Tag archives: Religious Persecution

Nagorno-Karabakh: Where Armenian Christians Are Fighting for Their Lives

by Lela Gilbert

October 22, 2020

On October 1, 2020, a violent and dangerous war erupted in a tiny Christian enclave—a spot on the globe few Americans can probably find. And it bears a name that even fewer know how to pronounce: Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh).

On October 21, the New York Times reported, “The three-week-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a disputed territory in the Caucasus Mountains, where Europe meets Asia, has settled into a brutal war of attrition, soldiers and civilians said in interviews here on the ground in recent days. Azerbaijan is sacrificing columns of fighters, Armenians say, to eke out small territorial gains in the treacherous terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that is part of Azerbaijan under international law…” The Times continues:

Azerbaijan, an oil and gas hub on the Caspian Sea, has deployed superior firepower, using advanced drones and artillery systems … But three weeks into the conflict, Azerbaijan has failed to convert that advantage into broad territorial gains, indicating that a long and punishing war looms. It could morph into a wider crisis …

Turkey’s involvement in this war, led by its ruthless president, is highly controversial. As I wrote for the Jerusalem Post a few months ago:

Turkish aggression in at least five countries has been headlined in international news reports just this month, June 2020. These accounts focus on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest intrusions into Israel, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Greece.

Meanwhile, it is noteworthy to those of us who focus on international religious freedom that whenever Turkey moves in, religious freedom moves out. There can be no lasting freedom of worship for any faith unless it conforms with Turkey’s Islamic practices.

Today we can add Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia to the list of Erdogan’s desired conquests. His hostile grasping into other lands, his transformation of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and Chora Church into mosques, and his militant outbursts underscore an intense desire to Islamize the region under the auspices of a renewed Ottoman Empire.

Azerbaijan is more than happy to have Turkey’s support—some say instigation—to continue cleansing Nagorno-Karabakh of Armenians. That would enable the Azeris, supported by their Turkish allies, to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh’s disputed cities, towns, and villages for itself. And Turkey’s firepower is formidable.

But besides placing Turkish soldiers in harm’s way alongside the Azeris, Erdogan has also financed Syrian jihadi mercenaries—reportedly thousands of them—to augment the attack on the Armenian enclave. Foreign Policy headlined one story, “Syrians Make Up Turkey’s Proxy Army in Nagorno-Karabakh: After fighting Turkey’s battles in Libya, the Syrian National Army is caught in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan—and dozens are dying.”

In 1994, the first serious round of this conflict took place and some 30,000 died. At the time of this writing, although precise numbers are unclear, it appears that thousands more Azeris, Turks, Syrian mercenaries, and Armenians have lost their lives in the present fighting.

Most of Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents are Armenian Christians. And Armenia is, of course, well known, primarily because of the Armenian Genocide, which took place in the early 20th century. During that bloodbath, the Ottoman Empire’s Turkish Muslims slaughtered some 1.5 million Armenians, along with thousands more Pontic Greek and Assyrian Christians. 

Turkey has long denied those horrifying massacres, which the rest of the world has recognized and mourned. In fact, the Armenian Genocide is far too well documented by photos, personal accounts, and governmental reports to be plausibly refuted. 

It is noteworthy that at the genocide’s beginning, on November 13, 1914, a call to jihad—a holy war against Christian “infidels”—was officially announced by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V Resad. The carnage began just days later. And, as I recently learned in a conversation with a friend in Yerevan, Azerbaijan’s present invasion is perceived by most Armenian Christians as the continuation of that same Islamist jihad against Armenia’s Christians.

Armenia was the first country in the world to convert to Christianity—in 301 AD. Its Armenian Orthodox Church is rooted in the earliest Christian history. In fact, the biblical record of Armenia’s land stretches back to the book of Genesis, when Noah’s ark came to rest after the Great Flood on what came to be known as Mt. Ararat. To this day, the deep faith of the Armenian people is evident. The historic role of the Christian faith in this land is undisputed.

Some years after the 1994 conflict, I traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia with Baroness Cox, Lifetime Peer in the U.K.’s House of Lords. It was during that trip I first learned that this conflict is not simply an “ethnic dispute.” It holds deep religious significance for combatants and civilians alike. Meanwhile, I was struck by Caroline Cox’s heart for the local Christians, their churches, and their charities.

With regard to the present fighting, a few days ago Baroness Cox sent me some of her present insights. Unsurprisingly, she strongly “condemns Turkey’s provocative actions and demands the immediate withdrawal of the Turkish armed forces, including the air force and jihadi terrorist mercenaries from the conflict zone.”

She continued: “The direct involvement of Turkey and the scale and ferocity of this offensive raises the genuine fear of an attempt at the genocide of the Armenian people which Turkey’s highest leadership has declared in so many ways … The revival of Ottoman rhetoric by the Turkish government reinforces the possibility/danger of realization of this evil intent.”

Baroness Cox concluded: 

In the previous attempt by Turkey to achieve the genocide of the Armenians in 1915, the UK stood firmly against it. The historic and recent acts of ethnic cleansing committed by Turkey and Azerbaijan mean that for the Armenians, the preservation of Artsakh is a question of survival for their people and for their spiritual, cultural, and political heritage.

Losing the Life They Once Knew: The Harrowing Plight of Coptic Christians

by Lela Gilbert

October 14, 2020

We are the Church of Martyrs” is a phrase heard over and over in conversations with young Copts,” writes Martin Mosebach, author of the profound and powerful book, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs. He provides a detailed portrait of each of the 21 men who died on a Libyan beach—all but one Egyptian, beheaded by ISIS on February 15, 2015.

It is the honorary title of the Coptic Church but has also been undeniably prophetic. For throughout history, the Copts have been given countless opportunities to maintain their status as just that: a fellowship of martyrs.”

So it was in 2015 for those faithful Christian men who refused to deny their faith at the cost of their lives, and so the threat remains today in their homeland.

Although some international observers, such as USCIRF, have noted that Christian persecution in Egypt seems to have diminished somewhat in recent years, they are also obliged to note that it most certainly has not disappeared. On Friday, October 9, Premier Christian News reported, “A mob of extremists have attacked the homes of Coptic Christians in the Egyptian village of Dabous. The attack occurred after a wedding taking place in a neighboring village was interrupted by two young Muslim extremists, who bullied and beat a 10-year-old Coptic Christian child.” 

The beating of an innocent child was too much to bear for the those who watched. International Christian Concern explained, “Some Christian adults subsequently confronted the two attackers. Mina, a 25-year-old resident of the village, explained to ICC‘The cause of the story was that two Muslim men who don’t belong to our village beat a young Coptic kid. The Coptic men didn’t accept that.’ The confrontation became violent and resulted in the Muslim individuals receiving injuries.”

Unsurprisingly, the upheaval continued into the next day, when the Muslim men retaliated. Before the dust settled, there had been extensive property damage and many wounds. There were calls for a “reconciliation” meeting, a sort of false attempt at diplomacy in which both sides of a dispute are called upon to bear equal responsibility for the harm done. Meanwhile, the guilty parties are never required to pay the price for their initial provocation.

Open Doors’ World Watch explains, “Many Egyptian Christians encounter substantial roadblocks to living out their faith. There are violent attacks that make news headlines around the world, but there are also quieter, more subtle forms of duress that burden Egyptian believers. Particularly in rural areas in northern Egypt, Christians have been chased from villages, and subject to mob violence and intense familial and community pressure. This is even more pronounced for Christians who are converts from Islam.”

Clearly illustrated by the recent story about Dabous, Egyptian males are often responsible for various assaults and violent outbursts. But all too often, it is Christian females who pay the highest price for their faith. And far too many continue to suffer in silence.

As I have reported elsewhere, Egypt’s Christian girls and women continue to face a silent epidemic of kidnapping, rape, beatings, and torture. Innumerable girls and women vanish forever, and even if they are somehow rescued, their stories are thought to be so shameful that they’re hidden as dark family secrets. Sometimes doctors are able to quietly repair internal damage and “restore virginity” to the abused. Priests, if made aware of the situation, may try to protect family reputations when the girls return.

But the devastated survivors will never be the same.

The attacks vary—some happen randomly, when a vulnerable female is spotted walking alone on a sidewalk. Other are plotted by Islamist consortiums, who pay kidnappers as much $3,000 per girl. The assailants rape the victims, hold them in captivity, then demand that the terrified young women convert to Islam—often violently abusing them until they surrender.

For more years than can be counted, it has remained true that Egypt’s Copts belong to a “fellowship of martyrdom.” Not all of them are murdered—like those beheaded on a distant beach, or blown apart in bombed churches. But too many Christians have lost the life they once knew—whether it has been stolen by fanatical kidnappers, or violated by thugs, or simply reduced to a struggle for survival by constant threats of Islamist violence.

The Courage and Faith of Hong Kong Freedom Fighter Jimmy Lai

by Arielle Del Turco

October 12, 2020

What first drove Jimmy Lai—now an internationally-known media tycoon and a high-profile pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong—to seek answers in the Christian faith? Probably not what you might expect. In an interview with the Napa Institute last week, Lai’s answer to that question began with the story of the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997.

Before the handover, Hong Kong’s citizens enjoyed fundamental freedoms and ample opportunity under British rule that citizens of mainland China did not. When Lai was just 12 years old, he fled from mainland China to Hong Kong as a stowaway to seek the opportunities provided by the city’s freedoms. Starting as a child laborer, he worked his way up the corporate ladder and became a successful businessman in his own right.

By 1997, Lai had become a prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party. He knew that with the Chinese government encroaching on Hong Kong, “if they had to arrest ten people, I would be one of them.” Lai said, “This fear prompted me to look for God.”

At midnight on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong formally came under the Chinese Communist Party’s jurisdiction. The following day, Lai joined the Catholic Church under the leadership of then-Bishop Joseph Zenz.

Now that the Chinese government is seeking even greater control over Hong Kong, Lai is once again facing the threat of imprisonment, due to his position as a pro-democracy advocate.

When China imposed a new national security law for Hong Kong in June, the Chinese government expanded its power to crack down on anyone it deems a national security threat. But in China, a threat to “national security” often means a threat to the Party. In August of this year, Lai was arrested under the new law for “collusion with foreign powers” due to his pro-democracy advocacy. His sons were also arrested at their homes. The same day, over 200 police officers raided Lai’s pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily.

Though Lai is currently released on bail, he could receive a minimum of 10 years in jail if he is convicted on that charge. But these developments were not altogether surprising for Lai. In an op-ed published in late May, he wrote, “I have feared that one day the Chinese Communist Party would grow tired not only of Hong Kong’s free press but also of its free people. That day has come.”

Lai has British citizenship, and he can easily escape the tense environment in Hong Kong and the new risks that come with living there. Yet, his conviction requires him to stay. He told the Napa Institute, “If I go away, I not only give up my destiny, I give up God, I give up my religion, I give up what I believe in.”

Religious freedom is a foremost consideration as Lai continues to advocate for democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong. The Chinese government’s war on faith is ramping up, and Lai suggests this crackdown is part of the Party’s goal to further consolidate and secure its own power. He notes, “Once you don’t have a religion, you can easily be dictated by their order.”

Though the risks are higher than ever for this 71-year-old self-made entrepreneur, he continues to advocate for freedom and finds purpose in doing so. As he faces an uncertain future, his reflections are significant and ought to inspire us all: “When you lift yourself above your own self-interest, you find the meaning of life. You find you’re doing the right thing, which is so wonderful. It changed my life into a different thing.”

Northeast Syria: A Rare Bloom of Religious Freedom in the Middle East

by Kelsey Bohlender

October 6, 2020

A fragile flower has bloomed in the Middle East. It’s a rare specimen, requiring significant help to ensure the roots go deep and the plant survives. Miraculously, religious freedom has found fertile ground in a nation torn by war on a narrow strip of land between two enemies. The time to protect this tender shoot is now, before it falls victim to the prevailing winds so common in the region. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has been a bastion of democratic success in the midst of chaos. It has proven a safe haven for Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians alike. Additionally, it has championed gender equality in a way rarely seen in the region.

Survival in this territory is a challenge. The World Food Program claims famine is on the horizon in Syria, as the very basics of life remain difficult to access because of sanctions, economic crisis, and regional turmoil. Citizens in AANES face forced removal from their homes, the destruction of sacred sites, and even the bombing of civilian areas. AANES needs assistance from the outside in order to stimulate democratic progress and keep people alive.

Although the AANES region remains a part of Syria, it should not be understood as synonymous with the Assad regime. With its own constitution upholding freedom of religious belief and expression, the protection of property rights, and social equality, the pop-up provincial democracy of the AANES remains the best soil in the region for religious freedom to flourish. Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, and Christians have lived in affinity with representative government since 2013. The flag of religious liberty has been firmly planted in the AANES, where Christians can worship, spread the gospel, and even build churches. Other religious minorities enjoy the same liberties. Supporting the AANES is one of the best ways the U.S. can safeguard and nurture the seed of religious freedom in the Middle East. 

The United States’ actions in Syria matter. The Syrian Defense Force (SDF), the military arm of the AANES, allied with a U.S.-led collation to drive out ISIS in 2014, winning a victory for democracy and religious liberty. With the radical Islamic threat eliminated, democratic development prospered in the AANES. In 2018, Turkey and its Islamic-extremist allies began to plan their attack on the vulnerable AANES once again. An October 2019 call from Turkey’s President Erdogan to President Trump all but divulged Turkey’s intentions to engage militarily in the AANES. When President Trump agreed to pull troops from Syria, Erdogan moved in. Turkish troops invaded, raided, and plundered, leaving a swath of destruction and suffering in their wake. Christians, Yazidis, and Kurds were forced from their homes, their villages looted, women kidnapped into sex slavery, and citizens killed. Turkey has been accused of war crimes in the AANES, resulting in a massive humanitarian crisis.

Now, Northeast Syria is left to rebuild in the wake of this destruction. This region needs the opportunity to develop its economy, and that requires the U.S. taking one small step at no cost to itself. In a June hearing of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Commissioner Nadine Maenza recommended “an expansion of U.S. engagement with and assistance to the AANES, including lifting sanctions for only AANES-governed areas.” Maenza asserted, “It is also important that the new Caesar Act sanctions, passed by Congress to penalize the Assad Regime, are implemented in a way that does not negatively impact the AANES.”

U.S. sanctions against Syria should be lifted from the AANES for the sake of continued development, religious freedom, and the lives of vulnerable Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians in the area. The tender shoot of democratic development and religious liberty must be cultivated, and lifting the sanctions on the AANES is the best way to start. 

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

Violence Is Increasing Against Nigeria’s Christian Communities

by Lela Gilbert

October 2, 2020

In July 2020, Family Research Council published a major report on the suffering of Nigeria’s Christians, describing the murderous attacks against them and the Islamist ideology that lies behind them. Since then, the death toll of those Christians who are targeted solely because of their faith has continued to soar.

Our FRC Issue Analysis began:

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

Last week—two months later—Decision Magazine reported, “Pressure has mounted recently on the Trump administration to more aggressively address the violence that has claimed some 60,000 Christians in the last 15 years….In addition, an estimated 2 to 3 million people have been displaced by the violence committed by the ISIS-affiliated terrorist group Boko Haram and militant Muslim Fulani herdsmen. There are reports of widespread hunger and health needs among the displaced, who are often living in squalor.”

The number of Nigerians dead, mutilated, wounded, and left homeless in the past decade is accelerating. This is particularly true when, for multiple reasons, the U.S. and other governments have done so little to stop the carnage.

Retired Congressman and religious freedom expert Frank Wolf, along with several others, participated in a September 16 press conference hosted by the International Committee on Nigeria [ICON] in Washington, D.C. An outspoken voice against the Nigerian government’s failure to control the killers in their midst, Mr. Wolf addressed the question of whether the crisis is a “potential genocide.” He emphatically rejected the word “potential,” “Genocide!” he asserted. “Genocide is taking place in Nigeria!”

Three groups are responsible for the attacks against Nigeria’s Christians: Fulani radicals, the notorious Boko Haram, and the burgeoning Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). The UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom or Belief (APPG) noted in a recent influential report that the Fulani herdsmen have adopted “a comparable strategy to Boko Haram and ISWAP and demonstrate a clear intent to target Christians and potent symbols of Christian identity.”

Meanwhile, Nigerian reporter Akin Osuntoku writes, “Today, a new breed of herdsman has emerged: an aggressive and murderous terrorist bearing sophisticated firearms such as AK-47s and even rocket launchers. And they become the mobile avant-garde army of political Islam in Nigeria. Given the country’s porous borders, many of them are recent immigrants from neighboring countries. Herdsmen from Niger, Chad and Mali can walk across the border and immediately lay claim to all the sacrosanct rights appertaining to bona fide Nigerian nationals.”

Because of the aggression of these brutal jihadi groups, and thanks to the muted response of the world’s most powerful nations, Nigeria’s tragic stories never seem to stop. For that reason, reflecting FRC’s increasing alarm over untold numbers of abused and neglected Christians, we invited Richard Ikiebe to the Values Voter Summit to participate in a conversation with us from his Nigeria home. His words bring to life the ongoing struggle he and his fellow believers are facing:

Armenia: An Unwelcome Conflict and a Call to Prayer

by Lela Gilbert

September 28, 2020

How familiar are most Americans with the ancient country of Armenia? It’s probably best recalled because of the great tragedy that took place there in the early 20th century—the Armenian Genocide. That massacre of some 1,500,000 Armenian Christians (along with the murder of around 750,000 Greek Christians) took place between 1914 and 1922.  

In recent days, violence has erupted once again in Armenia’s corner of the world. This involves Christian Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh versus Muslim Azerbaijan. And now, Islamist Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has entered the fray, fueled by his dream of a neo-Ottoman caliphate.

On Monday, September 28, Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) News reported:

Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of reigniting their decades-long conflict in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh after fresh violence erupted in the breakaway region.

The two sides resumed open conflict again on Monday morning with the use of heavy artillery. Outbreaks of violence had continued through the night, according to the Armenian Defense Ministry spokesperson Shushan Stepanyan.

During night battles continued with different intensity. Early in morning, Azerbaijan resumed its offensive operations, using artillery, armored vehicles, TOS heavy artillery system,” Stepanyan wrote on Twitter…

At least 31 people — both civilians and military — have died in fighting that erupted on Sunday between Azerbaijani forces and Armenian rebels in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, officials said.

The early 20th century genocides, which were carried out by the Ottoman Turks, are widely understood to have been a jihad against Armenian Christians. In fact, at the time, the killings were declared as jihad by the Turks themselves. And according to my conversation today with a friend in Yerevan, Azerbaijan’s present invasion is perceived by Armenians as more of the same.

There are deeply rooted historical reasons for this understanding.

Armenia, which is now surrounded by Muslim countries, was the first country in the world to convert to Christianity—in 301 AD. Its Armenian Orthodox Church is rooted in the earliest Christian history. In fact the biblical record of Armenia’s land stretches back to the book of Genesis, when Noah’s ark came to rest after the Great Flood on what came to be known as Mt. Ararat.

At the time those 1,500,000 Armenian souls were massacred at the end of World War I during the Genocide, Armenia’s historic possession of Mt. Ararat also was overturned by Turkey. Ever since, the mountain has remained a potent symbol both of Armenia’s spiritual heritage and terrible forfeitures.

And now—as of today—conflict is again exploding against Armenia, including the little-known Armenian enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh. This separate remnant of Armenia—some 20 miles away from the existing border—was created by policies of the former U.S.S.R., when ethnic and religious groups were intentionally split apart.

In the early 1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Christian communities were attacked by neighboring Azerbaijan, Azeri Turks, and other Muslim fighters. This conflict was widely understood by the Armenians as an extension of the earlier 20th century “jihad.” Miraculously, in a David vs. Goliath finish, Karabakh won that conflict—against all odds.  

During a visit to Nagorno-Karabakh a few years after that battle, I learned that the conflict was clearly not just about land. There was a Muslim/Christian component as well. And there were, in fact, jihadi elements among the Azeri-Turks fighting against Armenia’s Christians. Tragically, some 30,000 died in that little-known war.

And now, Turkey’s ambitious Islamist President Erdogan has declared Armenia as “the biggest threat to peace in the region.” His latest posturing threatens Armenia and Karabakh, both of which are almost entirely Armenian Orthodox Christian.

As I wrote for The Jerusalem Post a few months ago:

Turkish aggression in at least five countries has been headlined in international news reports just this month, June 2020. These accounts focus on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest intrusions into Israel, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Greece.

Meanwhile, it is noteworthy to those of us who focus on international religious freedom that whenever Turkey moves in, religious freedom moves out. There can be no lasting freedom of worship for any faith unless it conforms with Turkey’s Islamic practices.

Now we can add Armenia to the list of Erdogan’s ambitions. Based on his recent hostilities, his transformation of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and Chora Church into mosques, and his frequent expressions of triumphalism, a couple of serious questions arise:   

Does Erdogan think that Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which are ancient Christian historical heritage sites, represent yet another Hagia Sophia-type landmark? Does he feel driven to seize, Islamize, and declare them as yet more trophies for his neo-Ottoman Empire?

Those questions seem to be clearly answered in a report from Asia News:

Turkey has sent 4,000 Syrian Isis mercenaries from Afrin to fight against the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh. A few days ago land convoys reached Turkey and then Azerbaijan by air. The salary is 1,800 US dollars a month, for a duration of three months. A leader of the Syrian terrorist group said: “Thanks to Allah, from September 27 until the end of the month another 1000 Syrian mercenaries will be transferred to Azerbaijan”.

With another dangerous religious conflict exploding across that war-torn region, let’s remember to pray for our Armenian Christian brothers and sisters. May religious freedom truly flourish in their corner of the world as well as elsewhere around the globe.

House Takes Aim at China’s Forced Labor Program

by Arielle Del Turco

September 24, 2020

By passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on Tuesday with an overwhelming majority, the House of Representatives sent a message to the Chinese government that the United States is done funding China’s atrocities. Now, it’s the Senate’s turn to take up this measure which is in line with the priority and focus on religious freedom we have already seen from the Senate and the White House.

The world is increasingly coming to grips with the fact that China is detaining an estimated one to three million Uyghur Muslims in “re-education” camps, where detainees face brainwashing and torture. But the human rights abuses are not confined to the camps. The State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report found that “Many detained individuals approved to ‘graduate’ from these facilities were sent to external manufacturing sites in close proximity to the camps or in other provinces and subjected to forced labor, while others were transferred and potentially subjected to forced labor within a separate formal prison system.”

Evidence of China’s forced labor scheme in Xinjiang has been mounting over the past year. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that many Uyghurs are transferred from “re-education” camps and sent to live in dormitories on factory grounds where they work. They are made to take ideological training classes, constantly surveilled, and forbidden from practicing their religion. 

While mass internment of a religious minority group can be expensive, China has found a way to financially profit from these human rights violations by forcing “re-education” camp detainees to work in factories. 

Unfortunately, the supply chains of major American companies—including Nike and Apple—have been linked to Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang. In July, the New York Times found that Uyghur forced labor likely contributed to the production of face masks made in China during the response to COVID-19.

The list of companies caught in complicity is long, and many of these companies hold policies mandating responsible workplace conditions that these Xinjiang factories clearly violate. The secretive nature of the camps and factories makes investigating these concerns difficult. Therefore, it is no longer safe to assume that any goods produced in Xinjiang are free of forced labor without solid evidence to the contrary.

China’s forced labor program is just one small part of the government’s larger aim to “sinicize” religion and scrub all faiths of anything that might make someone loyal to a higher authority than the Chinese Communist Party. One local Chinese government report stated that sending young Uyghurs to work away from their home and family can change their outlook by “distancing them from religiously extreme views and educating them.”

In July, the U.S. State Department issued a business advisory warning companies about the risks of supply chains in Xinjiang linking to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor. The advisory specifically noted the dangers of aiding in the development of surveillance tools, using labor or goods sourced in Xinjiang, and assisting in the construction of internment facilities. The advisory warned of reputational, economic, and legal risks to these actions—risks that are becoming a reality. Companies that have not already considered moving their supply chains elsewhere in Asia or the world should seriously consider doing so now.

Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) issued withhold release orders on four Chinese companies and a Communist Party subsidiary known to use forced labor. The orders block products from these companies from entering the U.S. While this is an important and necessary step, forced labor taints factories throughout Xinjiang, and stopping unethically-produced products from entering the American market requires a broader approach.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act offers a practical solution to combat China’s ideologically-motivated oppression. The bill would require companies to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that any goods produced in Xinjiang imported to the U.S. are not made using forced labor—thereby hindering the Chinese government’s ability to profit from its forced labor scheme. It also calls on the U.S. secretary of state to develop a strategy for addressing forced labor in Xinjiang and sanctioning individuals responsible for the forced labor program.

While U.S. leaders, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, have stood out as global leaders criticizing China’s dismal human rights records, actions always speak louder than words. At the most fundamental level, we must ensure that American citizens and companies are not unknowingly financing the same Chinese human rights and religious freedom abuses our leaders disparage

Ultimately, Americans do not want to fund China’s rights abuses, and shopping for everyday products at brand name retailers should not put them at risk of financially supporting atrocities abroad. American companies and consumers deserve to be protected from unknowingly participating in China’s oppression of a religious minority group.

The House took an important first step by passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. It’s up to the Senate to keep the ball moving. The Senate should work to swiftly pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to ensure the U.S. plays no part in China’s oppression of the Uyghur people.

Why All Christians Should Care About International Religious Freedom

by Arielle Del Turco

September 18, 2020

Between the coronavirus pandemic, racial tensions, and an election around the corner, America is dealing with a lot. The temptation to ignore the difficulties faced by others around the world—even pressing issues such as international religious freedom—is understandable.

But for a 14-year-old Christian girl forced by a Pakistani court to live with the man who kidnapped her and forced her to convert to Islam and marry him, she may place her hope in the fact that people in free countries are sounding the alarm and advocating on her behalf. This alone is reason to care about religious freedom around the globe and raise our voices on behalf of the persecuted—because many cannot speak up for themselves.

Attacks on religious freedom against those of all faiths are escalating in many regions of the world, amounting to a global crisis. Over 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high levels of governmental or societal religious oppression.

Christians have many reasons to prioritize religious freedom. First, because God calls us to care for the persecuted church, the downtrodden, and those who cannot help themselves (Psalm 82:3-4, Isaiah 1:17, James 1:27). Second, because Christian theology aligns with the principles of religious freedom. God does not coerce us into believing; likewise, we should not use government to coerce others. True faith must always be a free choice. Third, there are practical humanitarian benefits when religious freedom thrives, leading to freer, safer, and more prosperous societies for those that embrace it.

Scripture compels us to care for the persecuted church, the downtrodden, and those who cannot help themselves. Because God has allowed us to freely choose Him, it is right that we follow His example by ensuring everyone everywhere has the freedom to believe, without government or social coercion.

Ultimately, religious freedom affirms the human dignity of every individual by allowing them to live according to their conscience. Anything less than robust religious freedom protections is immoral. This is a more than sufficient reason for the world to care about religious freedom.

For more on the importance of international religious freedom and what you can do about it, read FRC’s new publication International Religious Freedom: What Is It and Why Should You Care?

Burma’s Relentless Abuse of Christians and Rohingya Muslims

by Lela Gilbert

September 9, 2020

Burma’s Christians have long faced ongoing and terrible mistreatment at the hands of the country’s militant Buddhist authorities. In fact, since 1999, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has declared Myanmar (also known as Burma) a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) because of its violent practices, lawless abuses, and discriminatory treatment of non-Buddhists. Burma’s regime has used fines, imprisonment, forced conversions, starvation, gang rape, and child abuse to oppress Christians.

But Christians aren’t the only ones who suffer in Burma. Muslims are also viciously persecuted.

In 2017,  triggered by a relatively small insurgency, Rohingya Muslims began to face increasing violence and fled by the thousands into neighboring Bangladesh in what many observers have called ethnic cleansing—or even genocide. Still today—three years later—the situation of the Rohingyas continues to fester.

According to USCIRF’s 2020 report, since the violence began—including the clearance operations that Burma’s security forces first launched in October 2016—nearly 725,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh, whose refugee population in Cox’s Bazar (see above image) now totals 1.1 million. One refugee told USCIRF that whereas previously the authorities in Burma’s Rakhine State only restricted Rohingya Muslims’ freedoms, since the October 2016 and August 2017 waves of violence “the authorities rape, burn, and kill them.”

On August 25, USCIRF marked the third anniversary of Burma’s Rohingya crackdown:

Three years after the beginning of the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya people, the Burmese government has done almost nothing to hold the military accountable or make conditions safe for the Rohingya to return to their homes,” USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza stated. “Refugee camps are not a long-term solution for the Rohingya people. The United States and the international community must reinvigorate and catalyze efforts to permit the Rohingya to return to their home in Burma as full citizens.

At the same time, Voice of America reported, “Burmese leaders still aim to eradicate the Rohingya. The Rohingya are being destroyed. The lives of the remaining 600,000 Rohingya in Burma are under house arrest,” said Tun Khin, a leading Rohingya activist. He explained that the United States has always played a leading role in tackling ethnic crimes, and other countries will follow suit if the United States now stands up for the Rohingya.

It was long hoped that a beloved icon of freedom, Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi—who once spent years under house arrest in her Burmese homeland, and whose appeals for peace earned her a Nobel Prize—would speak up now that she serves as “State Counsellor,” Burma’s de facto leader. But tragically, her former international honor has been tarnished.

Arab News has reported widespread international disappointment with Aung San Suu Kyi. She “has so far failed to speak out on the violence, leaving her global reputation in tatters. Rights groups, activists — including many who campaigned for her in the past — and her fellow Nobel laureates Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have condemned her.”

Unfortunately, discrimination against the Rohingya was dramatically aggravated by a militant insurgency within the Rohingya community itself. This insurgency, known as ARSA, had its beginnings far from Southeast Asia. On August 31, 2017, the Chicago Tribune published an AP report about the group’s initial development:

The group was formed last year by Rohingya exiles living in Saudi Arabia, according to the International Crisis Group, which detailed ARSA’s origins in a report last year. It is led by Attullah Abu Amar Jununi, a Pakistani-born Rohingya who grew up in Mecca, and a committee of about 20 Rohingya emigres. ICG says there are indications Jununi and others received militant training in Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan.

The insurgents’ first attacks took place in October 2016, when more than a hundred Rohingya men, armed with various weapons, including knives, slingshots, and rifles, attacked police and killed nine officers. In August 2017, the group struck again, attacking a far larger area, which included Buddhist villages, killing many civilians as well as targeting police. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a fierce response by the Burmese authorities, leading to the torching of numerous Rohingya villages and the killing, rape, and displacement of thousands.

The ARSA rebels have since declared a “ceasefire.” However, the damage activated by their insurgency has since resulted in the unending flood of displaced Rohingyas who clearly had nothing to do with ARSA terrorism or any other crimes. Nonetheless their plight seems never ending.

And at the same time, Burma’s Christians also continue to be mistreated and abused.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the four million Christians in Burma make up about 8.2 percent of the mostly Buddhist population. They live in the country’s margins and belong to ethnic minority groups such as the Karen, Kachin, Chin, Karenni, Lahu, and Naga. They experience everything from discrimination to violent abuse.

For example, as USCIRF recently noted:

Beginning in 2018, Burma’s Chinese-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA) has targeted Christians in territory under its control. Under the guise of confronting “religious extremism,” UWSA soldiers interrogated and detained almost 100 pastors; ordered others to leave the region; closed religious schools and churches; destroyed unauthorized churches; banned new church construction; and forcibly recruited Christian students. In late 2018, the UWSA released those detained after they signed a pledge to pray only at home. In December 2019, the UWSA reopened 51 of the more than 100 churches closed with the rest remaining closed.

Tragically for persecuted Christians—and of course for mistreated Rohingyas and other religious minorities in Burma and far beyond—little awaits them but uncertainty, deprivation, and despair. May God have mercy on them all. And may those of us who enjoy religious freedom continue to pray, provide support, and speak out on their behalf.

In North Korea, the Choice to Be a Christian Can Be Fatal

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

September 8, 2020

When Ji Hyeona was growing up in North Korea, the word “faith” meant being loyal to the Kim family dictators.

Religious freedom doesn’t exist in North Korea and adhering to any religion is extremely dangerous, as Ji found out for herself. One day, she was taken to the local Ministry of State Security without warning. There, she was beaten and tortured, not knowing why she was being singled out for such treatment.

Then, the authorities placed Ji’s Bible on the desk in front of her. It was a Bible her mother had brought back to North Korea after a trip to China, and Ji had begun to read it. Sadly, her own friend had reported her to the government for possessing a Bible.

At the time, Ji was able to talk her way out of further punishment, but she was informed she would not be forgiven if this happened again.

This would not be Ji’s last encounter with North Korean authorities. She managed the difficult escape from North Korea four times—and was forcibly repatriated back to North Korea by Chinese authorities three times. Forced labor in prison camps awaits those who dare leave the hermit kingdom.

Twice in China, Ji was forced into prostitution, and during one repatriation to North Korea, she returned pregnant. Because so-called “mixed-race” babies are not recognized in North Korea, repatriated defectors who return pregnant endure brutal and heartbreaking forced abortions. Ji was no exception.

Ji continues to tell her story despite how painful it is. Why? She says, “While people are dying and the rest of the world watches that… if they maintain their silence despite knowing what is going on, I don’t think that’s right.”

For nearly two decades, Open Doors’ World Watch List has continuously designated North Korea as the #1 worst persecutor of Christians in the world. The horrifying stories told by escapees like Ji describe unimaginable cruelties under the brutal Kim family’s authority.

The 2020 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report explains, “The (North Korean) government treats religion as a threat…Christians are especially vulnerable because the government views them as susceptible to foreign influence. … Anyone caught practicing religion or even suspected of harboring religious views in private is subject to severe punishment, including arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution.”

On top of the hardships created by the failed communist state, speculation about the status of COVID-19 in North Korea continues. Timothy Cho from Open Doors UK, himself a North Korean defector, says that the hurting economy and widespread malnutrition make North Koreans especially vulnerable to the coronavirus: “North Korea was already presenting with existing issues of ongoing starvation and malnutrition and economic crisis. What’s been happening since this virus lockdown [is] they had closed the borders with China. So, it has radically decreased the amount of imported food and medicine, this is the reason why a lot of items’ prices have gone up to more than four times and some of these imported food and foodstuff are difficult to find in the market.”

North Korea has also experienced historic levels of rainfall this summer. Floods have destroyed hundreds of homes in addition to ruining large rice fields. Due to the fragility of the country’s agricultural system, experts suggest the year’s harvest may be significantly affected, ultimately leading to food shortages.

The secretive and controlling North Korean regime makes it difficult for new information about the country’s deplorable human rights conditions, shoddy health care system, and economic and agricultural failures to reach the rest of the world. But while the situation rarely makes international news, we would be remiss to forget or ignore the plight of North Koreas, including those who suffer for their faith every day.

Please remember faithful Christians in prayer. It takes great courage to practice one’s faith in the type of isolation forced upon North Korean believers. Simple acts like praying or owning a Bible put their very lives at risk. 

Much remains uncertain about the future of the hermit kingdom. Renewed talks between the United States and North Korea remain a possibility in the coming months and years. Meanwhile, rumors still swirl about shifting power dynamics within the regime. However, one thing is certain. No matter what developments occur among regime officials or what deals they try to strike with other nations, the United States and other free countries must do everything in their power to press for religious freedom and human rights in North Korea. Far too many people are suffering, silenced by their oppressive government and unable to speak up for themselves.

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