Tag archives: Religious Persecution

10 Facts About Global Religious Persecution From the 2021 World Watch List

by Arielle Del Turco

January 14, 2021

Yesterday, Open Doors, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness about the persecuted church, released its annual 2021 World Watch List. This report identifies the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Whether by violent attacks from non-state actors or government regulations, Christians face severe impediments to the free practice of their faith in many places around the world. As the threats to religious freedom mount, it is important to know the challenges believers face around the world.

Here are 10 facts about global religious persecution from this year’s World Watch List.

1. More Christians are murdered in Nigeria than in any other country. 

Open Doors found that an estimated 5,678 people were killed in Nigeria from October 2019 to September 2020, making Nigeria the country where Christians endure the most fatal violence. Attacks from Boko Haram, Fulani militant herdsmen, and the ISIS affiliate ISWAP are common throughout Middle Belt and northern Nigeria.

The near-genocide that is occurring in Nigeria warrants the world’s urgent attention, as FRC highlighted in its publication, The Crisis of Christian Persecution in Nigeria.

2. COVID-19 has enabled religious persecution through relief discrimination, forced conversion, and as justification for increasing surveillance.

Researchers from Open Doors found that COVID-19 relief discrimination against Christians occurred in Ethiopia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Vietnam, and the Middle East, among other places. Some Christians have been told that they were denied aid from their governments because “your Church or your God should feed you” or “the virus was created and/or spread by the West.”

3. Technology is making it easier for governments to control and suppress religious activities.

China is the foremost example of an oppressive regime that utilizes advanced technology to manipulate its citizens’ behavior—including religious practice. However, Iran is rapidly emerging as a surveillance state.

One Iranian Christian named Saghar told Open Doors, “I’m sure that my phone also was tapped by the government. They could sort of record my conversations, and so in our meetings, we would turn off our phones and put it in another room. Because we know that they are able to record any voices and sounds in the room by the phones. And also, I believe that they have a particular team to hack emails, people’s emails, Christians’ emails, and the private like social medias. And I know that they spend lots of money for this and use the technology to have surveillance on Christians.”

4. North Korea has held the title of “world’s worst persecutor of Christians” for 20 consecutive years.

A tragic consistency over the last two decades is that North Korea remains the world’s worst violator of religious freedom. Entering 2021, things are not looking better for the people of North Korea as COVID-19 has presented added challenges.

For more information on the horrific abuses against Christians in North Korea and what the U.S. government can do about it, read FRC’s new publication, North Korea: The World’s Foremost Violator of Religious Freedom.

5. Sudan’s new constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but it will take time for the situation of Christians to improve.

Sudan, a longtime violator of religious freedom, takes the 13th spot on the World Watch List. Although marked improvements have occurred over the last two years, Christians wait to see if their Islamic society will fully accept them. For now, Christians in Sudan still face challenges, especially those from a Muslim background.

6. Approximately 91 percent of recorded violent killings of Christians for faith-related reasons took place in Africa.

Although the African continent is home to the world’s largest number of Christians, religiously motivated violence is increasing. In sub-Saharan Africa, Christians experienced 30 percent higher levels of violence from Islamist militant groups than the previous year. It is believed this can be attributed to the groups taking advantage of lockdowns and governments rendered weaker from the COVID-19 crisis. FRC’s Lela Gilbert has highlighted the sharp rise in violence in Africa in 2020.

7. China jumped to #17 on the World Watch List.

Reflecting the rapidly worsening religious freedom conditions in China, Open Doors now recognizes the country as the 17th most difficult country to be a Christian. Americans may be familiar with the persecution faced by members of house churches, but even state-sanctioned churches face increasing pressure from the Chinese government.

In an interview with Open Doors, Rev. Jonathan Liu, a former pastor of a state-approved Three-Self Movement church in China, said, “In the government-sanctioned churches, the pastors are politicalized and obedient to the CCP. The CCP’s lessons and preachings were also spoken or written according to the policies of the Chinese government. The government also keeps a very strong eye on the churches. I felt very oppressed while I worked in the government-sanctioned church.”

8. Legal harassment of Christians in Turkey has caused some Christians to consider fleeing.

The rise in religious nationalism in Turkey has placed increasing pressure on Christians in the last few years. While this has made some Christians consider leaving Turkey, others do not have to consider it—they are being forced to go. Dozens of foreign Christian workers and church leaders have been made to leave Turkey. Due to increasing legal harassment, Turkey rose from #25 from #36 on the World Watch List.

9. In Latin American, drug cartels are the largest threat to religious freedom.

Drug cartels often violently attack Catholic bishops and priests in Columbia, Mexico, and throughout Latin America. Church leaders are typically targeted for condemning corruption and violence, thereby threatening the illicit activities of these criminal enterprises.

10. The world’s largest democracy, India, is among the top 10 most difficult countries to be a Christian.

Although India maintains a strong democracy, the Hindu nationalist movement, to which the current Indian prime minister belongs, forwards the poisonous idea that “to be Indian is to be Hindu,” leaving little room for those of other faiths. This ideology has inspired mob violence against Christians and others. Meanwhile, Indian Christians also face discrimination from the government. Open Doors estimates that 150,000 Christians in India were denied aid during the COVID-19 pandemic because of their faith.

Overall, this year’s World Watch List reminds us of the many diverse challenges faced by fellow believers around the world. As we learn more about the persecuted church, may we be moved to prayer and action on their behalf.

A 2020 Retrospective: Violence Against Africa’s Christians

by Lela Gilbert

January 13, 2021

As this new year begins, it’s obvious that America is facing many challenges—some old, some new. And they most certainly cannot be taken lightly. However, those of us who focus on international religious freedom also concentrate on concerns beyond our shores, and a look at Africa’s recent history in the rear-view mirror reflects terrifying images. As one deadly assault after another fades out of sight, encroaching assailants are rushing forward at terrifying speed. 

The largest country in Africa and the most commercially significant, Nigeria is the site of what has been described as a slow-motion genocide in which tens of thousands of Nigerian Christians have been massacred in recent years. A Family Research Council report published in July 2020 documents horrifying statistics of mass murders there, almost entirely at the hands of three Islamist terrorist groups: Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Fulani jihadis.

Nigeria may be the worst example of violence against African Christians, but it is far from the only one. Violent incidents across the African continent are increasing. One notorious example in November 2020 was the reported beheading of 50 civilians in Mozambique—many of them Catholic Christians.

Fighters linked to Islamic State attacked several villages in Mozambique, killing civilians, abducting women and children, and burning down homes. The gruesome description of innocent people “herded” to their death on a soccer field, where they were systematically decapitated and dismembered, was nightmarish. That wasn’t the only such incident in 2020, and it certainly won’t be the last. Due to a hapless government response, ISIS continues its assaults, most recently on January 2, 2021. 

In September 2020, an email from New Covenant Missions informed FRC that a Christian family had recently been arrested in Somalia—the infamous location of Black Hawk Down. Local police accused the couple of abandoning Islam, and even more dangerously, of evangelizing the people of Somaliland. According to Somali Bible Society, “The spokesperson’s speech was peppered with threats against local Christians.” We learned that the arrested man had been tortured; his wife had delivered a baby by C-section just weeks before and required urgent medical attention, and the baby needed maternal care and breastfeeding.

FRC and other Christian groups pleaded for prayer. Thankfully, we later learned that this courageous family had been released. But dangers to Christians in Somalia have not diminished. Nearly all of the believers there are converts from Islam, which means they can face a death sentence for apostacy if arrested.

Frequent reports of persecution incidents in East Africa abound. At the same time, West Africa has more than its share of anti-Christian violence—and is of ever-increasing concern.

The Washington Post reported, “One evening in late June, gunmen stormed a village in northern Burkina Faso and ordered people who had been chatting outside to lie down. Then the armed strangers checked everyone’s necks, searching for jewelry. They found four men wearing crucifixes—Christians. They executed them…”

Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Burkina Faso is one of several vulnerable West African countries that are frequently targeted for terrorism, including Christian persecution. The so-called “Group of Five” (G5) nations—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—face continuous threats and attacks. These are of deepening concern to international military analysts and religious freedom advocates alike, thanks to the tireless brutality of ISWAP, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, North Africa faces similar dangers. Likewise, reports from East Africa warn that ISIS, al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Sharia, and other Islamist groups are strengthening their numbers and increasing their territory. And unfortunately, what happens in Africa is unlikely to stay in Africa—economically, politically, or militarily. Radicalized Africans have already murdered innocents and torched churches in Europe. Little has been done in response, and most well-intentioned efforts have been largely ineffective.

In 2021 it is past time for the world to stop looking regretfully at Africa’s tragedies in the rear view mirror. Instead, a determined coalition of nations needs to step forward and begin to develop ways and means of extinguishing the surging jihadi violence. And it’s essential that our Christian communities continue not only to pray but to demand such action. Why? Because as the wildfire of terrorism continues to rage across that vast, violent continent, one thing is sure: It is Africa’s Christians who will continue to pay the ultimate price for the world’s inaction.

When Dealing With North Korea, Human Rights Must Take Priority

by Arielle Del Turco

January 12, 2021

The North Korean capital of Pyongyang greeted the new year with singing, dancing, and fireworks as the national anthem played at midnight on December 31st.

Beyond the staged Pyongyang crowd and across the rest of the darkened country, the reaction to another year under the Kim regime may have received a less warm welcome—especially in the numerous political prison camps thought to detain an estimated 120,000 people, according to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights conditions in North Korea found that a wide range of acts perceived to be against the state can land someone in a political prison camp. For repatriated defectors, simply encountering a Christian church is grounds for detention in a political prison camp, or even execution. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) believes as many as 50,000 of the prisoners in political labor camps are Christians imprisoned for their faith.

Any act of faith puts North Korean Christians in danger. One defector testified to the severe risk of possessing a Bible: “In North Korea, you can get away with murder if you have good connections. However, if you get caught carrying a Bible, there is no way to save your life.”

Unfortunately, the past year brought no known improvements to North Korea’s abysmal human rights record. And the changes that have occurred in 2020 point to rising hardships for the North Korean people and an increasingly dangerous security situation.

The young dictator Kim Jong Un is under intense pressure as he tries to manage an already struggling economy that has been hampered even more than usual due to COVID-19. Speaking at a military parade in October, Kim was driven to tears as he apologized for the difficulties many North Koreans faced in 2020. It is almost unheard of for a North Korean leader to admit failure, and it may signal a vulnerable regime. Yet, at the same parade, the military unveiled a record number of new weapons, which present clear threats to the United States and its allies.

North Korea has long been a national security priority for U.S. presidents. This is unlikely to change for the incoming administration, which will doubtless be forced to cope with a rogue North Korean regime that continues to threaten its neighbors and adversaries.

No matter how the U.S. chooses to tackle the challenges posed by North Korea, one thing is certain: addressing human rights violations must be a part of the strategy. A new Family Research Council report, North Korea: The World’s Foremost Violator of Religious Freedom, outlines several ways that the U.S. government can promote religious freedom and human rights in North Korea.

In any negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, human rights should be on the table. Before the U.S. even considers lifting sanctions, the North Korean regime must take measurable steps to alleviate the dire human rights situation within its borders. One specific demand American officials can make of North Korea is the release of all Christians, along with children and families, from prison camps.

Additional efforts should also be made to support the dissemination of information inside of North Korea. North Korean defectors regularly cite exposure to outside news and media as a primary motivating factor prompting their escape. The regime tightly restricts access to information or entertainment aside from state propaganda, but North Koreans deserve to know the truth.

South Korea’s National Assembly recently made human rights activism more difficult for its citizens by passing an anti-leaflet law meant to crack down on balloon and bottle launches that sent leaflets, USB sticks, and even Bibles across the border into the North. This new law is a disappointing move on the part of the South Korean government. Both South Korea and the U.S. should be supporting, rather than restricting, human rights advocacy on behalf of the millions of North Koreans who are barred from speaking up for themselves.

As an incoming U.S. presidential administration crafts its foreign policy priorities for the next four years, the North Korean religious freedom and human rights situation should occupy a prominent position. A transformed North Korea that poses no threat to the rest of the world ultimately requires a North Korean government that respects its people and allows them to live according to their consciences.

Christmas in Nigeria: Celebration Overshadowed by Danger

by Lela Gilbert

January 7, 2021

Across America, the Christmas holidays this year were not as festive as usual. Still, beloved songs and carols, colorful lights and small family gatherings provided a welcome diversion from pandemic gloom and presidential election quarrels. And the reminder that “Christ is the reason for the season” was happily recalled by Christians, despite some other less-than-celebratory circumstances.

Christmas is not, however, “the most wonderful time of the year” in war-torn Nigeria. Although the country’s millions of Christians continue to rejoice in the birth of Jesus, and gratefully recall His first appearance so long ago in Bethlehem, the joys of the season are inevitably overshadowed by danger and dread. 

As long as I have written about Nigeria—since, I think, 2006—Christmas joys have been eclipsed by danger. And, like clockwork, in 2020 Nigeria’s Advent season was once again marred by violent attacks, kidnappings and murders.

I wrote to Hassan John, Communications Director for the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion, and asked him to tell me more about this increasingly tragic situation. In a January 6 email he responded:

Over the past decade, Christmas celebrations have waned in fervor and the pageantry that has always been associated with the festive season. Instead it has been marked with attacks and destruction of villages and communities. In the last two weeks, at least five villages have been attacked near Chibok, where 276 schoolgirls were abducted in April 2014. These attacks were hardly even reported in the local news. Reports have primarily focused on a pastor who was killed and two others who have been abducted by Boko Haram.

But that wasn’t all. Hassan pointed out that, according to the Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker, Boko Haram killed seven and kidnapped five in Nganzai, Borno on December 22. On December 24, Boko Haram killed six and kidnapped three in Chibok, Borno. And on December 25, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) executed 11 captives.

He went on to say, “Warnings about travels and security advice sent by security forces added to the anxieties this year during the Christmas season. Then, last night, 5th January, another village, Wamdeo, also near Chibok, was attacked and a church destroyed. We are still getting information about the extent of destruction and if there are human casualties….”

Other reports describe the added endangerment the global pandemic has brought upon on Nigeria’s already beleaguered Christian communities.

According to a Christian Post article, Christians are facing a double threat: Islamist terrorism and COVID-19. “Nigeria’s government has advised Christians to stay in their homes to avoid COVID-19,” explained human rights expert Dalyop Solomon. “But if they remain locked down at home, they cannot escape when groups of terrorists attack them.”

Solomon went on to say that Fulani militants destroy or plunder crops when they attack, and farmers’ livelihoods are destroyed. But to make matters worse, “COVID-19 restrictions prevent them from leaving their homes to plant new crops.”

On December 17, the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held an important hearing hosted by Rep. Chris Smith, focusing on “Conflict and Killings in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.” Nearly four hours of testimony from more than a dozen international experts offered complex and often parallel perspectives on what many described in similar terms as “mass atrocities,” “mass killings,” “massacres,” and “genocidal acts.” Notably, one of the witnesses, Morse Tan, Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice, pointed out that “Christmas is a time of great risk of mass killing.” Within a week’s time, his words proved to be all too true once again in 2020.

There was but one notable exception. On Sunday evening, December 27, Catholic Bishop Moses Chikwe—the auxiliary bishop of his archdiocese—and his driver, Ndubuisi Robert, were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in Owerri, the capital of Imo State in southeastern Nigeria.

As always, the Christian communities began to pray. But interestingly, in this case Nigerians were not alone in their prayers. Catholics in Southern California also appealed to heaven for the bishop’s safe return. Chikwe had served for several years as a priest in the Diocese of San Diego, and he was beloved there.

On New Year’s Day, a bulletin about Bishop Chikwe announced that he and his driver had been released, “unhurt and without ransom.”

Unfortunately, the Nigerian news is rarely so bright and hopeful as that lone report. The U.S. State Department announced earlier in December that Nigeria has been declared a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC),” a designation which provides the U.S. with increased options for pressuring the Nigerian government to curb abuses, including through financial sanctions, application of the Magnitsky Act, and other measures.

Nigeria’s Muhammadi Buhari regime is, at the very best, inept. More likely, he and his henchmen are—as is widely believed—complicit in the relentless attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram, ISWAP, and Fulani jihadis.

Meanwhile, as the United States prepares to inaugurate a new president and his administration, two related questions remain unanswered: What will it take to stop the ever-increasing massacres and emergent genocide of Christians in Nigeria? And what will the newly-minted Biden administration do about it?

In This New Year, Let’s Be Attentive To Those Persecuted for Their Faith

by Arielle Del Turco

January 4, 2021

What does the plight of Christians imprisoned for blasphemy in Pakistan, Uyghur Muslims who have been “disappeared” in China, or Christian students kidnapped in Nigeria have to do with Christians in the Western world? More than you might think. God has called Christians to care for the persecuted and oppressed, and that obligation stretches beyond our national borders. Now, at a time when religious oppression is on the rise around the world, it is more important than ever to consider our responsibility to the persecuted.

Religious freedom—the freedom to choose and live in accordance with one’s faith—is foundational to human dignity. Government restrictions on religion and religiously motivated attacks from non-state actors hinder individuals’ ability to follow the dictates of their consciences and stifle human flourishing.

Unfortunately, people are robbed of religious freedom across the globe every day. In Nigeria, Christians are slaughtered by Boko Haram and Fulani militants; in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are imprisoned under “anti-extremism” laws; and in China, Uyghur Muslims endure mass detention, forced labor, and widespread forced sterilization and abortion. We in the West do not often speak of these regional crises, but they ought to instill us with a sense of urgency.

There are many reasons why Christians should care about the plight of the persecuted abroad. Scripture instructs us to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3). This admonition reminds us to consider the persecuted church, though they may be far from our daily lives. We are to consider their suffering our own because we are linked through the universal church (1 Cor. 12:26).

But our concern need not stop with the persecuted church; a Christian worldview supports the principles of religious freedom for everyone. God does not force or coerce us into following Him. Therefore, we should imitate Him by protecting others’ freedom to choose their faith. Scripture indicates a responsibility to defend the oppressed and those who cannot stand up for themselves (Psalm 82:3-4, Isaiah 1:17, James 1:27). These verses are calls to action.

The benefits of religious freedom are not merely spiritual. They are practical as well. Religious pluralism stirs creativity and innovation by providing a peaceful space for everyone to share ideas and pursue opportunities, regardless of one’s religious or ethnic background. This promotes development and economic growth. In places where intense religious discrimination is the norm, such as Pakistan, religious minorities are unable to rise out of poverty and are barred from making meaningful contributions to the economy—and that harms all of society.

Religious freedom is, at times, also a matter of national security. Religious freedom has been shown to mitigate terrorism and internal conflicts. Where religious tensions are allowed to mount unfettered without legal protections for religious minorities, violence often follows. Such religiously motivated violence has led to recent crises in Burma, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Religious freedom and tolerance often coincide with regional peace and security.

With these scriptural mandates and practical benefits in mind, here are some practical steps Christians can take toward rightly caring for persecuted believers abroad.

The instruction in Hebrews 13:3 to remember the imprisoned and mistreated implies a responsibility to learn the stories of persecuted people. This can be done in a variety of ways, including reading the testimonies of those who have been persecuted for their beliefs and researching the main types of religious freedom violations occurring today and the countries currently in crisis. 

Learning is a crucial first step toward taking action. Nothing will change until people are made aware of the dire challenges facing people around the world. Once you become informed, advocate with the tools at your disposal. Raise awareness on social media, make religious freedom a topic of discussion, and voice your support for international religious freedom to your representatives.

Lastly, you should pray. Although this may seem like an obvious recommendation, it is not an insignificant one. Pray for more religious freedom for people around the world. But also pray for individuals being harassed or abused for their faith. Consider the stories of people like Huma Younus, Gulshan Abbas, and Leah Sharibu.

Prayer often serves to encourage those held captive for their faith. American pastor Andrew Brunson has said that knowing other believers were praying for him while he was being held in a Turkish prison kept him going in his darkest moments—he did not want to be forgotten. The fact that the intensely persecuted request our prayers is meaningful, and their pleas should not go unheard.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to care about international religious freedom, even for those who do not adhere to a faith. But for the Christian, there is a scriptural calling that should motivate us more. Persecution abroad requires a response from Christians. We ought not delay our response—the oppressed are suffering as we wait.

Remembering Persecuted Christians at Christmas

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

December 18, 2020

Christmas is just around the corner, right on schedule in an otherwise unpredictable 2020. And as it approaches, gift-giving has come into focus here in America and much of the world. Whether small tokens of friendship or carefully chosen presents for beloved friends and family, the arrival of God’s Son as a gift to us all has inspired a tradition of generosity.

Of course, in other lands, the lack of religious freedom and the threat of Christian persecution casts a dark shadow across Christmas festivities and celebrations. It is not unusual for fanatical, iron-fisted governments to make the Advent season a time of intensified fear and real danger. Many Christians, despite their faith and devotion, have little opportunity to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child or to “rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”

Christmas is a beautiful season for some of us and a time of fear, deprivation, and uncertainty for others.

Every Christmas season in the free world, we receive unexpected gifts from persecuted believers—gifts they may never know they’ve given us. As we reflect on the terrible risks and losses faced by our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, we are showered with gifts of remembrance: recalling our many blessings while remembering to offer prayers for their help and relief.

In Iran, Christmas is a time of increased scrutiny and persecution. Christians gathering in secret house churches to sing and celebrate invariably lead to violent arrests, false accusations, and lengthy imprisonments. As we thank God for our freedom in America to gather, pray, and rejoice, we can pray for the protection of those facing crackdowns in Iran and elsewhere.

In Nigeria and other African countries, late-night incursions and massacres in Christian communities have inspired survivors to say, “We are so thankful when we wake up in the morning to find that the Lord has kept us to see another day.” As we thank God for the safety and security we have in most American communities, we can pray for the survival of these courageous souls.

In China, there have been crackdowns on churches, as well as high-tech surveillance, arrests, and “disappearances” of church leaders and others caught sharing their faith. As we thank God that we are not at risk of the sudden arrival of police and Communist officials to arrest us and destroy Bibles, crosses, and Christian images, we can pray for these faithful ones’ perseverance, courage, and protection. 

These are but three examples of the dangers faced by Christians abroad. We could add North Korea, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, India, and so many more troubled countries to the list.

Meanwhile, as difficult as recent months have been for many believers in the United States—we still have great and sacred freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. As we pause during the Christmas season to be grateful for our many blessings, we ought also to remember Christians who live in countries where it is dangerous to follow Christ. The persecuted church encounters unfathomable difficulties, yet they persist and find hope in their faith.

Our Savior Himself made a humble entrance into the world, born of a virgin and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Shortly after His birth, Mary and Joseph took the Christ child to flee a slaughter ordered by King Herod. Later, Christ would suffer immensely as He was tortured and died on a cross that we might be saved from our sin. The nativity story—and the message of Jesus—offers untold hope to us all during earthly trials.

As we celebrate Christmas this year with friends and family, let us pause and say a prayer for Christians around the world who will celebrate in secret. Let’s continue “to remember those in prison as if [we] were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if [we] ourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3 NIV).

3 Things the U.S. Can Do to End Blasphemy Laws Around the World

by Arielle Del Turco

December 16, 2020

When a Coptic Christian in Egypt was accused of insulting Islam on Facebook two weeks ago, a mob swiftly gathered to attack and set fire to the homes of several Christians in the community in retaliation. This horrific incident is just one example of how blasphemy accusations lead to violence against individuals around the world.

Blasphemy laws, which prohibit insulting religion, exist in many countries, and are used to justify violence against those who express beliefs that differ from the majority. As blasphemy laws continue to violate basic human rights around the world, it is time for free countries to take a stronger stand against these laws.

This past summer, a Sharia court in Nigeria sentenced a 13-year-old boy to 10 years in prison on a blasphemy charge. The boy had been accused of using foul language about Allah when quarreling with a friend.

However, it is not just Muslim-dominated countries that retain blasphemy laws. Scotland has been entrenched in political debates this year about whether its blasphemy law ought to be updated to target hate speech. A proposed update to the law would criminalize speaking, publishing, or distributing content thought to be hateful towards minority communities.

It was just two years ago that the European Court of Human Rights refused to overturn the conviction of an Austrian woman charged with blasphemy for allegedly derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed’s life. Even in Western countries that rarely enforce their blasphemy laws, there is no guarantee that such laws will not be used. Ireland and Greece are among a few Western countries to recently repeal their blasphemy laws.

In addition to the social hostilities they often enflame, blasphemy laws are harmful because they allow the government to limit both free speech and religious freedom. When “blasphemy” is legally forbidden, it promotes the idea that some religious believers’ fragile feelings are more important than the ability of other religious believers or non-believers to express their faith.

Yet, current trends indicate governments are tightening their religious restrictions. A study by the Pew Research Center released in November found that government restrictions on religion around the world have reached their highest point in the past 11 years. And at least 70 countries still have blasphemy laws on the books today, according to a recent report by Family Research Council.

Faced with the global scourge of blasphemy laws, what can the U.S. government do?

1. Congress can pass a resolution calling for the repeal of blasphemy laws around the world.

While lacking the force of law, resolutions can still send a strong message that Congress either supports or condemns the behavior of other countries. Opinions expressed by the U.S. government can carry a lot of weight for countries looking to modernize and secure positive relationships with the West. H.Res.512, which passed in the House of Representatives last week, is a good example of a resolution that calls for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws. The Senate can follow up by passing its own version of the resolution.

2. The State Department should utilize its diplomatic efforts to advocate for an end to blasphemy laws in countries that maintain them.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 established mechanisms to incorporate the promotion of religious freedom into American foreign policy. In standing with the United States’ interest in advancing religious freedom and other human rights, American diplomats at all levels who work in countries that have blasphemy laws should raise this issue in discussions with their counterparts.

3. The State Department can prioritize the repeal of blasphemy laws through the Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance it helped launch earlier this year.

The alliance is intended to be what U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has called the “activist club of nations” who are serious about promoting religious freedom as a fundamental human right. This venue ought to be maximized to build a coalition of countries to join in calling for the repeal of blasphemy laws.

As blasphemy laws continue to harm individuals around the globe, free societies should not look the other way. By defending the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and religion, free countries can appropriately leverage their influence to affirm the freedoms they cherish for all people.

China’s Bride Trafficking Problem

by Arielle Del Turco

December 15, 2020

My friend asked me to go work with her in China… I agreed to go with her as long as the work there would be good.” This was the simple way that one unsuspecting Kachin girl from Burma (Myanmar) ended up as a victim of human trafficking and forced marriage in China. Soon after her arrival in China, the friends she came with left her with a Chinese man to live as his wife.

Forced to stay at his house, she was afraid and unsure of where to go for help. Before long, she gave birth to twins. Finally, she determined one day to wake up before her captor and flee to seek help from the authorities in a nearby city. She spent two months in a Chinese jail before being transferred to Burmese authorities who took her back to Burma, where a humanitarian organization provided her with shelter and support.

This brave survivor shared her story last week at a State Department event titled, “Trafficking of Women and Girls in China via Forced and Fraudulent Marriage.” She is just one of many Kachin girls—and girls and women from other countries neighboring China—tricked into crossing the border into China with offers of work or tales of a legitimate marriage, which turns out to be sexual exploitation.

The Kachin ethnic group, like many ethnic minorities in Burma, receive little support from the Burmese government. Insurgencies in the Kachin state are among several across Burma which are collectively referred to as the Burmese civil war, a conflict that has been ongoing for decades and the source of multiple humanitarian crises. Some estimate that more than 90 percent of the Kachin people are Christian—mostly Baptist and Roman Catholic. The ongoing conflict and lack of support from the government makes Kachin girls and women vulnerable to manipulation by traffickers and brokers. In 2019, Human Rights Watch published a heart-wrenching, exhaustive report on the trafficking of Kachin “brides” from Burma to China.

Other countries that surround China also deal with widespread bride trafficking issues, including Pakistan, Vietnam, and North Korea. China’s former “one-child policy,” imposed from 1979 to 2015, along with a cultural preference for sons, has created a skewed male-female ratio and a significant shortage of women. This imbalance fuels human trafficking and prostitution within China.

Bride trafficking in Pakistan earned international attention last year when Pakistani authorities compiled a list of 629 Pakistani women and girls sold as brides to Chinese men and taken to China. The investigation was soon shut down over Pakistani officials’ fear that the inquiry would ire China and threaten Chinese investments into the cash-strapped country.

During the Pakistani investigations, Christian women were found to be particular targets because the pervasive social marginalization of Christian communities makes them easy targets for foreign traffickers. Many Christians in Pakistan are uneducated and impoverished, exacerbating the problem. Christian women from poor households lack the agency in society to protect or advocate for themselves.

Corrupt pastors in Pakistan—abusing their trusted role in the community—have been found to work with Chinese brokers to identify prospective female targets for trafficking and orchestrate fake marriages.

At the State Department event, Saleem Iqbal, a Christian activist who has helped rescue several girls from China, described how brokers, sometimes cooperating with a pastor who receives a cut of the profit, convince their victims to go to China: “The promises that were made were not just that the man is a Christian man who is from China and is just looking for a wife and will provide a good life in China, but also that the [woman’s] family will be taken care of when the woman is taken to China. And since they come from a poor household, they did not want to turn down these offers…”

The cases discussed at the State Department’s event are troubling. As Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Kelley Currie noted, human trafficking may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about China’s many human rights violations, but this significant trend deserves global attention and action.  

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback highlighted the connection between religious freedom issues in Burma, Pakistan, and elsewhere and the issue of human trafficking: “Often religious minorities, not exclusively because they’re religious minorities, but because they’re vulnerable” are targeted, “and it’s incumbent upon us, as the international community, to aggressively push back against both ends of this problem,” which are religious freedom violations and human trafficking.

In many devastating cases, human trafficking and religious freedom violations assist each other. Each of these is a serious human rights issue, and together they create even more tragic scenarios. Activists that work on human trafficking issues and religious freedom issues have a lot to gain by working together, especially when it comes to China.

Nigeria Is Officially Declared a “Country of Particular Concern”—and Not a Minute Too Soon

by Lela Gilbert

December 8, 2020

Nearly at the end of 2020—a year when bad news seemed to be relentless and unstoppable—a good report has emerged. Very good news, in fact. At long last, broken and bloodstained Nigeria has been declared a CPC— a “country of particular concern”—by the U.S. State Department.

On Monday, December 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement:

The United States is designating Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, the DPRK, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Shortly after Pompeo’s announcement, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published a statement headlined, “USCIRF Welcomes the State Department’s Designation of Nigeria among World’s Worst Violators of Religious Freedom.” The commission applauded the decision—one that many international observers, activists, and victims of Nigeria’s violence have long demanded:

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) praised the State Department’s announcement that it has named 10 “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs), including Nigeria for the first time, and placed four countries on its “Special Watch List” (SWL) for severe violations, pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

We are gratified that the State Department has named 10 countries as CPCs. We particularly welcome Nigeria’s designation for the first time as a CPC for tolerating egregious violations of religious freedom, which USCIRF had been recommending since 2009. Nigeria is the first secular democracy that has been named a CPC, which demonstrates that we must be vigilant that all forms of governments respect religious freedom,” said Chair Gayle Manchin.

At Family Research Council, we have written repeatedly and at length about the horrifying violence in that West African country. Our lengthy report on Nigeria forewarned:

Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, and with horrifying acceleration in recent years, verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnapping of Christians in Nigeria have persistently increased. These attacks are frequently accompanied by the torching of homes, churches, villages, and agricultural fields. A July 15, 2020 headline reports that 1,202 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first six months of 2020. This is in addition to 11,000 Christians who have been killed since June 2015. Such violence has reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide—a “slow-motion war” specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation.

And indeed, since that writing in July 2020, massacre after massacre has devastated Nigeria’s Christians communities, and with relentless repetition.

Just last year, President Donald Trump himself raised the issue of Christian persecution with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” Trump said, with Buhari seated next to him. “We’re going to be… working on that problem very, very hard because we can’t allow that to happen.”  The president’s appeal fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Buhari is himself a member of the Fulani ethnic group, which is responsible for a large part of the killing, and has gone on unhindered during his presidency. Meanwhile for years, international authorities have turned a blind eye to Nigerian butchery perpetrated not only by Fulani jihadis, but by Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP). Making excuses for the violence and rarely addressing the religious nature of the conflict, even the American Embassy has seemed unwilling to do more than plead for reconciliation meetings.

Thankfully, all that changed on December 7, 2020 when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Nigeria a CPC. This, in turn, can lead not only to closer scrutiny and, presumably, additional pressure on all concerned in the violence, but also to financial measures. “Congress is notified, and where non-economic policy options designed to bring about cessation of the particularly severe violations of religious freedom have reasonably been exhausted, an economic measure generally must be imposed.” Economic measures might well diminish the hundreds of millions of aid dollars the U.S. has poured into Nigeria for many years.

Will there finally be a shift in the calculations of Nigeria’s leadership and a crackdown on the surging violence of the jihadis? Or will the bloodbath increase until—as in Iraq during ISIS’ devastating assaults on Christian and Yazidi communities—the world wakes up and takes action against the terrorists?

Can the CPC designation really stop the vicious cycles of violence against Christians in Nigeria? Only time—and responsible international diplomacy—will tell. But in fact, as my Hudson Institute colleague Nina Shea recently told me, it’s late in the game as the threat of another genocide looms larger every day. “More Christians have been targeted and slaughtered by extremists in Nigeria,” she pointed out, “than in the entire Middle East in recent years.”

The Harrowing Plight of North Korean Defectors

by Rachel Nicole

December 7, 2020

The grossest human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean (DPRK) government are disclosed in the testimonies of North Korean nationals who have survived the escape from their home nation. In the past, the DPRK’s primary tactic towards international accountability over human rights abuses has been silence. However, more recently, they have changed their strategy to flat-out denial and have projected charges of human rights violations onto the U.S. The DPRK habitually uses deflective arguments that are circular and illogical.

In April 2015, a heated exchange occurred between DPRK state representatives and defectors at a UN event in New York City. At the event, “Victims’ Voices: A Conversation on North Korean Human Rights,” DPRK representatives interrupted while three North Korean defectors were sharing their stories (see 17:24). Joseph Kim had just finished speaking and Jo Jin Hye was about to speak when a DPRK representative in the audience interrupted the proceedings and read a prepared statement aloud. The defectors in the audience began to shout, “Out with you!” Jo Jin Hye then decided to start her testimony by holding her U.S. passport aloft and announcing that she was now a naturalized U.S. citizen. The audience applauded. Amidst the chaos, the DPRK representative finished reading his statement and he and his compatriots smugly left the room.

Because many defectors sell the last remaining food they have in order to finance their journey toward the Chinese/North Korean border, the path of escape often begins with near-starvation. Upon arrival at the border, most have no money left and are extremely desperate and hungry, making them easy targets for human traffickers who take advantage of the desperate and vulnerable.

One defector says she was wooed by a woman who promised she would “take her into a family” and treat her “as one of my own daughters.” The woman enticed the starving teenage girl with food. Once in the wealthy woman’s care, the girl was taken to China without notice, where she was sold as a wife to an older man. She soon became pregnant and bore him a son, which made the man’s Chinese wife jealous. While the girl was pregnant with the man’s second child, the Chinese wife reported her to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, who swiftly deported her back to North Korea. Her North Korean-Chinese son witnessed the traumatic event that separated him from his mother. While the repatriated, pregnant defector was being held at the North Korean detention center, the DPRK officials forcibly aborted her unborn child via an injection. She was then immediately placed in a labor camp and forced to work, even though her body was still experiencing the trauma of the abortion.

The Tongil Mom organization in South Korea has documented countless similar testimonies. In an event hosted by Family Research Council, two defectors shared testimonies like the one described above. Tongil Mom is focused on helping female defectors heal from the many layers of trauma they experienced not only as citizens in the DPRK but also as defectors who dared to escape the Hermit Kingdom’s grip.                    

Other defectors have successfully found their voice in the South Korean government and international affairs. Thae Yong-Ho is the first North Korean defector to be elected to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea. He is the former Deputy Ambassador of North Korea to the United Kingdom. Jang Jin-Sung, a defector and former North Korea United Front propaganda writer, provides valuable insight:

Despite Pyongyang’s deceptive ways, many people in the outside world continue to believe in the theoretical North Korea in which dialogue with the regime is seen as the way to effect change. But I know from my years inside the government that talking will not get Pyongyang to turn any corners, not even with the North’s current leader, Kim Jong-un.

Dr. Sandra Fahy, an anthropologist and expert on North Korea, has spent much of her career documenting North Korean defectors’ first-hand accounts and recommends Westerners listen to them. Whether by following those that have gone public with their testimonies on YouTube, such as Yeonmi Park and Kim Min-Ki, or reading literature written by defectors such as Jang Jin-Sung, consuming truthful media about North Korean abuses of its own citizens is crucial. By searching “North Korean defector escape” on YouTube, anyone can see video proof of the regime’s brutality.

Currently, North Koreans looking to defect often use brokerage services to get themselves safely out of the country. Kim Min-Ki, himself a defector in 1997, has helped more than 6,000 defectors escape. There are only two field brokers still doing this dangerous work. Kim’s path initially took him across the Tumen River into China. He was then able to migrate through Vietnam, Cambodia, and finally to South Korea with the help of a South Korean national and member of the special forces who guided him through the process. He also stayed at a safe house run by a church along the way. Kim says springtime is the prime season to defect because April 15 is Kim Il Sung’s birthday and because the water levels begin to rise. The cost to defect from North Korea to China using a broker is about US$15,000. The cost of getting from China to Thailand ranges from free (due to charitable help) to US$2,000 (if charitable help cannot be found). From Thailand, defectors cross into Cambodia illegally, incurring a US$0.50 fine. However, Cambodia recognizes defectors as refugees, and they can travel to South Korea easily from there.

What are Westerners to do about the grim situation in the DPRK? Defector Kim Min-Ki’s message to the world is, “North Korean defectors are still being trafficked for money. They’re being used as birth-giving machines, and [he’d] be grateful if people would at least be concerned about these heartbreaking events.”

Rachel Nicole is an intern focusing on international religious freedom with the Center for Religious Liberty in FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department.

Archives