Christmas is typically a joyous time for Christians. But many believers were not able to celebrate their most important holiday this past year. Or any other. By numbers, Christianity is the most persecuted faith.
For example, confronting a population with more Christians than Communist Party members, the Chinese government has launched a brutal and intensive campaign against all faiths, especially when operating outside of government‐controlled bodies. In the Middle East persecution is state policy in such nations as Saudi Arabia and Iran and favored activity of outside forces in Iraq and Syria.
No faith is exempt. Judaism remains a perennial target of the most malevolent actors in many societies. Yazidis, Baha’is, and other non‐traditional religions are particularly vulnerable to Islamist extremists. Being the “wrong” kind of Muslim can lead to great hardship, even death, in Islamic nations.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) makes an annual report on the status of religious liberty around the world. Persecution is surprisingly widespread. The situation is best in North and South America, though traditionally free countries, such as Canada, are moving in the wrong direction as socially conservative believers increasingly face exclusion and punishment. Africa, Asia, and the Middle East feature extensive religious cleansing and mass murder of people of faith.
The State Department has named nine particularly egregious offenders as “Countries of Particular Concern.” The winners of the just concluded year’s contest for worst of the worst are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Although rhetorically clumsy, the label is highly substantive, reflecting severe and systematic persecution. State generally follows the commission’s recommendations, though typically offers Realpolitik leniency based on other geopolitical considerations. USCIRF’s latest assessment details the offenders’ many crimes.
Burma. One of the most tragic cases covered by the commission, Burma, also known as Myanmar, seemed headed toward a democratic future four years ago when the military relaxed its hold on power and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats. But the military continues to dominate security affairs, and Suu Kyi turned out to be a Burman nationalist more worried about strengthening her party’s reelection chances than remedying widespread human rights abuses.
USCIRF reported on “widespread atrocities” against the Rohingya Muslims. Although these attacks have been particularly severe, other groups have suffered as well. Noted the commission, “Victims of severe human rights and religious freedom violations have little hope for justice; this includes Rohingya and other Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus, as well as ethnic Kachin, Shan, Karen, Rakhine, and Chin.” In the case of some ethnic groups, the military and nonstate forces appear to be guilty of “crimes against humanity and even genocide.” The NLD‐led government has restricted media freedom to report on such violations of human rights.
China. Although economic reform and engagement failed to deliver political liberalization in the People’s Republic of China, the death of Mao Zedong did yield a looser form of authoritarianism. Churches spread, and there are now more Christians than Communist Party members, especially those who join out of political ideology and not personal ambition.
But Xi Jinping, who was selected as president and party general secretary in 2012, has fostered a return to Mao and Maoism. The Commission reported that at least 800,000 and perhaps as many as two million Muslim Uighurs have been sent to reeducation camps. Even those not detained face severe repression of their religious and personal liberties.
Other believers also face serious and increasing attacks by the Chinese government. The commission reported that in 2018 the regime “effectively banned ‘unauthorized’ religious teachings and required religious groups to report any online activity. Moreover, the Chinese government continued to persecute all faiths in an effort to ‘sinicize’ religious belief, a campaign that attempts not only to diminish and erase the independent practice of religion, but also the cultural and linguistic heritage of religious and ethnic communities.” One senses the ghosts of Madame Mao and the Gang of Four with every new pronouncement from Beijing.
Eritrea. This North African country has been called the North Korea of Africa, which is not a compliment. After winning its independence from Ethiopia through a long and bitter war, Eritrea turned inward, creating a totalitarian horror.
The regime recognizes only Sunni Islam and the Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Churches. USCIRF explained, “Even these official religious groups are unable to practice their faith freely because the Eritrean government regulates and interferes in their affairs. The government does not allow any other religious groups to register and treats them as illegal.” Conscripts are not allowed to practice their faith. Those arrested often are imprisoned in inhumane conditions.
Despite making peace with Ethiopia in 2018, Eritrea has not relaxed domestic repression. The commission noted that “hundreds of people are currently imprisoned for their religious beliefs, but in the extremely secretive and closed‐off society there are no official figures.” The only escape is flight, and the number of Eritrean refugees going to Ethiopia has jumped.
Iran. The self‐styled “Islamic republic” grew out of the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah. The regime has been under siege ever since, barely surviving an invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, supported by the Reagan administration, and subsequent sanctions and threats by Washington. Unsurprisingly, religious liberty has suffered.
In 2018, USCIRF reported, Tehran heightened “its systematic targeting of Muslims (particularly Sunni Muslims and Sufis), Baha’is and Christians. The government arbitrarily detained, harassed, and imprisoned Baha’is based on their religion and continued its long‐term practice of egregious economic and education persecution of the community. Hundreds of Sufis were arrested and scores were sent to solitary confinement and beaten in prison. Christians faced a dramatic uptick in arrests from previous years, and Muslim converts to Christianity continued to face severe persecution.” Jews and Shia reformers also suffered:
Three years ago President Hassan Rouhani promised to liberalize the government’s policy toward religious minorities. However, that effort, if ever launched, was stillborn. The system has grown less tolerant. In fact, the situation today is far worse. The repressive religious order is able to suppress popular dissent only with difficulty; this battle over the regime’s survival is not helping religious liberty. The situation is likely to get worse before it improves.
North Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sets the global standard for repressive rule. The Kim family dynasty is treated as godly; anyone who promotes a higher loyalty to someone or something else, namely God, poses a severe threat to the system.
The commission noted, “The North Korean regime has an appalling human rights record and places unjust restrictions on its people’s inherent right to freedom of religion or belief. The North Korean government maintains totalitarian control over society.” Only a handful of official churches are allowed to exist, mostly, it is believed, for show.
In contrast, USCIRF explained, “Any expression of religion outside this heavily regulated sphere happens in secret, and anyone caught practicing religion or even suspected of harboring religious views in private is subject to severe punishment.” Defectors returned from China are most harshly punished if they have contact with Christian activists and churches active across the border. As many as 50,000 believers are thought to be imprisoned in North Korean labor camps.
Pakistan. Although the government sought to combat Islamic extremism, in 2018 “religious freedom conditions generally trended negative,” the commission stated. “During the year, extremist groups and societal actors continued to discriminate against and attack religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis, and Shi’a Muslims. The government of Pakistan failed to adequately protect these groups, and it perpetrated systematic, ongoing, egregious religious freedom violations.”
Among the most brutal tools of religious repression are the nation’s extreme blasphemy laws, which often are used against religious minorities and manipulated as part of personal, social, and financial disputes. Religious hatred also is a vote winner. USCIRF explained that “the entry of extremist religious parties into the political arena during the election period led to increased threats and hate speech against religious minorities.” Even the best of intentions of political leaders have been frustrated by Islamist demagogues.
Saudi Arabia. President Donald Trump criticized the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the campaign but has since acted as if Riyadh was the superpower and America the helpless supplicant. Yet the KSA is one of the most repressive states on earth. Even after recent social liberalization, the royal regime maintains essentially totalitarian religious and political restrictions: no dissent of any kind is permitted, and dissidents abroad risk kidnapping, murder, and dismemberment.
Saudi officials have, the commission reported, pledged “to promote interfaith dialogue and the flourishing of different faith traditions as part of the kingdom’s domestic reforms,” but nothing has yet changed in practice. The regime “maintained a ban on non‐Muslim public religious observance and continued to arrest, detain, and harass individuals for dissent, blasphemy, and apostasy. The Saudi government continued to violate the rights of Shi’a Muslims and non‐Muslim minorities, and to advocate doctrine of religious intolerance.”
The latter is particularly important. The royals made a proverbial deal with the devil, promoting the intolerant doctrines of Wahhabism in the kingdom and around the world in return for support for the al‐Saud dynasty. Yet “after more than 15 years of incremental progress, the Saudi government showed backsliding on improvements to its textbooks that continued to propagate intolerance and advocate violence against religious minorities” and others. The result is likely to be creation of more violent terrorists and murder of more innocents.
Tajikistan. This authoritarian former Soviet republic fears not only extremism, as it should, but faith, which it should not. Explained USCIRF, the government continues its “repressive policies, suppressing displays of public religiosity and persecuting minority communities, especially actual and alleged Salafists. Authorities pursued a crackdown on various attributes of faith, including restrictions on wedding and funerary banquets, and pursued extralegal bans on beards and hijabs. Higher Islamic religious education was all but decimated.” More than 2,000 mosques were closed.
Such brutality obviously is unjust. It also is likely to spur extremist thought and action. If the only way to pursue a life of faith is illegally, then the potential for illicit teaching and association is far greater.
Turkmenistan. None of the Central Asian states turned out well after independence. Alas, the commission warned, “Turkmenistan is widely considered the most closed of the former Soviet states, and this was reflected in the range and severity of the government’s religious freedom violations.”
The regime imprisoned conscientious objectors and “continued to be suspicious of all independent religious activity and maintained a large surveillance apparatus that monitors believers at home and abroad.” The government “requires religious groups to register under intrusive criteria, strictly controls registered groups’ activities, and bans and punishes religious activities by unregistered groups.”
Those accused of religious offenses often are tried in communicado, receive secret sentences, and disappear “in the state’s prisons system and are presumed to be held without any contact with the outside world.” Their fate can only be presumed, however, since “the full extent of religious persecution is unknown due to the nearly complete absence of independent news media and the threat of retaliation by the government against communities, family members, and individuals who publicize human rights and religious freedom violations.”
Unfortunately, there are plenty of also‐rans in the race for the bottom. For instance, in its latest report the commission noted that globally “both state and nonstate actors increasingly used religion as a tool of exclusion to isolate, marginalize, and punish the ‘other’ through discrimination and violence.”
State also places some countries — oppressive, but behind the CPCs — on a Special Watch List. This year those nations are Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. Their characters vary, but the results are similar, gross interference with freedom of conscience and the ability to live out one’s faith.
All believers are a risk, but Moscow’s intolerance is curiously and narrowly focused, with Jehovah’s Witnesses the most recent target. In most cases malign governments — authoritarian, communist, or Islamist — are to blame. In Nigeria a virulent Islamic insurgency terrorizes Christians and nonviolent Muslims. Only in the case of Sudan is the ranking positive, since the overthrow of Omar al‐Bashir eased oppression of non‐Muslims. Khartoum used to be CPC.
USCIRF does not stop with these nations. It also surveys a number of other nations in what the commission calls Tier 1 and Tier 2. These oppressive extras are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Syria, Turkey, and Vietnam.
Although the CPC designation is useful, it is merely a starting point. The U.S. and other nations of goodwill have only limited ability to reach into other societies and improve human rights, whether religious, political, or civil.
The application of general sanctions hurts people more than governments, usually without policy effect. Targeted sanctions provide moral satisfaction but have yet to ease, let alone end, persecution anywhere. Who believes that Washington’s criticism will cause Xi Jinping, heretofore the new Chinese Mao, to suddenly channel Thomas Jefferson and speak of the eternal rights to life and liberty?
Worse, U.S. policy often ignores and sometimes spurs persecution. Washington usually goes soft when its allies — Egypt and Saudi Arabia are current examples — are the oppressors. Indeed, Riyadh is notably more ruthless than Tehran, but the former’s crimes are almost never mentioned by Secretary of State and noted Evangelical Mike Pompeo. The impact of Washington’s policies can be even worse: the invasion of Iraq created chaos, sparked sectarian war, and spread persecution. The Christian community was ravaged, with many believers forced abroad, including to Syria, where they were victimized again, this time by insurgents backed by Washington. In such cases, the best the U.S. could do is adopt the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm.
Yet support for the oppressed matters, and not just from governments. In fact, assistance from individuals, congregations, activists, groups, and anyone else who believes in the importance of human life and dignity is critical. Such non‐political efforts cannot be dismissed as hypocritical cant and pursuit of foreign policy by other means.
Private campaigns also can embarrass, hinder, impede, and shame offenders. Equally important, standing for religious liberty lets the victims know that they are not alone. Knowledge that they are backed by a genuine “international community” helps give them strength for what almost certainly will be a lengthy struggle well into the future.
Americans of serious religious faith increasingly and justifiably worry about the security of their liberties at home as support for religious freedom becomes just become another partisan issue. Yet believers in the U.S. do not know real persecution. Rather, brothers and sisters in faith abroad are the principal victims of religious intolerance, discrimination and persecution. They require the hopes, prayers, and support of good people around the globe.