Author archives: Tyler Watt

China Must Stop Sending North Korean Defectors Back into Grave Danger

by Arielle Del Turco , Tyler Watt

September 29, 2021

North Korea is infamous for having one of the worst human rights records on earth. In recognition of this fact, some human rights advocates dubbed September 24, 2021, as “Save North Korean Refugees Day.”

Crossing the border into China is the only option for most North Koreans trying to escape from North Korea. Yet, when they arrive in China, they face a whole new set of dangers. Most North Korean defectors are women, and most are sold into human trafficking once they arrive in China, often as brides for Chinese men.

Defectors who are caught by Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea face an even worse fate, as the North Korean regime brutally punishes repatriated defectors. North Korean Freedom Coalition Chair Suzanne Scholte says that “certain torture, imprisonment and potential death” await the defectors upon their forced return to North Korea.

One Christian North Korean defector, Ji Hyeona, has shared her harrowing story of enduring a forced abortion in a North Korean labor camp after she was repatriated (the regime does not recognize half-Chinese children). She said:

Every night, I heard the screams of women going through forced abortions in the prison camp.

I, too, could not avoid this fate, as I was three months pregnant with a half-Chinese, half-Korean baby in my womb.

Where they placed me was not a hospital bed, but it was a desk. And a fearful-looking doctor forcibly pried open my legs and inserted forceps and started killing my baby in my womb by cutting up and shredding my baby.

This is the level of cruelty experienced by repatriated defectors.

The threat posed to religious freedom by these brutal repatriations should not be ignored. Upon their return to North Korea, one of the first questions defectors are asked by authorities is if they met any Christian missionaries. Responding in the affirmative would guarantee time in a labor camp or even a death sentence.

Many North Korean defectors encounter Christianity for the first time while in China, either by South Korean missionaries ministering to them or by seeking help from Chinese churches. For newly converted Christians, returning to North Korea is all the more dangerous. The North Korean regime views religion of any sort as a threat to the Kim regime’s stranglehold on the minds of its citizens—a threat they will brutally suppress.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has become even more isolated and repressive. The U.S. State Department recently issued a statement condemning the North Korean regime for the “increasingly draconian measures [it] has taken, including shoot-to-kill orders at the North Korea-China border, to tighten control of its people under the guise of fighting COVID-19.” With devastating conditions such as these, it is all the more important that China stop repatriating North Korean defectors.

North Korea’s human rights violations, especially those against repatriated defectors, are well-documented. China is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which states that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. With North Korea’s long history of human rights violations, it is wrong for China to repatriate defectors back to North Korea. Instead, Beijing should cooperate with the South Korean government to help bring defectors to South Korea, a safe country that is ready and willing to take them.

Letters sent to President Xi Jinping and Chinese ambassadors have called upon the Chinese government to uphold the human rights of the defectors and pursue a plan to resettle to willing countries, especially South Korea which offers defectors automatic citizenship. Activists are delivering appeals for a change in policy at more than a dozen Chinese embassies located around the world.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic caused a brief pause in China’s repatriation of defectors, they have since resumed, placing thousands of North Korean defectors currently in China at risk. Now more than ever, the Chinese government should be held accountable for sending defectors back to certain punishment in North Korea.

IRF 101: Perils for Christians in India

by Arielle Del Turco , Tyler Watt

September 7, 2021

This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on TurkeyPakistanSri LankaVietnamUzbekistan, and Nigeria. 

In May 2021, a mob of radical Hindus attacked Pastor Ramesh Bumbariya’s family after they refused to renounce their Christian faith. One of the armed assailants shot Bhima Bumbariya, the father of Pastor Bumbariya, killing him. Pastor Bumbariya and two other members of his family were hospitalized.

Even in the face of his father’s death, Pastor Bumbariya thanked God for His faithfulness. He was comforted by his conviction that God had a plan for his life to continue ministering to his community.

As Hindu nationalism continues to surge in India, the violence committed against this Christian family is just one example among hundreds. The violence stems from social hostility to religious minorities and state policies that reinforce such sentiments—making it more difficult for religious minorities to thrive in the Hindu-dominated state.

Mob Violence against Christians and Others

Christians in India number in the tens of millions but still only comprise just over two percent of the country’s population. Many Indian Christians come from historically lower castes in society, which can make them even more vulnerable to discrimination or social pressure. As the Evangelical Fellowship of India reported, the first half of 2021 saw at least 145 acts of violence perpetrated against Christians. These included several religiously motivated murders. These acts are all part of a larger effort to “purify” India of non-Hindu influences.

Some members of the Hindu majority feel threatened by the presence of Christians, especially when Hindus convert to Christianity. Some Hindus have led social movements to “reconvert” Indians back to Hinduism, even if the potential reconverts or their families were never adherents to Hinduism in the first place. These ceremonies are oftentimes forced or coerced.

Christians are not the only minority facing discrimination and threats because of their religion. More than 30 Muslims were killed in mob violence in New Delhi in 2020, following the passage of a law that created easier pathways to citizenship for specifically non-Muslim immigrants. The police were later found to be complicit in allowing these acts of violence to take place.

Several states in India have passed the “Freedom of Religion Act,” an ironically titled piece of legislation that makes it difficult or illegal for individuals to convert to their spouse’s faith at the time of marriage. Although proponents of the ban assert that a ban on this form of conversion protects women entering arranged or coerced unions, the result of the ban seems to disproportionately affect religious minorities. 

Anti-Conversion Laws Used to Control Faith

As previously documented by FRC, several Indian states have legislation restricting religious conversion. Odisha (formerly Orissa), Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand prohibit religious conversion by use of “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means” and “require district authorities be informed of any intended conversion one month in advance.” Punishment varies by state, but the maximum is imprisonment for a term of three years and/or a fine of 50,000 rupees ($700). Some states require “individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate in a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government.”

Such anti-conversion laws prohibit people from converting to another religion, and governments utilize them to maintain a majority of the population within their preferred religion. They are often framed as if they are protecting people from being tricked or “induced” into changing their faith. Yet, they often discourage people from sharing their faith at all.

Activities that seek to convert people in these states must be reported to local authorities weeks in advance. As advocacy organizations like International Christian Concern have reported, the anti-conversion laws in place throughout India are one-sided, targeting religious minorities while leaving members of the Hindu majority unaffected.

Social Hostility and the Dangers of Hindu Nationalism

A growing political agenda pushed by Hindu nationalist political parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sometimes inspires violence against Christians and Muslims. For example, this summer, members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) rallied in Chitrakoot (a town held as a holy site in Hinduism) and developed a new party slogan: “Chadar aur Father Mukt Bharat,” which translates to: “An India Liberated of Muslims and Christians.”

Whether the violence is directed toward Muslims, Christians, or any other religious minority, the outcome is the same: the social position of the targeted group is weakened. Religious minorities feel less comfortable meeting to worship, setting up new social services like schools and clinics, and even walking in the streets of their home cities and villages. An apathetic government allows persecution to continue, especially in far-flung rural areas far from the areas that experience greater influence from Western values of tolerance and religious pluralism. 

India’s status as a democracy and a strategic ally of the United States should not prevent us from speaking out in defense of vulnerable Indian believers experiencing persecution. Exposing the truth and praying for the protection of all downtrodden people are the first steps toward fostering a better future for believers in India.

Explainer: What the Taliban Takeover Means for Afghan Believers

by Arielle Del Turco , Tyler Watt

August 19, 2021

Open Doors, a ministry that supports persecuted Christians around the world, considers Afghanistan to be only slightly less hostile to Christianity than North Korea. Now, following the Taliban takeover, the Christian community in Afghanistan (estimated to be comprised of a few thousand believers) is under heightened pressure. The last few priests remaining in the country are hoping to flee, and underground Christians are fearing their own deaths.

Even before the Taliban consolidated control over the country, religious freedom was basically non-existent in Afghanistan. As the world’s attention has turned to Afghanistan, we must remember the plight of some of the most vulnerable in Afghan society. 

What Is the Recent History of Christianity in Afghanistan?

Christianity has always been a minority religion in Afghanistan, tolerated to varying degrees throughout the country’s history. Following the Taliban’s consolidation of power in 1996, most religious minorities fled the country. Today, hardly any religious minorities remain—the population is 99.7 Muslim. 

Under the Taliban’s brutal rule from 1996-2001, a strict form of Sharia law was imposed, and brutally so. Anyone caught violating the law would be publicly beaten, stoned to death, or executed. 

The Taliban infamously carried out public executions of men and women in Kabul’s soccer stadium, Ghazi Stadium. The events that took place there traumatized a generation, with some thinking that the souls of innocent victims roam the area at night.

Even after the Taliban was ousted in 2001 and a coalition-backed government was instituted, the government was known to deal swiftly with Afghans who converted from Islam to Christianity. These new believers would be asked to recant. If they refused, they would be expelled from the country, often to India. In 2006, Abdul Rahman was tried in court for converting to Christianity 16 years prior, facing the death penalty. 

The only legal church in the country is a Roman Catholic mission located within the Italian Embassy. Yet, even this church was intended to serve only Catholic foreigners temporarily staying in Afghanistan rather than to serve an Afghan Catholic community.

What Is Happening to Christians in Afghanistan Today? 

Today, almost all Christians in Afghanistan come from a Muslim background. A mostly young community that worships in underground house churches, they are forced to hide their faith. For many, even their own families do not know they are Christian. Leaving the Islamic faith is thought to be shameful, and being known to be a Christian can be a very dangerous thing. 

Christians now fear that the Taliban will hunt them down and ultimately kill them. Unfortunately, there are already reports that these fears are valid. One Christian leader told International Christian Concern, “Some known Christians are already receiving threatening phone calls… In these phone calls, unknown people say, ‘We are coming for you.’” 

American Christians are hearing reports from contacts in Afghanistan that many believers feel hopeless. One said, “most expect to meet Jesus face to face in the next two weeks.” 

Christians aren’t the only religious minority fearing for their future—very small communities of Sikhs, Hindus, and Shia Muslims are endangered by the Taliban’s takeover as well. Notably, only one sole Jew remains in Afghanistan—even though the Taliban calls him an “infidel,” he’s choosing to stay to look after the country’s only synagogue. 

What’s Next?

The Taliban has tried to calm international outrage by promising a blanket amnesty. But is today’s Taliban really all that different? They have the same oppressive ideological beliefs, and new images of wounded women and bloodied children outside of the Kabul airport demonstrates that the Taliban of the present is just as bad as it always was.

One desperate Catholic family in Afghanistan is pleading to the pope for help. The family said “the Taliban are going door to door” asking if any Christians live there or if any Christians are known to be in the community.

New technology that wasn’t available under the Taliban’s previous rule also poses new risks to Afghans. According to one report by a Christian media group that broadcasts into the Middle East, Taliban fighters are demanding to see people’s phones, looking for Bible apps.

It won’t be worse in the level of persecution, but I think it will be worse in terms of the numbers because there are more Christians in Afghanistan than there were 20 years ago,” said Todd Nettleton from Voice of the Martyrs. “We know there are followers of Jesus Christ in every single province of Afghanistan.”

Barnabite Fr. Giovanni Scalese, who served at the country’s lone Catholic mission, pleaded in an interview with Vatican Radio earlier this month, “Pray… pray, pray, pray, for Afghanistan!” May we all answer this call.

IRF 101: Ongoing Terror Against Christians in Nigeria

by Arielle Del Turco , Tyler Watt

August 16, 2021

This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on TurkeyPakistanSri LankaVietnam, and Uzbekistan.

Varied Threats to Religious Freedom

Leah Sharibu was 14 years old when she and more than 100 other students from Dapchi Girls’ Science and Technical College were abducted by Boko Haram extremists. After months of captivity, all the surviving girls were freed except for Sharibu. The reason why she was kept captive was clear: she had refused to convert to Islam from Christianity. Three years later, she remains a captive Christian, refusing to convert and risking death each and every day at the hands of Islamist terrorists.

Nigeria is one of the fastest-growing nations in the world in terms of population and GDP. However, its distinction as a regional powerhouse is darkened by the brutal reality that exists for the millions of Christians living as minorities in the country. An openness to Sharia law—which permeates the judicial systems in several of Nigeria’s states—and the frequent threat of Islamist terror attacks and kidnappings make the country an especially threatening environment for Christians.

Bring Back Our Girls: The Rise and Fall of International Attention

Nigerian Christians have been targeted and murdered for their faith. But in recent years, terrorism and brutality in the form of kidnapping and sexual violence caused the eyes of the world to focus on Nigeria to an extent they hadn’t before. In April 2014, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok, in the northeast part of the country. These girls were forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men, primarily Boko Haram militants. To this day, more than 100 of the Chibok girls have not been freed.

Joy Bishara was one of the Chibok girls. She was one of the lucky ones who escaped captivity soon after capture, risking her life by jumping off the truck she was abducted in and running for safety until her bleeding feet couldn’t run anymore. Knowing the fate she might have faced at the hands of the terrorists, she chose the possibility of death over a life of being battered and abused in captivity. Bishara recently told her story at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C.

Increasing Violence

The news of the schoolgirl kidnappings was much of the world’s first exposure to the grim reality facing persecuted Christians in Nigeria. Yet, this crucial moment was too briefly part of the international consciousness, and major steps still need to be taken to address the ongoing crisis. Given the world’s fading attention and general inaction, it comes as no surprise that brazen militants have continued their acts of terror in recent days. More than 140 schoolchildren were kidnapped in July 2021 from their school in Kaduna state, representing a share of the more than 1,000 kidnappings that have occurred in the nation since December 2020. Parents are scared to send their children to school, fearing for their safety. This has set back education for young boys and girls alike.

The kidnappings take place amid the backdrop of larger violence against Christians from Jihadi terrorists and Fulani militants. By one estimate, 3,462 Christians were killed in Nigeria in the first half of this year. The State Department last year officially labeled Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) on religious freedom. This is obviously a well-deserved title—more Christians are killed due to their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Unfortunately, current Nigerian leaders have shown little concern for this unfolding crisis. Secretary of State Blinken should focus his efforts on keeping pressure on Nigerian leaders to protect its own people from rampant attacks.

An Uncertain Future

The violence in Nigeria that captivated the public eye in 2014 has not ceased, nor should the attention we pay to this key part of the world. No one should live in fear of attack because of their religious identity. Yet, in Nigeria, millions live with this fear every day. The U.S. State Department should make better use of their diplomatic tools to promote basic human rights for suffering Nigerians.

IRF 101: Slow Progress Towards Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan

by Tyler Watt , Ben Householder

June 23, 2021

This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on Turkey, PakistanSri Lanka, and Vietnam.

Aimurat Khayburahmanov, a Christian Uzbekistani, was arrested in 2008 for holding prayer meetings in his home, in violation of Uzbekistan’s oppressive laws forbidding religious gatherings held outside of registered churches and worship sites. He was charged with participation in an “extremist” religious group, and faced up to 15 years imprisonment.

Khayburahmanov was jailed for three months, and later questioned by the authorities. They pressured him to sign a statement saying that he would neither meet with other Christians nor possess Christian literature. This gross violation of Khayburahmanov’s rights is just one example of the persecution that has long been carried out in Uzbekistan.

The former Soviet state of Uzbekistan exists in a region of the globe that elicits much political attention, and yet, Uzbekistan itself is far from the minds of most Americans. The nation’s powerful executive branch ensures that public policy reflects the personal interests of the president, with disastrous consequences to religious liberty. Though Uzbekistan has moved towards reform in recent years, the religious liberty of its citizens is still dangerously restricted.

Religious Groups Under Pressure

An estimated 2 percent of Uzbekistanis are Christians, including Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. As such a small minority, they are extremely vulnerable to pressure from the government. Members of non-Muslim religious minorities face intense social pressure to refrain from evangelism, thus preventing them from expanding their faith communities.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are particularly targeted, as their religious beliefs prohibit them from fulfilling Uzbekistan’s compulsory military service requirement. Several have been arrested and sentenced to prison because of their beliefs in recent decades, although authorities seem to be relaxing their policy for conscientious objectors. Nonetheless, Jehovah’s Witnesses are only allowed to gather in one congregation, in one city. All other assemblies are considered unlawful.

Road to Religious Recognition

Nascent religious groups face an upward fight in pushing for recognition by the government. Though the government and the state are officially secular, and all faiths are equal under the law, individuals are prohibited from gathering for religious reasons if their faith community is not registered. This affects thousands of Uzbekistanis. Shia Muslims, which make up 1 percent of Uzbekistan’s population, are not officially recognized and have no sanctioned mosque to meet in. The same is true for several protestant denominations and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who struggle to find an accessible place to practice their faith.

Christ reminds us in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” This verse holds equally true today, reminding us that Christians thrive in a faith community where they can worship and pray together. The importance of corporate worship is not lost on Muslims and Jews, who strongly desire to express their faiths in in mosques and synagogues, and who also fall victim to Uzbekistan’s restrictive policies.

Restrictions on Muslims

Although Uzbekistanis are predominantly Muslim, with more than three-quarters of the country’s population following Islam, the secular government has nonetheless adopted and enforced policies that are negatively impactful to devout Muslims. Women are forbidden from wearing the hijab publicly, and Muslim men are not allowed to grow their beards long as is their religious custom. Though these laws are not frequently enforced, their presence “on the books” is a source of concern.

One imam who petitioned the new regime to overturn this longstanding rule was fired from his job in 2018, as a direct result of his opposition to the status quo. Eight Muslim bloggers who criticized Uzbekistan’s oppressive policies and called for a less secularized society were imprisoned for their views that same year.

Improving Imperfection?

Uzbekistan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” or as a country on the “Special Watch List” by the U.S. State Department since 2006, but recent developments have moved the country in a positive direction. Following the death of longtime autocrat President Slam Karimov in 2016, the new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has taken steps toward liberalizing the nation’s oppressive policies. A government blacklist that included 17,000 names of “religious extremists” was reduced to about 1,000 names. Though the government raided more than 350 unregistered places of worship in 2017-18, no raids were reported in 2019, indicating a shift away from strict enforcement of the more extreme policies.

In December 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Uzbekistan would be removed from the Special Watch List of countries that threaten religious liberties. However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Uzbekistan be added back onto the list.

Though the U.S. State Department lauded the “real progress” made by Uzbekistan in addressing their religious freedom violations, there is much work to be done before the situation there is resolved, and freedom is guaranteed to all believers.

Tyler Watt is an intern with the Center for Religious Liberty in FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department. Ben Householder is an intern in State and Local Affairs with FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department.

Gao Zhisheng: Fighting for Human Rights, Against All Odds

by Tyler Watt

June 10, 2021

China’s flagrant disregard for human rights is exemplified by the story of Gao Zhisheng, a Christian lawyer who is recognized as one of the finest human rights defenders in the country.

Background

Gao, a coal miner-turned-lawyer, was known as one of the 10 best lawyers in China in a 2001 report by the Chinese Ministry of Justice. Though he had much to gain from aligning himself closely with the regime for his material and familial benefit, Gao chose instead to support the downtrodden in society. After defending a Christian pastor who was arrested for possessing Bibles, Gao read the Bible. Though uncertain at first, he became a Christian himself and leaned on the Bible for strength as the government began to punish him for his human rights work.

Gao first faced persecution in the form of threatening phone calls from the Communist government in 2005, in part because of his work in litigating on behalf of members of oppressed Falun Gong practitioners. Falun Gong is spiritual discipline that is officially banned in China, and its adherents are severely repressed. The Chinese Embassy provides the spurious claim that the group was targeted in order “[t]o maintain social stability and protect people’s life and property.” The Embassy further adds that practitioners of Falun Gong would be subject to labor camps for “transformation,” on the charge of participating in illegal demonstrations by meditating in accordance with their faith.

To repress individual religious expression, China denounces groups whose teachings fail to align with state communism as “cults,” as they did with the Falun Gong. In the case of more mainstream faiths like Christianity, the heavy hand of the regime is used to monitor the community of believers and suppress elements of the faith that might weaken the position of the state. In extreme cases, believers are imprisoned or tortured if they hold underground services or refuse to bend their faith to suit the state’s purposes. Most disturbingly, there is strong evidence that China has committed crimes against humanity by forcibly harvesting the organs of Falun Gong adherents, as well Uyghurs and other religious minorities.

Oppression as a Dissenter

As a result of several statements that Gao made against the Chinese regime’s treatment of the Falun Gong practitioners, and due to his work litigating on their behalf, he was kidnapped in 2006. While in custody, Gao underwent torture, and was beaten in the face with an electric baton. He suffered through three years in solitary confinement, and shortly after his first release in 2009, he was promptly reimprisoned.

In 2014, after being imprisoned for the better part of a decade, Gao was reported as being emaciated and having lost several teeth. He was released from prison, and placed under house arrest. After this period of house arrest, he was reported as having gone missing. There have been no updates concerning his whereabouts or even if he is alive since 2018.

A Family’s Struggles

Gao’s family hopes that their husband and father is alive and well, but they know the reality of China’s silence on his wellbeing. They repeatedly petitioned the Chinese government for his whereabouts and protest outside the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, to no avail.

His wife, Geng He, and his daughter, Grace Gao (Geng), supported him in his mission, though they are gravely concerned about his treatment and his fate as a result of his faith and care for human rights. Geng He has stated that she intends to use the Chinese Consulate as her husband’s cenotaph, should the Chinese Government fail to prove he is alive or hand over his remains to the family.

Grace Gao has followed in her father’s footsteps and has spoken extensively of the pride she has in her father and the hopes she maintains that her family will one day be reunited.

What We Can Do

Fortunately, Gao’s case is on the radar of many human rights organizations. The American Bar Association awarded him the Human Rights Lawyer Award in 2010 and co-published a memoir recounting the trauma he faced while incarcerated in 2017. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize on two separate occasions in 2008 and 2010. This kind of international attention is particularly helpful, as it reminds the public of his plight and pressures the Chinese government to release him or exercise transparency with regards to his present status.

As believers, we should fervently pray for Gao Zhisheng’s health and safe release, and for his faith in Christ amidst intense trials. Those who care about human rights should educate themselves and others about the injustices that are perpetrated all around the globe against people of all faiths, including in China.

IRF 101: Living Under the Oppressive Heel of Communist Vietnam

by Tyler Watt

June 1, 2021

This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Pakistan.

In 2001, 60 police officers stormed into a Catholic parish to arrest Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Vietnamese priest, for the ridiculous charge of “damaging the Government’s unity policy,” as reported  by Freedom Now. Father Ly was not a radical. He merely raised his voice in opposition to a proposed U.S.-Vietnam trade deal, considering Vietnam’s human rights record.

After being imprisoned following his arrest for nearly four years, Father Ly was released, only to be arrested again in 2007 while he was organizing efforts to boycott an election. Since then, he has suffered multiple strokes, a brain tumor, a heart attack, and partial paralysis. Nonetheless, Father Ly regularly writes articles to encourage his countrymen in their faith. Like Job of the Old Testament, he continues to persevere in his faith no matter what oppression or illness he may face.

Tragically, Father Ly’s story is not unique. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam remains a single-party Communist state, and it continues in the leftist vein of Marx in its preference for de facto state atheism, oftentimes relegating the 24 million religious Vietnamese people to a secondary social plane. Religious groups are often the victim of government policies that openly discriminate against believers and build barriers to prevent them from practicing their faith.

Constitutional Promises Falling Short

Though Article 24 of the Constitution of Vietnam protects the right to practice or abstain from religion and holds all religions equal before the law, this policy truly exists only on paper. Religious groups are required to register with a government body before they can legally assemble and worship. According to a 2018 U.S. State Department report, the government of Vietnam may restrict religious practices in the interest of “national security” or “social unity.” These policies have been roundly criticized by religious leaders in the country as well as the non-governmental Interfaith Council of Vietnam.

Less than 40 denominations within 15 religions are sanctioned by the state; all others are not permitted to organize publicly. Red tape and pressure from the government make it difficult to worship in denominations not recognized by the government.

Some groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, are banned entirely. Buddhist groups are required to affiliate with the state-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, and some Buddhist sects like the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam were banned, and their members imprisoned or otherwise persecuted.

Spreading the Written Word

Key to the religious life of so many Christians is the Holy Bible, the Word given to us by God which is so essential to church services and individual study. In Vietnam, the publishing of all materials is heavily regulated by the state, and all publishers must acquire approval from the government and certain licenses to print books and other media. Beyond this, only certain publishers can produce religious works, preventing the written gospel from being spread any further than what the government permits.

Overlapping Oppression: Targeting Ethnoreligious Minorities

The Hmong people, an ethnic minority with a population of around one million, are disproportionately followers of Christ: about 300,000 Hmong are Protestants, with a smaller number following Roman Catholicism. These numbers have shifted in the past few decades. In the days following the Vietnam War, thousands of Hmong were evacuated from Vietnam and neighboring Laos with the assistance of Catholic and Protestant (particularly Lutheran) charities. Those that remain to this day face pressures from the government and the majority Kinh (Viet) population to not seek converts or express their faith openly.

The Christian Hmongs’ faith is used as justification for the state to suppress them, on the grounds that it dilutes their allegiance to the government. To alienate the Hmong even further, the state prevents them from receiving government identification materials, ensuring that they cannot start businesses or open bank accounts. Applications to register Hmong churches are regularly denied, forcing Hmong Christians to worship in underground churches, placing them at risk of arrest or violence.

Hope in an Uncertain Future

Despite the difficulties faced by Vietnamese Christians and other religious minorities, there is hope for the future. The religious groups (Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and others) coexist fairly peacefully, allowing for a degree of interreligious cooperation to occur. American and European lawmakers have denounced human rights violations in Vietnam, and were vocal in their discontent with Father Ly’s imprisonments. The attention devoted to Vietnam in the past half century makes it a better starting point than many other countries to fight religious persecution.

That said, there is ample room for us as individual Christians—both lay and clergy—to act. We must act with the courage that Father Ly possesses to denounce oppressive states where they exist and encourage our lawmakers to keep the pressure on this communist state, lest we forget their countless acts of violence and oppression. The causeless imprisonment and persecution of so many faithful Christians must be central in our prayers and chief in the hearts of our legislators as our country hopes for a free Vietnam and grapples with ongoing concerns about their dubious human rights record.

IRF 101: Sri Lanka’s Hidden Persecution of Christians

by Tyler Watt

May 20, 2021

This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on Turkey and Pakistan.

In February 2020, a mob in Ihala Yakkura led by Buddhist monks attacked and injured a Christian minister, his wife, and his son in yet another tragic episode of the persecution of Christians in Sri Lanka. The perpetrators of the attack were never tried or punished. These Christians and so many others live in fear today, downtrodden by the threat of mob violence, terrorism, and a government bent on making conversion illegal in many circumstances.

One can view this incident as part of a larger series of intimidation and outright violence against Christians in a region of the world where the dominant religion is too often stereotyped to be wholly peaceful.

Repression in Context

Sri Lanka, a Southeast Asian nation with a population of over 20 million, is home to more than one million Christians, primarily Roman Catholics. They represent a sizable minority in a primarily Buddhist state. Sri Lanka is officially a Buddhist country, according to their constitution. The promotion of a particular religion as official doctrine has wide-ranging detrimental effects on those who place their faith in a religion not endorsed by the state.

For a country exposed to the gospel ever since the evangelizing efforts of St. Thomas in the first century, the repression of Christ’s followers here must be a point of concern for all Christians.

Terrorism Targeting Christians

The worst example of Christian persecution in Sri Lanka was a series of bombings that took place in three separate churches and three hotels on Easter Sunday in 2019. These attacks killed 269 people (mostly Christians) and injured hundreds more, marking one of the deadliest acts of Islamic terror in recent memory. Later reports suggest that the plot to commit these acts of terror may have been known by Sri Lankan officials, who did not act proactively to protect the threatened Christian minority.

Suppression of Christianity in Education

Anti-Christian sentiment in Sri Lanka experienced a previous peak in 1960, when the state took over all Christian parochial schools and forbade Christian missionaries from promoting discipleship within the nation. At present, Christ-centered schooling does not enjoy the privileges that larger religious traditions are afforded. As a subject, Christianity is often not taught in religious units in state-run public schools, ensuring that Christian students are only exposed to Buddhist or Hindu traditions and rituals, depending on what region they are in.

A UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion called for reform of the Sri Lankan educational system in 2019, as the system tied students too strongly to the religion of their family, preventing the vast majority of students from learning about different faiths.

Impediments to Conversion

In Sri Lanka, converts to Christianity often face intense pressure from their families and social circles after they join the faith. The dogmatic Buddhist government is presently pursuing a variety of policies that will make it harder to become and stay a Christian in Sri Lanka. The government frames some forms of religious conversion to be “unethical conversions” that are the result of unjust pressures from outside forces. The vagueness of this language allows for the deliberate targeting of any person, group, or congregation that seeks to make disciples of non-Christians. Both Christians and non-Christians have made their opposition clear to these discriminatory laws and practices.

Christians in Sri Lanka experience levels of oppression like those living in states in the Middle East and North Africa, though the popular perceptions of the Buddhist majority often impede these issues from coming to light among Christians living abroad. They are a true minority, existing in a country where religious hostilities are fueled and encouraged by the government and by many in the Buddhist majority. Strong support and prayers are needed to help the Christians in this country in the very real struggle to praise Jesus Christ and uphold His Great Commission to make disciples of all nations.

Tyler Watt is an intern with the Center for Religious Liberty in FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department.

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