At Large

On the Watch for Religious Persecutors

Open Doors has released its World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians worldwide.

By 3.23.12

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Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, said Thomas Jefferson, and that includes religious freedom. Religious persecution is tragically common abroad. 

While members of all faiths are sometimes at risk somewhere, Christians are constantly victimized almost everywhere. And in many of these cases the threat is violence, imprisonment, and even death. Martyrdom apparently is more common today than during Roman times.

The California-based group Open Doors has released its latest World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians around the globe. A Baker's Dozen are communist or former communist states, led by North Korea. An incredible 38 are Muslim, including several of Washington's allies. (Seven are both communist/former communist and Islamic, truly a toxic combination.) The other six are a potpourri -- Hindu India, Buddhist Burma and Bhutan, conflict-ridden Colombia, and Eritrea and Ethiopia, which are both repressive and religiously divided.

Topping the World Watch List is the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which leads any parade of the world's repressive, impoverished, or just plain awful places. Explains Open Doors: "Defiantly Communist in the Stalinist style, a bizarre quasi-religion was built around the founder of the country, Kim Il Sung. Anyone with 'another god' is automatically persecuted, which is why the 200,000-400,000 Christians in this country must remain deeply underground." At least a quarter of them may be confined to labor camps.

Number two is Afghanistan, where Americans and Europeans continue to die trying to create a Western-style liberal democracy. The status of Christians continues to decline. Reports Open Doors: "Despite having signed all international agreements designed to protect the freedom of religion, the government in the current setting is not even able to guarantee the most basic tenants of this right." To the contrary, mobs cheerfully murder Americans and other non-Muslims when copies of the Koran are accidentally burned.

Another "friend" of Washington, Saudi Arabia, is number three. "Religious freedom does not exist in this heartland of Islam where citizens are only allowed to adhere to one religion," notes Open Doors: "Apostasy -- conversion to another religion -- is punishable by death if the accused does not recant." Of course, the Saudi royals live licentiously when abroad while posing as defenders of Islam at home.

Fourth is Somalia, another Muslim land. This area no longer constitutes a traditional nation. Alas, says Open Doors, "The overall persecution situation in Somalia tightened a bit more in the country. The main persecution engine is Islamic extremism."

Iran, most in the news over fears that it might be developing nuclear weapons, ranks number five. "Religious persecution of certain minorities has intensified in Iran since 2005," concludes Open Doors, including of Baha'is, Sufi Muslims, and Christians. Indeed, the group adds, "almost all Christian activity is illegal, especially when it occurs in Persian languages." The regime has publicly denounced the expansion of Christianity, which it blamed on "the enemies of Islam."

The Maldives comes next at six, a small island nation which simply bans other faiths. States Open Doors: "As every Maldivian citizen has to be Muslim, all deviant religious convictions are strictly forbidden." Believers must "practice their faith in utmost secrecy, always in fear of being discovered."

Number seven is Uzbekistan, where "All activities of unregistered churches are strictly forbidden, both inside and outside the churches. Youth activities are forbidden, outreaches are forbidden, seminars and training are forbidden." Uzbekistan is a Muslim state that spent seven decades under Communism, a tragic mix almost guaranteeing religious persecution.

Also in the news is Yemen, which falls to eight on the World Watch List. Reports Open Doors: "Islam is the state religion and sharia is the source of all legislation. There is some religious freedom for foreigners, but evangelism is prohibited; several expatriate workers were deported in the past for Christian activities. Yemenis who leave Islam may face the death penalty as a result."

Persecutor number nine is Iraq, a nation nominally liberated with American blood. Unfortunately, the U.S. invasion unleashed civil chaos and conflict which may have consumed 200,000 lives. The Christian community ended up as collateral damage. Explains Open Doors: "A true exodus of Christians is going on in Iraq. Christians are fleeing the country." And for good reason: "Christian individuals are still being threatened, robbed, raped, or kidnapped and churches attacked." Moreover, the situation is deteriorating even in Kurdistan, which until recently had been relatively safe for Christians.

Another not-so-loyal ally, Pakistan, rounds out the negative top ten. "Christians are a beleaguered minority… caught between Islamic militant organizations that routinely target Christians for violence, and an Islamizing culture that makes Christians feel less and less a part of Pakistan," says Open Doors.

In eleventh place is Eritrea, a religiously mixed state ruled by one of the most viciously repressive governments in the world. Reports Open Doors: "Christians from the evangelical minority are pressurized to change or renounced their religion. They are tortured and forced to revert to the registered denominations. While no Christian has been killed in the last year, five Christians died in prison due to illness."

Next at twelve comes backward Laos, still ruled by communists in a world in which communism has been largely relegated to academia, requires registration of religious groups, which are then controlled. Open Doors explains that "Other small independent Protestant congregations are under pressure and have been refused recognition. The activities of unrecognized churches are considered illegal by authorities, who detain and arrest their members and leaders under various pretexts."

Northern Nigeria, which is majority Muslim, puts this important African state at number thirteen. Reports Open Doors: "The main persecution engine in northern Nigeria is Islamic extremism." A recent rise in deaths caused the organization to raise Nigeria from 23 to 13: "this change highlights the structural process in which social groups firmly linked to a dominating religion (Islam) and government drive each other into a 'vicious circle' of suffocating religious minorities (Christians) in the sharia dominated areas of Northern Nigeria."

At number fourteen is another Islamic African nation, Mauritania. Says Open Doors, "Because of harsh government restrictions, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for Christian missions and Christians in general to operate in the country." Like other Islamic states, Mauritania "does not include any provision for religious freedom in its constitution, and its laws prohibit conversion to Christian faith. The sentence for apostasy is death," adds the group.

Another long-time persecuting U.S. ally is Egypt, which holds the fifteenth position. For Christians, at least, the Arab Spring has turned into an Arab Winter. Open Doors details the sad tale: "…as the Islamists succeeded in the events following the constitutional referendum, the government was unable to restore necessary law and order." Violence is increasing and "Persecution of Christians in Egypt is on the rise, with a substantial increase in numbers killed, physically harmed and churches/houses attacked."

In recent decades Sudan has been among the most tragic of nations, with more than a million or more people killed in long-running domestic conflict. Despite a reduction in fighting, Sudan still comes in at number sixteen on the World Watch List. "The main persecution engine in Sudan is Islamic extremism," observes Open Doors: "persecution has increased rapidly over the past 12 months." Moreover, "The number of formally reported killings is limited, but the whole Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile area has seen thousands killed, religion being one factor."

Next at seventeen is the small Himalayan (and largely Buddhist) country of Bhutan. The new constitutional monarchy is democratizing, with some improvement in the status of Christians. Reports Open Doors: "The church in Bhutan is no longer an underground church, since Christians are allowed to meet in private homes regularly on Sundays without any interference by authorities; Christians in remote villages encounter more difficulties, though." Moreover, the parliament is debating legislation to criminalize conversions.

At number eighteen is the Islamic and former communist republic of Turkmenistan, where, notes Open Doors, "the tight grip of the authorities on Christians continues." This state's repression appears to more reflect Turkmenistan's communist than Muslim heritage. Alas, "All unregistered religious activity is strictly illegal" and "For native Turkmen communities, being registered is simply impossible, for the others it is difficult."

Although Vietnam has moved away from doctrinaire communism, it is nineteen on the Open Doors World ranking. The organization explains that "Vietnamese authorities keep a close eye on all Christian activities in the country. Believers face more problems by officials, often being accused of causing 'social disturbances', 'fighting the local government' or simply 'subversion.' Church leaders are carefully monitored."

Completing the top twenty is Chechnya, formally a republic within the Russian Federation. "The general religious climate in Chechnya has always been Islamic, and the influence of Islam is growing." The government has discussed implementing sharia law and "Slowly but surely, the country is Islamizing." Moreover, Muslim converts to Christianity "suffer greatly from government and family oppression."

The terrible list goes on. Leading the next ten is China, a still nominally communist state where the situation remains mixed -- better than during the Maoist era but still repressive. Then comes Qatar, one of the Muslim Gulf sheikdoms, which restricts Christian worship and conversion. Another repressive North African Islamic state, Algeria, follows, where, unfortunately, "oppression of Christians has been constant." Next is the Islamic island of Comoros, which restricts expatriate worship and punishes Muslims who convert to Christianity.

Azerbaijan is both Islamic and former communist, which leads to persecution of Christians, in this case police raids, imprisonment, and more. In "liberated" but Muslim Libya the situation of Christians has not improved from the Gaddafi era. Islamic Oman restricts Christian worship by expatriates and pressures Christian converts. Islamic Brunei tightly regulates Christians and plans to introduce Islamic criminal law. The situation for Christians has improved somewhat in Morocco, another Muslim North African state, where "the main source of persecution is Muslim fundamentalist influence on the authorities and in society." Kuwait always has been a fairly liberal Islamic state, but pressure on Christians remain; "the main persecution engines are family and Muslims extremists, and to a lesser extent authorities."

The next group of ten is: Islamic but nominally secular Turkey, where "various forms of persecution of Christians" nevertheless occur; Hindu India, where "The main persecutors are mobs organized by extremist Hindu organizations"; Buddhist Burma, where the army long has victimized largely Christian ethnic minorities such as the Karen and Kachin; Muslim and former communist Tajikistan, which recently implemented new restrictive church registration laws; Islamic Tunisia, where pressure on Christians has increased since the "Jasmine Revolution"; Muslim but secular Syria, where support of Christians for "the Alawite regime in the past has made them vulnerable to attacks from the opposition"; the Islamic United Arab Emirates, a relatively liberal Gulf sheikdom which nevertheless restricts Christian practices; religiously mixed Ethiopia, where persecution has come from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as well as Islamic extremists; Muslim Djibouti, where family law discriminates against Christians; and Jordan, where Christian proselytism is forbidden and Islamic converts to Christianity continue to suffer.

Bringing up the rear are communist Cuba, former communist and still repressive Belarus, Muslim Indonesia, the Islamic Palestinian Territories, former communist and Islamic Kazakhstan, Muslim Bahrain, democratic and Catholic Colombia (where organized crime targets Christian social reformers), former communist and Islamic Kyrgyzstan, Muslim Bangladesh, and Muslim Indonesia. Christians suffer from a variety of repressions, debilities, pressures, and discriminations in these nations.

Persecution of any religious believer is a moral outrage, a violation of individual conscience and assault on human dignity. But the principle source of religious persecution today is unambiguous: Islam. As Open Doors emphasizes, 38 of 50 persecutors are Muslim. Nine of the top ten and the three largest risers (Northern Nigeria, Egypt, and Sudan) are Muslim. Islamic extremism is the "usual suspect" among persecutors around the world.

The U.S. government should include religious liberty in its dialogue over human rights with other countries. Moreover, as individuals and in community with one another Americans -- not just Christians or people of faith, but anyone who believes in human life, dignity, and freedom -- should target persecutors and support the persecuted. If nothing else, those persecuted for their faith should not stand alone.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).