Special Report

The Real Meaning of Religious Persecution

It exists in the world, but not in America. Shame on those who don't know better.

By 2.2.09

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"The persecution of Christianity in America has begun," complains Rick Scarborough of Vision America. He points to criticism of Christian supporters of California's Proposition 8, banning gay marriage, and cites an email to him "so vile that I cannot reprint the letter." He asks for contributions "to assist us as we confront the growing threat of domestic terror being perpetrated by homosexual activists."

The protests against Prop 8 backers, particularly the Mormon Church and individual Mormons, took an ugly turn. There may even be "growing hostility against religion in America and particularly against Christians," as Scarborough asserts, at least in the cultural realm. But this hostility does not amount to persecution. After all, America's outgoing president is an avowed evangelical, the Republican Party's 2008 vice presidential nominee was an outspoken evangelical, and the new president is a self-identified Christian. The last chose a high-profile evangelical minister to pray at the inaugural. Some Christians may be treated badly, but Christians are not being persecuted.

In America, that is.

Elsewhere in the world there is persecution of Christians and other religious believers. Real persecution. The faithful are arrested and imprisoned. Their homes and churches are invaded and confiscated. And hundreds or thousands every year are martyred -- sometimes by mobs and other times by governments.

Many think of ancient Rome when they think of persecution. But persecution continues in many guises. The Hudson Institute recently released Religious Freedom in the World, edited by Paul Marshall (published by Rowman & Littlefield). The book rates 101 countries, with 95 percent of the world's population. Twenty of these nations are not free. Another 40 are only partly free.

In general, Christian and Western countries are likely to be free. Muslim societies and Communist or former Communist systems are likely to be unfree or only partly free. There are exceptions but, writes Marshall: "Of the 20 'unfree' countries and territories surveyed, 12 are Muslim majority. Of the seven countries receiving the lowest possible score, four are Muslim majority."

There are the good, the bad, and the ugly. Among the last are the totalitarian hell holes of North Korea and Saudi Arabia, the military dictatorship of Burma, the Islamic war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Communist autocracies of China and Cuba, the remnant Communist regimes with Islamic majorities in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and the Shia theocracy of Iran. Other countries that make one worst list or another are Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Maldives, Pakistan, and Yemen (Islamic), Laos (Communist), Eritrea (mixed faith), India (Hindu), and Bhutan (Buddhist). Residents of these nations really are persecuted.

Hudson's conclusions track those of other analysts, including the State Department's annual Report on International Religious Freedom and the work of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Of the worst ten persecutors listed by Open Doors, six are majority Muslim countries and three are Communist states. Five of the ten nations in the International Christian Concern's "Hall of Shame" are largely Islamic and (the same) three others are Communist.

In many of these countries everyone is oppressed. But religious believers often are singled out for particularly harsh treatment. For instance, Religious Freedom in the World describes North Korea: "Defectors report that Christians are given the heaviest work, the least amount of food, and the worst conditions in prison. Those caught praying in prison are beaten and tortured. A recent defector reports that she saw some Christians working in a foundry put to death with hot irons. In addition, defectors report that children and grandchildren of Christians also face life imprisonment for the religious beliefs and activities of their forebears."

China actually looks good but only in contrast. Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs complained that persecution was on the upswing before the Olympics: "There are more raids, foreign Christians are not having their visas renewed and are being forced to leave the country. There are numerous circumstances where the churches are under attack by the government." Similarly, Bob Fu, who founded the China Aid Association, explained: "From all measures we can find in terms of religious freedom, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, it all shows it's becoming much worse." But it wasn't just in 2008, he added: "In the past two years, we found more than 3,000 underground pastors were arrested, detained, some sentenced."

Despite the drop of violence in Iraq, Christians and other minorities remain under fierce attack. The Commission recently warned "about severe violations of religious freedom there. The situation is dire for Iraq's smallest religious minorities, including ChaldoAssyrian Christians, other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis, who face a threat to their very existence in the country."


IT SHOULD SURPRISE NO ONE that non-Muslims face pervasive mistreatment in Iran. Yet because they are people "of the book," Christians and Jews sometimes face less brutality than other faiths. Reported the State Department last year: "respect for religious freedom in the country continued to deteriorate. Government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shi'a religious groups, most notably for Baha'is, as well as Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, and members of the Jewish community. Reports of government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs continued during the reporting period. Baha'i religious groups reported arbitrary arrests, expulsions from universities, and confiscation of property. Government-controlled broadcast and print media intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities, particularly the Baha'is."

Tragic, isolated Turkmenistan is another religious abuser. The Commission points to "the 2003 law on religion, particularly those articles that violate international norms pertaining to freedom of religion or belief; the state-imposed ideology, particularly that of the personality cult, that infringes upon or severely diminishes the practice of freedom of religion or belief and related freedoms of association, movement, expression, and the press; intrusive and onerous registration procedures that hinder the registration of peaceful religious communities; administrative fines on and imprisonment of leaders or members of peaceful unregistered religious communities whose activities are deemed 'illegal'; obstacles to the purchase or rental of land or buildings to be used as houses of worship or for meeting purposes; onerous impediments to the use of private homes and public halls in residential areas for worship services; and a legal ban on the importation and printing of religious and other material."

India is a democracy, but violence is endemic and religious minorities are vulnerable to discrimination, abuse, and murder. Last year, reported the State Department, "there were organized communal attacks against minority religious groups, particularly in states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In Orissa, governed by a coalition government that includes the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Hindu extremists attacked Christian villagers and churches in the Kandhamal district over the Christmas holidays. Approximately 100 churches and Christian institutions were damaged, 700 Christian homes were destroyed causing villagers to flee to nearby forests, and 22 Christian-owned businesses were affected."

The Burmese military junta deploys brutal force against democracy activists and rebellious ethnic groups with equal avidity. Millions of people have been displaced within its borders or forced into Thailand. "Christians are favorite targets of persecution because their religion is seen as being of the West," notes James Jacobson, head of Christian Freedom International. The regime even has conducted what the Hudson Institute calls "a campaign of 'Burmanization,'" which includes promoting Buddhism "under control by the government."

Being an ally of the U.S. doesn't provide any protection for religious believers. The State Department designates Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern, reporting: "There is no legal recognition of, or protection under the law for, freedom of religion, and it is severely restricted in practice." The kingdom is essentially a totalitarian state, despite the supposedly reformist tendencies of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.


THESE ARE MERELY a few of the worst persecutors. And what the statistics miss are the real people who suffer from persecution. In Indonesia I visited sites where churches and a Bible school had been demolished by mobs of Muslim extremists -- and where the local authorities refused to allow Christians to rebuild. In Pakistan I met a mother and children in hiding: the father had sought asylum in America after converting, which led to death threats. His family threatened to kidnap the children to ensure their Muslim upbringing.

In Laos I talked with a church planter who was shadowed by security agents in Vientiane and who traveled incognito outside of the capital. I spoke with ethnic Karen refugees who fled the Burmese military, many of whom had spent years in refugee camps across the border in Thailand. I interviewed a young Christian girl in hiding in Dhaka, Bangladesh, after she was kidnapped and forced into marriage by a Muslim family.

I'm only an amateur, however, compared to those who work for such groups as Christian Freedom International (which I've traveled with), and who come into regular contact with scores, hundreds, and more cases of horrid abuse. There are Christian martyrs today just as there were two thousand years ago. Persecution is real.

But not in America. Cultural and social hostility doesn't count. Christians still enjoy a privileged existence in America. We should use our advantages here to help believers in other countries who face persecution and sometimes death for their faith. Even if all we can do is pray, we must seek to be our brother's keeper.

Mr. Bandow is a Senior Fellow in Religious Persecution at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy and the author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway).

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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).