Experts: Attacks on religious freedom intensifying worldwide

WASHINGTON (BP)--The list of suffering reads like Hebrews 11:32-39: churches seized, people dragged from meetings and beaten to death, seeing their homes destroyed, or being arrested for carrying Bibles.

Instead of 2,000 years ago, however, such horrors occur daily across the world, according to several organizations that track reports of religious persecution. The situation is so bad that Forum 18 -- an advocacy organization based in Oslo, Norway -- lists erosion of religious freedom the past 10 years as its leading concern.

Among the abuses:

-- The slaughter of 10,000 Christians in Indonesia over the past five years. Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern (ICC) in Washington, said during this time 1,000 churches have been destroyed, along with 80,000 Christians' homes.

-- The Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom reports that Vietnamese authorities are stepping up their campaign against minority Christians, in some instances threatening to murder spiritual leaders. Last year, the center reported that police beat three Hmong Christians to death, including the 10-year-old child of a church leader.

In addition, the Compass Direct news service in Santa Ana, Calif., has reported the impending trial of a Vietnamese house church leader arrested for resisting an officer last August.

-- Compass Direct reported Dec. 29 that a Chinese house church leader died while in police custody after her arrest by police Oct. 29. The news service reported that Zhang Hongmei, 33, was seen at the police station in heavy chains and injured, and the next day her family learned she had died.

-- In mid-December, Compass reported that a 51-year-old priest was murdered Nov. 14 in Colombia, the second priest to be killed in the country over a three-week period.

Leaders of the three religious freedom organizations encourage Americans to intercede for believers in other parts of the world and spread the word about their plight.

"Americans can help by just telling others and getting the story out," King said. "Most people don't know how bad things are."

David Miller, managing editor of Compass Direct, said various atrocities often don't involve mass numbers of victims and fail to generate headlines.

"There's very little interest in the mainline press," Miller said. "People don't want to read about it. But it's happening, and people need to read about it."

Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18 News Service, said the continuing -- and in some cases, intensified -- nature of attacks on religious freedoms of all people are particularly bothersome.

In recent weeks, Forum 18 has reported on the seizure of a Methodist church in Moscow and the arrest of a Baptist pastor in Turkmenistan. Among other situations Forum 18 is following are continued state atheism in Belarus, repression practiced by Azerbaijan and continued toleration of violence against religious minorities in the former Soviet state of Georgia.

"Sadly, there are other countries which could be added to that list, as well as countries like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia," Corley said.

Saudi Arabia and Indonesia were among offenders listed in the latest International Religious Freedom Report, released Dec. 18 by the U.S. State Department.

The report cited Burma, China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam for totalitarian attempts to control religion. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were listed as practicing state hostility toward minority or non-approved religions.

Indonesia appeared in a section reviewing "state neglect of discrimination against, or persecution of, minority or non-approved religions."

However, King said the Indonesian situation is much worse. During a visit to the Southeast Asian nation last fall, he toured villages where Muslim marauders had pillaged and burned a multitude of homes.

While some Christians have since rebuilt, others are afraid to return, ICC's president said. In addition to loss of life and property, countless numbers of Christians have had hands or feet cut off or been subjected to forced circumcision, King said.

Although the government finally dispatched troops to quell the violence, about 30 Christians were killed during the last three months of 2003, King said. He believes that is an ominous indicator that the situation is heating up again, noting that hostilities typically resume after troops withdraw.

Among attacks last fall was a bombing raid on the Indonesian village of Old Bethlehem, Miller said. Nine people died and 11 were injured in the attack. "People are starting to flee because the military is unwilling or unable to protect them," he noted.

Another troublesome spot is Sudan, where more than 10 Christian churches and a church-run vocational training center were destroyed the past two months, according to Compass Direct.

It appears a peace treaty between Muslims and Christians may be forthcoming, the ICC's King said, but the government has a long history of not honoring its agreements.

The United Nations has declared a humanitarian crisis in the Sudanese city of Darfur, labeling the situation "the worst in the world today," King said. Actions taken by Arab-backed militias against Sudanese Christians amount to ethnic cleansing, he said, quoting a statement by the UN's humanitarian coordinator for the Sudan.

Other leading concerns expressed by King and Miller include:

-- North Korea.

"North Korea is a place where they put you to death or put you in prison if you have a Bible," King said. "There's two kinds of death, one slow and one quick. Yet there is an underground church. The more they try to stamp it out, the more the light shines."

-- Eritrea, in the Red Sea region, which was cited by the State Department for discriminatory legislation or policies against certain religions.

The only recognized faiths there are Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran, Muslim and Catholic, Miller said. A full-gospel church center was recently confiscated by the government and more than 300 Pentecostals imprisoned for having Bibles, attending house church meetings or sharing their faith, he said.

Among them were 62 teenagers who were arrested last year at a military summer camp, locked in metal shipping containers and told to renounce their faith, Miller said. While most were released, the Compass editor said another 75 soldiers are still being held for the same reason.

-- India.

In the world's largest democracy, a Hindu fundamentalist movement has led to laws against converting to other faiths, Miller said.

Often, Hindus will attack Christian schools, churches or evangelical rallies, beating believers with sticks, he said. If police come, the attackers claim their victims were blaspheming their gods.

"It's a lot like Nazi Germany in the 1930s, where people used anti-Semitic laws to attack the Jews," Miller said. "Hindu nationalists share some of the same fascist ideology as the Nazis in Germany."

Although the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is observed the second Sunday of November, these observers urge Americans to participate in continuing prayer vigils.

When believers who have faced oppression are asked how others can assist them, their first answer is, "Pray," Miller said. He suggested dedicating a particular Sunday or including it as an ongoing request on church prayer lists.

"They've given us testimony after testimony of how prayer has made a difference," the Compass editor said. "It's the most effective thing we can do, and it's something every Christian can do."

Believers also can assist such organizations as Open Doors, Christian Solidarity and Voice of the Martyrs, which help persecuted Christians and families by providing Bibles, training and supplies, Miller said.

King also is an advocate of focused prayer. In addition, ICC's president said Christians can help by sending aid to ministries at work in the Sudan, Cuba and other oppressed nations and by staying informed.

"Basically, keeping up to date on the [Internet] so they know who to call and when to sign petitions," King said. "People can work through agencies like ICC and the Jubilee Campaign ... that work on Capitol Hill to influence senators, congressmen and others who have a hot button for this issue."


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: IN THE WAKE OF TERROR, FIREY PERSECUTION and FOREVER HAUNTED.

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