Category archives: Religious Liberty

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.

Brutal Attack on Indonesian Christians Stirs Renewed Fears of Persecution

by Lela Gilbert

December 2, 2020

On Friday, November 27, a jihadi attack took place against Christians in Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. This vicious attack resulted in the mutilation and death of four members of the local Salvation Army, including at least one beheading, along with the torching of several homes and a Christian house of worship.

Asia News reported,

Four members of the same Christian family have been found murdered, some of them beheaded. All four belonged to the Protestant Church of Salvation (Salvation Army). Their dismembered bodies were found yesterday, Central Sulawesi police reported today. The murder took place in the village of Lenowu, Lemban Tongoa district, Sigi.

This attack—which was preceded by a period of relative calm—has stirred up horrifying memories of similar brutalities in the same region beginning more than a decade ago.

On New Year’s Eve 2003, a bomb exploded at a Christian-area market in Palu, Central Sulawesi, killing eight people and injuring 56. That May, another bombing in the predominantly Christian village of Tentena, Sulawesi left 22 dead and at least 74 injured.

Months later, the Associated Press reported the beheadings of three Christian teenagers in October. Six men attacked four girls—Theresia Morangke, 15, Alfita  Poliwo, 17, Yarni Sambue, 15, and Noviana Malewa, 15—early in the morning as they walked to a Christian school in the Poso district. The first three girls were beheaded; Noviana Malewa received serious injuries to her face and neck but survived the attack.

The murdered girls’ heads were wrapped in black plastic bags. One was found on the steps of a Kasiguncu village church. The other two were left at a nearby police station. One of the bags contained a note, some of which read, “We will murder 100 more Christian teenagers and their heads will be presented as presents.”

In 2006, three Indonesian Catholics were executed by firing squad in Palu, Sulawesi having been found guilty of incitement to murder during rioting. At the time, Amnesty International responded, “Such murders approved by the State are even more unacceptable when there are, as in this case, serious doubts about the fairness of the trials.”

Indonesia’s population is 90 percent Muslim. But in recent years there have been largely successful efforts by Indonesia’s government to enforce religious freedom. Other attacks have happened in various Indonesian cities over the years, but the region of Sulawesi has been a particular hotspot of Islamist terror.

Sadly, this recent attack on Christians has renewed countrywide concerns. Central Sulawesi police have affirmed finding the four victims’ dismembered bodies, but so far the identity of the killers remains in question.

According to BBC, “The Salvation Army confirmed the killing of its members in a ‘savage attack’ in a statement last week. Our hearts go out to our people who have been victims of evil, and to the families of those whose faith have caused such harm.”

In a report from Reuters,

Indonesian President Joko Widodo condemned the brutal murder by suspected Islamist militants as “beyond the limits of humanity,” as the military chief prepared to deploy special forces to join the hunt for the killers. In a video address, the president said the attack on Friday in a region riven by bloody, sectarian conflict in the past was designed to drive a wedge among the population in the world’s biggest majority-Muslim nation.” That gross act had the purpose of provoking and terrorizing the people. They wanted to destroy the unity and brotherhood of our people,” he said. “We need to stay united in the fight against terrorism.”

I spoke to my friend and colleague Paul Marshall, a Senior Fellow in Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute and a scholar who focuses on Indonesia. He has spent much time there, over many decades. I asked him about these recent concerns regarding religious freedom, and the situation specifically in Sulawesi. He explained,

The dominant forms of Islam in Indonesia continue to be moderate and tolerant. But there are threats from more radical groups. Only one of Indonesia’s 34 provinces (states), Aceh, is governed by Sharia law but some other counties and villages are restrictive according to Islamic standards.

In Indonesia, there are also outright terrorist groups, some affiliated with ISIS, that have carried out sporadic violent attacks throughout the country, although they tend to be scattered and weak. Perhaps more ominous is the return from Saudi Arabia on November 10 of  Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, the founder of the Islamic Defenders Front, a radical militia. His reappearance has now emboldened more radical elements.

According to current reports on the recent violence, the Indonesia government has indeed pulled in military special forces to supplement police anti-terrorism units in the hunt for the Sulawesi terrorists, who are believed to be hiding in a remote area. Some locals have claimed to have seen and recognized the killers.

Thus far, however, there have been no arrests.

How Blasphemy Laws Violate Religious Freedom

by Rachel Nicole

November 23, 2020

What do an Austrian woman, an Indonesian Buddhist, and a Pakistani couple all have in common? In the past year, all of them were taken to court and found guilty of blasphemy laws in their respective countries.

According to Family Research Council’s newly updated publication, Criminalizing Conscience: The Status of Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Anti-conversion Laws Around the World: “Blasphemy laws generally prohibit insults to religion… in many Muslim-majority countries, they are often abused when allegations of blasphemy are made against religious minorities—often with no evidence—to settle unrelated disputes and vendettas.”

In 2018, an Austrian woman offered two seminars on Islam. She presented facts about the Prophet Mohammed’s life, including his marriage to an underage child. Soon after, she was convicted of blasphemy due to her “derogatory” remarks. The European Court of Human Rights refused to overturn the conviction, deferring to the Austrian courts’ judgment that her actions were “capable of arousing justified indignation.” However, even humanists agree that the case sets a bad precedent for Europe.

Indonesia has recently made great strides toward becoming a moderate Muslim nation. But blasphemy laws remain a problem. In 2018, a Buddhist woman was convicted of blasphemy after asking a nearby mosque to lower the volume of its speakers broadcasting the call to prayer. The Indonesian Supreme Court rejected her appeal in April 2019. She was paroled one month later.

In a particularly extreme case, an illiterate Pakistani couple, Shagufta and Shafqat, were arrested after a Muslim cleric claimed he had received a blasphemous text message from Shagufta’s phone. Authorities charged both Shagufta and Shafqat with “insulting the Qur’an” and “insulting the Prophet.” These crimes are punishable by life imprisonment and death, respectively. However, the texts they are accused of sending were in English, and the impoverished couple is illiterate, unable to text in English or their native Urdu. The couple remains imprisoned on death row, separated from each other and their four children. A recent report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that, as of December 2019, at least 17 people were on death row after being convicted on blasphemy charges.

Amid such dire human rights violations around the world, President Donald Trumpprioritized religious freedom in his administration, going as far as to make international religious freedom an issue ofnational security.

FRC President Tony Perkins has also been a consistent advocate of religious minorities who have fallen victim to religious persecution. In 2018, Perkins was in Izmir, Turkey, representing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) at the trial for Pastor Andrew Brunson. He traveled with Brunson back to the U.S. upon the pastor’s release. Perkins was at Pastor Brunson’s side as he prayed for President Trump in the Oval Office within hours of reentering the United States.

From the very beginning, FRC has worked alongside the Trump administration to promote faith, family, and freedom, including religious freedom. On October 30, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order on Advancing International Religious Freedom, declaring religious freedom protection as both a domestic and foreign policy priority. The order dedicates $50 million for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund programs that promote and defend religious freedoms abroad.

The global community must come to terms with the human rights abuses that have been inflicted on religious minorities all over the world. Although the persecuted belong to various faiths, Christians remain the most heavily persecuted religious minority in the world.

Americans believe that freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech are God-given, unalienable rights. In contrast, a great majority of the world’s governments do not hold the same beliefs. At a time when the voices of so many oppressed religious minorities are being snuffed out, Family Research Council is determined to amplify its effort to promote religious freedom in the U.S. and around the world.

To learn more about blasphemy laws and other laws that threaten the fundamental right to religious freedom, check out FRC’s publication, Criminalizing Conscience.

Rachel Nicole is an intern focusing on international religious freedom with the Center for Religious Liberty in FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department.

Christian Persecution: A Glaring Blind Spot in Nigeria and Beyond

by Lela Gilbert

November 20, 2020

Traveling by road into Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s northeast, has become one of the most dangerous journeys on earth.” So begins an alarming and timely Wall Street Journal article about ever-encroaching violence in Nigeria, Africa’s largest country and most powerful financial center. 

Writer Joe Parkinson describes four primary highways that lead into that northern Nigerian city, once known as “Home of Peace.” Along those roads some 200 people have been murdered in the past six months. Since its happier days, today Maiduguri is better known as the birthplace of Boko Haram, the brutal Islamist terrorist group.

The attacks are conducted by militants fighting for Boko Haram and a splinter group loyal to Islamic State,” Parkinson explains. “With each passing month they become more brazen, targeting civilians, aid workers, soldiers and even the state’s most powerful politicians.”

And unlike most Western reporters, Parkinson notes that Christians are specifically targeted in these attacks. “Soldiers and Maiduguri residents who travel the roads say the extremists regularly erect mobile checkpoints, searching for Christians and government employees to kidnap for ransom or execute on the roadside.” 

Family Research Council’s 2020 report on Nigeria points out that although violence against Christian communities by Muslim attackers was recognized well before the founding of Boko Haram, it became much more intense and frequent after 2009, when the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed by Nigerian authorities. Subsequently the group—along with other smaller jihadi sects—became notably more deadly and dangerous. 

With this acceleration in recent years, verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnappings of Christians in Nigeria have persistently increased. These attacks are frequently accompanied by the torching of homes, churches, villages, and agricultural fields. A July 15, 2020 headline reported that 1,202 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first six months of 2020. This is in addition to 11,000 Christians who have been killed since June 2015. Such violence has reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide—a “slow-motion war” specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation.

In one well-known incident, a 14-year-old Christian girl was abducted by Boko Haram in February 2018. Leah Sharibu has been in captivity ever since. Leah and her classmates were rounded up during an attack on Dapchi, a small village in Yobe State. When Boko Haram shot its way into town, panic ensued, and everyone fled. Days later, once the scattered students had returned to their classes, a roll call revealed that 110 girls were missing— including Leah.

Although the Muslim girls who survived the attack were eventually released, Leah refused to deny her Christian faith. She remains in captivity to this day, enslaved and reportedly having given birth to the child of one of her captors. She continues to be the focus of worldwide prayer.

Meanwhile, Boko Haram isn’t the only group attacking Christians. Another group, known as Fulani herdsmen or tribesmen, have been slaughtering entire Christian communities during increasingly frequent attacks in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region. Yet—despite their obvious targeting of churches, Christian communities, pastors, and seminary students—some scholars, analysts and, unfortunately, even U.S. authorities refuse to recognize the religious nature of numerous attacks and attackers.

Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow for Religious Freedom at Hudson Institute writes:

While there is some recognition of the primary, self-declared, religious mission of Boko Haram and the numerous ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates that have made West Africa the world center of terrorism, there is still widespread resistance to recognition of the religious nature of attacks by Fulani tribesmen on predominantly Christian villages, people and churches 

In her July 17, 2019, confirmation hearing, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Beth Leonard referred to the carnage in the Middle Belt of Nigeria as “banditry and inter-communal conflict” and “escalating farmer-herder and inter-communal conflict frequently based in resource competition, but enflamed by conflation of ethnic and religious overlays.”

Abraham Cooper and Johnnie Moore, in their book The Next Jihad: Stop the Christian Genocide in Africa describe a meeting they had in February 2020 with Amb. Leonard in which they discussed the possible religious aspects of the violence wracking the country. “She denied that it was at all about religion and described the conflict as ‘fundamentally a resource issue…. Religion was, according to Ambassador Leonard, only relevant as it served as a potential accelerant to conflict. She left us with the impression that people like us, by speaking up for victims of religious persecution, were part of the problem. We found this to be hugely alarming.” 

Some years ago, Paul Marshall, Roberta Ahmanson and I co-authored a book called Blind Spot: Why Journalists Don’t Get Religion. We learned that many—if not most—mainstream journalists are from very secular backgrounds, know little about faith, spiritual awareness, or devotion, and simply don’t see how religion deeply shapes culture and conduct in most of the world beyond the West.

However, sad to say, it isn’t just journalists. A close look at many diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, and academics exposes that they share that same blind spot with journalists.

It is still remarkable, however, that although self-proclaimed jihadis slaughter Christians in their homes, churches, and fields, beheading them and shouting Allahu-Akbar as a victory cry, observers do not acknowledge the killers’ Islamist intensions. As we’ve seen in Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, and far beyond, the truth about anti-Christian violence is seldom disclosed, understood, or reported. It’s a blind spot for sure. And it’s a deadly one.

4 Disturbing Trends in Religious Freedom Worldwide

by Arielle Del Turco

November 16, 2020

A report released last week by the Pew Research Center has found that there has been a 50 percent increase in government restrictions on religion across the globe between 2007 and 2018, the most recent year studied. Such a drastic number indicates that religious freedom is on a rapid downward spiral.

This is troubling, and it presents a myriad of security, economic, and human rights challenges for the millions of people who live under governments that are tightening restrictions on peaceful religious practices. For world leaders and advocates to successfully begin addressing these issues, it is critical to understand what is happening around the world and what is driving increasing attacks on religious freedom.

Pew’s extensive survey reveals a lot about what religious believers are enduring around the world—both from governments and from social hostilities. Here are four take-aways from Pew’s new report:

1. Government restrictions on religion are rising in Asia.

Asia and the Pacific had the biggest increase in the amount of government restrictions on religion in 2018. Pew researchers found that governments used force against religious believers and groups in 62 percent of countries in Asia and the Pacific, including detention, displacement, abuse, and killings.

Asia is a worsening hotspot for religious persecution. Just in the last several years, China has started a campaign of mass detention of Uyghur Muslims, North Korea remains the world’s worst persecutor of Christians, and apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-conversion laws across Asia restrict individuals’ rights to choose and change their faith. These developments are all concerning and all deserve the world’s attention and advocacy.

2. Authoritarian regimes pose the greatest threat to religious freedom.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pew found a “strong association between authoritarianism and government restrictions on religion.” Around 65 percent of countries with very high government restrictions on religion have authoritarian governments. In contrast, no countries with very high government restrictions were classified as full democracies.

3. Three Middle Eastern countries have both the highest levels of government restrictions and social hostility to religion.

Egypt, Syria, and Iraq are the only three countries which were found to have both very high government restrictions and very high social hostilities toward religion in 2018. Targeted religious believers in these countries endure governments that impede their freedom to practice their faith and face private groups or individuals that regularly harass or abuse them. This is a deadly combination, and it is indicative of the severe challenges faced by believers throughout the entire Middle East.  

4. Harassment due to religion remains high.

Harassment due to religion occurs in 185 out of 198 countries—the vast majority of the world. While this is slightly down from the previous year, the number of countries where Christians experienced harassment rose slightly.

Pew considers harassment to include everything from verbal abuse to physical violence and killings which are motivated because of a person’s religious identity. Christians and Muslims reportedly faced the most harassment for their faith worldwide. The region of the Middle East and North Africa is especially dangerous. In 2018, Christians in 19 out of the 20 total countries faced harassment by social groups or the government.

Ultimately, it should be a wake-up call to the world that religious persecution is at the highest point it has been in the past 11 years when Pew began tracking it. Things are getting worse, not better. And that is tragic for millions of religious people around the world just trying to live out their faith. The persecuted—especially those living under highly restrictive authoritarian regimes—are often unable to speak up for themselves. It falls, then, to those of us in free societies to speak up on their behalf.

Nagorno-Karabakh Survivors: “My Home Is in Ruins. I Have Nothing Left”

by Lela Gilbert

November 13, 2020

For weeks, FRC has been closely tracking the terrible war in Nagorno-Karabakh, a community of some 150,000 Christians residing in an historic Armenian enclave. Their homeland was invaded in late September by neighboring Azerbaijan, a majority Muslim country. This invasion broke a 1994 cease-fire between the two countries. But to make matters worse, in this latest incursion, Turkey seems to have encouraged if not inspired the assault, providing massive military and financial support to the Azeris. Turkey’s Islamist President also transported thousands of Syrian mercenaries into the battle, more than a few of which were jihadis.

Baroness Cox is a life peer in Britain’s House of Lords and a Christian human rights activist, whom I first met in 2003. We met in Nagorno-Karabagh, a place that has been dear to her heart since an earlier war in 1990-1994, in which she arranged to provide generous financial and material support for the beleaguered Armenian Christians there. Along with other friends, we traveled to the tiny enclave—locally known as Artsakh. There we heard the stories of community leaders, Armenian Orthodox clergy, soldiers, and everyday Christians about the terrible violence they endured in those early 1990s battles. Baroness Cox’s love for the people and the land was deeply moving.

A few months after that trip, I was asked to write a biography of Baroness Cox’s work as a defender of human rights and persecuted Christians. Her efforts have spanned decades, spent in far-flung places like Poland, Russia, Burma, Nigeria, Indonesia, Sudan, and of course Nagorno-Karabakh. The book, Baroness Cox: Eyewitness to a Broken World, was released in London in 2007, and later that year in the United States. She and I remain in close touch, and I am in the process of writing a new, updated version of her book.

Today, Baroness Cox is in Yerevan, Armenia, and I received the following press release from her yesterday morning, describing the terrible aftermath of this latest Nagorno-Karabakh war. Please pray for the people who are suffering there—many of whom have lost everything including their loved ones, their homes, and their hopes for the future.

*** 

12 November 2020 // For immediate release   

MY HOME IS IN RUINS. I HAVE NOTHING LEFT’  

BARONESS COX ALONGSIDE DISPLACED FAMILIES IN ARMENIA  

Civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh “hid under trees to escape aerial bombardments” with bodies “so destroyed” that DNA was needed to identify them, according to local witnesses who have been forced to flee their homes.    

A mother-of-four told Baroness Cox on Tuesday: “My husband, a firefighter, was killed in attacks by Azerbaijan. I escaped in a car with my kids. But my home is in ruins. I have nothing left.” She said: “His body was so destroyed that we needed DNA to identify him. Everything in the village has been stolen or demolished.”

Evidence of torture and mutilations’

One family – whose son, an Armenian soldier, was captured by Azeri forces – said: “His phone was stolen by his captors and they posted an image of his beheaded body and sent this to his own social media account for his own family and friends to see.”

The same concerns were raised by the Armenian Human Rights Ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, who told Baroness Cox: “We have video evidence of torture and mutilations. Civilians and POWs are humiliated by their captors. Azerbaijan have returned 29 military bodies and few civilians – DNA was needed to identify four bodies. But it refuses to provide the list of current prisoners (30 now known, but there is likely many more) and continues to withhold information and access to prisoners from the Red Cross.”

A fragile peace?

Meanwhile, concerns remain over the fragility of Monday’s peace deal, which was brokered by Russia and agreed by Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Before the ceasefire was agreed, Azerbaijan targeted civilian infrastructure including hospitals, schools, homes, churches and electricity and water supplies. Supported by Turkey, its military forces reportedly deployed cluster bombs, heavy artillery and phosphorous – contrary to international law – with widespread evidence of torture, mutilation, humiliation and killings.  

Emergency aid    

Baroness Cox arranged an emergency visit to Armenia to take aid to HART (Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust) partners and to show solidarity with the Armenian people as they seek to hold their frontline of faith and freedom. She said:   

Given the past and recent history, the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh justifiably fear the possibility of ethnic cleansing. Despite Monday’s ceasefire, reports continue to emerge of brutality inflicted on military and civilian prisoners, including torture and beheadings, with claims that equivalent brutalities have been perpetrated by jihadists who receive payment for every Armenian beheaded.   

We are told that, when Azeris kill or capture any Armenians, they take over their social media accounts and send pictures of dismembered, decapitated bodies to their mothers and wives. It is impossible to fathom the suffering inflicted on these women, waiting to hear from their husbands, brothers or sons, and not knowing what might come to their phone.  

We hope – and pray – that the ceasefire will bring an end to the military offensives by Azerbaijan, that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh will be able to re-build their lives, and that peace will prevail. But as the crisis continues to unfold, Nagorno-Karabakh’s rightful claim to self-determination must be supported by the international community as an urgent priority.”  

HART remains committed to providing advocacy and aid for our partners in Nagorno-Karabakh, continuing to support our valiant partner Vardan Tadevosyan’s work with people with disabilities.

Supreme Court Takes a Look at Religious Liberty for Adoption Providers in Fulton Case

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

November 4, 2020

Today, the Supreme Court heard telephonic oral arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that concerns the right of religious foster care agencies to speak and act consistently with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Catholic Social Services (“CSS”) is a religiously affiliated ministry that has provided foster care services in the City of Philadelphia for over 200 years. Part of its work requires it to evaluate prospective foster parents to certify that they meet state standards. Because of its sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, CSS considers same-sex couples to be unmarried and is unable to certify them as foster parents. Although an LGBT-identified couple has never approached CSS, if this were to happen, CSS would simply refer the couple to another agency that would be able to certify them. Nevertheless, the City of Philadelphia stopped referring children to CSS.

At the Supreme Court, several of the justices demonstrated willingness to protect the religious beliefs of CSS and similar agencies. Justice Kavanaugh emphasized the fact that CSS’s beliefs have never prevented an LGBT-identified couple from fostering a child in Philadelphia. He stated that:

It seems like Philadelphia created a clash … and was looking for a fight and has brought that serious, controversial fight all the way to the Supreme Court even though no same-sex couple had gone to CSS, even though 30 agencies are available for same-sex couples, and even though CSS would refer any same-sex couple to one of those other agencies.

He emphasized that on this controversial issue, the government should seek “win-win answers” and try to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs as much as possible:

[G]overnments should be looking, where possible, for win-win answers, recognizing that neither side is going to win completely on these issues given the First Amendment on the one hand and given Obergefell on the other … [W]e need to find a balance that also respects religious beliefs … And what I fear here is that [a position that does not allow any exemptions for organizations like CSS] would require us to go back on the promise of respect for religious believers.        

Justice Alito expressed concern that the City had attempted to suppress a viewpoint with which it did not agree:

[I]f we are honest about what’s really going on here, it’s not about ensuring that same-sex couples in Philadelphia have the opportunity to become foster parents. It’s the fact that the city can’t stand the message that Catholic Social Services and the Archdiocese are sending by continuing to adhere to the old-fashioned view about marriage.

Even some of the Court’s more liberal justices were concerned about the City’s actions. Justice Breyer stated, “What’s actually bothering me quite a lot about this case is I think that no [LGBT-identified] family has ever been turned down by this agency. Indeed, none has ever applied.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who participated in oral arguments for the first time on Monday, asked one of the attorneys whether the Court’s controversial decision in Employment Division v. Smith should be overruled. Justice Alito also questioned the “stability” of the Smith decision. If the Court were to overrule this decision, it would likely reinstate a legal standard that provides strong protection for religious liberty.

The Court’s decision could have significant implications not only for the rights of religious foster care agencies, but religious liberty in a much broader sense. The Court is expected to decide this case by the end of June, and it is certainly one to keep an eye on.

Please Pray With Us for Persecuted Christians Around the World

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

October 30, 2020

This Sunday, November 1, 2020 is this year’s International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. For decades, Christian churches, organizations, and individual believers have observed this annual summons to prayer and intercession on the first Sunday of November.

It is well known today that those who believe in Jesus Christ comprise the most persecuted religious community in the world. Their suffering continues world-wide, and of course we should pray for our beleaguered brothers and sisters wherever they may be.

But at Family Research Council, we want to remind you of countries on which we’ve focused special attention in recent months. These are exceptionally troubled places, where our fellow believers are very much in need of special prayers and will be grateful for them—on this Sunday and beyond.

Please pray with us for suffering believers in the following persecution hot spots:

Nigeria

Since the dawn of the 21st century, verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnappings of Christians in Nigeria have persistently increased. Such attacks are frequently accompanied by the torching of homes, churches, villages, and agricultural fields.

On July 15, headlines reported that 1,202 Nigerian Christians had been killed in the first six months of 2020. This was is in addition to 11,000 Christians who had lost their lives since June 2015. Such violence has now reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide—a “slow-motion war” specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation. Nearly every week we hear reports about murders, kidnappings, stolen property, torched churches, and massacres in Nigeria.

North Korea

In North Korea, any expression of faith might get someone sent to a labor camp, often for the rest of their life, and their family is often sent with them. It is believed that approximately 50,000 Christians are held in political prison labor camps, where detainees endure starvation, torture, and even execution.

Even for Christians who don’t get caught, practicing their faith is a deeply isolated experience. Christians in North Korea cannot gather in large groups with other believers. The government recruits many citizens to spy on their neighbors, creating a culture of fear and privacy among Christians and any dissenters to the North Korean government.  

Nagorno-Karabakh

Since September 27, a fierce war has been blazing between Azerbaijan’s heavily armed military forces and Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave comprised of Armenian Christian civilians. Azerbaijan’s assaults have been intensified by Syrian jihadi mercenaries, paid for and sent into the fray by Turkey’s Islamist President Tayyip Erdogan. A number of churches have been damaged or destroyed and residential areas continued to be bombed and shelled, with residents fleeing for their lives.

Today’s Armenian Christians are the surviving sons and daughters of the Armenian Genocide, which took place in the early 20th century. During that bloodbath, the Ottoman Empire’s Turkish Muslims slaughtered some 1.5 million Armenians. At that genocide’s beginning, on November 13, 1914, a call to jihad—a holy war against Christian “infidels”—was officially announced by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V Resad.  The carnage began just days later.

Disturbingly, Azerbaijan’s present invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh is perceived by most Armenian Christians as the continuation of that historic Islamist jihad against Armenia’s Christians. More than half the enclave’s population has either fled or are hiding in cellars and basements, praying for their lives and the lives of their children.

China

People of faith in China are under enormous pressure under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Xi has initiated a campaign to “Sinicize” religion to make it more compatible with the teachings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Churches must join government-approved church associations or face harassment, intimidation, and the possibility of getting shut down by the government.

Since the Chinese government cannot eradicate Christianity altogether, it is attempting to reshape it according to the values of the Communist Party. The Chinese government is now attempting to re-write a version of the Bible which promotes socialist values. Those believers that refuse to go to state-sanctioned churches and choose house churches free of government interference are burdened with the fear of what punishment may come their way. As we saw with the imprisonment of well-known Pastor Wang Yi, the Chinese government is willing to impose harsh punishments on prominent people of faith who speak up for religious freedom.

Pakistan

Pakistani Christians are plagued by a society and legal system that discriminates against them. Christians and others are often accused of violating blasphemy laws by neighbors looking to settle an unrelated argument. Those convicted can spend years in prison, or even end up on death row.

Predators take advantage of Pakistan’s discrimination in the judicial system to prey upon young girls from religious minority communities because they know they will not be held accountable by authorities. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace, a Pakistani human rights organization, estimates that at least 1,000 Hindu and Christian women and girls are kidnapped and forced to marry Muslim men and convert to Islam every year. The latest such case is unfolding in Pakistani courts this month.

Iran

Notorious for its outrageous cruelties, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains one of the world’s worst persecutors of religious minorities. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended in its 2020 report that the United States should “Redesignate Iran as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

At the same time, Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List places Iran among the top 10 persecutors of Christians in the world. The Islamic Republic sometimes arrests Christians from traditional and “legal” churches. But it unleashes most of its vitriol on Christian converts from Islam, whom it views as apostates, and often designates them as “Christian Zionists.” Yet despite the dangers, many of Iran’s mostly young converts continue to be zealous and outspoken.

The annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is an important reminder to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. May it start a habit of praying for the persecuted every day.

Key Trump Administration Officials Show How Religious Freedom Is Being Defended at Home and Abroad

by Ruth Moreno

October 28, 2020

On October 27, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) held an insightful virtual panel event on the importance of protecting religious liberty both domestically and internationally. The event, titled “Religious Freedom in the Age of COVID-19 and Beyond,” addressed how the current pandemic has affected the national and international dialogue on religious liberty.

The Freedom of Religion Is “Essential”

Much has been said about the threats to religious liberty posed by overbearing officials here in the United States. Roger Severino, Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the HHS, emphasized during Tuesday’s panel that as the COVID-19 pandemic claims more and more lives, we must be prepared to ask the question: what do people live for?

For many people, Severino said, “it is their belief in God and religious community.” This means we may need to rethink what we mean when we talk about what counts as an “essential” service.

We really tread on dangerous waters when we’re picking and choosing what counts as essential versus not, when part of human nature is to seek the transcendent and express it according to your best lights,” Severino said.

He also spoke more broadly about how the federal government has been working hard to uphold religious liberty and freedom of conscience, saying it “should not be up for debate. It should be beyond dispute just like every other civil right.”

Claire Murray, who serves as an Associate Attorney General at the Department of Justice (DOJ), reminded panelists that “There’s no pandemic exception to the Constitution” regarding religious freedom. Within the DOJ, Murray has worked to make sure religious organizations are not singled out by state and local leaders. Since the beginning of the government-enforced lockdowns, the DOJ has filed six amicus briefs on behalf of religious organizations.

Murray also addressed the continuing controversy over the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious order which was exempted from certain parts of the Affordable Care Act and associated mandates which would have forced them to violate their religious beliefs about contraception and abortion. Murray said that President Trump’s 2017 Executive Order on the protection of religious liberty has helped guide the federal government as it continues dealing with challenges and settlements in lower federal courts.

Progress in Protecting the Rights of Believers Around the World

Yet domestic religious freedom policy work is only part of the story; many more good efforts are being undertaken overseas. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback and Ambassador Andrew Bremberg, the United States’ Permanent Representative to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, both spoke at length about the United States’ mission to protect religious liberty internationally, which Brownback called “a centerpiece of policy.”

Ambassador Brownback also remarked on some unexpected religious freedom developments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several countries have released prisoners of conscience for fear that they will contract the virus, which Brownback applauded as “good news.” However, Brownback also warned against the scapegoating of religious minorities who have spread the virus within their communities and said that he has been “pushing back against that aggressively.”

Brownback concluded that the overall trendline has been positive, while Bremberg noted he is still “deeply concerned about governments around the world” using COVID to suppress religious freedom, and reminded panelists that the current focus on the pandemic has allowed the world’s worst human rights abusers to get away with their atrocities. Ambassador Bremberg spoke specifically about religious persecution in Russia, Nigeria, and especially in China.

Although the United Nations (UN) has an office dedicated to religious liberty, Bremberg regrets the silence which has come over many in the international community regarding the persecution of Uyghur Muslim minorities in China. Still, though, the United States has pressed ahead in promoting religious liberty, and Bremberg hopes other countries will look to us, and not to China, as a model.

Brownback agreed, saying “You’ve got a fundamental choice between the Chinese model and the U.S. model on religious freedom … The U.S. says, ‘you are free to do what you want with your soul. It’s a God-given right. No government has the right to interfere with it.’”

The United States’ tradition of religious liberty is inspired by our Declaration of Independence, but Ambassador Bremberg emphasized that the United States should not have to fight alone. The UN lists religious liberty as a fundamental right in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and though there is much work to be done, the international community has made some progress in protecting this right for all people.

Today, many countries still have apostasy and blasphemy laws so strict that changing one’s faith or otherwise violating these laws is enough to give one the death penalty. Under the Trump administration, the United States has formed an International Religious Freedom Alliance with 30 other countries and several more which may join. The Alliance has worked to protect religious rights in conflict zones and do away with these atrocious apostasy and blasphemy laws.

Ambassador Bremberg closed the panel with a further call to action: “Will we choose to protect, defend, [and] fight for, fundamental human rights established over 70 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the right for religious freedom? Or will we not fight for them?”

All Americans Should Stand for Religious Liberty

Fighting for religious liberty, both at home and abroad, takes a lot of time and effort. The rise of secularism and the devaluing of the religious voice, as Severino said, have threatened people’s rights to exercise their faith as they see fit. It is the duty of all Americans, of all faiths, to stand up and fight for religious liberty alongside Severino, Murray, Brownback, Bremberg, and other members of the Trump administration who have worked so hard to protect this most fundamental right.

For several years now, key Trump administration officials like those at this HHS event have been attempting to diligently implement the administration’s religious freedom policies, often in the face of much opposition. They and many others within the executive branch have been fighting for our rights day-in and day-out, often with little credit. As we approach a presidential election, it’s appropriate to take note of the many positive religious liberty developments that have actually occurred under the Trump administration.

To find out more about what the administration has been doing to protect religious freedom, both at home and abroad, please see the full list of the Trump administration’s accomplishments at PrayVoteStand.org

In Somalia: Christian Prisoners and Courageous Witnesses

by Lela Gilbert

October 27, 2020

The East African country of Somalia is best known to most Americans for three unsettling reasons. First of all, many learned about Somalia thanks to the tragic “Black Hawk Down” battle—the event, the book, and the film. The country is also infamous for attacks by Somali pirates on international shipping routes. And, today, the ruthless terrorist group al-Shabaab continues to torment its Somali homeland as well as the surrounding African nations.

Is Somalia a place for intrepid American tourists to visit? On October 5, 2020, the State Department scored it as a “Category 4” risk with a concise comment: “Do not travel to Somalia due to COVID-19, crime, terrorism, civil unrest, health issues, kidnapping, and piracy.”

And what about being a tempting site for Christian missionaries eager to reach out to Muslims? Sharia law prevails in most of the country, and where it is not officially enforced, the fierce implementation of apostasy and blasphemy laws (whether official or unofficial) is handled by locals, and particularly by those who support the anti-Christian goals of al-Shabaab—whether officially affiliated with the terror group or not.

The U.S. State Department 2020 report explained:

Al-Shabaab continued to impose its own interpretation of Islamic practices and sharia on other Muslims and non-Muslims, including executions as a penalty for alleged apostasy in areas under its control, according to media and UN sources. According to the BBC, by October this year (2019) was one of the deadliest on record for fatalities from al-Shabaab attacks, with numbers already more than 1,200.

With all that in mind, I was shocked to hear from an alarmed representative of New Covenant Missions about a Christian family that had recently been arrested in Hargeisa on September 21. The Somaliland Police accused the couple of abandoning Islam, and even more dangerously, of evangelizing the people of Somaliland. According to a report about the incident from Somali Bible Society, “The spokesperson’s speech was peppered with threats against local Christians.”

The report went on to say that the arrested man had been tortured; his wife had delivered a baby by C-section just weeks before the arrest and required urgent medical attention, and the baby was in need of maternal care and breastfeeding.

I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that Christians were attacked in Somalia. More amazing to me was that after so many war-torn years and violent incidents, any Christians remained there at all. And not only do they remain, but according to reports, there are hundreds of new believers who continue to worship in secret underground churches—small gatherings comprised entirely of brave and faithful local converts from Islam.

But what about that imprisoned family? What can any of us do in the face of such a tragic report? Of course, to begin with, let’s agree to pray for this couple and their baby. For reasons of security we should simply call the parents “Mohammed” and “Nebiyat.” And let’s also thank God for the holy light of Christian lives shining in such a dark place. What amazing courage these new believers have!

And finally, let’s not fail to pray for the brave outreach groups from the United States and elsewhere—groups like New Covenant Missions. They are operating in one of the most dangerous and chaotic places on earth. Let’s pray for all concerned—prisoners and ministers alike—and for their safety, encouragement, and inspiration to carry on their heroic ministries.

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