Americans take religious liberty for granted. Despite some hostile cultural currents, we are largely free to believe in God and worship together.
Unfortunately, people of faith, and particularly Christians, face far more restrictions abroad. In many nations religious persecution is the norm. The worst violators of this most basic human right tend to be Islamic states. Other significant oppressors are communist or simply authoritarian.
Many states actively suppress expressions of religious belief, especially by minority faiths. Others purport to be neutral but stand by when local authorities penalize and mobs brutalize religious believers.
A Dirty Dozen persecutors stand out.
Bangladesh. Religious freedom is nominally protected in this one-time secular state. But fundamentalist Islamic forces are rising and government agencies discriminate against minority faiths in employment. Foreign missionaries and religious activists are treated with suspicion and often watched.
More serious is private discrimination and violence, which usually is ignored or abetted by the civil authorities. The State Department reported the existence of “killings, rapes, attacks on places of worship, and forced evictions.”
Burma. Few nations so systematically brutalize so many of their citizens. Observes the State Department: “The government continued to engage in particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Probably the worst religious horrors are visited as part of the barbaric war practiced against ethnic groups, such as the Karen and Karenni, which have been struggling for autonomy for decades. More than 100,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Thailand and millions more people have been displaced within their own country.
China. Although the plight of religious believers in China is better today than it was 20 years ago, the situation remains bleak for many people of faith. The Beijing government has been particular unforgiving in dealing with beliefs that it perceives to be a political threat, such as the Falun Gong and Tibetan Buddhism.
Antagonism towards Christianity is deeply embedded in China’s history. Many church leaders are in prison and the authorities target home churches. Observes the State Department: “In some areas, security officials used threats, demolition of unregistered property, extortion, interrogation, detention, and at times beatings and torture to harass leaders of unauthorized groups and their followers.”
Eritrea. Although birthed as part of a long independence struggle against Ethiopia, this relatively new nation is inhospitable to personal independence. Observed the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: “Beset by internal political problems and violent confrontations with neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan, the ruling Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) has become increasingly repressive, targeting political opponents and members of religious groups undermining national unity.”
In this majority Muslim nation religious groups are to register with the government, subjecting themselves to government control. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have suffered particularly greatly. Nearly 2,000 Christians currently are imprisoned, a sharp increase over the previous year.
Indonesia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cites Indonesia as a model of tolerance for the Muslim world, but that is true only in comparison with more oppressive states, such as Saudi Arabia. Minority faiths, most notably Christian, suffer greatly in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
The government is formally secular, but the law enshrines discrimination. In September 2005 three Sunday school teachers were convicted of proselytizing Muslim children in a trial marred by intimidation by Islamic radicals.
Private violence is a significant problem, with Islamic extremism on the rise. Hundreds of churches, Bible schools, and other religious facilities have been destroyed. Local authorities often have denied permission to rebuild in response to Islamist pressure. Governments in some areas have closed down house churches.
Iran. The Iranian government is formally an Islamic republic which recognizes no right of private belief, conscience, or worship. Observes the State Department: “The government engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Members of religious minorities—including Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, and Christians—reported imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on their religious beliefs.”
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