It is not uncommon for someone to contact us here at the mission saying that they have recently been talking to a friend or an acquaintance from China, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, India, or some other country where we say there is persecution taking place. To their surprise, they find that their friend or acquaintance denies what we say is going on in their homeland. “It’s an exaggeration,” their friend says. Or something from the past, they suggest. They might concede, “Sure, things aren’t perfect but it’s not as bad as VOMC’s newsletter says.” And so they contact us, confused and torn between believing us or their friend.
It’s hard to know how to respond to such such inquiries. It is not as if we speak out of a vacuum or report only what others tell us. We personally know those who have experienced violent persecution against them. We have met them, held their hands and prayed for them as tears stream down their cheeks. It is impossible for us to deny the reality of what we report when we (or our colleagues in our sister missions) actually travel to these countries and see for ourselves what we report.
So, how do we respond to suggestions or accusations that we are inaccurate in our reporting? We don’t want to call them or their friend a liar but what do you say when you actually do know that what they are saying is not really true.
I recall how difficult it was for my grandparents to talk about their experiences in the former Soviet Union. Their hesitation to speak about the suffering they experienced seemed to range between a desire to leave the past behind on the one hand and the love for homeland that almost all expatriates feel regardless of why they leave, on the other hand. To criticize the government of their place of birth is to risk offending or embarrassing the country itself. To focus on the failures of one’s homeland might seem to negate any progress that has been achieved. To suggest that your homeland needs to improve its human rights record, for example, risks being accused of not being proud of who you are, ethnically and nationalistically. Deep inside most of us there is the nationalistic pull to defend one’s homeland. There are few who are immune to this.
This pull must be understood and taken into consideration whenever you read both affirmations and denials of persecution. We must not assume that because someone is from Eritrea, Pakistan, China, or any other nation, that their analysis of what is going on “on the ground” is without bias and demands special credibility. In fact, it may be needed to be taken with even greater care.