Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Our Damascus Road: From Persecution to Religious Freedom
David Wildman*

Today, Damascus, all of Syria, and much of the Middle East are torn by tremendous violence. Tragically, many of these conflicts pit one religion against another, and too often, governments and leaders resort to violence in the name of God.

In Jerusalem, a holy city for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, it is easier for me to travel from the United States to worship and visit holy sites there than it is for Palestinian Christians and Muslims to travel only a few kilometers from their homes to worship and pray. How can we overcome today’s violence, discrimination, hatred, and fear that divide us in a way that protects and promotes religious freedom for all?

This special issue on religious freedom lifts up voices of those who are persecuted as well as guidelines and international laws that seek to promote religious freedom. The guidelines adopted by Global Ministries draw heavily upon the ethic of love found in Paul’s epistles to the early church—communities of a religious minority facing persecution. Yet these very epistles were written by a former persecutor, Saul, who sought to enforce religious conformity through violence.


A gate in the old city of Jerusalem that leads to the entrance of the Al Aqsa mosque. Soldiers detain Palestinians, such as the young boy, who seek to enter the gate. Photo by DAVID WILDMAN

We can learn much from Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus—about both religious persecution and freedom. In his own words, Paul confesses, “in my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.” (Acts 26:11b, NIV) In his prior life as Saul, he had great faith and zeal to punish and root out the error of any who strayed from what he considered God’s path. Imprisonment and even execution were tools he believed God had given him to force conformity in faithfulness (see Acts 8:1-3 & 26:9-11). Saul was blinded by his obsession to force others into right belief through violent punishment.

Saul was heading to Damascus to visit God’s judgment on others and punish them into the truth. He had to get knocked off his high horse in order to be transformed by a loving relationship with Jesus. He finally made it to Damascus—not in triumph—but dependent on God’s grace and on love from the very ones he had persecuted. Now as Paul, he was freed to preach and share a gospel of God’s unconditional love and God’s call for us to love all.

Where are the Damascus roads for us today along which we may be transformed to embody religious freedom grounded in love?

*David Wildman, Executive Secretary, Middle East, Human Rights and Racial Justice

Copyright New World Outlook magazine, November-December 2016 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.