Author archives: Arielle Del Turco

4 Tips for Praying for the Persecuted

by Arielle Del Turco

April 13, 2021

Global persecution of religious believers is an immense and complex problem with diverse causes, legal factors, and cultural and historical dynamics. This can make the scriptural mandate to remember and pray for persecuted believers an intimidating task. But it shouldn’t be.

Here are four tips to keep in mind when you pray for the persecuted.

1. Pray for specific people, countries, and situations. 

When you know of a specific person abused or imprisoned for their faith, pray for them by name. Consider the cases of Huma YounusWang Yi, and Leah Sharibu.

When you don’t know of individuals in need of prayer, pray for situations. Pray for Christians facing blasphemy charges in Pakistan, for young girls held hostage by Boko Haram in Nigeria, for Christians detained in labor camps in North Korea, or churches in China facing harassment from the government. Voice of the Martyrs has a convenient Global Prayer Guide with a summary of the challenges in every country with laws targeting Christians and countries where Christians experience dangerous social hostility.

There are hundreds of thousands of persecuted believers whose names the outside world may not know and may never know. Yet, God knows their names and the trials they have suffered for Him. It’s okay, and beneficial, to pray for the persecuted even when we are unaware of specific situations. These people need our prayers as well.

2. Consider what you might want prayer for if you lived in a persecuted context.

Many Christians live in a country where it can be dangerous to follow Christ. Open Doors estimates that 340 million Christians live in such places. Not all methods of persecution are life and death. Many are relatable. Christians may be facing discrimination in employment, as many do in Pakistan. Or, they may be attending a church service on a religious holiday with a gnawing fear of an attack, the likes of which are all too common in the Muslim world. Or, they may live in a restrictive country where they are afraid to share their faith.

Depending on the context, pray for persecuted believers the way you would want someone to pray for you if you were in the same situation. Pray that God would meet both their physical and spiritual needs.

3. Pray that religious freedom would become the universal standard across the globe.

In addition to praying for persecuted individuals and situations, pray for greater religious freedom around that world.

Further, pray for the leaders of other countries that persecute believers—that they would have a change of heart and that their plans to oppress religious groups would be thwarted. Also, pray for the leaders of free countries, including the United States—that they would be given effective policy ideas and solutions to advance international religious freedom.

4. Remember why we pray for the persecuted.

Scripture calls Christians to remember and pray for the persecuted.

In Ephesians 6:18-20, the Apostle Paul instructs believers to “keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”

In this passage, Christians are asked both to pray for all other Christians as well as to pray for Paul, who was imprisoned for his ministry at the time he was writing. In prison, Paul was concerned for his Christian witness and requested prayer that he would have the right words to use. Similarly, we can pray that missionaries and believers in persecuted contexts would represent Christ well with their words and actions and be granted wisdom to operate in their contexts.

Praying is also a significant way to love our neighbor (Mark 12:31). Like Paul, many persecuted Christians express a desire to know that others are praying for them and remember them. American pastor Andrew Brunson felt this way while he was held in a Turkish prison for two years. Consistent prayer is a meaningful way to treat people the way we would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12).

If you are still unsure of how to pray for persecuted believers, feel free to draw from this sample prayer:

Father God,

I ask that You would comfort and protect Christians around the world today who are intimidated, detained, and attacked for their belief in You. Please give them the physical strength and spiritual endurance to withstand persecution. Be present with them in their hardship and remind them to find peace in You. I pray that You would use the situations that their persecutors intend for evil for good.

I thank You that You give us all the freedom to follow You and that You beckon us with love. I ask that there would be greater religious freedom around the world and protections for those who wish to live out their faith. Please show me how to better serve You and the precious members of Your church suffering for Your name. Amen.

Why Is Religious Freedom So Uniquely Important?

by Arielle Del Turco

April 12, 2021

At the heart of many recent contentious debates from the Equality Act to COVID-19 church restrictions is the issue of religious freedom. But what exactly is religious freedom, and what makes it so uniquely important?

At its core, religion is the search for truth about questions of ultimate meaning. Common to most religions is an organized collection of beliefs, behaviors, and practices that connect or relate humanity with the divine. Religious freedom, then, is the freedom to believe what you want in terms of doctrine and theology and the freedom to order your life according to your deepest convictions about ultimate things.

In other words, religious freedom protects the ability of individuals to choose and change their religious beliefs and align their lives in agreement with those beliefs.

Religious freedom is not relativistic, nor does it profess there is no truth about God. Rather, it affirms the deep importance of truth and upholds the right of individuals to come to their own conclusions about what is true of God, humanity, and the world.

Attacks on religious freedom target one’s conscience—the very core of their being. This makes religious freedom a unique and essential right. Tom Farr says, “Our nature impels us to seek answers to profound questions about ultimate things. If we are not free to pursue those answers, and to live according to the truths we discover, we cannot live a fully human life.”

Thus, religious freedom is not merely the right to attend church and practice your religion within the walls of a church, synagogue, or mosque. Rather, it is the ability to live out your faith, including in the public square.

This broad conception of religious freedom is enshrined in the United States Constitution. The First Amendment protects this basic right, often called our “first freedom.” The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Beyond this key constitutional protection, religious freedom is also a fundamental human right, one recognized by international resolutions and treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

Religious freedom is a widely recognized right around the globe. Yet, laws in many countries put qualifiers on the legal right to religious freedom, empowering governments to crack down when the beliefs of a community or an individual are perceived to oppose the government.

For Americans, these aggressive international violations remind us of the importance of protecting religious freedom at home. Yet, they also demonstrate the importance of promoting religious freedom in our foreign policy.

Societies that embrace religious freedom and pluralism tend to be more prosperous and secure. This makes sense. Societies that embrace individuals’ freedom to express their own viewpoints and live according to their beliefs are going to attract, rather than repel, talented people abroad as well as global economic engagement. Pluralistic societies that value human dignity and do not view religious groups or beliefs as a problem to be eliminated will not suffer from the violence that is fostered by religious discrimination.  

Religious freedom corresponds with and affirms other basic freedoms, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The right to openly express your most deeply held beliefs is essential to religious freedom, as is the right to peacefully assemble in houses of worship and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the concept of religious freedom is often misunderstood. This is seen with increasing frequency with activists who pit religious freedom against the demands of the moral revolution. For example, those whose beliefs about gender and sexuality are influenced by their faith are caricatured as intolerant and their beliefs are perceived as subversive. The resulting tension threatens to erode support for religious freedom as a freedom that benefits everyone—religious and non-religious.

Amid increasingly heated cultural debates, it is critical for those who value our first freedom to affirm its importance. Religious freedom will not endure by laws alone, although the law should include robust protections for religious freedom. Religious freedom also relies on cultural support.

By consistently living out our faith in the public square, we can foster a culture that respects religious freedom. So, pray in public, share your faith, and do not compromise your beliefs. Your constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion protects your ability to live according to your convictions. So, use it. Live according to your faith and defend the rights of others to do the same.

Yet Another Christian Teenager in Pakistan is Trapped in a Forced Marriage. It’s Time to Act.

by Arielle Del Turco

March 24, 2021

When 13-year-old Shakaina Masih’s mother arrived to take her home from the job at which she helped with housework, she was informed that her daughter had already left. When Shakaina never showed up, concern soon became alarm as her parents urgently filed a missing person report. After initially delaying to respond, police informed Shakaina’s parents that she had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man last month.

Devastated to learn that their teenage daughter was supposedly married to a man whose name they had never even heard, Shakaina’s parents believe she was abducted. “Shakaina is just a kid,” Shakaina’s father, Johnson Masih told Morning Star News. “She was kidnapped and taken to Okara, where they forcibly converted her and conducted the fake marriage to give it a religious cover.” Many Christian parents in Pakistan fear exactly this occurrence—and it is all too common.

Hundreds of girls from Christian and Hindu backgrounds are kidnapped each year and forcibly converted before being raped and often forced to live as their abductor’s wives. Widespread discrimination and the government’s failure to protect religious freedom creates an environment that enables this horrific practice to thrive. Islamic clerics who solemnize underage marriages, magistrates who make the marriages legal, and corrupt authorities who refuse to investigate all contribute to the problem.

Huma Younus, a Christian girl kidnapped at 14 years old, also remains trapped. In October 2019, three men waited until Huma’s parents left their home before barging in and taking Huma by force. A few days later, the kidnappers sent Huma’s parents copies of a marriage certificate and documents alleging her willing conversion to Islam. 

Now 15 years old, reports indicate Huma is confined to one room in her abductor’s house and is now pregnant from repeated rape. Though a judicial magistrate in East Karachi issued a warrant for the arrest of her kidnapper last September, police have reportedly delayed acting upon the warrant.

Intense social hostility to religious minority groups can make doing the right thing dangerous for judges and officials. Nothing makes this reality more clear than the situation surrounding the country’s blasphemy laws.

Conviction on a blasphemy charge in Pakistan can mean life imprisonment or a death sentence. Even if the court acquits someone, violent mobs may form to take the punishment into their own hands. In 2020, an Ahmadi Muslim man who was accused of blasphemy was dramatically shot and killed in the courtroom.

Pressure from Islamists to punish non-Muslims is intense. Just this month, one Pakistani Christian’s sentence was made harsher following an appeal filed by the Islamist legal group Khatam-e-Nabuwwat Forum (KNF) who were seeking the death penalty over the Christian’s blasphemy charge. When Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, publicly defended Asia Bibi in 2011, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, he was assassinated at a public market.

The social hostility surrounding court cases that involve non-Muslims make it more difficult for religious minorities to receive justice—even when the victims are vulnerable young girls. In response, the Pakistani govnerment should be taking steps to secure the rule of law and protect its Christian and other minority citizens.

The scope of the issue and the heinous nature of the crimes make forced marriage in Pakistan an issue that deserves to be addressed by the international community. A new publication by Family Research Council offers several recommendations for how U.S. officials can combat the practice of forced marriages in Pakistan.

First, State Department officials should prioritize the issue of forced conversions and marriages in diplomatic relations. This issue should also factor into considerations of whether Pakistan should be designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) on religious freedom by the State Department.

Second, Congress should pass a resolution urging that forced marriage and forced conversion of religious minorities in Pakistan be addressed by both the U.S. govnerment and Pakistani government. Resolutions do not carry the force of law, but they communicate issues about which Congress is especially concerned.

Third, the United States should apply targeted sanctions on Pakistani officials responsible for committing or tolerating human rights abuses. This is an effective way to let corrupt officials know that their complicity in human rights abuses will have international consequences.

Raising the issue of forced marriages of minority girls in Pakistan is especially important because these communities are marginalized and ill-equipped to publicly defend themselves. By advocating on their behalf, the United States can uphold its role as a leader on human rights and raise awareness on a grave problem that receives scant attention.

Hong Kong Has Gone Dark

by Arielle Del Turco , Bob Fu

March 19, 2021

A new law enacted in Hong Kong this week is the final death knell in the city’s democracy. China’s national legislature approved electoral changes intended to ensure there are “patriots governing Hong Kong.” Of course, in Communist Party-run China, “patriotism” means rubber-stamping the Party’s wishes.

With dozens of the top pro-democracy political candidates now in prison, Beijing has crushed the hopes of hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers who took to the streets in a call for greater democracy. As Hong Kong endures political repression under the Chinese Communist Party’s tightening grasp, the freedom-loving world must act to punish Beijing.

The new election law gives Beijing far greater input into choosing the members of the local legislature. Short on details, the measure’s new requirement of “patriotism” will block any dissident from being elected, or even anyone reluctant to affirm the policies of the Party.

As justification for the continued assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy, Beijing loyalists now argue that the “one country, two systems” principle agreed upon prior to the British handover in 1997 refers only to economics, not politics. They are changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Consequently, serious China-watchers are appropriately starting to treat Hong Kong just like China. The Heritage Foundation dropped Hong Kong from its annual Index of Economic Freedom, finding the city not sufficiently autonomous to warrant a distinct listing. It is a move that makes Hong Kong’s leaders furious, but this reclassification is merely an acknowledgement of the reality on the ground. Hong Kong is different following China’s national security law and subsequent crackdown, and the world should act like it.

To make matters worse, the political and religious crackdown on the mainland is increasing, and this will no doubt extend to Hong Kong. New religious regulations going into effect in China on May 1 require religious leaders to “support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party” and “practice the core values of socialism.” One church that aided pro-democracy demonstrators in 2019 had its bank accounts frozen. The pastor believes it to be retribution for supporting the protests. Such disregard for the rule of law is frequent on the mainland.

Hong Kong is now politically unrecognizable. Yet, the United States can and should take action to hold Beijing accountable for its trampling of Hong Kongers’ human rights.

Hong Kong’s deterioration of religious freedom, along with freedom of association and assembly, should prompt the U.S. to impose targeted sanctions as provided by the International Religious Freedom Act. Other sanctions for international human rights offenders should be considered, including those provided for under the Global Magnitsky Act.

The United States should also continue to apply the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration against the Hong Kong and Chinese officials most responsible for stifling freedom in the territory.

Finally, the Biden administration should cooperate with Congress to completely void the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, which allowed Hong Kong a privileged trade status distinct from mainland China. By designating Hong Kong a Chinese province, Beijing will no longer be able to benefit from the economic success Hong Kong incurred as an economically free society.

Beijing’s repression in Hong Kong must have consequences. America’s allies in the region, including democratic Taiwan, are watching and hoping that the free world will lend practical and meaningful support for democracy in the region. The United States must do its best to provide it.

Beijing and authoritarian leaders across the globe will learn something from the way the world reacts to its Hong Kong crackdown. The lesson they must learn is that regimes who crush democracies will not go unpunished.

Bob Fu, founder and president of ChinaAid, is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council.

Arielle Del Turco is the Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.

Religious Persecution Fuels Forced Marriage and Human Trafficking

by Arielle Del Turco

March 15, 2021

A new report from Open Doors, “Same Faith, Different Persecution,” details how religious persecution affects men and women differently. Women are particularly vulnerable to different expressions of persecution than men, including sexual violence.

Per the report, in the 50 countries with the highest level of Christian persecution, forced marriages of women have increased by 16 percent. Stunningly, 90 percent of countries featured in the 2021 World Watch List reported incidents of forced marriage, up six percent from the previous year.

Abduction and forced marriage are a particularly widespread problem in Pakistan’s minority communities. In October 2019, three men waited until Huma Younus’ parents left their home before barging in and taking 14-year-old Huma by force. A few days later, the kidnappers sent Huma’s parents copies of a marriage certificate and documents alleging her conversion to Islam. Huma was forced to live as the wife of one of her abductors, and last summer, her parents learned that she had become pregnant from repeated rape.

To Huma’s parents’ dismay, the Sindh High Court ruled in February 2020 that the marriage was legal based on Islamic law, which says men can marry underage girls if they have had their first menstrual cycle. Today, Huma remains subject to unknown abuses in the home of the man who kidnapped her.

In Pakistan, perpetrators choose Christian and Hindu girls as their victims so they can use the country’s religious tensions to cover up their crimes. When a possible instance of forced conversion occurs, the perpetrator will often tell Muslim members of the community that it is inappropriate to question someone’s conversion to Islam. It can be dangerous for a girl to tell authorities or the courts that she did not truly want to convert to Islam; she may face threats against her safety or her family. Mob rule often affects Pakistan’s justice system and weakens the government’s ability to protect the most vulnerable.

In many of the countries Open Doors studied, marriage documentation is often used to cover up human trafficking rings. The report notes, “Traffickers often attempt to cloak the associated sexual violence behind a claim that the girl is now married, which in reality is often a forced marriage or a marriage resulting from targeted seduction.”

It is no secret that in countries with pronounced religious discrimination, girls from religious minority communities are targeted for human trafficking.

State Department officials have repeatedly tried to draw attention to the trafficking of Christians in the countries surrounding China. Kachin Christians from Burma and Christians from Pakistan are favored targets for Chinese traffickers. Traffickers lure impoverished and uneducated girls with the promise of economic comfort, a good job, or the story of a nice Christian boy looking for a wife. In reality, work at a brothel or forced marriage to an abusive and unloving husband is what awaits them.

The fate of women who escape their trafficking or forced marriage situation is also dire. Many cultures attach great shame and stigma to rape. Victims of rape may cease to be seen as an appropriate marriage prospect by their community.

The Open Doors report tells the story of Esther, a young Nigerian girl who was abducted by Boko Haram. After she escaped and made her way home with the child she had in captivity, she was shunned by her community. She said, “They called my baby ‘Boko.’”

The trauma that victims of rape, forced marriage, and human trafficking suffer from is long-lasting. Recovery is an extensive journey that is made even harder without support from the community.

Religious freedom is a human right that affirms other human rights. The various ways in which men and women are victimized by persecution bears witness to that. Research on this topic should cause us to renew our commitment to promoting religious freedom. The painful consequences of religious persecution ought to prompt free societies to take more robust action.

New Report Confirms China’s Genocide. It’s Time to Get American Companies Out of Xinjiang.

by Arielle Del Turco

March 10, 2021

Fifty global experts in international law released a report yesterday analyzing the evidence of genocide in Xinjiang. They determined that China violated every single provision in the 1948 Genocide Declaration.

As the first independent report of its kind not associated with a government, these findings add a lot of credibility to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s determination that China is committing an ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people.

Current State Department officials have recently been caught trying to avoid the responsibility to act following the genocide declaration by using the past tense to describe China’s genocide. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called out these inconsistencies on Twitter, asking why Biden’s nominee for Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and the State Department spokesperson would “refer to genocide in Xinjiang as something in the past? Then uses ‘atrocities’ language which is legally distinct?”

The statements of the Biden administration cause confusion about an issue on which the United States must be clear: Genocide is occurring in Xinjiang, and it must be stopped.

The Genocide Declaration, which the United States has ratified, calls countries to prevent and punish genocide. A new Family Research Council report argues that one of the best ways to punish China for genocide is to target their forced labor program.

Evidence that Beijing is utilizing Uyghur detainees in vast “re-education” camps as a source of forced labor in factories across the Xinjiang region abounds. But do the international companies whose supply chains run through Xinjiang actually care?

The Wire China recently reached out to the 48 largest American businesses with operations in China to ask if they had a position on the repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The silence was deafening.

Only 1 out of 48 companies expressed concern for the situation. Meanwhile, 88 percent of the companies did not respond or declined to comment. The remaining companies claimed they did not source from Xinjiang.

The silence is particularly alarming given the powerful position these large U.S. companies occupy. Nury Turkel, a Uyghur who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told The Wire China, “Corporate America is so influential in China. They try to play victim, but the business community might have more leverage trying to get China to do the right thing than the diplomats. Their responsibility is at the front and center of what we are trying to accomplish to stop the genocide.”

Some companies, including Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple, have gone so far as to lobby to dilute bills in Congress that seek to ban products made in Xinjiang with forced labor.

Yet, in Xinjiang, some of the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on forced labor may already be making an impact. In a bizarre act of desperation, Chinese companies are suing one U.S.-based researcher whose work has help exposed Beijing’s forced labor program. To the target, Adrian Zenz, the lawsuit indicates China is already feeling the economic hit from policies designed to target forced labor.

Uyghur activists are also calling into question whether it is appropriate for corporate sponsors to fund the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. As the Chinese government continues to deny its gross human rights abuses, it appears that the Olympics will take place in the shadow of a genocide.

Companies sponsoring the Olympics should think twice about those optics. These days, just about any unpopular opinion can get someone “canceled.” Yet, somehow, an ongoing genocide will not result in being canceled. 

These priorities are out of line, and people know it. Americans want to see their government address human rights in China. A recent Pew Research survey found that 70 percent of Americans think the U.S. should promote human rights in China, even if it harms economic relations. That is a huge number, and the Biden administration should take note.

As Beijing grows bolder in committing atrocities, it requires a response from the leader of the free world. The Biden administration should be prepared to offer that response by taking meaningful action to combat forced labor and punish Beijing for their genocide.

Pakistan Is Captive to Islamist Mob Rule

by Arielle Del Turco

March 9, 2021

This blog is Part 2 of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our first installment on Turkey.

Last month, a Pakistani court indefinitely delayed the appeal hearing of a Christian husband and wife accused of blasphemy, dashing the couple’s hopes for justice. Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel have been imprisoned since 2013 and on death row since 2014, on charges they say cannot possibly be true.

In June of 2013, a Muslim cleric claimed he had received a “blasphemous” text message from a SIM card registered in Shagufta’s name. The cleric and his lawyer then both claimed to receive more inciteful texts from the same SIM card. The texts were allegedly written in English. However, Shagufta and Shafqat, like many religious minorities in Pakistan, are poorly educated and illiterate, incapable of composing “blasphemous” texts in English. Yet, authorities arrested the couple and charged them both with “insulting the Qur’an” (under Section 295-B) and “insulting the Prophet” (Section 295-C). These crimes are punishable by life imprisonment and death, respectively.

Today, Shagufta and Shafqat are detained in separate prisons in different districts of the Punjab province. They are forced to stay in isolation because the authorities fear other prisoners may kill them. Shagufta’s brother, Joseph, says, “My brother-in-law is almost physically dead, as he is paralyzed and can’t move his lower body, and my sister is mentally dead as she has been living alone for over six years and also feels people may kill her, even in prison. She is very disturbed and her hair is falling out.” Meanwhile, their four children are growing up without their parents.

Stories like Shagufta and Shafqat’s are not altogether uncommon in Pakistan, where violent radicals pressure the courts to rule against religious minorities in order to defend Islam.

Blasphemy Laws and Mob Violence

Blasphemy laws prohibit insults to Islam and are utilized to target both Muslims and non-Muslims. People will often accuse others of blasphemy to settle unrelated disputes. Shagufta and Shafqat suspect their accuser was retaliating for a fight between their children.

When blasphemy cases are heard in court, radicals often see the perceived instance of blasphemy as an attack on the Muslim faith and put immense pressure on the courts to condemn the accused. Sometimes violent mobs pose a real threat to judges, especially those at the regional level who lack security details. Last year, one Ahmadiyya Muslim man accused of blasphemy was shot and killed in the courtroom.

Pakistan carries the dubious distinction of having the highest number of incidences of mob activity, violence, and threats related to blasphemy accusations in the world. Pakistan is officially an Islamic state, and an overwhelming majority of the population adheres to Islam. Religious tensions with the tiny Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and Ahmadiyya Muslim minority groups run high.

Social Discrimination

Many Christians and other minorities have limited options for work. They have high illiteracy and poverty rates and are often relegated to menial jobs as farmhands, sanitation workers, or street sweepers.These jobs carry harsh stigmas, reinforcing cultural discrimination against them.

The marginalization of these religious minority communities makes it difficult for them to advocate for themselves.

Forced Conversion

A tragic consequence of religious discrimination and violence is that it enables a trend of forced conversion. Huma Younus, a 14-year-old Christian girl, was kidnapped from her home by three men in October 2019. A few days later, the kidnappers sent Huma’s parents copies of a marriage certificate and documents alleging her conversion to Islam. Although her parents appealed to the courts for help, they ultimately sent her back to her abductor’s home, where she remains trapped within one room.

The failure of the Pakistani police and judicial system to secure justice for girls like Huma is shameful. The contentious nature of cases involving religion sometimes makes it dangerous for authorities to do the right thing. In the case of a young Hindu girl who had been kidnapped and forcibly converted, over 1,500 people gathered outside the court and pressured the judge to give in to the demands of the Muslim man accused of forced conversion.

Protecting Pakistan’s Religious Minorites Is Worth the Effort

The youngest democracy on earth, Pakistan is a complex country with many human rights challenges and a turbulent recent history. Pakistan’s weak rule of law has disastrous consequences for religious minorities most in need of legal protection.

Improving Pakistan’s religious freedom conditions will be a long and slow journey. U.S. and international leaders should continue to press Pakistani leaders to repeal its blasphemy laws and provide more protection for religious minority communities. For the sake of those who simply want to practice their faith in peace, it is worth the effort.

8 Powerful Books That Demonstrate the Importance of Religious Freedom

by Arielle Del Turco

March 5, 2021

Challenges to religious freedom continue to persist and intensify around the world, and it can be difficult to wrap our minds around these many diverse threats. It is important that we make an effort, however, because Scripture prompts us to remember our Christian brothers and sisters who are imprisoned and mistreated (Heb. 13:3).

If we are going to remember the persecuted, we must first learn their stories and empathize with their plight. A great way to start is by reading about the experiences of those who have lived in persecuted contexts.

Here are eight books that demonstrate the critical importance of religious freedom and can help us empathize with the persecuted:

God’s Hostage by Andrew Brunson

American pastor Andrew Brunson had ministered at a small Turkish church for years. Then, he unjustly got swept up in the government’s crackdown on a 2016 coup attempt. In his book, he opens up about the hardships he endured in prison and what God taught him through it all.  

Captive in Iran by Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh

Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh converted to Christianity in Iran, where it is illegal to do so. But they chose to share their newfound faith rather than stay in hiding. As a result, they discovered what one of the region’s most notorious prisons is like.

Under the Same Sky by Joseph Kim

Joseph Kim grew up in North Korea, the world’s most repressed country. It wasn’t until he managed to escape to China that he learned about Christianity.

The Last Girl by Nadia Murad

Nadia Murad lived a simple, rural life in Iraq until ISIS invaded her region and committed a genocide against her people. As a young Yazidi woman, she was taken by ISIS militants and sold into slavery before finally managing to escape.

Goodbye, Antoura by Karnig Panian

Karnig Panian was just a boy when Ottoman forces began their genocide against Armenians. Sent to an orphanage that taught him to abandon his Christian traditions and embrace a Turkish identity, he and other orphans endured immense challenges as the genocide occurred.

God’s Double Agent by Bob Fu

Born in Communist China, Bob Fu converted to Christianity and soon became a house church leader, evading the restrictive government. After being caught and sent to prison, he and his wife fled, where he began a new life as a human rights advocate in the United States.

Saving My Assassin by Virginia Prodan

In Ceausescu’s Romania, Virginia Prodan became a lawyer, always searching for the truth. When she finally found it in Christianity, she began defending Romanian Christians and churches in court.

God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew

This Dutch missionary known as “Brother Andrew” smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union. As he risked his safety to visit churches under communist regimes, he discovered what it meant to support the persecuted church. He eventually founded Open Doors.

***

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but reading these stories will broaden your worldview and expose you to some of the challenges experienced by believers simply trying to live out their faith. A few of these book recommendations are set in the past. Even though the specific circumstances described may have changed, the past has much to teach us about present threats to religious freedom and those that might surface in the future.

For more background information on current religious freedom challenges around the world, keep an eye out for FRC’s “International Religious Freedom 101” blog series. You can read the first installment about Turkey here.

In Turkey, Authoritarianism and Islamization Are Squeezing Out Christians

by Arielle Del Turco

February 23, 2021

This blog is Part 1 of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world.

David Byle had lived in Turkey for 19 years, boldly and consistently sharing the gospel in Istanbul while raising his children and building a life there. Now, authorities have forced the Canadian-American pastor to leave.

Byle first noticed a marked increase in harassment by local police in 2007. The government tried to deport him in 2016, but he challenged the decision in court and was allowed to remain. Then, in October 2018, authorities instructed him to leave within 15 days, calling him a security threat and permanently banning him from the country.

Whenever we spoke in public, people were excited to listen and learn. For a long time, we were successfully able to fight the government attempts to stop our ministry, because we were only making use of our right to religious freedom, protected by the Turkish constitution. The government did not want us in Turkey, but plenty of people do. God called us there, [H]e wants the Turkish people to hear about Him and to know that He is doing wonderful things,” Byle told ADF International.

The Turkish government’s increasing pressure on Christians has made its religious freedom violations more obvious. At the end of January, ADF International filed an application on Byle’s behalf with the European Court of Human Rights. This legal recourse is a long shot, but many Turkish Christians do not even have that.

Rise of Religious Nationalism

The backdrop of Turkey’s religious freedom violations is an increasingly hostile political scene. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become bold in pronouncing his dream of a neo-Ottoman state, growing aggressive with dissidents at home and assertive in the region. This has consequences for many people in Turkey and throughout the Middle East, including Christians, Kurds, and other minorities.

In 2020, much of the Christian world expressed outrage over Erdogan’s plans to convert the ancient Hagia Sophia cathedral into a mosque. Ottoman conquerors had previously converted the church into a mosque once before, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Erdogan declared, “Hagia Sophia became a mosque again, after eighty-six years, in the way Fatih the conqueror of Istanbul had wanted it to be.” This harkening back to the time of Ottoman sultan Fatih Sultan¿Mehmet (known as Mehmed the Conqueror) paints a picture of a renewed conquering Turkish state.

The beginning of 2021 has seen an increase in religious freedom violations concerning historic Turkish churches, according to International Christian Concern. Violations committed by the government include turning old churches into museums and destroying old churches despite their historic designations.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has increased the Turkish government’s authoritarianism and Islamization of institutions. Erdogan’s power was further consolidated after a 2016 coup attempt that provided the government with an excuse to crack down on perceived opponents. Andrew Brunson, an American pastor of a small Turkish church and a resident of Turkey for 23 years, was caught up in this crackdown. In 2016, Pastor Brunson was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest for a total of two years on false national security charges in the wake of the coup attempt. He was released following pressure from the U.S. government.

Legal Pressure on Foreign Christians

Over 98 percent of Turkey is Muslim, while Christians comprise less than one percent of the population. This tiny Christian minority faces very high government restrictions and high social hostilities, according to Pew Research reports.

The U.S. State Department’s 2019 international religious freedom report found that “Multiple monitoring organizations and media outlets… reported entry bans, denial of residency permit extensions, and deportations for long-time residents affiliated with Protestant churches in the country.” Most training for Protestant leaders in Turkey is conducted by foreign workers on long-term residence visas. Restrictions on foreign nationals participating in ministry are a direct attack on Protestant churches’ existence and growth in Turkey.

American Christian Joy Subasiguller has lived in Turkey for the past 10 years. Her husband, Lutfu, is the pastor of a small Turkish church, while Joy is a stay-at-home mom with their three young children. All of that was suddenly threatened when Turkey’s Ministry of the Interior revoked Joy’s residency permit without warning or explanation. The Subasigullers have appealed the decision, but appeals in similar situations are typically rejected by the government.

Joy, like David Byle, will most likely be forced to leave. If the family wishes to remain together, they must all go together. For their children, that means leaving the only home they know. For Turkey, it means one less Christian minister. “Turkey is my home. I love Turkey and the Turkish people very much,” Joy said. “My family has very strong ties with Turkish friends here and especially with Lutfu’s family, who would be devastated if we had to permanently relocate to another country.”

Concerns for the Future in the Middle East

Turkey’s recent military involvement in the region, including conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Northeast Syria, and Northern Iraq, demonstrate Turkey’s assertiveness in the region and eagerness to expand its influence in the Middle East, often to the detriment of minority communities.

Family Research Council closely followed the situation in Northeast Syria in the Fall of 2019, when Turkey sent forces to occupy land across its border governed by a Kurdish administration that had allowed religious freedom to flourish for the diverse groups living there. The invasion resulted in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, including Christian communities. Many of the displaced people have yet to return. As Turkey continues expressing this interventionist bent, its meddling in Middle Eastern affairs is bad news for religious minorities.

Turkey increasingly presents challenges to religious freedom within its borders and across the region. Western countries should take note of the changes happening under Erdogan’s leadership. If left unchecked, the religious freedom violations occurring in Turkey will not be confined to that country alone.

The Holy Spirit Will Be Working”: Despite Persecution, Hong Kong Christians Remain Hopeful

by Arielle Del Turco

February 2, 2021

Well-known American pastor Francis Chan surprised many when he announced his plan to move to Asia to serve in ministry, leaving his comfortable position as a mega-church pastor to follow God’s call. In less than a year, he and his family planted three house churches in Hong Kong.

Then the Chans were informed that their visas had been revoked, forcing them to leave with only a few weeks’ warning. Chan announced the move in a January 5, 2021 video, saying, “Last week, after Hong Kong officials rejected our visas, we had to leave the country. We are now back in the U.S. and appealing the decision. Hopefully, we can get back into Hong Kong because, man, we want to be there.”

Chan is unsure whether the government will ever let his family return to Hong Kong. The revoked visas come at a time when Beijing is increasing pressure on Hong Kong following the national security law enacted June 30, 2020, that enables the government to crack down on perceived opponents. 

On January 6, 2021, Hong Kong police officers arrested over 50 people connected to the pro-democracy movement. The mass arrests—mostly of pro-democracy politicians—marked a sad day for the hundreds of thousands of freedom-loving people who flooded the streets in support of democracy not long ago.

The immense scope of the national security law has left many Hong Kong Christians worried about how this may affect their churches or religious expression. Ever since the British handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, the city’s freedom had been protected by the “one country, two systems” policy. Now, Beijing is abandoning any pretense of Hong Kong’s autonomy. As the city starts to look more like mainland China, believers fear they will face the same restrictions found on the mainland.

Christianity is legal in China, but it is governed under the Three–Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the State Administration of Religious Affairs. The “three selves” in the Three–Self Patriotic Movement are self-governed, self-funded, and self-propagated. These requirements specifically cut off churches from outside aid or influence. The government closely monitors registered churches, and unauthorized churches risk being harassed or shut down.  

The Chinese government has long warned Christian churches against “foreign influence.” Revoking Francis Chan’s visa is significant, and it may signal a similar effort to reduce “foreign influence” in Hong Kong.

For decades, Hong Kong served as a hub for Christian ministry in Asia, including mainland China. Any crackdown on churches in Hong Kong would have far-reaching consequences. 

Some Hong Kongers are preparing for the possibility of increased religious restrictions. When Chan and his family knew they had to leave, they left the young churches to the congregants they had discipled. Chan asked if they were ready for the challenge, to which they nervously answered, “No.” But Chan encouraged the house church members, reminding them that church members in New Testament times had no Bibles or resources, but God used them to start a powerful church.

Across the world, churches that operate in a context of persecution are forced to function differently. But time and again, God has proven that no earthly force can impede the gospel. The growth of Christianity in China and Iran testifies to that.

Believers in Hong Kong may endure more challenges in the days ahead, but their hope need not waver. Before leaving, Chan told the members of his house church something that may apply to churches throughout the city: “I have faith in you. I have peace in my heart because I know that the Holy Spirit will be working. Although I believe God is having me go back to the U.S., I think this a great season for you to be pushed and stretched.”

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