Author archives: Arielle Del Turco

USAID Does a World of Good for Religious Freedom

by Arielle Del Turco , Arielle Leake

August 6, 2020

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator John Barsa knows the importance of religious freedom firsthand. Barsa is half Cuban, and his Catholic family fled Cuba for reasons which included religious repression under communism. As a result, he knows how detrimental it is when a country suppresses religious belief.

At a recent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) event, Barsa made clear that promoting religious freedom is a priority for USAID. He boldly stated, “We will not shy away from calling religious persecution for what it is. No one gets a free pass for this.”

The USCIRF event explored how USAID plans to implement President Trump’s recent executive order on advancing international religious freedom. The order established a strong stance on furthering religious liberty around the world and laid out a concrete plan for progress.

USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin noted that “Since 2017 the Trump administration has made religious liberty one of its highest priorities.” Tony Perkins, USCIRF Vice Chair, added that he is “very encouraged by the people he [the president] has put in place to enforce the order.”

The order expands mandatory international religious liberty training to include more government officials, ensures the integration of religious liberty into American diplomacy, and requires the utilization of economic tools to promote religious liberty, among other provisions. It also requires the State Department and USAID to provide comprehensive action plans within 180 days of the order’s issuance.

USAID has already done much to further the cause of religious liberty. This order and the minimum of $50 million it allots will assist them in furthering that goal. Examples of USAID’s work include everything from partnering with the Greek Orthodox Church to provide job training for religious and ethnic minorities in Syria, to protecting minority religious groups in Nigeria from the atrocities committed by Boko Haram.

In Iraq, many Yazidis and Christians who were targets of religious persecution are still reluctant to return home. This week marks six years since the ISIS genocide against the Yazidi people, and many Yazidis remain displaced, living in crowded refugee camps because they do not feel safe enough to return home. USAID is committed to the vital work of ensuring these religious minorities are safe in their own homeland, eliminating the need for them to flee again.

USAID programs are aimed at preventing mass atrocities such as genocide and empowering “countries along their journey to self-reliance.” Barsa said that USAID recognizes “when governments suppress freedom of religion, they prevent entire segments of society from making meaningful contributions to their country’s political and economic development.”

USAID has begun a new partnership initiative bringing a positive change to their approach. The goal of this initiative is to expand the organization’s base by working with more community-based organizations. This involvement with organizations at the grassroots level will allow USAID to gain more of a cultural understanding of the best ways to promote religious liberty in each area. Barsa calls this approach “good government” because it allows USAID to work with people in the community who know what is going on. In the end, it will lead to more effective assistance and hopefully yield significant results.

The American people can be proud of the generous aid we provide to communities in need around the world. Money is a powerful tool, and when used for good, it can make a world of difference.

The good work that USAID is doing is rarely reported in the media, but it deserves attention and appreciation. President Trump’s executive order on advancing religious  freedom, in addition to the new programs being implemented, such as the partner initiative, will make USAID’s work more potent and will promote the freedom for all people to believe as they choose.

Arielle Leake is a Policy & Government Affairs intern focusing on religious liberty.

Remembering ISIS’ Yazidi Genocide, Six Years Later

by Arielle Del Turco

August 3, 2020

Six years ago today, ISIS invaded the Sinjar region in northern Iraq, the quiet homeland of the Yazidi people. It only took a few hours for ISIS to seize Sinjar City and kidnap or kill all who were unable to flee in time. Those who did manage to escape ran to Mount Sinjar without food, water, or medical care, with ISIS hot on their heels.

An ancient religious group familiar with being persecuted by their neighbors, Yazidis had lived simple lives in the rural region. But the attacks by ISIS would have long-lasting consequences.

It took U.S. airstrikes to push the ISIS militants back as Kurdish forces made a safe passageway for Yazidis to descend Mount Sinjar later that month. But in the heat well over 100 degrees, hundreds of Yazidis—many of them children and infants—had already died on the mountain despite airdrops with aid from the U.S. and other military forces.

Meanwhile, ISIS attacked Yazidi villages in the surrounding area. Upon capture, the men and women were separated. The men who refused to convert to Islam were rounded up to be shot and killed. Captured women and children often heard the gunfire that killed the men of the village and saw the evidence of mass murder as ISIS fighters returned with their clothes stained by the blood of their husbands, sons, and brothers.

Militants took many of the younger women to be bought and sold as sex slaves. Women too old to enter the slave trade were shot. The region was soon littered with mass graves.

Yazidi children were forcibly converted to Islam. Thousands of boys were forced to become ISIS fighters, tortured and starved in the process. Today, many of these former child soldiers are missing arms or legs lost while fighting for their abductors.

ISIS made no secret of its desire to destroy the religious minority group it called “pagan” through the use of forced conversion, enslavement, and mass killings. The overwhelming evidence of ISIS’ intent to eradicate religious minorities prompted the United States to officially declare the Islamic State attacks on Iraq’s Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities a genocide in 2016.

Thankfully, the terrorists’ genocidal efforts were unsuccessful, and many Yazidis remain to tell the story of their people. Yet, the painful legacy of genocide lingers, and ISIS’ brutal campaign still haunts the survivors.

Today, an estimated 2,800 women and children who were kidnapped by ISIS remain missing. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis are still displaced, living in camps with minimal resources. As U.S. officials look to develop policy and foreign aid priorities in the Middle East, every feasible effort should be made to help the survivors of genocide.

August 3, 2014 is now remembered as the day ISIS began its genocide against the Yazidi people. Most days dedicated to commemorating genocides remember atrocities that happened decades or centuries ago. This remembrance day is different because the Yazidi genocide happened a mere six years ago. The horror is still within our recent memory, and the survivors are still in need of help.

ISIS is no longer the focus of the American news cycle, but we would be remiss to forget the victims of genocide so quickly, especially those who are still in need of our help. The effects of ISIS linger. As the international community looks to maintain stability in the Middle East, consideration should be given as to how best to aid and restore the religious communities ISIS worked to destroy.

Christians Rejoice as Sudan Moves Toward Embracing Religious Freedom

by Arielle Del Turco

July 21, 2020

I am very pleased, God has answered our prayers,” Noha Kassa, a Christian leader in Sudan, proclaimed earlier this month in response to the repeal of Sudan’s infamous apostasy law. 

For years, Sudan had topped lists of worst violators of religious freedom in the world. But all of that changed in the spring of 2019 when the military overthrew the longstanding President Omar al-Bashir. Since then, the joint military-civilian Sovereign Council has been steadily enacting reforms, including reforms recommended by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In July, the government repealed Article 126 of Sudanese criminal law, which prohibited apostasy and required the death penalty as punishment if the accused did not repent. Sudan is the only Islamic-majority country to repeal an apostasy or blasphemy law in the last two years.

In Muslim-majority countries like Sudan, apostasy laws are intended to keep people from abandoning Islam. Such laws are an affront to religious freedom because they prevent people from choosing and living out their faith as their conscience dictates.

Sudan’s apostasy laws became famous around the world, thanks to the case of Mariam Ibraheem. In 2014, Mariam was sentenced to death for apostasy. With a toddler at home, she gave birth to her second child in jail. Mariam had been raised by her Christian mother, though her father was a Muslim. Before marrying her Catholic husband, Mariam joined the Catholic Church in 2011.

Mariam’s case prompted an international outcry, and pressure from foreign governments eventually prompted the Sudanese government to release her. Now, the law that once sentenced her to death has thankfully been repealed.

While repealing such an oppressive law may seem like an obvious move to those of us in the West, this act required Sudanese leaders’ courage. There are radicals in Sudan who did not want to see this change happen and would prefer to see Sudan’s legacy of religious repression continue. The current Sudanese government should be applauded for its efforts to create a freer society for its people.

Apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-conversion laws continue to plague religious minorities in many parts of the world. As a part of the State Department’s effort to prioritize international religious freedom in its foreign policy, U.S. diplomats should consistently urge every government who maintains one of these laws to repeal them in diplomatic meetings.

Sudan’s move toward embracing religious freedom is worth celebrating. However, it also reminds us that apostasy laws are still on the books in several countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania. Sudan’s example proves change is possible, and it should encourage us to advocate for the repeal of laws oppressive to religious liberty everywhere they remain.

Cruz, Rubio, and Smith Are Banned From China

by Arielle Del Turco

July 13, 2020

A handful of U.S. congressmen woke up to an angry slap on the wrist from the Chinese government on Monday.

Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback are now banned from entering China, though the full scope of the new sanctions against them have yet to be revealed.

What prompted the giant authoritarian regime to target these lawmakers? Apparently, their work to address China’s many human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, “Xinjiang affairs are China’s internal affairs and the U.S. has no right to interfere in them.”

These congressmen deserve kudos for their work. The fact that China is singling them out to be targeted means their actions to address China’s human rights issues have had an impact. China noticed their efforts and reacted. That is significant, and they should be commended.  

Cruz, Rubio, and Smith have all advocated for and co-sponsored legislation to address China’s religious freedom and human rights violations.

Rubio and Smith introduced the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which was recently signed into law. It is meant to hold perpetrators of abuses against the Uyghur people, including the systematic use of indoctrination camps, accountable for their actions.

Cruz also joined Rubio to introduce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would prevent goods produced by forced labor (suspected to be sourced by China’s brutal system of “re-education” camps) in Xinjiang from entering the United States. This will be an effective measure, and Congress should seek to pass this as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Brownback is a consistently fearless advocate for religious freedom for all people in China. He has long denounced China’s “war on faith,” reminding them “it is a war they will not win.”

The sanctions against these individuals are likely in retaliation for sanctions the U.S. placed on selected Chinese officials last week for their human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims.

But there’s an obvious difference between the sanctions the U.S. and China placed on each other’s officials. While China merely targets U.S. officials for interference in China’s human rights violations, the U.S. sanctioned Chinese officials based on actual human rights violations. 

The sanctioned Chinese officials are directly responsible for developing and enacting the dystopian campaign of repression in Xinjiang. The most high-profile individual targeted is Chen Quanguo. As the Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang, Chen is responsible for building the network of “re-education” camps in which 1-3 million innocent Uyghurs and those other ethnic minorities remain arbitrarily detained. Outside of the camps, facial recognition technology, forced abortions, birth control and sterilizations, and an intense culture fear is used to control the daily lives of Uyghurs.

Chen and the other Chinese officials who were sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act, a tool designed to address global human rights violators, deserve to be singled out for their actions. But the Chinese government is not happy about this, so they are lashing out against U.S. politicians.

The reaction of the Chinese government should encourage U.S. leaders to press on as they seek to improve human rights conditions in China. Recent U.S. efforts have struck a nerve, and lawmakers and diplomats should continue to build on that momentum.

The U.S. Just Sanctioned the Mastermind Behind the Uyghur Crackdown

by Arielle Del Turco

July 9, 2020

The U.S. Treasury Department answered the plea of human rights activists on Thursday, imposing sanctions on four key individuals and one Chinese agency responsible for countless atrocities against the persecuted Uyghur Muslim minority in China. This is a major step in the U.S. government’s effort to address religious persecution in China.

The most well-known individual on the sanctions list is Chen Quanguo, often labeled the mastermind of China’s crackdown against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Chen originally gained fame within the Chinese Community Party due to his success in suppressing Tibet through security crackdowns. He was later put in charge of the Xinjiang crackdown, where he utilized the oppressive measures he’d developed in Tibet to control the Uyghur population.

Under Chen’s leadership, a web of internment camps was built in Xinjiang to hold 1-3 million Uyghur Muslims who remain arbitrarily detained. Survivors of the camps report accounts of torture, sexual abuse, and horrific living conditions. Yet, even outside of the camps, Uyghurs don’t escape the abusive grip of Chinese authorities. Facial recognition technology throughout Xinjiang tracks almost every move residents make. Last week, shocking reports indicated that local authorities limit population growth by forcing sterilizations, intrauterine devices, and even abortions on hundreds of thousands of Uyghur women.

Chen is directly responsible for the mass incarceration in Xinjiang, and the sanction against him is more than justified. 

Among a few other individuals targeted by these sanctions is the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, comparable to a police department. This is significant because it targets those who directly enforce China’s draconian policies against the Uyghur people.

The sanctions imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act are one of the more effective tools the U.S. has to address human rights violations around the world. They include freezes on U.S. assets, banning travel to the U.S., and prohibitions on Americans doing business with sanctioned individuals or entities.

Targeted sanctions are sometimes considered largely symbolic. But symbolism is important. Public naming and shaming matters to the Chinese government, which cares about its reputation on the world stage. Individuals who enforce human rights violations around the world should know that the U.S. government will notice and call them out on an individual basis. Global Magnitsky sanctions are important, but they are just one step that should be followed up with many more.

China Is About to Clamp Down on Hong Kong

by Arielle Del Turco

June 26, 2020

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on June 26 that the U.S. will impose visa restrictions on Chinese officials “responsible for eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms.” This is a good step for the people of Hong Kong desperately looking for a lifeline as they watch their freedoms get trampled by the Chinese government.

Last year’s pro-democracy protests, which captured global attention, initially targeted a proposed extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China and subjected to its corrupt judicial system. Yet, this year’s threat to Hong Kong’s freedom is much worse. China’s National People’s Congress is expected to ratify a sweeping new national security law for Hong Kong next week. Newly released details indicate the law will damage many of the freedoms Hong Kongers have long enjoyed, including religious freedom.

According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984, Hong Kong is meant to enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years following the city’s return to China in 1997. With the new security law, Hong Kong’s autonomy—and the “one country, two systems” principle that has guided its government—is all but destroyed. The new law will allow Beijing to override Hong Kong law, establish a national security office in Hong Kong to investigate crimes, and enable Beijing to suppress protests or public opposition.

China is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights and religious freedom. So, what does Beijing’s encroachment into the legal system in Hong Kong mean for its religious communities?

Firstly, Christian pastors and clergy members who participated in Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests may be punished for their participation. Christians and Christian leaders played a pivotal role in pro-democracy demonstrations last year. The hymn “Hallelujah to the Lord” became an anthem for protestors. Meanwhile, Chinese officials insinuated that demonstrators were terrorists.

No dissent is tolerated in mainland China, and Hong Kong’s religious leaders who are vocal against Beijing may be extradited and tried under the new law. Christian NGOs are now expressing concern for outspoken religious leaders such as Cardinal Joseph Zen and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, who supported the pro-democracy movement.

Secondly, the new law might pave the way for Hong Kong’s Christian leaders to be silenced. According to an outline of the law released by Chinese officials, the national security concerns Beijing claims the right to address include secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.

China’s broad accusation of “subversion of state power” may sound familiar. At the end of 2019, well-known house church pastor Wang Yi, who led one of China’s largest unregistered churches, was sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting to subvert state power.” Beijing uses this phrase, among others, as an excuse to lock away anyone who publicly objects to the government’s practices. Should Hong Kong’s pastors expect to be next?

Thirdly, in addition to harming believers in Hong Kong, this new law is likely to have negative effects on faith in mainland China. Christianity is a legally recognized religion. However, Christian churches that register with the Chinese government are pressured to adapt their religious beliefs to Chinese Communist Party values, including socialism. To avoid government interference, many unregistered house churches operate outside of regulation but lack resources and pastoral training as they try to practice authentic Christianity. For a long time, house churches on the Chinese mainland have found support from Hong Kong’s Christians.

Churches and pastors in Hong Kong provide Bibles, training, and financial support to house churches on the mainland. One study from 2014 found that over 60 percent of Hong Kong’s churches “engage in work on the mainland, illicit or otherwise, including preaching and theological training.” If Hong Kong Christians are subjected to the same so-called “national security” laws that put Pastor Wang Yi in prison for subversion of state power, this may cut off the support and resources Hong Kong pastors feel they can safely offer. For the mainland’s increasingly oppressed churches, support from Hong Kong is a lifeline they can’t afford to lose.

On June 25, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution introduced by Senator Josh Hawley which condemned Beijing’s national security law and called on free countries to stand against Beijing’s effort to destroy basic liberties and human rights in Hong Kong. The Senate also passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act which would impose sanctions on individuals, entities, and banks that aid Beijing’s campaign to control Hong Kong and destroy its autonomy. The U.S. House of Representatives should follow suit and swiftly pass the Hong Kong Autonomy Act and send it to the president’s desk.

When the National People’s Congress announced its proposed national security law, Beijing broke its agreement to allow Hong Kong autonomy. For Hong Kong residents who cherish their political and religious freedom, the effects will be widespread and devastating. As they fear for their future, U.S. officials must do everything within their power to support the people of Hong Kong. This city has long been a beacon of freedom and prosperity in contrast with Chinese authoritarianism. Chinese encroachment into Hong Kong is a tragedy for the free world, and it is one that the United States must not watch unfold silently.

An American Pastor was Finally Released from India. Hostility to Christians is Still on the Rise.

by Arielle Del Turco

June 15, 2020

American pastor Bryan Nerren was finally allowed to return home at the end of May after being detained in India for over seven months on a minor charge. “I am back with family and friends at home,” the Tennessee pastor told Morning Star News. “It is a wonderful time.” While his release is worth celebrating, the fact that the Indian government detained him for so long on such a minor charge signifies deeper religious freedom problems in the world’s largest democracy.

Authorities interrupted Pastor Nerren’s two-week trip to India and Nepal in October 2019, arresting him as he got off his flight in Bagdogra. Officials questioned him about failing to pay duty on $40,000—meant to fund two ministry conferences—that he brought with him when he arrived in New Delhi. 

But Pastor Nerren had done nothing wrong. He maintains he was never told to pay a duty. And he was not carrying enough money to be charged for evading tax duty anyways.

The real issue was his Christian mission. According to his lawyers, Indian officials “specifically asked if he was a Christian and if the funds would be used to support Christian causes.” After spending six days in jail, Pastor Nerren was required to pay a $4,000 fine. He was released but was banned from leaving the country.

The targeted interrogation about Pastor Nerren’s faith reflects a growing problem in India—the Indian government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is increasingly hostile to Christianity. Since the 2014 election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rose to power with the BJP, things have been going from bad to worse for religious minorities.

Hindu nationalism advances the harmful narrative that “to be Indian is to be Hindu.” This belief implies that faiths other than Hinduism erode national unity.

Because they do not want Indians to convert to Christianity, Hindu nationalist leaders feel threatened by Christian missionaries and have, at times, been openly hostile to them. One former BJP politician called Christian missionaries “a threat to the unity of the country.”

In 2017, the Indian government cracked down on Compassion International, a Christian humanitarian aid group. Compassion International once provided food and medical assistance to around 145,000 Indian children. Yet, because the government was afraid it encouraged conversions to Christianity, the organization was forced to leave the country. The government’s hostility to Christianity had practical implications for impoverished children of all faiths. 

Just last week, India turned down a request for travel visas by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) which has wanted to review India’s religious freedom conditions. USCIRF, a federal commission tasked with advising the government on international religious freedom policies has been critical of India’s deteriorating religious freedom. In April, USCIRF’s annual report recommended that the U.S. officially designate India a “Country of Particular Concern” on religious freedom, clearly for good reason.

India is the world’s largest democracy, and the Indian government’s growing intolerance toward Christianity should be a concern that the rest of the world takes seriously. Facing discrimination from the government and mob violence from fellow citizens, Christians in India, many of whom are poor and marginalized, lack power to speak up for themselves. It falls to the rest of the world—including the United States, a strategic partner for India—to speak up on their behalf. 

We Must Never Forget the Tiananmen Square Massacre

by Arielle Del Turco

June 4, 2020

Every year for the past 30 years, crowds have gathered in Hong Kong on June 4th to light candles, hear from former Chinese pro-democracy activists, and mourn the infamous massacre of student demonstrators by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1989. This year, no legal vigil was permitted, but that didn’t stop thousands from bringing white candles to a Hong Kong park to remember the tragedy that came to be known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Hong Kong authorities refused to allow the annual public remembrance to be held this year, claiming to be concerned about the coronavirus, but such displays are always banned on the mainland. Many of the freedom-loving people of Hong Kong—who had long identified with those who called for freedom in Tiananmen Square—now fear the Chinese government is silencing Hong Kong dissenters much like they did in 1989.            

Beijing suppresses these annual memorials. Yet, the world must remember the tragedy that took place three decades ago because it reveals what the Chinese government is willing to do—even to its citizens: to squash perceived threats to its authority.

Thirty-one years ago today, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army fired live ammunition into crowds of their own people. Chinese civilians had been demonstrating in Tiananmen Square in Beijing for weeks, calling for a more democratic government. Their protests ended in a bloody crackdown that shocked the globe.

It is estimated that several hundred to several thousand people died that day, but an official death toll was never released. Family members of the deceased victims still beg for answers.

To this day, the Chinese government does not admit wrongdoing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. When the government of Taiwan recently called upon Beijing to apologize for the violent crackdown three decades ago, a spokesman defended the legacy of communist party leadership. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declared, “The great achievements after the founding of new China fully demonstrate that the development path chosen by the new China is totally correct and in line with China’s national conditions.”

Yet, the often-violent legacy of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule is nothing to take pride in. Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution took drastic human tolls and denied the Chinese people basic human rights.

The Chinese government still withholds such rights from its citizens today. Among them is freedom of religion, a right intimate and fundamental to the human conscience.

In the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the government is in a full-on assault against religion. At least 1.8 million Uyghur Muslims are forcibly detained in internment camps where they are brainwashed and abused. Outside the camps, the rest of the region is patrolled with facial recognition technology and other means to tightly control the oppressed Uyghur minority.

Throughout the mainland, Christians are intimidated, and churches are surveilled as crosses are torn down from their buildings. Well-known house church pastor Wang Yi sits in prison serving a nine-year sentence—a grave reminder to other pastors that they ought not step out of line.

Perhaps most alarmingly, evidence is mounting that the Chinese government is forcibly harvesting organs from political prisoners. These are thought to be mostly from Falun Gong practitioners, a long-persecuted faith group entirely undeserving of the abuse they endure. 

The Chinese Communist Party may want the world to forget its ruthless history, but it is critical that we keep the memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre alive.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre exposed the blatant disregard with which the Chinese Communist Party views human lives. This disregard is unfortunately not relegated to history—it still affects the Chinese people, including religious believers. Today, we remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre and its countless victims. But let us also remember those who continue to suffer under the Chinese government’s oppressive policies.

Iran Sends More Christians to Prison

by Arielle Del Turco

May 22, 2020

Four Iranian Christians are on their way to prison after a Revolutionary Court set their bail at the equivalent of $30,000 each—an exorbitant price they were unable to pay. The exact charges against these four—Moslem Rahimi, Ramin Hassanpour and his wife Kathrin Sajadpour, and another Christian who wishes to be anonymous—remain unknown. The charges are likely related to the Christians’ involvement in a house church, an act that the Iranian regime considers “hostile” to the state and to be connected to Zionist groups.

For Muslims in Iran, converting to Christianity is itself a crime. Iranian law stipulates that Muslim citizens may not “chang[e] or renouc[e] their religious beliefs.” The punishment for apostasy can include imprisonment or even the death penalty, though it is rarely carried out.

The four Iranian Christians converted to Christianity from a Muslim background, and are members of the same church movement to which Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani belongs. Pastor Nadarkhani has been in prison since July 22, 2018.

The Iranian regime classifies itself as an “Islamic Republic” and believes conversions away from Islam to Christianity undermines the regime’s authority. Consequently, Iranian Christians are often detained on trumped-up charges related to “national security.”

Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh know what it is like to be imprisoned in Iran for their faith. In 2009, the two friends spent almost nine months in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. They had been charged with apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-government activity because they converted to Christianity and dared to share their newfound faith with their countrymen. Before authorities caught them, they had managed to hand out 20,000 copies of the New Testament.

In their book, Captive in Iran, Maryam and Marziyeh describe the many challenges faced by Iran’s political prisoners. Facilities are filthy, access to health care is inadequate, and the trauma of life in prison—including knowing others who are executed by the state—is overwhelming.

However, despite the regime’s best efforts to stifle the Christian faith, reports indicate that Christianity is rapidly spreading in Iran. House churches are flourishing, and the regime is unable to contain their growth. This should be a lesson to governments around the world, that individual faith cannot be controlled in the long run, and religious freedom is the best policy for a healthy society.

To hear Maryam and Marziyeh’s story and learn what it is like to live as a Christian in Iran, watch the video of FRC’s event, Stories from Iran: Religious Freedom and the Secret Growth of the Underground Church.

A “Blasphemous” Text Put a Pakistani Couple on Death Row. They’re Illiterate.

by Arielle Del Turco

May 21, 2020

Today, a married couple in Pakistan is languishing apart in separate prisons, unable to see each other or their four children. Shafqat Emmanuel remains paralyzed from the waist down following an accident in 2004. His wife, Shagufta Kausar provided for her family by working as a cleaner. Shafqat and Shagufta lived simple lives on a church compound before their world came crashing down and a years-long nightmare ensued due to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.  

The saga began in June 2013, when a Muslim cleric claimed he received a blasphemous text message from Shagufta’s phone. The cleric said he showed the text to his lawyer, and both subsequently claimed that they received more inflammatory texts from the phone registered to Shagufta. The alleged texts were written in English.

There are a few problems with this dubious story. Shagufta and Shafqat come from a poor background and are illiterate. They could not have crafted such a text in their native Urdu, and certainly not in English. The couple suspects the cleric’s accusation is retaliation for an argument between their children and their neighbors.

Nonetheless, 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. In April 2014, Shafqat and Shagufta were sentenced to death, and they are still appealing the court’s decision.

Blasphemy laws are an affront to human rights, and Pakistan has proven to be one of the foremost abusers of these laws.

A new report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that, as of December 2019, at least 17 people were on death row after being convicted on blasphemy charges.

Blasphemy laws prohibit insults to religion. Allegations of blasphemy made against religious minorities living in the Muslim world are often utilized to settle unrelated disputes. Religious minorities like Christians are particularly vulnerable to these accusations because of their marginalized place in society.

Unfortunately, blasphemy laws remain in many parts of the world. In its 2020 annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that at least 84 countries have blasphemy laws, and even more have broad laws that are used to target speech deemed blasphemous.

The continued existence of blasphemy laws in so many countries makes this a global issue. Twenty-seven countries signed a statement of concern at last year’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, held by the U.S. State Department, calling upon the governments that utilize blasphemy and apostasy laws to repeal them. The international community should continue to push for the end of blasphemy laws everywhere. It should be high on the agenda for the new International Religious Freedom Alliance spearheaded by the State Department.

Blasphemy laws restrict freedom of speech and freedom of religion—both fundamental human rights. No one should be put on death row for their faith.

To learn more about blasphemy laws around the world, check out FRC’s publication on Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Anti-Conversion Laws.

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