Faith Leaders Urge Action on Humanitarian Crisis Facing Rohingya Community

Washington D.C. May 21, 2015 -- Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center, today joined with a diverse group of faith leaders calling on President Obama to take immediate action to address the Rohingan humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia. The well-documented persecution of the Rohingya minority community in western Burma and the resulting refugee crisis in the region is deeply concerning to us as a people who throughout history have been victims of ethnic and religious persecution and the experience of being forced to flee even as other nations closed their doors. The letter sent today by Rabbi Pesner and others calls for the U.S. government to address the root cause of this crisis and assist with the rescue of refugees.

The text of the letter is below: 

The Honorable Mr. Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

We write to you as Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders in the United States to urge that immediate action be taken to save the lives of thousands stranded at sea in Southeast Asia. It is a moral imperative that the United States do everything in its power to implore and support Southeast Asian governments to launch an immediate search and rescue mission to prevent an impending mass atrocity at sea.  It is also crucial that the U.S. government address the root cause of this crisis, the policies of persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority by the government of Burma.

While we are heartened by the announcement that Indonesia and Malaysia are now willing to accept victims on their shores, the fact remains that without immediate search and rescue efforts thousands will continue to face death at sea. We call upon the United States to use all of its influence to ensure that Southeast Asian governments assist those in need to reach the safety of their shores. This should include an immediate search and rescue operation that utilizes U.S. resources to save imperiled lives. Several thousand Rohingya asylum seekers and Bangladeshi migrants, perhaps more, are stranded on rickety boats in the Andaman Sea.

The United States must also address the source of this crisis, the systematic abuse and persecution of the Rohingya minority by the government of Burma. The Rohingya are fleeing persecution and violence that has left more than 140,000 displaced in western Burma in camps that have been described as open air prisons. Several independent groups including Fortify Rights, Human Rights Watch, United to End Genocide, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum have documented the policies of persecution in Burma and the high risk of atrocities, even genocide, faced by the Rohingya minority in western Burma.

We urge you to appeal to the government of Burma to live up to its commitment to address the humanitarian crisis in western Burma by allowing unfettered humanitarian access, the opening of a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, accountability through an independent international investigation into serious human rights abuses, and equal access to citizenship. Failure of the government of Burma to end the persecution of the Rohingya should result in consequences such as suspension of diplomatic and military exchanges, targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for abuses, and consideration of renewal of broad sanctions.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has designated Burma as a “country of particular concern”. Your Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein, recently visited Burma noting “serious challenges” in the areas of “religious freedom, of religious tensions, of minority religions not having equal rights”. We are also concerned that four “religious protection laws” being considered would add further restrictions on rights to marry, have children, and choose one’s religion, particularly affecting minority Muslims. The failure of the government of Burma to speak out against such persecution is feeding the current crisis and threatening further tragedy.

As you have admirably stated, preventing atrocities is both a moral imperative and a national security priority. The United States cannot respond to every crisis, but when thousands of lives are in danger and the United States has a unique capability to avert a mass atrocity, it should do so. Last year, the United States acted to save the Yazidi, a persecuted religious minority, from imminent mass death at the top of a mountain in Iraq. The imperative to act is no less urgent for the thousands now trapped at sea.


Dr. Jack Kornfield
Founder, Spirit Rock Buddhist Center

Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley
General Secretary, American Baptist Churches USA
Chairperson, National Council of Churches of Christ, USA

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed
National Director, Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances, Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)

Dr. Wakar Uddin
Director General, Arakan Rohingya Union
Chairman and Founder, The Burmese Rohingya Association of North America

Jim Winkler
President and General Secretary, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA