The World’s Worst Religious Persecutors

By Nina Shea
1Today, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (Uscirf) released its 14th annual report, which it is mandated to do under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The report identifies the world’s worst persecutors and makes foreign-policy recommendations, which are non-binding, to the administration and Congress. Its decisions are based on the agency’s visits to foreign countries, and a wide array of other sources, including the State Department’ s own excellent annual compilation of worldwide religious-freedom violations. The commission is distinctive because it is an independent federal agency, and it is to make its name-and-shame lists and policy recommendations unburdened by foreign-policy considerations other than the defense of religious freedom.

This year, Uscirf named 16 countries as the most egregious and systematic religious freedom violators in the world and recommended them for official “Country of Concern” (CPC) designation by the U.S. State Department. They are:

Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, (north) Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

I thought Afghanistan should be on the list as well and said so in my dissent, which is excerpted further down in this column.

Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Mandeans, Ahmadiyas, Rohingya Muslims, Yizidis, Alevis, Shiite and Ismaili Muslims in Saudi Arabia, African traditional believers in Sudan, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, Sufi Muslims, Pakistani Hindus, independent Buddhists in Vietnam, Cao Dai, and many others groups and individuals are persecuted in these 16 countries. They suffer arrest, torture, imprisonment and even death for religious reasons, as well as other pressures. All these groups are covered in the Uscirf report.

Christians are far from the only religious group persecuted in these countries. But, Christians are the only group persecuted in each and every one of them. This pattern has been found by sources as diverse as the Vatican, Open Doors, Pew Research Center, Newsweek, and The Economist, all of which recently reported that an overwhelming majority of the religiously persecuted around the world are Christians. Globally, this persecution is experienced by all Christian faith traditions from Pentecostal and evangelical to Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, calls this the “Ecumenism of the Martyrs.” As the Cardinal put it: “While we as Christians and as churches, live on this earth in an as yet imperfect communion, the martyrs in their celestial glory find themselves in full and perfect communion.”

In many cases the persecution is at the hands of the government, as, for example, in China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, but often, in places like Nigeria and Iraq, it is committed by religious extremists and vigilantes in the society who operate within a climate of impunity. In Pakistan and Egypt persecution is sponsored by all three — the authorities, extremist groups, and vigilantes.

Persecution is intensifying now in the Muslim world, as documented throughout the Uscirf report. Each year, the report’s cover reflects a signal event in the global landscape of religious persecution. This year’s bears a photo of Egyptian mourners gathered in central Cairo on October 13, 2011, in honor of some 25 Coptic Christians killed days before by the Egyptian military during a demonstration over an attack on a church. The commission decided it was important to single out the Copts. There are rising fears for them now that Egypt will be governed by Islamists, some of whom, notably from the sizeable Wahhabi or Salafist parliamentarian faction, have openly declared their intent of religious cleansing.

Perhaps there is no more poignant and symbolic an assault on Christianity as a bombing attack against a church full of worshippers on Christmas, or on any Sunday. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of just such attacks on churches in Egypt, Iraq, and Nigeria. Nigeria’s Catholic bishops report that some 200 individuals, mostly Catholic worshippers, were killed in coordinated Christmas bombings in 2011. In Iraq, there have been 70 documented church bombings over the past eight years.

Turkey, a democracy and NATO member, often held out as a model for the Arab Spring, was put on the Uscirf CPC recommendation list for the first time this year.

This may surprise some. After all, Turkey’s methods of religious control and repression stand in contrast to the bloody, un-self-conscious crackdowns found in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and North Korea.

These days, Turkey uses more sophisticated, subtler measures that are resulting in the elimination of its Christian and non-Muslim minorities. The cudgel is a dense tangle of bureaucratic restrictions that thwart the ability of churches to perpetuate themselves and, in some cases, even to meet together for worship.

Turkey’s Ambassador Tan predictably protested the listing as “unfair.” More surprisingly, after the State Department was tipped off by a Uscirf commissioner who was appointed by Pres. Obama, assistant secretary for human rights Michael Posner “reached out” on Turkey to another commissioner, resulting in his changing his mind after the report was put to bed. The Turkey decision resulted from a new analysis that will stir controversy.

As Uscirf chair Leonard Leo explained, “some of the countries we recommend for CPC designation maintain intricate webs of discriminatory rules, requirements and edicts that can impose tremendous burdens for members of religious minority communities, making it difficult for them to function and grow from one generation to the next, potentially threatening their existence.”

In casting my vote to put Turkey on the Uscirf black list, I could not forget the urgent words of a senior Christian religious leader in Turkey, who, out of fear, requested anonymity: “We are an endangered species here in Turkey.” Despite ten years of rule, despite its revolutionary measures in other spheres, such as in the economy, and despite its powerful mandate from the 2011 elections, AK Party’s government has failed to take critical actions in favor of religious freedom. Specifically, it has failed to rescind the regulatory regime that is contributing to its Christian minorities’ steady decline into statistical insignificance, now numbering a mere 0.15 percent.

Turkey’s Christian minorities struggle to find places in which they can worship, are denied seminaries in which to train future leaders, are barred from wearing clerical garb in public, see the trials of the murderers of their prominent members end with impunity, and, above all, lack the legal right to be recognized as churches so that their members can be assured of their rights to gather freely in sacred spaces for religious marriages, funerals, and baptisms, and otherwise carry out the full practice of their respective religions.

Turkey’ s laws, aimed at promoting extreme secular nationalism, also encourage a culture of animosity toward Christians, who are seen to undermine “Turkishness,” despite Christianity’ s 2,000-year presence there. Even starting a discussion about the genocide of Christians that occurred 100 years ago is a criminal offense in Turkey. Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in 2006, was himself convicted of “insulting Turkishness” for trying to do so.

Last year marked the 40th year that the Greek Orthodox seminary of Halki remained closed and in government hands. The Greek Orthodox community now numbers less than 2,000, and remains unable to educate and train its clergy. Indeed, none of the Christians groups in Turkey is permitted to train its leaders in the country. The Armenian Church is anxious to train more priests, and, in 2006, petitioned the education minister to allow the establishment of a state university faculty on Christian theology including instruction by the Patriarchate. Their request was ignored again throughout the past year.

The Syriac Orthodox community continued to be denied permission to have a second church to accommodate its flock of 20,000 in Istanbul, where the group has gathered for security after having been driven by violence out of its traditional lands over the last century. In 2010, the Supreme Court had granted the state’ s treasury parts of the 1,600 year old Mor Gabriel monastery, a site that is a second Jerusalem for the Syriacs. In November 2011, the government removed from museum status St Sophia church in Iznik — where the first Christian Ecumenical Council had met in A.D. 325 — and turned it into a mosque.

In a recent interview, Protestant Association chair Zekai Tanyar expressed their frustrations with government meetings in trying to navigate the regulations to open a church:

These visits do not go beyond polite stalling. . . . Churches find themselves shuttled between municipalities and governorships in their search for a solution to this problem. Even if one municipality responds positively, often the state Governor does not give approval. Sometimes the authorities respond with ridiculous excuses saying “there are not enough Christians in the neighborhood.” So are we supposed to do head counts and form ghettos?

Another describes the relentless pressure faced by Christian converts, who are officially supposed to be legal:

They have to contest for every inch of legal territory. They are constantly surveilled by national-security agencies. They have been threatened, attacked, hauled into court on bogus charges, and even brutally murdered by ultra-nationalists linked to a nationwide plot to destabilize the Turkish government. It is a disheartening, and sometimes dangerous, environment in which to worship and share one’s faith. Although many Turkish congregations meet quietly and safely on a Sunday, no group anywhere in the country meets without carefully taking the measure of each new person who walks through the door.

The AKP government points to some improvements for Christians, including the addition of worship services allowed for a particular church, citizenship for the leaders of another, and accurate national-identity cards for converts. But, overall, the downward trajectory continues for Turkey’s Christian communities.

* * *

I believe that Afghanistan, too, belongs in the ranks of the world’s worst religious persecutors. Apart from the depredations of the Taliban, Afghanistan’ s government under President Karzai fails to respect religious freedom, and its violations are egregious, ongoing, and systematic, thus meeting the statutory standard for CPC designation. The State Department’s recent religious-freedom report on Afghanistan found:

The government’s level of respect for religious freedom in law and in practice declined during the reporting period, particularly for Christian groups and individuals.

An example was the razing of that country’ s last remaining church after its 99-year lease was cancelled, as the State Department reported last September. This event did not draw the international protest that accompanied the Taliban’ s detonation of the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in 2001, but, with respect to the status of religious freedom, it is equally emblematic.

Afghanistan, therefore, has now joined the lonely company of hardline Saudi Arabia as a country with no churches. The millions of Christians in Afghanistan, including some very beleaguered and oft-jailed converts, must hide their faith and seek the protection and secrecy of walled embassy compounds to pray in community.

Furthermore, we learn from the State Department report that, in addition to Christians, particular “targets of discrimination and persecution” are Hindu and Sikh groups.

The one synagogue, located in Kabul, is shuttered because Jews dare not venture there.

The Uscirf report itself states:

Conditions for religious freedom are exceedingly poor for dissenting members of the majority faith and for minority religious communities. The Afghan constitution fails explicitly to protect the individual right to freedom of religion or belief and allows other fundamental rights to be superseded by ordinary legislation. It also contains a repugnancy clause stating that no law can be contrary to the tenets of Islam, which the government has interpreted to limit fundamental freedoms. Individuals who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy regarding Islamic beliefs and practices are subject to legal action that violates international standards, for example prosecutions for religious crimes such as apostasy and blasphemy. In addition, the Afghan government remains unable, as well as at times unwilling, to protect citizens against violence and intimidation by the Taliban and other illegal armed groups.

The Afghan government’s slide into extreme intolerance accelerated this month when, at the behest of his senior Islamic advisers, President Karzai publicly backed their statement that women should not mingle with men in workplaces, schools or other areas of daily life, and should not travel without a male relative, according to a March 6 BBC report.

For anyone concerned about human rights and religious freedom, the Uscirf report is unsettling but important reading.

— Nina Shea is a commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, and director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.