The Dirty Dozen Religious Persecutors - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Dirty Dozen Religious Persecutors

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.”

All faiths face official discrimination. Imprisonment is deployed most consistently against Baha’is, as well as Christians who proselytize. Converts are arrested and churches are closed. Evangelizing pastors have been murdered.

Laos. The communist government seeks to control anyone independent of the government. Religious groups are expected to register (and be controlled). Believers are subject to arrest and, notes the State Department, “Persons arrested for their religious activities were sometimes charged with exaggerated security or other criminal offenses.”

Outright persecution tends to be most common at the local level. Believers have been arrested, evicted from their homes and villages, and pressured to recant.

Nigeria. The west African nation of Nigeria is divided along religious as well as tribal lines. Nigeria long has suffered from religious tensions and radical Islamic movements. State governments discriminate against Christians in public benefits, employment, and and land use. Twelve states have implemented sharia law.

Anti-American sentiment growing out of the aftermath of September 11 have fueled some local Islamic groups. Freedom House warns of “the Talibanization of Nigeria.”

North Korea. No religious liberty exists in what is perhaps the most closed society on earth. Although some churches exist, they are effectively government-controlled. Independent religious activity is proscribed and severely punished. Allegations abound of arrest, torture, and execution of members of underground churches.

Pakistan. An Islamic republic, Pakistan formally allows the practice of minority faiths but discriminates against non- Muslims. Access to government jobs and public services are limited for Christians and others. Moreover, the blasphemy law has been applied against anyone who publicly questions Islam or speaks the truth about Muhammed’s life.

Social and professional discrimination and, more important, violence are routinely employed against Christians. Churches have been destroyed and congregations have been attacked. In the aftermath of the publication of the caricatures of Muhammed mobs targeted Christian churches, schools, and businesses.

Saudi Arabia. In this essentially totalitarian state only Sunni Islam is officially allowed, leading to discrimination against Shi’a and non-Muslim faiths. People are not even always left alone at home to practice their faith. Any public display of another religion ensures official punishment.

Details the State Department: “non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention, especially of the Mutawwa’in (religious police).” Even the Soviet Union formally allowed churches to exist, if not prosper.

Sudan. Over the last two decades millions of people have died and been turned into refugees as a result of almost endless civil war. Discrimination is embedded within the system: For instance, Christian converts face arrest and possible death. Attempts have been made to forcibly convert Christians and impose sharia on Christians. Churches and other facilities have been destroyed.

While the military conflict is not strictly Muslim versus Christian, Christians and animists in the south are the most common victims of forces backed by the Muslim government. Atrocities by government forces and government-backed militias have been common, most recently in Darfur.

ASSESSING THE RELATIVE BRUTALITY of varying regimes isn’t easy, and the level of repression sometimes changes over time. Unfortunately, many other nations have a claim to membership in the Dirty Dozen.

Cuba is a traditional communist dictatorship which registers religious organizations, harasses congregants, prevents churches from building or repairing worship facilities, forbids the distribution of religious materials, and bars church provision of social welfare services.

The Egyptian government discriminates in the provision of public services and benefits, arrests those who proselytize, and often ignores violent attacks on members of other faiths, especially members of the Coptic Church. Private discrimination and violence are common.

In India sectarian violence is endemic, particularly among Hindus and Muslims. But Christians, constituting a much smaller minority, also are a common target. Attacks on Christians have been on the rise this year, yet the authorities often do little. Many states penalize religious minorities; some enforce anti- conversion laws, which even inhibit Christian social services.

In Sri Lanka Buddhism is dominant. The authorities often overlook private attacks on Christian churches. Efforts are underway to make Buddhism the state religion and to criminalize conversions.

In Turkmenistan the government registers religious groups and harasses believers, arresting and mistreating some. In Uzbekistan the authorities repress Islamic groups in the name of fighting terrorism and harass Christian churches through registration requirements and police repression.

Vietnam is another communist dictatorship where political authoritarianism persists long after Marxist-Leninism has lost any philosophical rigor. Churches must register; the government attempts to oversee religious organizations and activities. Believers reportedly have been detained and beaten.

What can Americans do? The U.S. can highlight religious persecution. Absent going to war, however, Washington cannot force nations to change their behavior. And even that is no answer: in the case of Iraq, war actually loosed the forces of violent intolerance upon the minority Christian community.

Which leaves the most important work to be done by religious believers and friends of liberty around the world. Through political activism, publicity campaigns, and prayer, they must press for change. Over time victories will be won, even though many will involve saving individuals and families rather than transforming regimes. But even the former matters. After all, Christians believe that God ultimately will have his way, even if one person at a time.

Doug Bandow
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Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
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