Category archives: Religious Persecution

IRF 101: In Turkey, Authoritarianism and Islamization Are Squeezing Out Christians

by Arielle Del Turco

February 23, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Rise of Religious Nationalism

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

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

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

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

Legal Pressure on Foreign Christians

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

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

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

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

Concerns for the Future in the Middle East

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

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

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

Leah Sharibu: Held Captive 3 Years for Her Christian Faith

by Lela Gilbert

February 19, 2021

Today, February 19, 2021, marks a grim third anniversary for a young Nigerian Christian named Leah Sharibu.

In a horrifying terrorist attack on February 19, 2018, 14-year-old Leah was among more than 100 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists. Their abduction took place at 5:30 in the afternoon, when the girls were unexpectedly seized at Dapchi Girls’ Science and Technical College.

During the incident, four or five girls died in the back of a truck as they were violently transported to Boko Haram’s encampment. Thankfully, following a month of horrific captivity, and after enduring death threats and unspeakable abuses, nearly all the surviving girls were freed by their captors on March 21.

One girl, however, was left behind—Leah Sharibu.

Before long, it become clear that she had not returned home for one simple reason: The other girls were all Muslim. And Leah had refused to renounce her Christian faith.

In August 2018, The Cable, a Nigerian news source, obtained a recording of Leah, begging President Muhammadu Buhari to rescue her and reunite her with her family: “I am Leah Sharibu, the girl that was abducted in GGSS Dapchi. I am calling on the government and people of goodwill to intervene to get me out of my current situation.”

Leah’s appeal fell on deaf ears; no intervention took place.

Later, when she heard that her classmates were being set free, Leah asked one of them to carry a note to her mother, Rebecca Sharibu. “My mother you should not be disturbed,” she wrote. “I know it is not easy missing me, but I want to assure you that I am fine where I am… I am confident that one day I shall see your face again. If not here, then there at the bosom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Her mother later said, “She did an amazing thing by refusing to renounce Christ, and I’m very proud of what she has done. I’m not sure if I was even in her position at 14 years old that I would have even done what she has done.”

In the summer of 2019, I met Rebecca Sharibu in Washington, D.C. She had come to seek help from the United States, and her heartache was evident on her weary and sorrowful face. When I asked her what she had most recently heard about her daughter, she said, “We don’t even know where Leah is,” her friend translated. “We have not seen her. We have not heard from her. I have no idea.”

Around six months later, on January 26, 2020, The Cable again reported about Leah, this time claiming that she had been “impregnated by one of the commanders of the sect, and she was delivered of a baby four days ago.” It was impossible to confirm the story, although it implied that Leah was probably still alive.

Today, there is no further news about Leah Sharibu. But Nigeria’s abuses of religious freedom continue to accelerate. In fact, FRC has just released an updated account of what has been described by some as a slow-motion genocide: The Crisis of Christian Persecution in Nigeria.

According to a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report released in February 2021, estimates suggest that the conflict with groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province has resulted in the deaths of more than 37,500 people since 2011. There is a reasonable basis to believe that these groups have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.  

USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins adopted Leah as a prisoner of conscience, personally advocating for this brave hostage who refuses to renounce her faith. Yet sadly, not much has changed. Just weeks ago, Open Doors listed Nigeria as the ninth worst persecutor of Christians on its 2021 World Watch List. And massacres of Nigerian Christians have only increased.  

Meanwhile, as we mark the third year following her abduction, Leah Sharibu remains a captive. Mercifully, across the world, faithful prayers continue for her freedom. But reports about her have dwindled to silence, despite pleas from international human rights groups and Christian organizations appealing for her release

Dede Laugesen, Executive Director of Save the Persecuted Christians, reflects, “It is impossible to know what Leah Sharibu’s life is like now… By all appearances, the Nigerian government has given up on Leah. But the world will not forget this fearless Christian teen, nor give up praying for her and demanding her release. Nigeria must do more to ensure all Nigerians—Muslim, Christian or African traditionalists—are freed from the dens of these monsters.”

As the world’s attention is diverted to other crises, other violence, and ever-increasing Christian persecution elsewhere, the significance of Leah’s brave devotion to her faith continues to resonate. A few months ago in an eloquent opinion piece, Nigeria’s Guardian summed up the significance of Leah’s capture, her faithful witness at just 14 years of age, and her continued detention by the Boko Haram insurgents:

The story of her capture and her continued detention by the Boko Haram insurgents as a result of her defiance of compromise and refusal to renounce her faith is the stuff of legend … Leah Sharibu alone was not released because she refused to renounce her faith and convert to Islam as demanded by her captors. Still missing and in captivity till the present … she has since become the symbol of Nigeria’s refusal to succumb to agents of darkness, hell-bent on dividing the country and appropriating a section of the nation’s territory to themselves. By her principled stand, the battle for the soul of Nigeria became one between a young girl with a heart and a garrison of devils without souls.

As time goes by and other concerns arise, our memory of Leah Sharibu’s story may grow dim. Let’s agree to remember this courageous young woman in our prayers.

Important Update about Burma/Myanmar’s Military Coup from Dave Eubank

by Lela Gilbert

February 4, 2021

Reports from Burma (Myanmar) have been the focus of international news this week. A military coup has overthrown the quasi-democratic government, and has placed the already-struggling Burmese people in a tenuous and potentially dangerous situation. Widespread displacement is already taking place, uncertainty has gripped the country and persecuted religious minorities—particularly Christians—are at greater risk than ever.

Many of us who are concerned about religious freedom are familiar with the remarkable story of Dave Eubank and his Free Burma Rangers. This man and his heroic efforts are legendary in today’s broken world. As Lara Logan reported about him last year on Fox News:

There is an army of volunteers who seek to serve in the world’s most dangerous places — not by killing an enemy, but by rescuing the innocent. They go where most humanitarian aid organizations will not, from the jungles of civil war-torn Myanmar to the desert killing fields of Mosul, Iraq. They are the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) and their leader is a Green Beret veteran and Christian missionary.

Ask anyone who follows him, they’ll tell you Dave Eubank is a soldier of God. He enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces at the age of 18, following the example of his father. His career began as an infantry officer before joining the 2nd Ranger Battalion and finally the special forces. Eubank ran missions in South and Central America and in Thailand.

After 10 years of service, he left the military, but he was called back to conflict for a different purpose. His father called him to say that he had met a man seeking help for Burmese people caught in a seemingly endless civil war.

We started the Free Burma Rangers,” Eubank responded, “to give help, hope, and love to people under attack and get the news out and to stand with people.”

Today as always, Dave Eubank’s heart remains with the suffering Burmese people, and this week’s news about the Burmese coup has touched him deeply. He sent the following update to Family Research Council. It is not only important and newsworthy, but it is a call to prayer, so we are sharing it with you.

*** 

We are on a relief mission in Burma (Myanmar). The recent coup has revealed to the world what the people here knew already—that the military is in charge, has been in charge and will not share power. And attacks against the ethnic peoples have not stopped. Here where we are in Karen state, Burma, over 5,000 have been displaced in the past two months due to Burma army attacks. This is in spite of a cease-fire. Now the Burma Army are sending reinforcements—all around us—I just walked back to our camp from one group of 1,100 displaced people hiding in the mountains.

Our teams are giving them medical care and coordinating rice and tarp delivery on foot. Also attacks continue up north in Kachin State where over 100,000 remain displaced and in northern Shan state where Shan and Taang people are under regular attack. In Arakan state, western Burma, there is a lull in the fighting but over 70,000 are displaced there. Also in Arakan State the over 750,000 Rohingya who were chased out earlier are still in Bangladesh. 

Here in Karen State, the Karen people feel like the coup only reveals overtly what they and every ethnic already knew, that the army is totally in charge and they hope that this revelation will cause people who are ignorant of that fact or try to ignore it to not be able to ignore it anymore and realize the evil of the situation. Their own lives haven’t changed because they were attacked before the coup and they’re being attacked after the coup. Holding their babies in hiding places under the trees, they told me, “We don’t need you to give us food and medicine and shelter just stop the Burma army from attacking our villages. We are not attacking them in their cities—why are they attacking us? If you stop them we can take care of ourselves.”

Right now the best we can do is pray with the people in their hiding places in the jungle and deliver rice and medical care. Please pray as God leads you and we request that the US Government provides direct humanitarian relief to the ethnic groups or cross border relief groups who have proven track records for providing relief efficiently, accountably and transparently. Please pray for but do not send relief through the Burma government as they will not help the people their army is attacking. Also the ethnic groups need recognition and need to be part of a solution for a free, just and reconciled Burma. The US can help provide relief for those under attack and help the ethnics and Burmans who want change to work together to achieve the goal of a free and democratic Burma. 

Thank you for caring and God bless you,
David Eubank, family and the Free Burma Rangers 
freeburmarangers.org

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

by Arielle Del Turco

February 2, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Umar Mulinde: A Ugandan Pastor’s Story of Persecution

by Lela Gilbert

January 25, 2021

In May 2012, a friend and I entered Umar Mulinde’s hospital room in Israel. And I was grateful that the woman who arranged our interview had sent me Mulinde’s photograph, which partially prepared me for the sight of the disfiguring burns on his handsome face. But I quickly learned that the blinded right eye, the scorched skin, the missing nostril and the swollen lips—which made it difficult for him to speak—had not lessened his passion for his dual life-mission: to proclaim his love for God and his love for Israel.

Umar Mulinde was born in Uganda in 1973 to a devout Muslim family, comprising many children and wives. His maternal grandfather was an imam and his father a well-known Islamic leader. But after converting to Christianity as a young man, Umar became an Evangelical Christian pastor of a large church, where he was an avid spokesman for his new faith and his new-found love for Israel.

On December 24, 2011, after Umar hosted his church’s Christmas service, a terrorist made his way through holiday crowds. While shouting “Allahu Akbar!” three times, he threw acid at Mulinde’s face, chest and arm. The young pastor turned his head in time to avoid being hit directly; his right side bore the brunt of the injury. He was rushed to the hospital, but it was soon evident that Uganda’s medical capabilities to treat such horrific burns were inadequate. Umar contacted friends in Israel, and they quickly transported him to Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, where I first met him.

Umar’s vicious attack was the result of his conversion from Islam to Christianity—a capital crime according to Islamic Shari’a law. So I asked him how and why he had become a Christian.

Despite his strict Muslim upbringing, a pastor convinced Mulinde that Christianity was true by explaining passages from the Koran that mentioned Jesus while introducing him to the New Testament. At 19 years old, Mulinde knew very well that converting to Christianity would mean being totally cut off from his Muslim family and friends, and thus from his future plans. But the following Easter Sunday, he entered a church for the first time in his life and announced to the congregation that he wanted to convert to Christianity.

That very day, three of his Muslim friends spotted him leaving the church and promptly reported it to the sheikh. A group of them attacked him and beat him up. That was the beginning of his persecution.

Yet from that moment on, although alienated from his community, he began to speak publicly about his new faith, and he did so before increasingly large audiences. “I am a new person. I have started a new life.” He repeated these words a number of times during our meeting. Even from his sickbed—in pain and with slurred speech—it was not difficult to imagine him speaking to large crowds of people with peace and confidence.

He also explained his love for Israel. “After I became a Christian, I loved reading the Bible—both the Old and the New Testaments—and I saw phrases like ‘the God of Israel’ and ‘the people of Israel’ repeated continually in the Scriptures. What did that mean?”

In Kampala, he met a group of devout Christian women who prayed for Israel every day, which also helped change his mind. They encouraged him to visit Israel, which he did on several occasions. In fact, it was due to his outspoken love for Israel that Umar Mulinde was receiving treatments for his terrible burns in one of Israel’s finest medical facilities.

Umar Mulinde has since recovered, although he has lost sight in his right eye and is visibly scarred. After completing his medical treatments he returned to his home country, where he continued to evangelize. But after surviving another near-fatal shooting in September 2018, in a recent conversation he told me, “I have not been so public in Uganda, although I still closely monitor events through my nationwide network and in other East African countries.”

He went on to say that although Uganda is over 80 percent Christian and the Ugandan constitution guarantees religious freedom, Muslim activists continue to persecute Christian converts from Islam. “Local Muslims, with support from Pakistan, Iran, Qatar, and Yemen are dominating Uganda’s economy, sponsoring Islamic activities, and bribing government security officials to act in their favor.”

A Voice of the Martyrs report confirms Mulinde’s observations: 

Many of the [pro-Islamic] policies Idi Amin put into place continue to influence society and government today. Uganda’s parliament even recently passed Sharia banking, which gives zero interest loans to Islamic projects. Arab countries also continue to invest large amounts of resources into furthering Muslim interests within the country. As a result of this, radical Islam’s influence has grown by more than seven percent in the last three years, and many Christians within the majority Muslim border regions are facing severe persecution, especially those who convert from Islam.

In our conversation, Umar Mulinde also told me that he thinks radical Muslims have infiltrated Uganda’s police, army, and judiciary and converts from Islam to Christianity are particularly targeted. In fact, a just resolution of his own assaults remains elusive.

Up to now those who attacked me have not been arrested or charged,” he told me, “and the file my 2011 case—which was attempted murder—was ‘lost’ by the police. Then, after another attempt on my life in September 2018—when gunmen entered my house at night and I narrowly survived—those culprits are also yet to be arrested!”

Let us pray for an end to religious persecution in Uganda.

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

by Arielle Del Turco

January 14, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 2020 Retrospective: Violence Against Africa’s Christians

by Lela Gilbert

January 13, 2021

As this new year begins, it’s obvious that America is facing many challenges—some old, some new. And they most certainly cannot be taken lightly. However, those of us who focus on international religious freedom also concentrate on concerns beyond our shores, and a look at Africa’s recent history in the rear-view mirror reflects terrifying images. As one deadly assault after another fades out of sight, encroaching assailants are rushing forward at terrifying speed. 

The largest country in Africa and the most commercially significant, Nigeria is the site of what has been described as a slow-motion genocide in which tens of thousands of Nigerian Christians have been massacred in recent years. A Family Research Council report published in July 2020 documents horrifying statistics of mass murders there, almost entirely at the hands of three Islamist terrorist groups: Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Fulani jihadis.

Nigeria may be the worst example of violence against African Christians, but it is far from the only one. Violent incidents across the African continent are increasing. One notorious example in November 2020 was the reported beheading of 50 civilians in Mozambique—many of them Catholic Christians.

Fighters linked to Islamic State attacked several villages in Mozambique, killing civilians, abducting women and children, and burning down homes. The gruesome description of innocent people “herded” to their death on a soccer field, where they were systematically decapitated and dismembered, was nightmarish. That wasn’t the only such incident in 2020, and it certainly won’t be the last. Due to a hapless government response, ISIS continues its assaults, most recently on January 2, 2021. 

In September 2020, an email informed FRC that a Christian family had recently been arrested in Somalia—the infamous location of Black Hawk Down. Local police accused the couple of abandoning Islam, and even more dangerously, of evangelizing the people of Somaliland. According to Somali Bible Society, “The spokesperson’s speech was peppered with threats against local Christians.” We learned that the arrested man had been tortured; his wife had delivered a baby by C-section just weeks before and required urgent medical attention, and the baby needed maternal care and breastfeeding.

FRC and other Christian groups pleaded for prayer. Thankfully, we later learned that this courageous family had been released. But dangers to Christians in Somalia have not diminished. Nearly all of the believers there are converts from Islam, which means they can face a death sentence for apostacy if arrested.

Frequent reports of persecution incidents in East Africa abound. At the same time, West Africa has more than its share of anti-Christian violence—and is of ever-increasing concern.

The Washington Post reported, “One evening in late June, gunmen stormed a village in northern Burkina Faso and ordered people who had been chatting outside to lie down. Then the armed strangers checked everyone’s necks, searching for jewelry. They found four men wearing crucifixes—Christians. They executed them…”

Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Burkina Faso is one of several vulnerable West African countries that are frequently targeted for terrorism, including Christian persecution. The so-called “Group of Five” (G5) nations—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—face continuous threats and attacks. These are of deepening concern to international military analysts and religious freedom advocates alike, thanks to the tireless brutality of ISWAP, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, North Africa faces similar dangers. Likewise, reports from East Africa warn that ISIS, al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Sharia, and other Islamist groups are strengthening their numbers and increasing their territory. And unfortunately, what happens in Africa is unlikely to stay in Africa—economically, politically, or militarily. Radicalized Africans have already murdered innocents and torched churches in Europe. Little has been done in response, and most well-intentioned efforts have been largely ineffective.

In 2021 it is past time for the world to stop looking regretfully at Africa’s tragedies in the rear view mirror. Instead, a determined coalition of nations needs to step forward and begin to develop ways and means of extinguishing the surging jihadi violence. And it’s essential that our Christian communities continue not only to pray but to demand such action. Why? Because as the wildfire of terrorism continues to rage across that vast, violent continent, one thing is sure: It is Africa’s Christians who will continue to pay the ultimate price for the world’s inaction.

When Dealing With North Korea, Human Rights Must Take Priority

by Arielle Del Turco

January 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas in Nigeria: Celebration Overshadowed by Danger

by Lela Gilbert

January 7, 2021

Across America, the Christmas holidays this year were not as festive as usual. Still, beloved songs and carols, colorful lights and small family gatherings provided a welcome diversion from pandemic gloom and presidential election quarrels. And the reminder that “Christ is the reason for the season” was happily recalled by Christians, despite some other less-than-celebratory circumstances.

Christmas is not, however, “the most wonderful time of the year” in war-torn Nigeria. Although the country’s millions of Christians continue to rejoice in the birth of Jesus, and gratefully recall His first appearance so long ago in Bethlehem, the joys of the season are inevitably overshadowed by danger and dread. 

As long as I have written about Nigeria—since, I think, 2006—Christmas joys have been eclipsed by danger. And, like clockwork, in 2020 Nigeria’s Advent season was once again marred by violent attacks, kidnappings and murders.

I wrote to Hassan John, Communications Director for the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion, and asked him to tell me more about this increasingly tragic situation. In a January 6 email he responded:

Over the past decade, Christmas celebrations have waned in fervor and the pageantry that has always been associated with the festive season. Instead it has been marked with attacks and destruction of villages and communities. In the last two weeks, at least five villages have been attacked near Chibok, where 276 schoolgirls were abducted in April 2014. These attacks were hardly even reported in the local news. Reports have primarily focused on a pastor who was killed and two others who have been abducted by Boko Haram.

But that wasn’t all. Hassan pointed out that, according to the Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker, Boko Haram killed seven and kidnapped five in Nganzai, Borno on December 22. On December 24, Boko Haram killed six and kidnapped three in Chibok, Borno. And on December 25, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) executed 11 captives.

He went on to say, “Warnings about travels and security advice sent by security forces added to the anxieties this year during the Christmas season. Then, last night, 5th January, another village, Wamdeo, also near Chibok, was attacked and a church destroyed. We are still getting information about the extent of destruction and if there are human casualties….”

Other reports describe the added endangerment the global pandemic has brought upon on Nigeria’s already beleaguered Christian communities.

According to a Christian Post article, Christians are facing a double threat: Islamist terrorism and COVID-19. “Nigeria’s government has advised Christians to stay in their homes to avoid COVID-19,” explained human rights expert Dalyop Solomon. “But if they remain locked down at home, they cannot escape when groups of terrorists attack them.”

Solomon went on to say that Fulani militants destroy or plunder crops when they attack, and farmers’ livelihoods are destroyed. But to make matters worse, “COVID-19 restrictions prevent them from leaving their homes to plant new crops.”

On December 17, the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held an important hearing hosted by Rep. Chris Smith, focusing on “Conflict and Killings in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.” Nearly four hours of testimony from more than a dozen international experts offered complex and often parallel perspectives on what many described in similar terms as “mass atrocities,” “mass killings,” “massacres,” and “genocidal acts.” Notably, one of the witnesses, Morse Tan, Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice, pointed out that “Christmas is a time of great risk of mass killing.” Within a week’s time, his words proved to be all too true once again in 2020.

There was but one notable exception. On Sunday evening, December 27, Catholic Bishop Moses Chikwe—the auxiliary bishop of his archdiocese—and his driver, Ndubuisi Robert, were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in Owerri, the capital of Imo State in southeastern Nigeria.

As always, the Christian communities began to pray. But interestingly, in this case Nigerians were not alone in their prayers. Catholics in Southern California also appealed to heaven for the bishop’s safe return. Chikwe had served for several years as a priest in the Diocese of San Diego, and he was beloved there.

On New Year’s Day, a bulletin about Bishop Chikwe announced that he and his driver had been released, “unhurt and without ransom.”

Unfortunately, the Nigerian news is rarely so bright and hopeful as that lone report. The U.S. State Department announced earlier in December that Nigeria has been declared a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC),” a designation which provides the U.S. with increased options for pressuring the Nigerian government to curb abuses, including through financial sanctions, application of the Magnitsky Act, and other measures.

Nigeria’s Muhammadi Buhari regime is, at the very best, inept. More likely, he and his henchmen are—as is widely believed—complicit in the relentless attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram, ISWAP, and Fulani jihadis.

Meanwhile, as the United States prepares to inaugurate a new president and his administration, two related questions remain unanswered: What will it take to stop the ever-increasing massacres and emergent genocide of Christians in Nigeria? And what will the newly-minted Biden administration do about it?

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

by Arielle Del Turco

January 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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