Earlier this week the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 20th annual report on the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. “In addition to insights on religious freedom conditions in these 28 countries, the Annual Report provides actionable policy recommendations for Congress and the Administration to help improve conditions abroad where people are being persecuted for their religion or belief,” USCIRF Chair Tenzin Dorjee said. “Our goal is not only to call out the offenders, but to provide concrete actions for the U.S. government to take in working with these countries to get off our lists.”
Here are nine things you should know about the persecution being faced by our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe. (Note: The title of this article includes 2019 to mark the year of the report, though the details are about events that occurred in 2018. Also, while we should be concerned about the persecution of other faiths documented in this 238-page report, for the sake of brevity this article will only include actions against Christians.)
1. North Korea: Because the North Korean government associates Christianity with the despised West, particularly the United States, they single out Christians as the greatest religious threat. According to the report, the regime utilizes a sophisticated surveillance apparatus to actively pursue and imprison Christians practicing their faith in secret. Their immediate and extended family members are often incarcerated as well, whether or not they are similarly religious. The State Department estimates there are between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners currently languishing in North Korea’s notoriously harsh labor camps, known as kwanliso, and up to 50,000 of these detainees are believed to be Christians. Inmates in these facilities are detained indefinitely and face hard labor—likely to advance the development of nuclear weapons and other military equipment—along with starvation, torture, and arbitrary execution. Defectors report that prison authorities often single out prisoners for more severe treatment if they are suspected of being Christian or having contact with Christians
2. China: The report notes that as a Christian in China, your Bible may have been rewritten by the Chinese government, your church shuttered or demolished, and your pastor imprisoned. The Chinese government continued to persecute all faiths in an effort to “sinicize” religious belief, a campaign that attempts to diminish and erase the independent practice of religion. According to religious-freedom advocates, more than 5,000 Christians and 1,000 church leaders were arrested in 2018 because of their faith or religious practices (most of these arrests, though, resulted in short-term detentions and did not lead to criminal charges). Authorities closed down or demolished thousands of churches or religious sites, including Zion Church in Beijing; the Golden Lampstand Church in Shanxi Province; and the Bible Reformed Church, House of David Church, and Rongguili Lane Church in Guang-dong Province.
3. Eritrea: Individuals, including children, are regularly arrested and detained for their religious beliefs and practices and not afforded due process under the law. Security forces continued to arrest evangelicals and Pentecostals for participating in prayer meetings and religious ceremonies. Christians who were released after having been detained for at least four years were forced to sign promises that they would no longer attend meetings or worship services of their churches. Many evangelicals and Pentecostals have been detained for more than 13 years, including several pastors: Pastor Kidane Weldou (since 2005) and Reverend Haile Naizghi (since 2004) of the Full Gospel Church, Pastor Kif lu Gebremeskel of the Southwest Full Gospel Church (since 2004), and Pastor Meron “Million” Gebreselasie of the Massawa Rhema Evangelical Church (since 2004). In June, Pastor Ogbamichael Teklehaimanot of the Kale Hiwot Church was released after being detained since 2005.
4. Iran: Iran has nearly 300,000 Christians, including traditional Armenian and Assyrian/Chaldean ethnic churches and newer Protestant and evangelical churches. The government monitors members of the historical churches and imposes legal restrictions on constructing and renovating houses of worship. Christians have been sentenced to prison terms for holding private Christmas gatherings, organizing and conducting house churches, and traveling abroad to attend Christian seminars. Evangelical Christian communities face repression because many conduct services in Persian and proselytize to those outside their community. Pastors of house churches are often charged with apostasy and national security-related crimes.
5. Nigeria: Christians in Nigeria reported ongoing fears that their communities were being targeted in ethnic-cleansing campaigns. Religious communities in many areas remain highly polarized. In some cities, people are afraid to go into neighborhoods of the other religion or refuse to sell land to individuals from the other faith.
6. Sudan: Authorities target members and evangelical church leaders of the Sudanese Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) and Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC). During USCIRF’s meetings in 2018, evangelical leaders said that the Ministry of Guidance and Endowments has directly interfered in their church affairs since 2012. SCOC and SPEC interlocutors reported officials confiscating their papers documenting property rights. In 2018, security forces were still able to harass and arrest Christians and other minorities, sometimes arbitrarily, without consequence or respect for the rule of law. On October 10, NISS forces in Darfur arrested and allegedly tortured 13 Christians—some said to be recent converts from Islam—during a prayer meeting and charged the leader of the group with apostasy.
7. Vietnam: Ethnic minorities in Vietnam face particularly severe and persistent harassment because of their religion or belief. Throughout 2018, USCIRF received reports of local government officials and police interrupting house worship sessions in Hoa Thang Commune, Ea Drong Commune, and other Montagnard Christian communities. In April 2018, police in Tuong Duong District disrupted a Hmong worship group affiliated with the government-sponsored Evangelical Church of Vietnam (Northern Region), claiming it was not properly registered (an estimated 40 percent of Hmong are Christian). In numerous instances, local authorities attempted to coerce members of independent religious groups to renounce or recant their faith, sometimes employing threats of physical assault or banishment. Authorities in Krong Pac District publicly berated and humiliated Montagnards for their affiliation with the unrecognized Evangelical Church of Christ.
8. Burma: During the year, there were reports that the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture issued orders restricting the instruction of Islam and Christianity to government-approved houses of worship and limiting such instruction to the Burmese language, which is not the first language of many religious and ethnic minorities. USCIRF received information that in recent years more than 30 churches were destroyed in Kachin State, most by heavy weapons attacks. By some estimates, there are more than 100 churches in Kachin State at which parishioners can no longer worship.
9. Pakistan: At least 40 individuals are currently sentenced to death or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan. This includes two Christians, Qaiser and Amoon Ayub, who were sentenced to death by a district judge in December 2018 based on allegations that they insulted the Prophet Muhammad in articles and images posted online. Pakistan’s best-known case of blasphemy is that of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman whom the Supreme Court acquitted of blasphemy charges in October 2018 after a lower court sentenced her to death in 2010. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision criticized the lower court judges and prosecutors for pursuing falsely accused blasphemy cases that did not meet the requirements of Pakistan’s evidentiary rules.