Religious Persecution is Widespread, Report Warns
by Monica Bansal, 3rd year law student at American University
The numbers are staggering: 12,000 people killed in a cycle of violence between Christians and Muslims stretching back more than a decade. The location: Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, lying on the continent’s fault line between the largely Muslim north and predominantly Christian south. In the most recent outbreak of killing in Nigeria’s Jos State several months ago, 500 men, women and children were hacked to death with machetes and then dumped into wells. That’s just one example of the level of religious persecution around the world, according to a new report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than two out of three people around the world live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion. For example, Egypt not only imprisons members of the Baha’i faith and members of minority Muslim sects, but also has some fired from their jobs, kicked out of universities and barred from having bank accounts, driver’s licenses, even birth certificates. Furthermore, Coptic Christians in Egypt continue to be persecuted by Muslim extremists. The International Coptic Federation reports that kidnapping of Christian girls by Muslim extremists continues, and Egyptian authorities are doing little to stop it. It is believed that more than 300 Coptic girls have been kidnapped. In another incident of religious persecution, a new Coptic Christian church in a poor district of Cairo was forcibly closed by Egyptian authorities July 15, just three weeks after it opened. In a “spectacular show of force,” police and soldiers sealed off the new Church of St. Bishoi, posting an armed guard and sealing doors and windows with wax.
Furthermore, Iranian authorities have detained more than 45 Baha’is in the last four months, and as many as 60 Baha’is are imprisoned in Iran on the basis of their religion beliefs, the State Department said. Tehran’s constitution declares the “official religion of Iran is Islam and the doctrine followed is that of Ja’fari Shi’ism.” The government severely restricts freedom of religion, particularly efforts by Christians to evangelize. Since conversion of a Muslim to another faith is considered apostasy under Shari’a law, non-Muslims who proselytize followers of Islam put their own lives at risk. Iran’s theocratic government has also pressured evangelical Christian groups to compile and submit membership lists for their congregations, but this demand has been resisted in the past.
Azerbaijan & Kyrgyzstan
Furthermore, recent legislation in Azerbaijan requires churches and religious communities to register with the government for permission to practice their religion. The government is touting the bill on religion as an anti-terrorism measure, saying that the new statutes would make it easier for law-enforcement authorities to contain Islamic radicals. In addition, officials say that the pending legislation is needed to help thwart what some portray as a second social scourge – evangelical Christians. President Bakeiv in Kyrgyzstan recently issued a Religion Law in 2009, which bans the distribution of religious books, audiotapes, or any other similar material and prohibits any religious activity to take place if it is not registered with the government. It also criminalizes “proselytism” and requires that a religious organization have at least 200 adult members who are citizens of the Kyrgyz republic in order to qualify for official registration. Two members of one Christian group, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they felt compelled to keep proselytizing. “We respect the authority of government because the Bible tells us to do what the government says,” one of them said. “We will listen and obey, but they cannot shut our mouths. We will continue to share our beliefs.”
Overall, the North African country has a history of religious tolerance. Morocco’s constitution provides for freedom to practice one’s religion, but Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion. Nonetheless, in March 2010, approximately 40 foreigners were deported from Morocco on grounds that they were attempting to convert Moroccan citizens to Christianity, without even so much as a chance to plead their cases in court. Furthermore, the Moroccan government announced on March 29, 2010, it had expelled five female Christians for attempting to “proselytize” in the Islamic country, although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians. The accused women were five of 23 tourists, expatriates and Moroccans arrested in Casablanca during what the Interior Ministry called a “proselytizing” meeting involving Moroccan citizens. Police seized numerous pieces of evangelistic “propaganda,” including Arabic books and videos. Earlier this month, a Shiite school was closed after accusations that it was attempting to convert students, and rights groups claim that about a dozen people have been arrested on suspicion they had converted to Shiite Islam.
Most recently, Uzbekistan’s police raided one of the biggest Protestant churches in Tashkent during its May 16, 2010 worship service. Many religious believers in Uzbekistan have been given long prison sentences over recent years to punish them for their religious activity. The government maintains extremely strict controls over all religious groups, requiring all to be officially registered. The registration process is lengthy and difficult, and the majority of applications are denied. Groups that meet without being registered are illegal, and face fines, confiscation of property, imprisonment, and other methods of persecution. Out of 2,228 registered religious organizations, fewer than 180 are Christian. Unregistered groups are often accused of extremism and prosecuted under the applicable laws. Furthermore, the vast majority of people are Muslim, and the government provides Islam some official support, through financial aid to Muslim schools and other assistance.
In India, the recent outbursts of violence against Christians are predominantly acts of Hindu extremists. These extremists attempt to justify their actions by charging Christians of forceful conversions although conversion is, in fact, legal in India. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, a group of Hindu extremists beat a pastor and his wife and accused them of forceful conversion. In India’s Kerala state, six theology students were forcibly abducted and recently beaten by activists of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the armed wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the Hindu nationalist party that has been accused of being hostile to religious minorities. Missionaries have allegedly been involved in “aggressive conversion” techniques such as spreading offensive stories about Hindu gods and goddesses, along with tricks of miraculous curing by Christian healers as claimed by Hindu groups. Hindu extremists also believe that these missionaries are rich in donations from other countries and use that money to lure people into their faith.
The toughest restrictions on the right to worship come from otherwise repressive governments which target religious minorities. Americans should do all they can to highlight religious persecution and aid foreign believers seeking the right to worship God as they believe appropriate. After all, there is no more fundamental human right than freedom of conscience.
Lal, Vinay. Anti-Christian Violence in India. Manas. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/world-affairs/countries/?CountryID=94