Tag archives: International Religious Freedom

Britney Spears and Uyghur Women Share a Terrible Burden

by Arielle Del Turco

July 6, 2021

A recent special hearing regarding the Britney Spears conservatorship revealed shocking details about how the famous pop star is being treated by her father and management team. Most heartbreaking of all was the revelation that the conservatorship will not allow the 39-year-old to remove her intrauterine device (IUD) so she can have another child. This instance of forced contraception, which amounts to temporary sterilization, adds momentum to the already trending #FreeBritney hashtag spearheaded by fans who want to see her father’s abusive conservatorship end.

Under her father’s conservatorship, Britney has been rendered powerless to make her own decisions. She stated, “I wanted to take the [IUD] out so I could start trying to have another baby. But this so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have children—any more children.” The pop superstar and mother of two should be free to pursue having a family, as should all women.

No one should be subjected to the indignity and despair that results from forced sterilization, even a temporary kind via an IUD. Sadly, Britney is far from being the only person suffering this type of fate today. The Chinese government is currently enacting a large-scale campaign in Xinjiang to forcibly sterilize Uyghur Muslim women. These forced sterilizations, which include IUDs and tubal ligations, are a critical element of the Chinese government’s ongoing effort to limit Uyghur births, an effort that the United States has declared a genocide. Worse, President Biden doesn’t seem all that concerned that reinstating funds to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) will contribute to the problem.

One Uyghur woman previously detained in Xinjiang’s internment camps told the Associated Press that officials in her camp installed IUDs in every woman of childbearing age. At almost 50 years old, she pleaded and promised that she would not have more children. Nonetheless, she and hundreds of other women were herded onto buses and sent to the hospital for their IUDs. Some wept silently, and all were too afraid to resist publicly.

For 15 days, this woman suffered from continual menstrual bleeding and headaches. She claimed, “I couldn’t sleep properly. It gave me huge psychological pressure.” She added, “Only Uyghurs had to wear it.”

Gülgine, a Uyghur gynecologist who fled to Turkey, confirms stories like this. She recounted in an interview, “A lot of women were put on the back of a truck and sent to the hospital” for their IUD implants. “The [sterilization] procedure took about five minutes each, but the women were crying because they did not know what was happening to them.”

Researcher Adrian Zenz found that officials planned to subject at least 80 percent of women of childbearing age in some rural areas of Xinjiang to IUDs or sterilizations by 2019. The devices used in Xinjiang can only be removed surgically by state-approved doctors.

According to Zumret Dawut, Xinjiang hospitals require permission from five government offices before removing an IUD. Concerning her own compulsory IUDs, the mother of three told Radio Free Asia, “They caused a lot of problems for me. I passed out, lost consciousness, several times after the insertions.”

Earlier this year, Chinese state media took to Twitter to argue that the sterilization program liberates Uyghur women, “making them no longer baby-making machines.” The post was later deleted, but the abuses have continued. It is not liberation for Uyghur women—or Britney, for that matter—to be sterilized and made to labor for the benefit of a state or a conservator.

It is tempting, but incorrect, to assume Uyghur sterilizations are far removed from American politics. When President Joe Biden announced his intention to reinstate funding to the UNFPA earlier this year, he paved the way for American funds to go to an organization that partners with China’s National Health Commission (NHC). This is at a time when the United States has determined that the Chinese government is committing genocide in Xinjiang hospitals through forced sterilizations and abortions.

Although the UNFPA may not directly fund sterilizations in Xinjiang, its cooperation with the National Health Commission enables the NHC to divert other funds elsewhere. The hard-earned money of American taxpayers should not be supporting atrocities abroad, even indirectly.

Britney’s conservatorship, and her father and management team’s decision to retain her IUD against her will, brings the issue of forced sterilization closer to home for Americans. Fans and non-fans alike are empathetic as the pop star’s basic rights are violated.

Vulnerable celebrities in America and persecuted minorities in China deserve the freedom to have families and as many children as they desire. The American court system should work on freeing Britney, and the world should work towards freeing the Uyghur people.

Southern Baptists Stand With Uyghur Muslims Against Atrocities

by Arielle Del Turco

June 24, 2021

This is part one of a three-part series highlighting significant resolutions passed by the Southern Baptist Convention this year that apply a biblical worldview to critical cultural and political issues.

At the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) largest gathering in over two decades, a resolution was passed condemning atrocities the Chinese Communist Party is currently committing against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. America’s second-largest Christian denomination might seem like an unlikely champion of a non-Christian minority group’s human rights, but that makes the resolution all the more meaningful.

Dozens of resolutions are submitted at every annual SBC meeting. Only a handful are accepted by the Resolution Committee and brought to a vote. By passing a resolution, the SBC is collectively agreeing to publicly affirming the statement. Many cultural, political, ethical, and theological questions and challenges are currently facing the SBC. The fact that a resolution on the Uyghur genocide was brought to the forefront is significant.

Around 17,000 “messengers” were sent to the Convention to represent their respective Southern Baptist churches and participate in the votes. Their choice to condemn human rights violations in China is meaningful.

For more on why the Uyghur genocide is an issue Christians should care about and to see the statements the SBC agreed on, read the full text of the resolution, reprinted here:  

RESOLUTION 8: ON THE UYGHUR GENOCIDE

WHEREAS, “God created man in his own image” (Gen 1:27), people are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and “The life…[and] breath of all humanity…is in [God’s] hand (Job 12:10); and

WHEREAS, One of God’s commandments is “Do not murder” (Exodus 20:13); and

WHEREAS, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of [God’s] throne; faithful love and truth go before [Him]” (Psalm 89:14); and

WHEREAS, We are called to “Provide justice for the needy … [to] uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3) and to “remember those in prison, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily” (Hebrews 13:3); and

WHEREAS, Southern Baptists resolved in 2019 “On Biblical Justice” that “we commit to address injustices through gospel proclamation, by advocating for people who are oppressed and face wrongs against them”; and

WHEREAS, Southern Baptists resolved in 2018 “On Reaffirming The Full Dignity Of Every Human Being” that persecution of religious minorities constitutes a significant challenge which threatens the dignity and worthiness of human beings and likewise resolved that “we affirm the full dignity of every human being of whatever political or legal status or party and denounce rhetoric that diminishes the humanity of anyone”; and

WHEREAS, Credible reporting from human rights journalists and researchers concludes that more than a million Uyghurs, a majority Muslim ethnic group living in Central and East Asia, have been detained in a network of concentration camps in the Xinjiang Province in the People’s Republic of China; and

WHEREAS, Atrocities reported by major media outlets against the Uyghur people by the Communist Party of China include forced abortions, rape, sexual abuse, sterilization, internment in concentration camps, organ harvesting, human trafficking, scientific experimentation, the sale of human hair forcibly taken from those in concentration camps, family separation, forced reeducation of children, forced labor, and torture; and

WHEREAS, The U.S. State Department, Canadian Parliament, UK Parliament, Dutch Parliament, and Lithuanian Parliament have declared the actions of the Chinese Communist Party against the Uyghur people to be a genocide; and

WHEREAS, Southern Baptists stated in 1999 in “Resolution on Halting Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing” that “ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity in which one ethnic group expels members of other ethnic groups from towns and villages it conquers in order to create an enclave for members of their ethnic group”; and

WHEREAS, In the same resolution in 1999, Southern Baptists stated that “genocide is a crime against humanity in which one group dehumanizes and murders members of another people group—whether national, ethnic, or religious—with the intent to destroy that group completely”; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, June 15–16, 2021, condemn the actions of the Chinese Communist Party against the Uyghur people, and that we stand together with these people against the atrocities committed against them; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we call upon the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China to cease its program of genocide against the Uyghur people immediately, restore to them their full God-given rights, and put an end to their captivity and systematic persecution and abuse; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we commend the United States Department of State for designating these actions against the Uyghur people as meeting the standard of “genocide”; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we commend the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for their ongoing advocacy for the Uyghur people and for being among the first major organizations to advocate for their cause; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we strongly urge the United States government to continue to take concrete actions with respect to the People’s Republic of China to bring an end to the genocide of the Uyghur People, and work to secure their humane treatment, immediate release from reeducation camps, and religious freedom; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we implore the United States government to prioritize the admission of Uyghurs to this country as refugees, and provide resources for their support and resettlement; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we earnestly pray for the Uyghur people as they suffer under such persecution; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we earnestly pray for the Christian workers and relief workers who bring the Uyghur people physical aid and the message of hope found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, so they can experience freedom found only in Christ.

This SBC resolution highlights the powerful truth that all people possess inherent dignity because they are created in the image of God. As such, Christians have a responsibility to treat everyone with respect, stand against injustice, and defend those facing oppression or mistreatment.

The resolution quotes Psalm 82:3, which says, “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.” To this end, the SBC rightly adopted the above resolution, thereby condemning injustice and calling for action and prayer on behalf of the downtrodden. May we all commit to do the same.

IRF 101: Slow Progress Towards Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan

by Tyler Watt , Ben Householder

June 23, 2021

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

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

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

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

Religious Groups Under Pressure

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

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

Road to Religious Recognition

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

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

Restrictions on Muslims

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

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

Improving Imperfection?

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

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

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

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

Gao Zhisheng: Fighting for Human Rights, Against All Odds

by Tyler Watt

June 10, 2021

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

Background

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

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

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

Oppression as a Dissenter

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

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

A Family’s Struggles

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

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

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

What We Can Do

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

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

As China Crushes Dissent, the Legacy of Tiananmen Square Lives On

by Arielle Del Turco

June 4, 2021

While the death count was still rising in Tiananmen Square on June 4,1989, NBC News correspondent Tom Brokaw called China “a nation at war with itself.” The Chinese People’s Liberation Army had just opened fire into crowds of young protestors. Tanks rolled on to the square to intimidate unarmed civilians into submission. It brought a bloody end to weeks of student-led protests in favor of greater political participation.

That was 32 years ago. Yet, the photo of a string of tanks facing down a lone student who stood in their way remains a defining image of the Chinese government’s relationship with its people.

Dissent is no more tolerated in Xi Jinping’s China today than it was in 1989. One need not look farther than the Chinese government’s suppression of human rights advocates for evidence of this reality.

Well-known human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng’s condition and location has been unknown since 2017, following long periods of detention during which he was brutally tortured. The Chinese government’s political persecution drove Gao to the Christian faith. Known for serving those from oppressed groups including Christians and Falun Gong adherents when it was taboo to do so, he was harshly punished for his outspokenness and moral clarity.

In 2018, Uyghur advocate Rushan Abbas spoke at a Hudson Institute panel about growing challenges for the Uyghur people under the Chinese government’s rule. Six days later, her sister and aunt in Xinjiang disappeared. Her sister has been detained continuously since then and the Chinese foreign ministry announced in 2020 that she received a 20-year prison sentence for terrorism-related charges. It’s a laughable charge for the former medical doctor, and Abbas believes it is in retaliation for her advocacy in the United States.

The Chinese government will go to great lengths to stifle criticism of its human rights violations or other unseemly policies.

The memory of student protests in Tiananmen Square was long commemorated by the people of Hong Kong, who resonated with the students’ call for democracy and reform. Since the passing of a new national security law, the annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong—an event forbidden on the mainland—was banned by police last year and is now a thing of the past. This year, activists merely hung posters with cryptic messages, afraid to find out which phrases might violate new national security measures.

In what came to be known as the Tiananmen Square massacre, the official death count remains unknown. Estimates range from a few hundred to a few thousand. Though Beijing obscures the facts, history matters. By suppressing the truth about the shameful crackdown in 1989, the Chinese government is trying to erase history. But by doing so, they will merely repeat it. The cycle of Chinese government abuses against dissidents must come to an end as China seeks a positive international spotlight.

The United States must speak out on behalf of the Chinese people, who merely seek to live out their faith, express their opinions, and participate in the governance of their country. These are basic rights owed to all Chinese citizens, and the free world ought to stand with the individuals brave enough to publicly demand them.

Just like the protestor now known as the “Tank Man” was undeterred as he stared down armored vehicles, the Chinese people remain resilient even in the face of totalitarian efforts to suppress any dissent. An authoritarian regime can use its power to intimidate its people, but the human hope for freedom is not so easily crushed.

IRF 101: Living Under the Oppressive Heel of Communist Vietnam

by Tyler Watt

June 1, 2021

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

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

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

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

Constitutional Promises Falling Short

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

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

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

Spreading the Written Word

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

Overlapping Oppression: Targeting Ethnoreligious Minorities

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

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

Hope in an Uncertain Future

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

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

Courageous Faith in China’s Early Rain Church

by Arielle Del Turco

May 26, 2021

Earlier this month, Preacher Wu Wuqing was arrested just hours after he officiated a funeral service in Chengdu, China. Authorities accused him of “disturbing public order.”

This was not Wu’s first run-in with authorities. He belongs to Early Rain Covenant Church, a church now internationally known for being targeted by the Chinese government. Though he was released later that evening, Wu has been threatened and intimidated many times for his service to his church and his community.

Authorities have at times cut his home’s access to utilities and they warn that things will only get worse for him if he continues his work. But Wu does not plan to back down, just as other members of his church have not stopped boldly proclaiming the gospel despite other instances of intimidation, arrest, and even long-term imprisonment.

The more than 500 members of Early Rain Covenant Church comprise one of the most influential house churches in China. Unashamed of their faith, these Christians do not bother to keep a low profile, although their status as an unregistered church makes them vulnerable to being shut down at the whim of the government.

Early Rain even runs a seminary and a Christian school, in addition to ministries that serve the most marginalized in society, including orphans, the families of prisoners of conscience, and the unborn.

The trailblazing streak of this impressive church grew under the leadership of Pastor Wang Yi. When Wang Yi converted to Christianity in 2005, he was already a prominent lawyer, public intellectual, and professor known for his human rights work. In 2006, he was even invited to the White House to meet with George W. Bush along with two other notable Chinese Christians. In 2011, Early Rain Covenant Church installed this former firebrand lawyer as their pastor.

As a pastor, he did not cower from the possibility of backlash from the government. He often spoke out in favor of religious freedom and against abortion, participating in local pro-life campaigns. China is still suffering from the painful consequences of the former one-child policy, and though that has eased to allow for two children, China still has the largest number of abortions in the world.

Pastor Wang knew that there was a strong possibility that he would one day be arrested. He prepared for that eventuality by writing a document he titled “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience.”

His congregation was instructed to release the declaration if he were ever detained by the government for more than 48 hours. On Sunday, December 9, 2018, Pastor Wang, his wife, and more than 100 members of Early Rain Covenant Church were arrested.

By December 12, the published declaration had begun to inspire Christians around the globe. It offers a beautiful description of what he terms “faithful disobedience,” contrasting his actions from political activism or civil disobedience. He wrote:

I firmly believe that the Bible has not given any branch of any government the authority to run the church or to interfere with the faith of Christians. Therefore, the Bible demands that I, through peaceable means, in meek resistance and active forbearance, filled with joy, resist all administrative policies and legal measures that oppress the church and interfere with the faith of Christians.

I firmly believe this is a spiritual act of disobedience. In modern authoritarian regimes that persecute the church and oppose the gospel, spiritual disobedience is an inevitable part of the gospel movement.

He was secretly tried at the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court on December 26, 2019. On December 30, Pastor Wang Yi was sentenced to 9 years in prison for the false charges of “illegal business activity” and “inciting to subvert state power” and fined 50,000 RMB.

It was a harsh punishment that surprised even the most cynical China hawks. Pastor Wang was far from a national security threat. Upon his arrest, the congregation of his church released a statement emphasizing this. They testified that Pastor Wang “has taught that even when the church is being persecuted, Christians should be willing to submit to the government’s physical restrictions of them as well as to the depravation of their property.”

The national security charge of “inciting to subvert state power” is familiar to many Chinese dissidents. Regularly abused in China, this charge is now utilized by the Chinese government against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong since it passed an oppressive national security law for the city.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party often feels threatened by anyone who publicly disagrees with the state or even pledges allegiance to authorities outside of Party control, and that includes God. This makes dissidents—and sometimes people of faith who refuse to comply to state regulation—perceived opponents of the state itself.

Today, Pastor Wang remains in prison. The Chinese government is likely to continue making the lives of Early Rain church leaders and members harder. But this congregation is unlikely to fold. They haven’t so far, and the eternal hope provided by their faith is something that no government can snuff out.

A Personal Reflection on Israel’s Never-Ending Conflict with Hamas

by Lela Gilbert

May 25, 2021

On May 20, a news alert on my computer tersely announced that Israel was launching retaliatory strikes into the Gaza Strip. And, as always, this was in response to volleys of rockets launched by Hamas from Gaza into southern Israel. In fact, since some 50 rockets had struck Israel just since April, it was about time to react—yet again.

But the news story really came to life for me when a close friend started sending me WhatsApp messages from a bomb shelter in her Tel Aviv apartment building. She also forwarded photos and videos of skies alight with rockets and explosions in her own neighborhood.

She described how her building was shaking. And, later, on a phone call, I could hear blasts as Israel’s Iron Dome defense system blew up rocket after rocket, disabled before they could strike Israeli homes, hospitals, and schools.

Another friend wrote briefly that she was also in a shelter—safe but “Sleepless in Tel Aviv.”

Since I’d lived in Israel for more than a decade myself, those Hamas rocket attacks on civilian Israel neighborhoods sounded sadly familiar. In fact, by the time I returned to America in 2017, I had experienced several of Israel’s “operations” in Gaza. Time and again, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fought back to stop relentless attacks on Israeli cities, villages, and kibbutzim in the “Gaza Envelope”—the civilian area within reach of Gaza’s earlier short-range Qassam rockets.

The Hamas terrorist organization, which is funded by Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other radical Islamists, is designated a terrorist group by Israel, the United States, European Union, and United Kingdom, as well as other powers. The Hamas Charter is lengthy, but it quite clearly calls for the destruction of Israel, declaring in part,

Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious. It needs all sincere efforts. The Islamic Resistance Movement is but one squadron that should be supported…until the enemy is vanquished and Allah’s victory is realized. It strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine…

I first arrived in Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War. At that time, rockets and missiles were being launched from Lebanon into Israel by Hezbollah—another Iranian proxy. In several places I visited, sirens wailed and people grabbed their children and ran for shelter. It was an amazing introduction to Israel and its people.

Just after the Lebanon War ended, I moved into a Jerusalem apartment. And once there was a peace agreement, I traveled with some new friends to Kiryat Shmona, an Israeli city close to the Lebanon border to see the widespread damage and talk to some traumatized residents.

So I was introduced to warfare early in my lengthy stay in Israel. Between rocket and mortar launches from Gaza in the South, a seemingly endless string of terror attacks in Jerusalem, and insistent threats and posturing about Hezbollah’s arsenal in the North, wars and rumors of wars never really went away.

On a couple of occasions, I traveled south to communities in the Gaza Envelope during rocket attacks. With other Christians, I visited a kibbutz where residents had been under sporadic fire for some months. A group of elderly men and women were being bussed to Eilat—a tranquil beach resort—for a few days of relief from persistent, jolting “red alerts” in the night.

One woman with shaky hands told me that most of the children in their community were bed-wetters and many of the adults required anxiety medications. “I’m really surprised you came,” she said. “My own children won’t visit me here.”

As we were about to leave, we heard a large explosion nearby, just as the bus to Eilat was pulling out.

Another trip to the South was with representatives of a Christian group that was installing a donated bomb shelter in a children’s school. Again, the assaults on that small town of unarmed civilians had been relentless.

In November 2012, during Israel’s “Operations Pillar of Defense,” for the first time I heard air-raid sirens in my own neighborhood as Gaza’s rapidly-expanding Hamas rocketry arsenal attempted to reach Jerusalem. The sirens warned us to seek shelter more than once.

In every case, the starting point of the conflicts that I witnessed was Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists attacking Israeli civilians. And after tolerating relentless and unprovoked rocket fire, the misery on the ground demanded a military response. This most recent battle was no exception.

In early May, Israel pushed back against rioters on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, who among other aggressions, had gathered piles of large stones to drop on the heads of worshippers at the Western Wall. Also, because of an eviction notice issued to Arab families who were living rent-free—thanks to a decades-long property dispute—there was increasing violence, rioting, and a tough response by the Jerusalem Police.

And so it was that Hamas, once again, declared war on the Jewish State. They launched volleys of rockets—totaling some 4,000 deadly missiles—on civilian Israeli communities. At least 248 Palestinians were killed by Israeli air strikes during the conflict. Gaza’s rocket attacks killed 12 people in Israel, while countless lives were saved by Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system, which intercepted some 90 percent of the incoming Hamas missiles.

Based on what I’ve learned, and on what I’ve seen and heard with my own eyes and ears, Israel has the absolute right to defend its existence. It also has the moral obligation to protect its endangered civilian population. And as long as the Iranian regime, Hamas, and other radical Islamists continue their quest to “Drive the Jews into the Sea,” Israel will eventually have to go to war all over again.

Let us all remember Israel in our prayers. As the Bible teaches us,

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

Psalm 122:6-9 NIV

IRF 101: Sri Lanka’s Hidden Persecution of Christians

by Tyler Watt

May 20, 2021

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

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

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

Repression in Context

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

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

Terrorism Targeting Christians

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

Suppression of Christianity in Education

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

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

Impediments to Conversion

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

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

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

Beijing’s War on the Bible

by Arielle Del Turco

May 5, 2021

The Great Firewall allows the Chinese government to censor any content it feels does not suit its purpose. Their latest target is the Bible. Bible apps have been removed from the App Store in China. It now requires the use of a virtual private network (VPN) to download Bible apps in China.

Popular Christian accounts on the Chinese app WeChat were also recently removed. Users who tried to access the social media pages saw a message that the pages had violated “internet user public account information services management provisions.” Others report that Bible apps have been entirely removed from the platforms of Chinese tech companies Huawei and Xiaomi.

Physical Bibles are also unavailable for purchase on Chinese websites. In March 2018, China’s largest online stores, including Taobao, Jingdong, Amazon.cn, and others, suddenly stopped showing results for searches for the Bible.

In December 2020, four Chinese Christian businessmen from Shenzhen were tried in court for selling audio versions of the Bible online. The businessmen were arrested as part of a campaign to “eradicate pornography and illegal publications.”

Earlier that same month, Christian businessman Lai Jinqiang was tried in Shenzhen on charges of “unlawful business operation” for his business which sold audio Bible players. His company, the “Cedar Tree Company,” reported the highest sales of audio Bible players in China, distributing around 40,000 units per month.

Instead of allowing people to choose what they will read and how they will access their religious texts, China requires that all Bible sales be funneled through official channels only. Bibles can be purchased at state-approved church bookstores regulated by the government.

Even worse than suppressing the Bible is the Chinese government’s attempt to change the Bible. As a part of its five-year plan to sinicize religion and make it more acceptable for the goals of the government, one strategy is “reinterpreting the Bible and writing annotations for it” from a socialist viewpoint.

Though the full text has yet to be revealed, the Chinese government’s previous manipulation of the Bible has been bizarre. In one textbook at the government-run University of Electronic Science and Technology, John 8 was shamefully distorted.

In the biblical version, an adulterous woman is brought to Jesus, and her accusers ask if she should be killed by stoning for her sins. Jesus disperses the angry crowd with his response, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (ESV).

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) version states that the crowd leaves, yet Jesus tells the woman, “I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead,” before stoning her himself. This retelling of a famous biblical passage proves what should be obvious—communists can not be trusted to re-translate the Bible.

Former communist countries have a long history of hindering access to the Bible. Missionaries like Brother Andrew famously served persecuted believers living under communist repression in the Soviet Union. Now, the CCP continues the legacy of communist crackdowns on the Bible.

As its attacks on the Bible continue to mount, the Chinese government should know they will never succeed. No earthly forces can crush the power of the gospel and the hope it has brought to millions of Chinese believers. As the Chinese government continues in its futile and oppressive efforts, American leaders should be bold in articulating that it is unacceptable for any government to control, suppress, or manipulate its people’s access to the Bible.

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