoned in China on account of his faith. Dr. Zhang now serves as an activist, working to raise awareness about the persecution of Falun Gong in China, while advocating for her husband’s release.