Persecution of Christians is the “premier human rights issue of the early 21st century, as well as the most untold story about global Christianity in our time,” Boston Globe reporter John Allen stated in prepared remarks on February 11, 2014. Addressing a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing, Allen and other panelists ominously delineated Christianity’s threatened state around the world.
“[I]t is absolutely the case that Christianity is the most widely persecuted religion in the world today,” observed the submission from human rights advocate Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The Pew Forum cited by Allen, for example, found for Christians in the years 2006-2010 “some form of harassment, either de jure or de facto, in 139 countries” or two-thirds of all nations, “the largest total for any religious group.” Christians, meanwhile, were the only religious community at risk in all 16 of the worst religious freedom countries identified by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Terrorist attacks on Christians worldwide also jumped 139% in the years 2003-2011 according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
While Middle Eastern persecution of Christians “is perhaps the most acute,” Rogers noted, Christians today are “facing threats from a wide range of sources in almost every corner of the globe.” As an “alternative source of authority,” USCIRF commissioner Elliott Abrams analyzed, Christianity presents a “direct threat both to tyrannical governments,” whether “secular or religious,” and “extremist private actors.” Russia, for example, “favors Russian Orthodox Christianity” over groups like Pentecostals, thereby seeing “religion as ultimately a creature of the state” as the Soviet Union previously.
Allen noted Iraq’s Christian community, numbering 1.5 million in 1991 but down to 500,000 or even 150,000 today after fleeing a “campaign of violence and intimidation” including attacks on 40 of 65 churches in Baghdad since 2003. The Most Reverend Francis A. Chullikatt, Permanent Observer of the Vatican at the United Nations, referenced as well the “tradition” in recent years confronting Arab Christians of Christmas Eve church bombings. Yet “North Korea is widely considered the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian,” Allen wrote. Perhaps a quarter of North Korea’s 200,000-400,000 Christians endure forced labor camps for refusing to venerate the national cult of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.
The “most violent anti-Christian pogrom of the early 21st century,” though, occurred in the northeastern Indian state of Orissa in 2008. Perhaps 500 Christians died in multiple riots, often hacked to death with machetes by Hindu radicals who also destroyed 5,000 homes and 350 churches and schools. Yet authorities resisted effective judicial action and even threatened false accusations against victims, lawyer Tehmina Arora from the Indian branch of Alliance Defending Freedom criticized. From 827 filed complaints, only 512 charges resulted, leading to 75 cases with 477 convictions, primarily for petty property offenses; only nine convictions involved killings.
Violence complemented legal repression in the form of “Freedom of Religion Acts,” commonly known as anti-conversion laws, justified in several Indian states as preventing involuntary conversion. The acts “give the district administration wide and sweeping powers to inquire into religious conversions” and “cast an onerous burden” on converted and proselytizers alike. Converts must give conversion details to authorities and in Gujarat must even obtain conversion permission.
Arora also criticized the 1950 Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order. This order excludes people “who professes a religion different from the Hindu, the Sikh and the Buddhist religion” from classification as members of disadvantaged castes such as the untouchables (Dalit). Despite conversion, the 70% of Indian Christians from disadvantaged castes continue to suffer social disabilities due to their untouchable background, yet receive no government benefits.
CSW’s sub-Saharan Africa expert, Khataza Gondwe, surveyed that region, including its “militant Islamist insurgencies” such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram (BH). “From its inception in 2002 when it was known locally as ‘the Taliban’,” Gondwe’s submission stated, BH “made it clear that Christians and symbols of the federal system were its primary targets.” BH’s “campaign of religious cleansing,” Gondwe warned, risked “being obscured…by the oft repeated phrase that ‘more Muslims than Christians’ have died” from BH. This might be true given the “fact that bombs do not discriminate” in religiously mixed areas, yet BH in 2013 destroyed 46 villages and expelled 14,000 Christians in the Gwoza area of Borno. A “former Maoist liberation movement,” meanwhile, ruled Eritrea as an “equal opportunities oppressor” for all, including Christians.
“Latin America…often overlooked in discussions of international religious freedom,” concerned Jorge Lee Galindo, director of the Mexican religious freedom initiative Impulso 18. Mexican Protestants, for example, refuse financial contributions demanded by traditional religious and political authorities for local patron saint festivals. Attacks against the church and homes of one Protestant community in 2009-2010 culminated in its expulsion with the official approval of local authorities. National authorities have still not returned this community to its homes, showing how religious freedom “has never been a priority” for Mexico’s government despite constitutional and legal protections.
Like Mexico, Columbia has a parallel legal system for indigenous communities. In contrast to Mexico, though, Columbia’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2007 that indigenous authorities may subordinate individual religious freedom to community traditions. Regional “anti-sect” laws in Argentina and Cuba’s “onerous control over religious groups” rounded out the Latin American state repression described by Galindo.
Narco-trafficking networks in both Mexico and Columbia presented private threats to Latin American religious liberty. In northern Mexico targeting of churches for extortion and money laundering has become “normal.” Many of these “criminal groups have adopted a kind of pseudo-religiosity” in, for example, the “cult of Santa Muerte or Saint Death.” Christian clergy who refuse to venerate such “saints” can suffer “severe penalties” such as murder.
Even Indonesia’s “tradition of pluralism” from the Pancasila state ideology’s recognition of six religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism) is “increasingly under threat,” Rogers noted in his Asian survey. The Communion of Churches in Indonesia reports at least 430 churches having been attacked, closed, or burned down since 2004. According to the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum, attacks against Christian churches have risen to 75 in 2012 from ten in 2009 and 47 in 2010.
Such repression refuted “two myths about Indonesia,” namely that “religious intolerance is confined to certain areas” and “occasional incidents,” and that the current administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a “force of moderation.” Yudhoyono has, for example, welcomed intolerant fatwas from the National Congress of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI). A 2006 governmental decree, moreover, requires for church construction registration of 90 congregation members, approval from 60 local residents, and recommendations from various government bodies. Even after meeting these requirements, local resistance still imperils some church building projects.
Western countries where Christianity “historically…has been an integral part of society,” were also the subject of Chullikatt’s remarks, as quoted from a May 27, 2013, Vatican statement to the UN in Geneva. Here a “trend emerges that tends to marginalize Christianity in public life, to ignore historic and social contributions and even to restrict the ability of faith communities to carry out social charitable services.” Chullikatt himself saw in this trend a “profound identity crisis at the heart of these great democracies, which owe to their encounter with Christianity both their origin and culture, including their human rights culture.”
Given the enormity of persecution, Allen wondered “why this global war on Christians is often wrapped in a blanket of silence” even among churches. Allen discerned a “problem of narrative” with Westerners “conditioned to see Christianity as the agent of repression, not its victim,” given historic incidents such as the Inquisition. Yet “this narrative is badly out of date.” Of the estimated 2.3 billion Christians globally, the world’s largest religion encompassing a third of humanity, two-thirds live outside the West. The “typical Christian in today’s world is not an affluent American male pulling up to church in a Lincoln Continental” but rather more like a “poor black woman and mother of four in Botswana.”
Religious freedom has been an “orphan human right” in the American government, Abrams submission noted. Hence the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) founding USCIRF, yet IRFA’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is currently vacant and “dramatically reduced” in rank by the State Department. Presidents also exhibit bipartisan neglect in designating the worst religious repressors as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) such that the “CPC system is broken,” Abrams said to Representative Chris Smith. Yet religious freedom “is not just a legal or moral duty, but a practical necessity,” Abrams submission argued, given various correlations with peace and prosperity, all the more reason not to ignore a “growing and searing affront to our consciences.”