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Where ‘Religious Freedom’ Means Avoiding a Bloodbath

Christians in America sometimes speak of being persecuted. They aren’t.

Their religious freedom is under attack, surprisingly so in a nation that once viewed liberty of conscience as an essential foundation. That’s because, increasingly for the Left at least, identity politics tops all else. If you don’t subscribe to the reigning left-wing zeitgeist, you are expected to kowtow nonetheless.

Still, that’s nothing like the experience in other nations. Across Australia, Canada, and Europe, governments have begun censoring speech, punishing believers in the three Abrahamic faiths. These nations lack a First Amendment, an explicit constitutional protection for the exercise of religion to which Americans at least can repair.

The status of religious liberty elsewhere in the world is even worse. Many countries do not accept the legitimacy of opposition and criticism. In some places, the physical elimination of opponents is not just possible but expected. Both the State Department and the U.S. International Commission on Religious Freedom have documented these depredations in detail.


Equally detailed is the recent Religious Freedom in the World from Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic organization. Published every two years, it chronicles the state of religious freedom around the globe, and lately it’s made for sobering reading. This has a lot to do with the fact that the growth of Christianity has shifted overseas, and with expansion has come increased repression.

The foreword for the latest report is authored by Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga of the Central African Republic. In his nation, he writes, “religious freedom is not a concept; it is a question of survival.” Americans would have trouble understanding, but “the issue,” he says, “is how to avoid a bloodbath.”

That is no overstatement. In the Middle East, religious minorities are being exterminated. Unleashed by promiscuous American military interventions, radical Islamists are murdering, enslaving, and displacing Christians, Yazidis, Jews, and other religions minorities—even Shiites and liberal Sunnis. And the Middle East is not the only locus of persecution. Some of the worst episodes are occurring in Africa, including in Cardinal Nzapalainga’s Central African Republic, and Asia, specifically in the world’s two most populous nations, China and India.

According to the Aid to the Church in Need report, “In the period under review, the situation for minority faith groups deteriorated in 18 of the [40] countries—almost half—found to have significant religious freedom violations. Especially serious decline was noted in China and India. In many others—including North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Eritrea—the situation was already so bad, it could scarcely get any worse.” Moreover, for the first time, both Kyrgyzstan and Russia have been placed in the category of “discrimination.”

Much of the hostility toward religious minorities is theological. Virtually every Islamic nation discriminates. Most combine pervasive biases in benefits and jobs with a degree of persecution. In some cases, repression is largely legal, such as in Saudi Arabia. Ironically, religious minorities, including Jews, do much better—though admittedly still not well—in Iran than in other Mideast nations. And not just Muslims are at fault: violence against members of minority faiths has become tragically routine in India and Nepal, the world’s two majority Hindu nations.

Nationalism, too, is a factor. Noted Aid to the Church in Need, “Aggressive nationalism, hostile to religious minorities, has worsened to the degree that the phenomenon can be called ultra-nationalism. Violent and systemic intimidation of religious minority groups has led to them being branded as disloyal aliens and threatening to the state.” China has dramatically intensified its persecution and is attempting to “Sinicize” other religions, especially Islam. Russia recently sentenced a Jehovah’s Witness to six years in prison. Moscow calls his group “extremist” even though the sect’s primary crime appears to be proselytizing, thereby drawing Russians away from the dominant Orthodox Church, which does not like competition and has close ties with the Putin government.

Even the West is not exempt. Observed the report, “religious freedom is slipping down the human rights priority rankings, being eclipsed by issues of gender, sexuality and race.” Moreover, attacks in the West “suggest that the threat of militant extremism is now becoming universal, imminent and ever-present. As such, this threat can be called neighborhood terrorism.”

Aid to the Church in Need focused on 40 countries with “significant violations of religious freedom.” That means nations where persecution is increasing and violations are the responsibility of both state and non-state actors: India, Indonesia, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Yemen. It also means places where the deteriorating status of religious liberty is primarily a result of state action: Brunei, Burma/Myanmar, China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkey. In Niger and Somalia, non-state actors were mostly at fault for worsening situations.

Situations were stable—which does not mean good—in Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Egypt, Eritrea, Laos, Nigeria, North Korea, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Only in Iraq, Kenya, Syria, and Tanzania did the situation improve.

The report included case studies. In the Philippines, Islamist extremists desecrated a cathedral, kidnapped the staff, forced members to convert to Islam, and murdered other Christian hostages. In Egypt, Coptic pilgrims were murdered. In Nigeria, Islamist Fulani herdsman slaughtered priests and parishioners during mass. Islamist groups used sexual violence against non-Muslim women in Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. Sunni terrorists bombed Shiites in Afghanistan. An Islamic militant used a van to kill 15 people and injure more than 120 in Spain. In France, a radical Islamist killed a Jewish woman. In Mexico, criminals murdered, threatened, and blackmailed hundreds of clergy and parishioners. Indeed, the report states, “Mexico is the most dangerous country in Latin America for priests—suffering kidnapping, shootings, beatings, knife and bomb attacks against the Church, including Mexico City’s cathedral.”

In India, Hindu “cow vigilantes” murdered Muslims thought to be trafficking in cattle. Notes the report, “Protests were organized in New Delhi and elsewhere in response to the growing violence targeting Muslims and low-caste Dalits by Hindu vigilantes. Attacks against religious minorities, particularly against Christians, drastically increased following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) landslide victory in the March 2017 elections.” More than a half million Muslim Rohingya have been forced from their homes in Burma. In China, says the report, “Repression of religious activity has intensified over the past five years, throughout the country,” and “an increasing number of Christian clergy have been arrested and sentenced to prison terms.” A year ago, new regulations “came into effect, which amount to the most restrictive new laws on religious practice in 13 years.” Muslim Uighurs are also suffering greatly, with a million forced into reeducation camps.

Obviously, given the number of countries involved, the issue of religious intolerance is complicated. In some cases, religion is as much about culture as faith. There are also significant geopolitical issues at stake. Authoritarian regimes especially tend to fear any independent thought, such as the Chinese Communist Party, which targets those who believe it should be subject to a higher power. America’s militarized policy towards the Middle East has done much to inflame religious persecution. The invasion of Iraq and destruction of Libya wrecked indigenous communities and unleashed the most virulent Islamist extremists against religious minorities.

These suffering religious need help. Many activists and organizations battle valiantly to help those oppressed for their faith. I have long worked with Christian Freedom International, which for years has supported the largely Christian ethnic Karen in Burma/Myanmar. Today, the group is helping Pakistani Christians stranded in Bangkok—who are hoping to find sanctuary in America or elsewhere—among others. Different but also impressive is Hardwired, run by a former congressional aide, Tina Ramirez, which helps bring members of different faiths together to defend freedom of conscience.

One doesn’t have to be a professional to help. People of good will can write letters to offending governments, protest and embarrass foreign persecutors, urge their own leaders to stop making problems worse, give money to activist groups, and pray. We who enjoy religious liberty should not allow persecution elsewhere to proceed in secret, hidden from view and without accountability.

Ours is supposed to be an age of enlightenment. But support for religious tolerance and diversity is shrinking. Religious liberty is in retreat in America and under serious threat elsewhere. Reinvigorating this most basic freedom should be a priority for Americans of all—and no—faiths.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Where ‘Religious Freedom’ Means Avoiding a Bloodbath"

#1 Comment By tz On February 13, 2019 @ 9:47 pm

Tolerance is a uniquely Christian virtue.
Atheists? Mao and Stalin?

There is a trope of Libertarians – taking over the world to leave you alone.

Yet that could be said of a Christian theocracy and no other.

#2 Comment By yahuofizlude On February 14, 2019 @ 12:13 am

Oh but I thought that it is not America’s business to care about issues overseas as long as it doesn’t affect our ‘interests’.
I find it ironic that Mr. Bandow calls for non-intervention yet supports the USCIRF, an organization that looks into religious ‘persecution’ overseas.
If you truly want non-intervention, then abolish the USCIRF.

#3 Comment By Michael Kenny On February 14, 2019 @ 6:31 am

Article 9(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which just about every country in Europe is a party, provides as follows: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. In addition, the constitutions of most European states include a provision guaranteeing freedom of religion. For example, Article 44(2) of the Irish Constitution:
2 1° Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.

2° The State guarantees not to endow any religion.

3° The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.”
One could add that the First Amendment did not prevent Catholics being discriminated against in the US right down into the 20th century. As late as 1960, JFK was asked if a Catholic could be a loyal American!

#4 Comment By W Bush even worse than Trump On February 14, 2019 @ 10:34 am

Iraq and Syria under Hussein and the Assad governments. The United States invaded Iraq and Syria with deadly results for Christians in both countries. Idiotic policies backed by the majority of Evangelical Christians have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths of Muslims and Christians alike. It’s as if Christian Palestinians do not exist. It’s all about supporting Likud.

#5 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 14, 2019 @ 10:41 am

Makes one nostalgic for the days when Dr. George Habash, an Orthodox Christian, headed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But the CIA thought encouraging militant Islamist groups would be a useful counter-weight to communist influence.

#6 Comment By hooly On February 14, 2019 @ 12:46 pm

I’m confused here. At a time when Europe and America are turning towards Nationalism, of strong borders, of suspicion towards outsiders and foreign peoples, the places you mentioned, especially India and China are simply following this pattern. It’s just a fact that Christianity (and Islam) are foreign elements in India and China, just like Hispanics are in the USA and Muslims in Europe. And just like Europe and the USA have a right, and indeed a duty, to repel, build a wall against, inhibit the growth of and expel these foreign elements, surely China and India also have this right to inhibit the growth of their own obnoxious foreign elements, namely Christianity and Islam?? Am I missing something here? Someone please educate me.

#7 Comment By Thaomas On February 14, 2019 @ 12:53 pm

“Their religious freedom is under attack, surprisingly so in a nation that once viewed liberty of conscience as an essential foundation. That’s because, increasingly for the Left at least, identity politics tops all else. If you don’t subscribe to the reigning left-wing zeitgeist, you are expected to kowtow nonetheless.”

Uh, no, it is not. Certain cultural attitudes like hostility to recognition of transgender status, and homosexuality (held by a minority of Christians) are under attack. Likewise giving employers the right on “religious liberty” grounds to determine what kind of contraception their employees’ health insurance covers.

#8 Comment By prodigalson On February 14, 2019 @ 1:33 pm

Excellent article. The lack of leadership from prominent American Christians in politics in regards to US foreign policy excarbating persecution of the Church is maddening.

For instance the work Pence and Rubio have done in defense of persecuted Christians get erased when they turn around and support regime change abroad.

It’s more than a little twisted that they’re focused on changing Venezuela at gunpoint and risking that nation turning into another Libya, while trying to stage ops out of Colombia, which has serious anti-christian violence taking place. (Open Doors has reported on two seperate prominent Christians murdered there in the last few months.)

Our literal crusades in the middle east have made it much harder for Christian communities and efforts to spread the gospel across broad swathes of the globe.

#9 Comment By Myron Hudson On February 14, 2019 @ 3:03 pm

To expand on what “W Bush was even worse…” says:

There are sizable Jewish and Christian populations in Iran, living and worshiping under religious freedom. These are some of the people we are attempting to deny food and medicine through sanctions, and – if Bolton, Pompeo, Netanyahu et al have their way – will bomb.

One of the attributes of the AntiChrist is that he will be a liar; that he will represent himself to be that which he is not. I believe that he’s now in place. I’ll also point out that the same language is being spoken all over the word: binary code, the language of computers. Isn’t this fun.

#10 Comment By JohnInCA On February 14, 2019 @ 4:01 pm

@Michael Kenny

As late as 1960, JFK was asked if a Catholic could be a loyal American!

And in 2012, Romney had to assure that a Mormon could be, and this year we have Muslims in congress assuring the same.

Religious bigotry, that is, religiously-fueled distrust of other religions, never really went away in America.

#11 Comment By No Sharia On February 15, 2019 @ 2:40 am

@hooly Hispanics are NOT a foreign element in the US. Way before the mayflower, the Spanish had colonized about one-third of today’s US! Texas, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, etc. In Florida and New Mexico, they are towns that have been continuously inhabited by Hispanics since the 1500s. Your ancestors, on the other hand, stole the land of Indians and committed genocide..

#12 Comment By Centralist On February 15, 2019 @ 4:53 pm


Islam as a long legacy in both India and China, the same with Christianity in India. I knew a woman whose family did all their prays in Aramaic one of the original Bible languages. Her family came from South India and had been Christians for centuries. Your assumption is poor at ignorance at best. Many famous actors in India are Muslims, Shah Rukh Khan being and example. The current tops are all Khans a traditional Muslim name in the state. It is easy from our protected perch to talk that way but a little influence from the USA could go a long way to preventing butchering of people. Also Latinos have been apart of USA since the Mexican American War and the border did not really start to harden until the welfare state started to form. Plus the US has had an active both positive and negative influence in Central America it was mostly negative in the later 20th leading to the current issue in these states.
I recommend reading more on US involvement in Central America. Look up Gen. Smedley Butler but you will likely not

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 17, 2019 @ 5:00 pm

I read this article when it first arrived. And it raised some very tough issues. It raised issues for me as a human being and as someone who leans in the direction of Christ. It as many days to come respond.

A person who travels in the name of Christ to give christ does so by choice. And some would say, they have no choice as the Holy Spirit beckons so they must go. I have on occasion taken issue with believers who feel compelled to head off to far away lands in the name bringing Christ to the lost. That is afterall, the ultimate mission – saving the lost. That is the mission of the church not the state. And despite my own tuggings on heart your article’s appeal is one to that I cannot auto-drive to state action of rescue.

I fully acknowledge my being spoiled as a US citizen. And there are places in the world in which are worst may appear as the Garden of Eden. However, we have plenty of issues against our own that need redress. In ,my view the president is getting a first hand look at just how corrupt and obtuse the prosecutorial process can be when the agenda over rides truth and the ultimate goal — justice. Thousands of US citizens with far less face dire consequences for doing nothing but angering the wrong player(s). Those are our issues.

Other countries have theirs. And to be sure, I have visited countries that look at the US with wonder that the entire enterprise hasn’t crushed the lot of us from the weight of our hypocrisy internally and externally.

We are a generous state. And that is a wonderful realization. And while I would that we advocate for religious expression as each person sees fit to themselves, I am not unmindful that such expression can have deep social consequences. And I cannot and would not in good conscience advocate for regime change on that basis. Nor am I convinced that the US should engage in rescuing, if rescuing is needed, by importing several more people here.

There is also this realization, that many have advocated altruism for purposes that are not altruistic, but purely political – which muddies my looking glass. There has been s steady and consistent attempt by an increasing number of people to advance advocacy designed at replacing a certain population of citizen. It’s not all that new, it’s part of our immigration history. I just am going to reject it on its face. If we can offer aid and assistance abroad — all well and good.

Perfect example,

“Hispanics are NOT a foreign element in the US. Way before the mayflower, the Spanish had colonized about one-third of today’s US! Texas, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, etc.”

Hispanics that are here illegally are a foreign presence and they are a threat to the US. And if I am not mistaken violating immigration law via violating the sovereignty of the US is a felony. All 111 to 30 million here in this country are felons. They have already demonstrated a lack of conformity and worse they disdain our home by breaking an entering. And they have no rights and certainly should be granted nothing in any manner that is a sacrifice to the “nth” degree of zero taken from any citizen in the US. In Ca., we actually have illegal immigrants sitting on juries – incredible mockery.
“Uh, no, it is not. Certain cultural attitudes like hostility to recognition of transgender status, and homosexuality (held by a minority of Christians) are under attack. Likewise giving employers the right on “religious liberty” grounds to determine what kind of contraception their employees’ health insurance covers.”

Hey, working down up

1. no one is forced to remain in a faith they don’t like. Hate the contraceptive practices of one join another — religious based institutions are religious based for a reason, not the least of which is to conduct their affairs in accordance with their faith and practice. No law required to impose secular will on the church by any name on this issue.

2. this may be breaking news to you, but the very purpose we have the country we have is so that people could hold cultural beliefs, even said beliefs are hostile as long as said hostility does mount to breaking the law — welcome to the US. You get to like and dislike whoever you want.

3. For millions faith and practice demands a rejection of the choice to engage in same sex behavior. Yet when all is said and done, those who have engaged in this behavior have succeeded quite well, exceedingly well, even before the so “called civil rights” movement brought them parading naked in the street. Which I might add should get a hostile response to indecent behavior. No, I am not talking about physical beatings in the street or anything else of the kind. The pressure from your community is not to the law, but rather to use the law to force either silence in the face of untoward behavior or acceptance — both violations of the freedom of thought.

4. It has been a tragic turn of events that citizens who have genuine chromosome consequence to their biological sexual traits have had that delicate matter hijacked by the self serving, homosexual, cross dressing, trans-whatever. It has drastically miscarriaged an issue that the church has addressed privately among those concerned since the 19th century. Bringing this matter out into the open as a political psycho-social agenda has had negative impact on this relatively small population. Tragic this, tragic.

5. It has been against the law to engage in unconstitutional behavior and the record demonstrates as much. I don’t think there is a record of any faith and practice body in thirty or more years, no much longer, I am being generous, that has taken to the streets to assault people who are involved in the the practices and conditions you mention.