Category archives: Religious Persecution

Remembering Persecuted Christians at Christmas

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

December 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Arielle Del Turco

December 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Bride Trafficking Problem

by Arielle Del Turco

December 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nigeria Is Officially Declared a “Country of Particular Concern”—and Not a Minute Too Soon

by Lela Gilbert

December 8, 2020

Nearly at the end of 2020—a year when bad news seemed to be relentless and unstoppable—a good report has emerged. Very good news, in fact. At long last, broken and bloodstained Nigeria has been declared a CPC— a “country of particular concern”—by the U.S. State Department.

On Monday, December 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement:

The United States is designating Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, the DPRK, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Shortly after Pompeo’s announcement, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published a statement headlined, “USCIRF Welcomes the State Department’s Designation of Nigeria among World’s Worst Violators of Religious Freedom.” The commission applauded the decision—one that many international observers, activists, and victims of Nigeria’s violence have long demanded:

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) praised the State Department’s announcement that it has named 10 “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs), including Nigeria for the first time, and placed four countries on its “Special Watch List” (SWL) for severe violations, pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

We are gratified that the State Department has named 10 countries as CPCs. We particularly welcome Nigeria’s designation for the first time as a CPC for tolerating egregious violations of religious freedom, which USCIRF had been recommending since 2009. Nigeria is the first secular democracy that has been named a CPC, which demonstrates that we must be vigilant that all forms of governments respect religious freedom,” said Chair Gayle Manchin.

At Family Research Council, we have written repeatedly and at length about the horrifying violence in that West African country. Our lengthy report on Nigeria forewarned:

Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, and with horrifying acceleration in recent years, verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnapping 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 reports 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.

And indeed, since that writing in July 2020, massacre after massacre has devastated Nigeria’s Christians communities, and with relentless repetition.

Just last year, President Donald Trump himself raised the issue of Christian persecution with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” Trump said, with Buhari seated next to him. “We’re going to be… working on that problem very, very hard because we can’t allow that to happen.”  The president’s appeal fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Buhari is himself a member of the Fulani ethnic group, which is responsible for a large part of the killing, and has gone on unhindered during his presidency. Meanwhile for years, international authorities have turned a blind eye to Nigerian butchery perpetrated not only by Fulani jihadis, but by Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP). Making excuses for the violence and rarely addressing the religious nature of the conflict, even the American Embassy has seemed unwilling to do more than plead for reconciliation meetings.

Thankfully, all that changed on December 7, 2020 when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Nigeria a CPC. This, in turn, can lead not only to closer scrutiny and, presumably, additional pressure on all concerned in the violence, but also to financial measures. “Congress is notified, and where non-economic policy options designed to bring about cessation of the particularly severe violations of religious freedom have reasonably been exhausted, an economic measure generally must be imposed.” Economic measures might well diminish the hundreds of millions of aid dollars the U.S. has poured into Nigeria for many years.

Will there finally be a shift in the calculations of Nigeria’s leadership and a crackdown on the surging violence of the jihadis? Or will the bloodbath increase until—as in Iraq during ISIS’ devastating assaults on Christian and Yazidi communities—the world wakes up and takes action against the terrorists?

Can the CPC designation really stop the vicious cycles of violence against Christians in Nigeria? Only time—and responsible international diplomacy—will tell. But in fact, as my Hudson Institute colleague Nina Shea recently told me, it’s late in the game as the threat of another genocide looms larger every day. “More Christians have been targeted and slaughtered by extremists in Nigeria,” she pointed out, “than in the entire Middle East in recent years.”

The Harrowing Plight of North Korean Defectors

by Rachel Nicole

December 7, 2020

The grossest human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean (DPRK) government are disclosed in the testimonies of North Korean nationals who have survived the escape from their home nation. In the past, the DPRK’s primary tactic towards international accountability over human rights abuses has been silence. However, more recently, they have changed their strategy to flat-out denial and have projected charges of human rights violations onto the U.S. The DPRK habitually uses deflective arguments that are circular and illogical.

In April 2015, a heated exchange occurred between DPRK state representatives and defectors at a UN event in New York City. At the event, “Victims’ Voices: A Conversation on North Korean Human Rights,” DPRK representatives interrupted while three North Korean defectors were sharing their stories (see 17:24). Joseph Kim had just finished speaking and Jo Jin Hye was about to speak when a DPRK representative in the audience interrupted the proceedings and read a prepared statement aloud. The defectors in the audience began to shout, “Out with you!” Jo Jin Hye then decided to start her testimony by holding her U.S. passport aloft and announcing that she was now a naturalized U.S. citizen. The audience applauded. Amidst the chaos, the DPRK representative finished reading his statement and he and his compatriots smugly left the room.

Because many defectors sell the last remaining food they have in order to finance their journey toward the Chinese/North Korean border, the path of escape often begins with near-starvation. Upon arrival at the border, most have no money left and are extremely desperate and hungry, making them easy targets for human traffickers who take advantage of the desperate and vulnerable.

One defector says she was wooed by a woman who promised she would “take her into a family” and treat her “as one of my own daughters.” The woman enticed the starving teenage girl with food. Once in the wealthy woman’s care, the girl was taken to China without notice, where she was sold as a wife to an older man. She soon became pregnant and bore him a son, which made the man’s Chinese wife jealous. While the girl was pregnant with the man’s second child, the Chinese wife reported her to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, who swiftly deported her back to North Korea. Her North Korean-Chinese son witnessed the traumatic event that separated him from his mother. While the repatriated, pregnant defector was being held at the North Korean detention center, the DPRK officials forcibly aborted her unborn child via an injection. She was then immediately placed in a labor camp and forced to work, even though her body was still experiencing the trauma of the abortion.

The Tongil Mom organization in South Korea has documented countless similar testimonies. In an event hosted by Family Research Council, two defectors shared testimonies like the one described above. Tongil Mom is focused on helping female defectors heal from the many layers of trauma they experienced not only as citizens in the DPRK but also as defectors who dared to escape the Hermit Kingdom’s grip.                    

Other defectors have successfully found their voice in the South Korean government and international affairs. Thae Yong-Ho is the first North Korean defector to be elected to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea. He is the former Deputy Ambassador of North Korea to the United Kingdom. Jang Jin-Sung, a defector and former North Korea United Front propaganda writer, provides valuable insight:

Despite Pyongyang’s deceptive ways, many people in the outside world continue to believe in the theoretical North Korea in which dialogue with the regime is seen as the way to effect change. But I know from my years inside the government that talking will not get Pyongyang to turn any corners, not even with the North’s current leader, Kim Jong-un.

Dr. Sandra Fahy, an anthropologist and expert on North Korea, has spent much of her career documenting North Korean defectors’ first-hand accounts and recommends Westerners listen to them. Whether by following those that have gone public with their testimonies on YouTube, such as Yeonmi Park and Kim Min-Ki, or reading literature written by defectors such as Jang Jin-Sung, consuming truthful media about North Korean abuses of its own citizens is crucial. By searching “North Korean defector escape” on YouTube, anyone can see video proof of the regime’s brutality.

Currently, North Koreans looking to defect often use brokerage services to get themselves safely out of the country. Kim Min-Ki, himself a defector in 1997, has helped more than 6,000 defectors escape. There are only two field brokers still doing this dangerous work. Kim’s path initially took him across the Tumen River into China. He was then able to migrate through Vietnam, Cambodia, and finally to South Korea with the help of a South Korean national and member of the special forces who guided him through the process. He also stayed at a safe house run by a church along the way. Kim says springtime is the prime season to defect because April 15 is Kim Il Sung’s birthday and because the water levels begin to rise. The cost to defect from North Korea to China using a broker is about US$15,000. The cost of getting from China to Thailand ranges from free (due to charitable help) to US$2,000 (if charitable help cannot be found). From Thailand, defectors cross into Cambodia illegally, incurring a US$0.50 fine. However, Cambodia recognizes defectors as refugees, and they can travel to South Korea easily from there.

What are Westerners to do about the grim situation in the DPRK? Defector Kim Min-Ki’s message to the world is, “North Korean defectors are still being trafficked for money. They’re being used as birth-giving machines, and [he’d] be grateful if people would at least be concerned about these heartbreaking events.”

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

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.

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