Author archives: Arielle Del Turco

In Turkey, Authoritarianism and Islamization Are Squeezing Out Christians

by Arielle Del Turco

February 23, 2021

This blog is Part 1 of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world.

David Byle had lived in Turkey for 19 years, boldly and consistently sharing the gospel in Istanbul while raising his children and building a life there. Now, authorities have forced the Canadian-American pastor to leave.

Byle first noticed a marked increase in harassment by local police in 2007. The government tried to deport him in 2016, but he challenged the decision in court and was allowed to remain. Then, in October 2018, authorities instructed him to leave within 15 days, calling him a security threat and permanently banning him from the country.

Whenever we spoke in public, people were excited to listen and learn. For a long time, we were successfully able to fight the government attempts to stop our ministry, because we were only making use of our right to religious freedom, protected by the Turkish constitution. The government did not want us in Turkey, but plenty of people do. God called us there, [H]e wants the Turkish people to hear about Him and to know that He is doing wonderful things,” Byle told ADF International.

The Turkish government’s increasing pressure on Christians has made its religious freedom violations more obvious. At the end of January, ADF International filed an application on Byle’s behalf with the European Court of Human Rights. This legal recourse is a long shot, but many Turkish Christians do not even have that.

Rise of Religious Nationalism

The backdrop of Turkey’s religious freedom violations is an increasingly hostile political scene. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become bold in pronouncing his dream of a neo-Ottoman state, growing aggressive with dissidents at home and assertive in the region. This has consequences for many people in Turkey and throughout the Middle East, including Christians, Kurds, and other minorities.

In 2020, much of the Christian world expressed outrage over Erdogan’s plans to convert the ancient Hagia Sophia cathedral into a mosque. Ottoman conquerors had previously converted the church into a mosque once before, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Erdogan declared, “Hagia Sophia became a mosque again, after eighty-six years, in the way Fatih the conqueror of Istanbul had wanted it to be.” This harkening back to the time of Ottoman sultan Fatih Sultan¿Mehmet (known as Mehmed the Conqueror) paints a picture of a renewed conquering Turkish state.

The beginning of 2021 has seen an increase in religious freedom violations concerning historic Turkish churches, according to International Christian Concern. Violations committed by the government include turning old churches into museums and destroying old churches despite their historic designations.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has increased the Turkish government’s authoritarianism and Islamization of institutions. Erdogan’s power was further consolidated after a 2016 coup attempt that provided the government with an excuse to crack down on perceived opponents. Andrew Brunson, an American pastor of a small Turkish church and a resident of Turkey for 23 years, was caught up in this crackdown. In 2016, Pastor Brunson was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest for a total of two years on false national security charges in the wake of the coup attempt. He was released following pressure from the U.S. government.

Legal Pressure on Foreign Christians

Over 98 percent of Turkey is Muslim, while Christians comprise less than one percent of the population. This tiny Christian minority faces very high government restrictions and high social hostilities, according to Pew Research reports.

The U.S. State Department’s 2019 international religious freedom report found that “Multiple monitoring organizations and media outlets… reported entry bans, denial of residency permit extensions, and deportations for long-time residents affiliated with Protestant churches in the country.” Most training for Protestant leaders in Turkey is conducted by foreign workers on long-term residence visas. Restrictions on foreign nationals participating in ministry are a direct attack on Protestant churches’ existence and growth in Turkey.

American Christian Joy Subasiguller has lived in Turkey for the past 10 years. Her husband, Lutfu, is the pastor of a small Turkish church, while Joy is a stay-at-home mom with their three young children. All of that was suddenly threatened when Turkey’s Ministry of the Interior revoked Joy’s residency permit without warning or explanation. The Subasigullers have appealed the decision, but appeals in similar situations are typically rejected by the government.

Joy, like David Byle, will most likely be forced to leave. If the family wishes to remain together, they must all go together. For their children, that means leaving the only home they know. For Turkey, it means one less Christian minister. “Turkey is my home. I love Turkey and the Turkish people very much,” Joy said. “My family has very strong ties with Turkish friends here and especially with Lutfu’s family, who would be devastated if we had to permanently relocate to another country.”

Concerns for the Future in the Middle East

Turkey’s recent military involvement in the region, including conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Northeast Syria, and Northern Iraq, demonstrate Turkey’s assertiveness in the region and eagerness to expand its influence in the Middle East, often to the detriment of minority communities.

Family Research Council closely followed the situation in Northeast Syria in the Fall of 2019, when Turkey sent forces to occupy land across its border governed by a Kurdish administration that had allowed religious freedom to flourish for the diverse groups living there. The invasion resulted in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, including Christian communities. Many of the displaced people have yet to return. As Turkey continues expressing this interventionist bent, its meddling in Middle Eastern affairs is bad news for religious minorities.

Turkey increasingly presents challenges to religious freedom within its borders and across the region. Western countries should take note of the changes happening under Erdogan’s leadership. If left unchecked, the religious freedom violations occurring in Turkey will not be confined to that country alone.

The Holy Spirit Will Be Working”: Despite Persecution, Hong Kong Christians Remain Hopeful

by Arielle Del Turco

February 2, 2021

Well-known American pastor Francis Chan surprised many when he announced his plan to move to Asia to serve in ministry, leaving his comfortable position as a mega-church pastor to follow God’s call. In less than a year, he and his family planted three house churches in Hong Kong.

Then the Chans were informed that their visas had been revoked, forcing them to leave with only a few weeks’ warning. Chan announced the move in a January 5, 2021 video, saying, “Last week, after Hong Kong officials rejected our visas, we had to leave the country. We are now back in the U.S. and appealing the decision. Hopefully, we can get back into Hong Kong because, man, we want to be there.”

Chan is unsure whether the government will ever let his family return to Hong Kong. The revoked visas come at a time when Beijing is increasing pressure on Hong Kong following the national security law enacted June 30, 2020, that enables the government to crack down on perceived opponents. 

On January 6, 2021, Hong Kong police officers arrested over 50 people connected to the pro-democracy movement. The mass arrests—mostly of pro-democracy politicians—marked a sad day for the hundreds of thousands of freedom-loving people who flooded the streets in support of democracy not long ago.

The immense scope of the national security law has left many Hong Kong Christians worried about how this may affect their churches or religious expression. Ever since the British handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, the city’s freedom had been protected by the “one country, two systems” policy. Now, Beijing is abandoning any pretense of Hong Kong’s autonomy. As the city starts to look more like mainland China, believers fear they will face the same restrictions found on the mainland.

Christianity is legal in China, but it is governed under the Three–Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the State Administration of Religious Affairs. The “three selves” in the Three–Self Patriotic Movement are self-governed, self-funded, and self-propagated. These requirements specifically cut off churches from outside aid or influence. The government closely monitors registered churches, and unauthorized churches risk being harassed or shut down.  

The Chinese government has long warned Christian churches against “foreign influence.” Revoking Francis Chan’s visa is significant, and it may signal a similar effort to reduce “foreign influence” in Hong Kong.

For decades, Hong Kong served as a hub for Christian ministry in Asia, including mainland China. Any crackdown on churches in Hong Kong would have far-reaching consequences. 

Some Hong Kongers are preparing for the possibility of increased religious restrictions. When Chan and his family knew they had to leave, they left the young churches to the congregants they had discipled. Chan asked if they were ready for the challenge, to which they nervously answered, “No.” But Chan encouraged the house church members, reminding them that church members in New Testament times had no Bibles or resources, but God used them to start a powerful church.

Across the world, churches that operate in a context of persecution are forced to function differently. But time and again, God has proven that no earthly force can impede the gospel. The growth of Christianity in China and Iran testifies to that.

Believers in Hong Kong may endure more challenges in the days ahead, but their hope need not waver. Before leaving, Chan told the members of his house church something that may apply to churches throughout the city: “I have faith in you. I have peace in my heart because I know that the Holy Spirit will be working. Although I believe God is having me go back to the U.S., I think this a great season for you to be pushed and stretched.”

Targeting the Vulnerable: Euthanasia in Nazi Germany

by Arielle Del Turco

January 27, 2021

Today, January 27, is commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to remember the innocent people murdered by the Nazi regime—mostly Jews, but also Roma, Germans with disabilities, Slavic peoples, and others. Among those the Nazis targeted for extermination were the most vulnerable in society, through a vile program often neglected by our history books—Aktion T4.

On the fourth floor of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, there is a small exhibit featuring an old hospital bed, hospital gown, and straps used to hold patients down in their beds.

An image behind the exhibit depicts a psychiatric clinic in a residential area. From the clinic rises pitch-black smoke normally associated with the Nazi death camp crematoriums that disposed of the murdered victims of the “Final Solution.” This clinic was not an extermination camp, but a place where the sick would go seeking help and healing. However, a horror similar to that of the camps was unfolding at this clinic.

Rather than receive medical care, hundreds of thousands of patients who visited institutions like this one in Nazi Germany were murdered. Designed to eliminate what eugenicists considered “life unworthy of life,” the Nazi euthanasia program targeted both children and adults with psychiatric, neurological, or physical disabilities. The Nazi’s vision to create an Aryan “master race” required the removal of “undesirable” individuals—those they callously determined to be burdens on German society.

Codenamed “T4” after Tiergartenstrasse 4, the location of its Berlin office, an immense bureaucracy involving doctors, nurses, social workers, professors, and others was established to quietly murder approximately 250,000 people with disabilities. Beginning in October 1939, the program was in effect until May 29, 1945, when 4-year-old Richard Jenne became its last victim.

The euthanasia program targeted institutionalized patients with disabilities or mental illness. Questionnaires asked if such patients had non-Aryan blood, regularly received visitors, or had the capacity to work. Three-physician panels determined whether the patients would live or die based on the answers.

Gassing was used to kill the victims until the Nazis changed tactics and either gave purposeful overdoses or allowed victims to starve or die of neglect. Physicians oversaw the killings, lending the veneer of medical procedures.

The program’s large scale made it impossible to hide from the German people and attempts at concealment were often clumsy. Officials might write to inform loved ones that their institutionalized family member had died of appendicitis, despite their appendix having already been removed years prior. Such tragic accounts often made their way to Catholic and Protestant leaders, who spoke out against the brutality on several occasions.

Notably, Cardinal August von Galen, Bishop of Munster, gave an exceptionally bold sermon condemning the euthanasia program on August 3, 1941.

If it is once admitted that men have the right to kill “unproductive” fellow-men—even though it is at present applied only to poor and defenseless mentally ill patients—then the way is open for the murder of all “unproductive” men and women: the incurably ill, the handicapped who are unable to work, those disabled in industry or war. The way is open, indeed, for the murder of all of us when we become old and infirm and therefore “unproductive”…

Woe betide mankind, woe betide our German people, if the divine commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” which the Lord proclaimed on Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man’s conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not merely violated but the violation is tolerated and remains unpunished!

Thought to be too popular to punish harshly, the Cardinal was placed under virtual house arrest. Yet, his sermon was widely distributed across Germany to the outrage of Nazi officials.

By pursuing a “perfect” society, Nazis destroyed something infinitely valuable—human life.  Such a society could never have been ideal—it would have lacked the value that would have been added by the individuals they worked to destroy. For those who have family members with disabilities, it is often easy to see how they make the lives of those around them better.

Humans are flawed, and a utopian society cannot be forged by human willpower in a world corrupted by sin. As Cardinal Galen suggested, if we were to eliminate all imperfect people, everyone would be a target because we are all imperfect. At the same time, every person is made in the image of God—inherently valuable and deserving of love and care. Members of society who need more assistance ought to be protected and empowered, not eliminated. 

10 Facts About Global Religious Persecution From the 2021 World Watch List

by Arielle Del Turco

January 14, 2021

Yesterday, Open Doors, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness about the persecuted church, released its annual 2021 World Watch List. This report identifies the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Whether by violent attacks from non-state actors or government regulations, Christians face severe impediments to the free practice of their faith in many places around the world. As the threats to religious freedom mount, it is important to know the challenges believers face around the world.

Here are 10 facts about global religious persecution from this year’s World Watch List.

1. More Christians are murdered in Nigeria than in any other country. 

Open Doors found that an estimated 5,678 people were killed in Nigeria from October 2019 to September 2020, making Nigeria the country where Christians endure the most fatal violence. Attacks from Boko Haram, Fulani militant herdsmen, and the ISIS affiliate ISWAP are common throughout Middle Belt and northern Nigeria.

The near-genocide that is occurring in Nigeria warrants the world’s urgent attention, as FRC highlighted in its publication, The Crisis of Christian Persecution in Nigeria.

2. COVID-19 has enabled religious persecution through relief discrimination, forced conversion, and as justification for increasing surveillance.

Researchers from Open Doors found that COVID-19 relief discrimination against Christians occurred in Ethiopia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Vietnam, and the Middle East, among other places. Some Christians have been told that they were denied aid from their governments because “your Church or your God should feed you” or “the virus was created and/or spread by the West.”

3. Technology is making it easier for governments to control and suppress religious activities.

China is the foremost example of an oppressive regime that utilizes advanced technology to manipulate its citizens’ behavior—including religious practice. However, Iran is rapidly emerging as a surveillance state.

One Iranian Christian named Saghar told Open Doors, “I’m sure that my phone also was tapped by the government. They could sort of record my conversations, and so in our meetings, we would turn off our phones and put it in another room. Because we know that they are able to record any voices and sounds in the room by the phones. And also, I believe that they have a particular team to hack emails, people’s emails, Christians’ emails, and the private like social medias. And I know that they spend lots of money for this and use the technology to have surveillance on Christians.”

4. North Korea has held the title of “world’s worst persecutor of Christians” for 20 consecutive years.

A tragic consistency over the last two decades is that North Korea remains the world’s worst violator of religious freedom. Entering 2021, things are not looking better for the people of North Korea as COVID-19 has presented added challenges.

For more information on the horrific abuses against Christians in North Korea and what the U.S. government can do about it, read FRC’s new publication, North Korea: The World’s Foremost Violator of Religious Freedom.

5. Sudan’s new constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but it will take time for the situation of Christians to improve.

Sudan, a longtime violator of religious freedom, takes the 13th spot on the World Watch List. Although marked improvements have occurred over the last two years, Christians wait to see if their Islamic society will fully accept them. For now, Christians in Sudan still face challenges, especially those from a Muslim background.

6. Approximately 91 percent of recorded violent killings of Christians for faith-related reasons took place in Africa.

Although the African continent is home to the world’s largest number of Christians, religiously motivated violence is increasing. In sub-Saharan Africa, Christians experienced 30 percent higher levels of violence from Islamist militant groups than the previous year. It is believed this can be attributed to the groups taking advantage of lockdowns and governments rendered weaker from the COVID-19 crisis. FRC’s Lela Gilbert has highlighted the sharp rise in violence in Africa in 2020.

7. China jumped to #17 on the World Watch List.

Reflecting the rapidly worsening religious freedom conditions in China, Open Doors now recognizes the country as the 17th most difficult country to be a Christian. Americans may be familiar with the persecution faced by members of house churches, but even state-sanctioned churches face increasing pressure from the Chinese government.

In an interview with Open Doors, Rev. Jonathan Liu, a former pastor of a state-approved Three-Self Movement church in China, said, “In the government-sanctioned churches, the pastors are politicalized and obedient to the CCP. The CCP’s lessons and preachings were also spoken or written according to the policies of the Chinese government. The government also keeps a very strong eye on the churches. I felt very oppressed while I worked in the government-sanctioned church.”

8. Legal harassment of Christians in Turkey has caused some Christians to consider fleeing.

The rise in religious nationalism in Turkey has placed increasing pressure on Christians in the last few years. While this has made some Christians consider leaving Turkey, others do not have to consider it—they are being forced to go. Dozens of foreign Christian workers and church leaders have been made to leave Turkey. Due to increasing legal harassment, Turkey rose from #25 from #36 on the World Watch List.

9. In Latin American, drug cartels are the largest threat to religious freedom.

Drug cartels often violently attack Catholic bishops and priests in Columbia, Mexico, and throughout Latin America. Church leaders are typically targeted for condemning corruption and violence, thereby threatening the illicit activities of these criminal enterprises.

10. The world’s largest democracy, India, is among the top 10 most difficult countries to be a Christian.

Although India maintains a strong democracy, the Hindu nationalist movement, to which the current Indian prime minister belongs, forwards the poisonous idea that “to be Indian is to be Hindu,” leaving little room for those of other faiths. This ideology has inspired mob violence against Christians and others. Meanwhile, Indian Christians also face discrimination from the government. Open Doors estimates that 150,000 Christians in India were denied aid during the COVID-19 pandemic because of their faith.

Overall, this year’s World Watch List reminds us of the many diverse challenges faced by fellow believers around the world. As we learn more about the persecuted church, may we be moved to prayer and action on their behalf.

When Dealing With North Korea, Human Rights Must Take Priority

by Arielle Del Turco

January 12, 2021

The North Korean capital of Pyongyang greeted the new year with singing, dancing, and fireworks as the national anthem played at midnight on December 31st.

Beyond the staged Pyongyang crowd and across the rest of the darkened country, the reaction to another year under the Kim regime may have received a less warm welcome—especially in the numerous political prison camps thought to detain an estimated 120,000 people, according to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights conditions in North Korea found that a wide range of acts perceived to be against the state can land someone in a political prison camp. For repatriated defectors, simply encountering a Christian church is grounds for detention in a political prison camp, or even execution. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) believes as many as 50,000 of the prisoners in political labor camps are Christians imprisoned for their faith.

Any act of faith puts North Korean Christians in danger. One defector testified to the severe risk of possessing a Bible: “In North Korea, you can get away with murder if you have good connections. However, if you get caught carrying a Bible, there is no way to save your life.”

Unfortunately, the past year brought no known improvements to North Korea’s abysmal human rights record. And the changes that have occurred in 2020 point to rising hardships for the North Korean people and an increasingly dangerous security situation.

The young dictator Kim Jong Un is under intense pressure as he tries to manage an already struggling economy that has been hampered even more than usual due to COVID-19. Speaking at a military parade in October, Kim was driven to tears as he apologized for the difficulties many North Koreans faced in 2020. It is almost unheard of for a North Korean leader to admit failure, and it may signal a vulnerable regime. Yet, at the same parade, the military unveiled a record number of new weapons, which present clear threats to the United States and its allies.

North Korea has long been a national security priority for U.S. presidents. This is unlikely to change for the incoming administration, which will doubtless be forced to cope with a rogue North Korean regime that continues to threaten its neighbors and adversaries.

No matter how the U.S. chooses to tackle the challenges posed by North Korea, one thing is certain: addressing human rights violations must be a part of the strategy. A new Family Research Council report, North Korea: The World’s Foremost Violator of Religious Freedom, outlines several ways that the U.S. government can promote religious freedom and human rights in North Korea.

In any negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, human rights should be on the table. Before the U.S. even considers lifting sanctions, the North Korean regime must take measurable steps to alleviate the dire human rights situation within its borders. One specific demand American officials can make of North Korea is the release of all Christians, along with children and families, from prison camps.

Additional efforts should also be made to support the dissemination of information inside of North Korea. North Korean defectors regularly cite exposure to outside news and media as a primary motivating factor prompting their escape. The regime tightly restricts access to information or entertainment aside from state propaganda, but North Koreans deserve to know the truth.

South Korea’s National Assembly recently made human rights activism more difficult for its citizens by passing an anti-leaflet law meant to crack down on balloon and bottle launches that sent leaflets, USB sticks, and even Bibles across the border into the North. This new law is a disappointing move on the part of the South Korean government. Both South Korea and the U.S. should be supporting, rather than restricting, human rights advocacy on behalf of the millions of North Koreans who are barred from speaking up for themselves.

As an incoming U.S. presidential administration crafts its foreign policy priorities for the next four years, the North Korean religious freedom and human rights situation should occupy a prominent position. A transformed North Korea that poses no threat to the rest of the world ultimately requires a North Korean government that respects its people and allows them to live according to their consciences.

In This New Year, Let’s Be Attentive To Those Persecuted for Their Faith

by Arielle Del Turco

January 4, 2021

What does the plight of Christians imprisoned for blasphemy in Pakistan, Uyghur Muslims who have been “disappeared” in China, or Christian students kidnapped in Nigeria have to do with Christians in the Western world? More than you might think. God has called Christians to care for the persecuted and oppressed, and that obligation stretches beyond our national borders. Now, at a time when religious oppression is on the rise around the world, it is more important than ever to consider our responsibility to the persecuted.

Religious freedom—the freedom to choose and live in accordance with one’s faith—is foundational to human dignity. Government restrictions on religion and religiously motivated attacks from non-state actors hinder individuals’ ability to follow the dictates of their consciences and stifle human flourishing.

Unfortunately, people are robbed of religious freedom across the globe every day. In Nigeria, Christians are slaughtered by Boko Haram and Fulani militants; in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are imprisoned under “anti-extremism” laws; and in China, Uyghur Muslims endure mass detention, forced labor, and widespread forced sterilization and abortion. We in the West do not often speak of these regional crises, but they ought to instill us with a sense of urgency.

There are many reasons why Christians should care about the plight of the persecuted abroad. Scripture instructs us to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3). This admonition reminds us to consider the persecuted church, though they may be far from our daily lives. We are to consider their suffering our own because we are linked through the universal church (1 Cor. 12:26).

But our concern need not stop with the persecuted church; a Christian worldview supports the principles of religious freedom for everyone. God does not force or coerce us into following Him. Therefore, we should imitate Him by protecting others’ freedom to choose their faith. Scripture indicates a responsibility to defend the oppressed and those who cannot stand up for themselves (Psalm 82:3-4, Isaiah 1:17, James 1:27). These verses are calls to action.

The benefits of religious freedom are not merely spiritual. They are practical as well. Religious pluralism stirs creativity and innovation by providing a peaceful space for everyone to share ideas and pursue opportunities, regardless of one’s religious or ethnic background. This promotes development and economic growth. In places where intense religious discrimination is the norm, such as Pakistan, religious minorities are unable to rise out of poverty and are barred from making meaningful contributions to the economy—and that harms all of society.

Religious freedom is, at times, also a matter of national security. Religious freedom has been shown to mitigate terrorism and internal conflicts. Where religious tensions are allowed to mount unfettered without legal protections for religious minorities, violence often follows. Such religiously motivated violence has led to recent crises in Burma, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Religious freedom and tolerance often coincide with regional peace and security.

With these scriptural mandates and practical benefits in mind, here are some practical steps Christians can take toward rightly caring for persecuted believers abroad.

The instruction in Hebrews 13:3 to remember the imprisoned and mistreated implies a responsibility to learn the stories of persecuted people. This can be done in a variety of ways, including reading the testimonies of those who have been persecuted for their beliefs and researching the main types of religious freedom violations occurring today and the countries currently in crisis. 

Learning is a crucial first step toward taking action. Nothing will change until people are made aware of the dire challenges facing people around the world. Once you become informed, advocate with the tools at your disposal. Raise awareness on social media, make religious freedom a topic of discussion, and voice your support for international religious freedom to your representatives.

Lastly, you should pray. Although this may seem like an obvious recommendation, it is not an insignificant one. Pray for more religious freedom for people around the world. But also pray for individuals being harassed or abused for their faith. Consider the stories of people like Huma Younus, Gulshan Abbas, and Leah Sharibu.

Prayer often serves to encourage those held captive for their faith. American pastor Andrew Brunson has said that knowing other believers were praying for him while he was being held in a Turkish prison kept him going in his darkest moments—he did not want to be forgotten. The fact that the intensely persecuted request our prayers is meaningful, and their pleas should not go unheard.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to care about international religious freedom, even for those who do not adhere to a faith. But for the Christian, there is a scriptural calling that should motivate us more. Persecution abroad requires a response from Christians. We ought not delay our response—the oppressed are suffering as we wait.

Remembering Persecuted Christians at Christmas

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

December 18, 2020

Christmas is just around the corner, right on schedule in an otherwise unpredictable 2020. And as it approaches, gift-giving has come into focus here in America and much of the world. Whether small tokens of friendship or carefully chosen presents for beloved friends and family, the arrival of God’s Son as a gift to us all has inspired a tradition of generosity.

Of course, in other lands, the lack of religious freedom and the threat of Christian persecution casts a dark shadow across Christmas festivities and celebrations. It is not unusual for fanatical, iron-fisted governments to make the Advent season a time of intensified fear and real danger. Many Christians, despite their faith and devotion, have little opportunity to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child or to “rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”

Christmas is a beautiful season for some of us and a time of fear, deprivation, and uncertainty for others.

Every Christmas season in the free world, we receive unexpected gifts from persecuted believers—gifts they may never know they’ve given us. As we reflect on the terrible risks and losses faced by our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, we are showered with gifts of remembrance: recalling our many blessings while remembering to offer prayers for their help and relief.

In Iran, Christmas is a time of increased scrutiny and persecution. Christians gathering in secret house churches to sing and celebrate invariably lead to violent arrests, false accusations, and lengthy imprisonments. As we thank God for our freedom in America to gather, pray, and rejoice, we can pray for the protection of those facing crackdowns in Iran and elsewhere.

In Nigeria and other African countries, late-night incursions and massacres in Christian communities have inspired survivors to say, “We are so thankful when we wake up in the morning to find that the Lord has kept us to see another day.” As we thank God for the safety and security we have in most American communities, we can pray for the survival of these courageous souls.

In China, there have been crackdowns on churches, as well as high-tech surveillance, arrests, and “disappearances” of church leaders and others caught sharing their faith. As we thank God that we are not at risk of the sudden arrival of police and Communist officials to arrest us and destroy Bibles, crosses, and Christian images, we can pray for these faithful ones’ perseverance, courage, and protection. 

These are but three examples of the dangers faced by Christians abroad. We could add North Korea, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, India, and so many more troubled countries to the list.

Meanwhile, as difficult as recent months have been for many believers in the United States—we still have great and sacred freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. As we pause during the Christmas season to be grateful for our many blessings, we ought also to remember Christians who live in countries where it is dangerous to follow Christ. The persecuted church encounters unfathomable difficulties, yet they persist and find hope in their faith.

Our Savior Himself made a humble entrance into the world, born of a virgin and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Shortly after His birth, Mary and Joseph took the Christ child to flee a slaughter ordered by King Herod. Later, Christ would suffer immensely as He was tortured and died on a cross that we might be saved from our sin. The nativity story—and the message of Jesus—offers untold hope to us all during earthly trials.

As we celebrate Christmas this year with friends and family, let us pause and say a prayer for Christians around the world who will celebrate in secret. Let’s continue “to remember those in prison as if [we] were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if [we] ourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3 NIV).

3 Things the U.S. Can Do to End Blasphemy Laws Around the World

by Arielle Del Turco

December 16, 2020

When a Coptic Christian in Egypt was accused of insulting Islam on Facebook two weeks ago, a mob swiftly gathered to attack and set fire to the homes of several Christians in the community in retaliation. This horrific incident is just one example of how blasphemy accusations lead to violence against individuals around the world.

Blasphemy laws, which prohibit insulting religion, exist in many countries, and are used to justify violence against those who express beliefs that differ from the majority. As blasphemy laws continue to violate basic human rights around the world, it is time for free countries to take a stronger stand against these laws.

This past summer, a Sharia court in Nigeria sentenced a 13-year-old boy to 10 years in prison on a blasphemy charge. The boy had been accused of using foul language about Allah when quarreling with a friend.

However, it is not just Muslim-dominated countries that retain blasphemy laws. Scotland has been entrenched in political debates this year about whether its blasphemy law ought to be updated to target hate speech. A proposed update to the law would criminalize speaking, publishing, or distributing content thought to be hateful towards minority communities.

It was just two years ago that the European Court of Human Rights refused to overturn the conviction of an Austrian woman charged with blasphemy for allegedly derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed’s life. Even in Western countries that rarely enforce their blasphemy laws, there is no guarantee that such laws will not be used. Ireland and Greece are among a few Western countries to recently repeal their blasphemy laws.

In addition to the social hostilities they often enflame, blasphemy laws are harmful because they allow the government to limit both free speech and religious freedom. When “blasphemy” is legally forbidden, it promotes the idea that some religious believers’ fragile feelings are more important than the ability of other religious believers or non-believers to express their faith.

Yet, current trends indicate governments are tightening their religious restrictions. A study by the Pew Research Center released in November found that government restrictions on religion around the world have reached their highest point in the past 11 years. And at least 70 countries still have blasphemy laws on the books today, according to a recent report by Family Research Council.

Faced with the global scourge of blasphemy laws, what can the U.S. government do?

1. Congress can pass a resolution calling for the repeal of blasphemy laws around the world.

While lacking the force of law, resolutions can still send a strong message that Congress either supports or condemns the behavior of other countries. Opinions expressed by the U.S. government can carry a lot of weight for countries looking to modernize and secure positive relationships with the West. H.Res.512, which passed in the House of Representatives last week, is a good example of a resolution that calls for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws. The Senate can follow up by passing its own version of the resolution.

2. The State Department should utilize its diplomatic efforts to advocate for an end to blasphemy laws in countries that maintain them.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 established mechanisms to incorporate the promotion of religious freedom into American foreign policy. In standing with the United States’ interest in advancing religious freedom and other human rights, American diplomats at all levels who work in countries that have blasphemy laws should raise this issue in discussions with their counterparts.

3. The State Department can prioritize the repeal of blasphemy laws through the Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance it helped launch earlier this year.

The alliance is intended to be what U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has called the “activist club of nations” who are serious about promoting religious freedom as a fundamental human right. This venue ought to be maximized to build a coalition of countries to join in calling for the repeal of blasphemy laws.

As blasphemy laws continue to harm individuals around the globe, free societies should not look the other way. By defending the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and religion, free countries can appropriately leverage their influence to affirm the freedoms they cherish for all people.

China’s Bride Trafficking Problem

by Arielle Del Turco

December 15, 2020

My friend asked me to go work with her in China… I agreed to go with her as long as the work there would be good.” This was the simple way that one unsuspecting Kachin girl from Burma (Myanmar) ended up as a victim of human trafficking and forced marriage in China. Soon after her arrival in China, the friends she came with left her with a Chinese man to live as his wife.

Forced to stay at his house, she was afraid and unsure of where to go for help. Before long, she gave birth to twins. Finally, she determined one day to wake up before her captor and flee to seek help from the authorities in a nearby city. She spent two months in a Chinese jail before being transferred to Burmese authorities who took her back to Burma, where a humanitarian organization provided her with shelter and support.

This brave survivor shared her story last week at a State Department event titled, “Trafficking of Women and Girls in China via Forced and Fraudulent Marriage.” She is just one of many Kachin girls—and girls and women from other countries neighboring China—tricked into crossing the border into China with offers of work or tales of a legitimate marriage, which turns out to be sexual exploitation.

The Kachin ethnic group, like many ethnic minorities in Burma, receive little support from the Burmese government. Insurgencies in the Kachin state are among several across Burma which are collectively referred to as the Burmese civil war, a conflict that has been ongoing for decades and the source of multiple humanitarian crises. Some estimate that more than 90 percent of the Kachin people are Christian—mostly Baptist and Roman Catholic. The ongoing conflict and lack of support from the government makes Kachin girls and women vulnerable to manipulation by traffickers and brokers. In 2019, Human Rights Watch published a heart-wrenching, exhaustive report on the trafficking of Kachin “brides” from Burma to China.

Other countries that surround China also deal with widespread bride trafficking issues, including Pakistan, Vietnam, and North Korea. China’s former “one-child policy,” imposed from 1979 to 2015, along with a cultural preference for sons, has created a skewed male-female ratio and a significant shortage of women. This imbalance fuels human trafficking and prostitution within China.

Bride trafficking in Pakistan earned international attention last year when Pakistani authorities compiled a list of 629 Pakistani women and girls sold as brides to Chinese men and taken to China. The investigation was soon shut down over Pakistani officials’ fear that the inquiry would ire China and threaten Chinese investments into the cash-strapped country.

During the Pakistani investigations, Christian women were found to be particular targets because the pervasive social marginalization of Christian communities makes them easy targets for foreign traffickers. Many Christians in Pakistan are uneducated and impoverished, exacerbating the problem. Christian women from poor households lack the agency in society to protect or advocate for themselves.

Corrupt pastors in Pakistan—abusing their trusted role in the community—have been found to work with Chinese brokers to identify prospective female targets for trafficking and orchestrate fake marriages.

At the State Department event, Saleem Iqbal, a Christian activist who has helped rescue several girls from China, described how brokers, sometimes cooperating with a pastor who receives a cut of the profit, convince their victims to go to China: “The promises that were made were not just that the man is a Christian man who is from China and is just looking for a wife and will provide a good life in China, but also that the [woman’s] family will be taken care of when the woman is taken to China. And since they come from a poor household, they did not want to turn down these offers…”

The cases discussed at the State Department’s event are troubling. As Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Kelley Currie noted, human trafficking may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about China’s many human rights violations, but this significant trend deserves global attention and action.  

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback highlighted the connection between religious freedom issues in Burma, Pakistan, and elsewhere and the issue of human trafficking: “Often religious minorities, not exclusively because they’re religious minorities, but because they’re vulnerable” are targeted, “and it’s incumbent upon us, as the international community, to aggressively push back against both ends of this problem,” which are religious freedom violations and human trafficking.

In many devastating cases, human trafficking and religious freedom violations assist each other. Each of these is a serious human rights issue, and together they create even more tragic scenarios. Activists that work on human trafficking issues and religious freedom issues have a lot to gain by working together, especially when it comes to China.

3 Alarming Developments for Religious Freedom in China This Year

by Arielle Del Turco

December 4, 2020

This week, Family Research Council updated its publication, Religious Freedom in China: The History, Current Challenges, and the Proper Response to a Human Rights Crisis. Just one year after the report was first issued, religious freedom conditions have noticeably worsened.

Bob Fu, President of ChinaAid and Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council, knows well the dangers that the Chinese government can pose to people of faith. As a former pastor of a house church, Fu spent time in a Chinese prison for practicing his faith.

Concerning the recent uptick in persecution in the last several years, Fu said, “Xi Jinping has launched a war against faith. Any faith or religion independent of its absolute total control in China is perceived as a threat to the existence of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. Religious persecution has reached to the worst level since Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1960s.”

Here are three ways that things have gotten worse for religious believers in China in 2020:

1. The Chinese government assaulted freedoms in Hong Kong.

One of the most disturbing provocations of the Chinese government over the last year was its breach of an agreement with the British government in which it promised to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy and Western-style liberties for 50 years following the city’s return to China in 1997. By imposing a new national security law onto Hong Kong in June, the Chinese government endangered religious freedom in several ways.

The new law enables the government to crack down on offenses that are seen to undermine its authority. But in China, anything the government deems can be considered an act against the state. In mainland China, protestant pastor Wang Yi was sentenced to nine years in prison for “subversion of state power” because he pastored a well-known house church and spoke out against the government’s oppressive policies—hardly behavior worthy of a national security-related charge.

Now, many Hong Kongers fear a similar fate might befall them. Several prominent Christian pro-democracy activists have already been arrested under the new law. Just this week, young pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow were sentenced to 13 months and 10 months in prison, respectively, for charges related to participating in unauthorized protests.

The national security law is devastating for those in Hong Kong who wish to live out their faith and express their opinions freely.

2. Uyghur Muslims are being forcibly sterilized in Xinjiang.

New details have emerged this year about the genocidal nature of China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. While the world has now come to know about the estimated one million Uyghurs detained in “re-education” camps and often “graduated” to forced labor camps, the details of the situation in Xinjiang grow more horrific.

Attempting to cut the birth rates of the minority Uyghur population, local officials have required pregnancy tests, forced sterilizations, and at times forced abortions, on hundreds of thousands of women. The brutal campaign has proven successful. Birth rates in the largely Uyghur areas of Hotan and Kashgar decreased by more than 60 percent from 2015 to 2018.

One Uyghur hospital worker described the forced abortions she witnessed, saying:

The husbands were not allowed inside. They take in the women, who are always crying. Afterwards, they just threw the fetus in a plastic bag like it was trash. One mother begged to die after her 7-month-old baby was killed. It took three more days to give birth. It was a proper baby. She asked if they could bury it, but the doctors would not give it to the family.

The many tragedies inflicted upon Uyghur women and families are difficult to comprehend. The capacity for cruelty by the Chinese Communist Party is on display in Xinjiang like no place else.

3. Catholics continue to be targeted, despite the Vatican agreement.

In October, the Vatican renewed its agreement with the Chinese government which is thought to give the Chinese government a role in nominating bishops. Although the Vatican’s hope is to unite the long-divided Chinese Catholic church, things have not improved for Catholics since the initial agreement in 2018.

In September, a 46-year-old priest in the Fujian province was reportedly tortured by Chinese authorities for refusing to join the state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. After China lifted its COVID-19 lockdown this summer, reports surfaced that state-sanctioned Catholic churches were directed that Mass could only resume if they preached “patriotism,” which is code for loyalty to the Party.

Catholic human rights activist Nina Shea points to a litany of ways in which the China-Vatican agreement has failed to produce positive results for the faithful in China.

Yet, despite the government’s attempt to intimidate, harass, imprison, and oppress believers, religious belief is not fading in China. Throughout the often-brutal history of its rule, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to eradicate religion before to no avail. As Bob Fu says, “Xi Jinping and the CCP should know from history that this war against religion, in particular against true Christian faith, is destined to fail miserably.”

To learn more about the dire religious freedom violations happening in China today, read FRC’s publication, Religious Freedom in China.

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