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  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.