Suppression of the saints
A missionary’s return to freedom belies the widespread persecution of Christians
Andrew Brunson, the American Christian missionary imprisoned for two years in a Turkish prison, came home through the good offices of President Trump to an air of celebration shared by all Americans. But it hardly hides the reality that persecution of Christians has never been more widespread, or more severe.
The evangelical Christian missionary was arrested on bogus charges over suspected links to political groups, including the banned Gulenist movement after the failed coup attempt in 2016 against the Turkish Erdogan regime. Mr. Brunson spent two years in Turkish prisons and did not waver in the faith.
But despite Mr. Brunson’s celebrated release, for the third year in a row, the persecution of Christians worldwide has hit another record. Approximately 215 million other Christians experience high, very high, or extreme persecution with North Korea remaining the most dangerous place to be a believer.
Islamic extremism is responsible for initiating oppression and conflict in 34 other countries. There is no equivalent counter movement by church groups in the United States and the West to oppose it. Western religious faiths — Jewish, Catholic and Protestant — cherish traditions of tolerance and goodwill toward unbelievers that are not always returned by others. In the West, persecution of Christians is an anti-establishment form but in Asia it is usually led by dramatic religious nationalism and government insecurity. Tottering governments try to gain support by scapegoating Christians. Persecution in the top 50 most dangerous countries has increased, with the most violent occurring in Pakistan, surpassing previous higher levels in northern Nigeria.
In the “Open Doors” 2018 World Watch List (WWL), an annual ranking of the 50 countries where approximately 215 million Christians experience high, very high, or extreme levels of persecution, one in two Christians live where Christianity is “illegal, forbidden, or punished.”
Islamic extremism remains responsible for initiating oppression, a part of the Muslim embrace of shariah, or Islamic religious law. In Muslim-majority countries shariah is usually used to radicalize the society and culture, or in countries with a large Muslim minority, to radicalize the larger community. The Roman Catholic Church has sought to negotiate tolerance from governments like the Communists in China who prosecute the religious, but particularly Christians. Just how futile such negotiations and agreements may be is that even as reports emerged that a long-awaited deal between China and the Holy See was imminent in early September, Beijing was shutting down Zion Church, a large house church in Beijing, and further tightening restrictions on sharing religious material online. In fact, China is currently engaged in the most severe crackdown on Christians in decades.
Asia News, the official press agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, reports that authorities have been burning crosses on the bell towers, replacing them with the red flags of China. Slogans praising the Communists and the values of socialism have been splashed across religious buildings, erasing sacred images considered “too Western.”
Persecution of Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners continues, and in Xinjiang up to a million Uyghur Muslims have been detained in “re-education” camps, a crackdown in China’s most western areas. Muslims are detained without charge, sometimes for activities as simple as praying, wearing Islamic clothing, refusing to eat pork or drink alcohol, or neglecting to read the Koran as often as instructed. Families of those sent to re-education camps are not told where their relatives are being held or when they will be released. There is no access to legal counsel or the right of appeal.
Chinese Communists have always restricted religious activity. In the first three decades of communist rule resistance to the suppression of faith was enforced with violence. After the death of Mao and over the next 40 years, the policy has been one of control rather than outright repression, and there were periods of relaxation in some areas. However, Xi Jinping has pursued a severe crackdown on all human rights, including religious freedom, since he came to power in 2013. In March this year, it was announced that religious affairs would now be “Sinicized” by placing the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department in charge. Violent enforcement of suppression is likely to return.