Category Archives: Persecution

A Quiet Tragedy – Pakistani Christians Seeking Refuge in Thailand

The impact of the massive wave of Christian refugees from the Middle East has been so overwhelming that, sadly, we too often forget that Christian refugee groups are suffering in other parts of the world.

“Never have so many Christians been on the move as a result of war and persecution,” says the Open Doors organization, and it notes what it describes as some “quiet tragedies.” One of these is the exodus of Pakistani Christians to Thailand.

The suffering of Pakistan’s Christians – including physical attacks on Christians and their churches, the abduction, forced marriage and involuntary conversion to Islam of Christian girls, and blasphemy laws that can lead to arrests of Christians on fabricated charges – appears to be intensifying.

In the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith Pakistan is ranked sixth – up from eighth a year earlier – with the designation “extreme persecution.”

One consequence has been a steady flow of Pakistani Christians escaping their country and seeking asylum in Thailand.

According to Open Doors, about 10,000 Pakistani Christians have fled to Thailand, many of them quite recently. And here, it says, is where the real tragedy begins: “ They are badly treated and are refused refugee status by the government, so they are not allowed to work and are subject to police intimidation and forced to rely on handouts and sporadic work. Unfortunately, even Thai churches are wearying of the burden of supporting them.”

One group that is working to assist is the British Pakistani Christian Association, which recently published a lengthy report titled “Education, Human Rights Violations in Pakistan and the Scandal Involving UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and Christian Asylum Seekers in Thailand.” (The report is sold at the Association’s website, www.britishpakistanichristians.org.)

The report says that UNHCR is dragging its feet when it comes to processing Pakistani refugees, many of whom must wait years before their refugee status can be determined.

Another advocacy group for Pakistani Christians, the Farrukh Saif Foundation, is actually preparing a lawsuit against UNHCR, asking: “Why does UNHCR keep the Pakistani Christian asylum seekers on hold for four to five years, making them hostages, and not resolving their cases at the earliest according to their own guidelines, so that these people won´t be living in a limbo for years with false hopes and illusion of being protected and resettled?”

Fortunately, not all Thai churches are weary of the Pakistani influx. A local pastor known as Papa Thongchai runs the Urdu Church in Hands of God, which provides a special ministry to Pakistanis in Bangkok.

But this is just one small stream into an ocean of rising despair. Such recent headlines as “Bangkok, the Silent Graveyard of Pakistani Christians” and “Asylum-Seeking Christian Mom Dies in Thailand Police Detention on Christmas Eve” foreshadow a growing tragedy that must no longer be kept quiet.

Persecution of Christian Increasing as Islamic Extremism Spreads

Open Doors has just released its 2016 report – known as the World Watch List – of the 50 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution for their faith, and here is a depressing quiz question: of the 22 countries that comprise the Arab League, only three are not on the List; name those three countries.

Before providing the answer I might note that this is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the history of the World Watch List – it was first published in 2002 – most Arab League nations have been included.

And the answer to my question? The three countries are Lebanon, Mauritania and Morocco. For what it is worth, a year ago three Arab League countries also did not make it into the List. They were Bahrain, Lebanon and Morocco.

It is a sad reality that the Arab world is particularly hostile towards Christians, more so than most other places (although once again North Korea tops the rankings).

And tragically, as the report makes clear, the plight of Christians has been deteriorating as Islamic State has tightened its grip in parts of the Arab world. But worse, the influence of Islamic extremism is expanding to other countries in Africa and Asia, putting Christians even further under threat.

Thus, among the trends driving persecution, the report notes:

  • Islamic extremist self-styled caliphates have expanded their spheres of operation across international borders;
  • governments became more fearful of Islamic extremism and responded by either (a) boosting nationalism as a counter force or (b) tightening regulations and increasing surveillance over all religious expression;
  • Muslims the world over are becoming more Islamic out of fear that extremists may take over their areas and that Islamic State sleeper cells may wake. In other cases it might be out of opportunism or religious conviction.

Even countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where Christianity is strong, are being affected. So both Kenya and Tanzania, where Christians are in the majority, find themselves on the List, as Islamic terrorism spreads.

But another phenomenon is also worth noting. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has 57 member states. Of these, 27 are in Africa, and 11 of them are on the latest World Watch List. Yet when we exclude the North African Arab countries we find that only three African members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are on the List – Mali, Niger and Nigeria.

This is not to say that the persecution of Christians does not occur in other member states of the Organisation. It does happen, and sadly it appears to be worsening, as the influence of Islamic State spreads. But for the time being at least, let us note that fully 16 Islamic African countries are not on the World Watch List.

A year ago Open Doors said that Christians had faced the worst persecution in modern history during 2014. Then came 2015, and the torment was significantly worse. Unfortunately, as 2016 begins, there is little to suggest that this year will not be worse again.

A Project to Study Christian Persecution

We are set to learn a lot more about the current state of Christian persecution from an innovative three-year global research project, and – no surprise – the early findings are distressing. But also – and this too should not be a surprise – amidst the gloom are some significant rays of hope.

The project, titled “Under Caesar’s Sword,” is intended to study how different Christian communities around the world have responded to persecution, as well as why they acted in the way they did and what kind of outcomes were achieved.

It is a partnership of two American academic institutions, the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

In an introduction to the project, the organizers make clear their stance. Christians around the world are “being brutally persecuted, facing imprisonment, torture and even death,” they state.

Yet they also point to signs of promise: “Christian communities have been instrumental in ousting governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, South Korea, Chile, South Africa, Malawi and elsewhere. Other responses, like diplomatic accommodation, might succeed in allowing a church to continue its activities. Forgiveness and interreligious dialogue might reduce tensions between a church and hostile societal actors. Martyrdom might offer spiritual encouragement to other Christians and even increase the adherents of a repressed church.”

Some tentative, initial findings – and some emotional testimonies – came at a conference last month in Rome. A Pakistani Christian leader, Paul Bhatti, spoke of how he had forgiven the assassins of his brother, who had dedicated his life to protecting religious minorities in Pakistan. Dr Bhatti is now continuing his brother’s work, despite death threats against his own life.

Purdue University scholar Fenggang Yang told how the underground Chinese church actually expanded strongly during the Cultural Revolution, a time of intense persecution, sowing the seeds for today’s vibrant growth.

Former missionary Reg Reimer reported that evangelical Christians in Vietnam and Laos expect persecution, and this has helped strengthen the church.

Helen Berhane, a singer from Eritrea, spoke of how she was imprisoned and tortured for more than two years after releasing an album of Christian music and then refusing to sign a document pledging to end all her Christian activities. She was released only after becoming seriously ill. At the conference she sang a song composed while in captivity.

But overall the mood of the conference was somber. One Mideast leader said Middle Eastern Christians had been “forgotten, abandoned and betrayed” by the West. The whole world “turned a blind eye” in 2014 when Islamic State drove 140,000 Christians from their homes in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, he said. Another Christian leader stated bluntly that military intervention by Western countries was urgently needed in the region.

The Under Caesar’s Sword project has a team of 14 scholars studying some 100 beleaguered Christian communities in over 30 countries. We can be sure they will uncover many inspiring stories of God at work in even the most desperate of circumstances. But it is difficult to imagine that their final report will be anything but grim.

“Deeply Troubling” – Terrorism Now the Biggest Threat to Christians

Christians will find little of comfort in the US State Department’s newly released International Religious Freedom Report. For, sadly, it confirms what many of us already knew – that the new phenomenon of non-state terrorism has supplanted oppression by government to become the main threat to religious freedom. And conditions are getting worse.

In the words of US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David N. Saperstein, speaking to journalists in Washington DC on October 14th at the release of the report: “The single greatest challenge to religious freedom worldwide, or certainly the single greatest emerging challenge…is the abhorrent acts of terror committed by those who falsely claim the mantle of religion to justify their wanton destruction.”

He singled out Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for particular condemnation, along with Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

But a second challenge is also sadly familiar to Christians – blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan that are used to oppress minorities, especially Christians, whose religious beliefs offend the majority.

Nevertheless, the report did find a modicum of good news amidst the gloom. It noted “encouraging improvements in the status of Christians in Egypt,” including court convictions for some of the perpetrators of violence against Copts.

It applauded the new Egyptian constitution for providing increased human rights protections, including a stipulation of equality before the law irrespective of religion. “It also requires that parliament pass a new law facilitating the construction and renovation of Christian churches, which is without precedent,” said the report.

In his remarks to journalists, Ambassador Saperstein noted another pleasing development. He said he had visited China and found that, despite continuing abuses and restrictions, “many places of worship were nonetheless full and flourishing. In areas of the country where the government’s hand was lighter, faith-based social service and welfare agencies operating homeless shelters, orphanages and soup kitchens made highly positive contributions to the wellbeing of their society.”

He also found in Sri Lanka that, after some years of growing religious conflict, a new government was working to ease tensions.

But overall there was little to reassure Christians. When asked by a journalist if conditions were getting better or worse, the ambassador stated bluntly that over the past several years there has been a steady increase in the percentage of people living in countries with serious restrictions on religious freedom.

Then he added: “And of course…the escalation of the violence perpetrated by non-state actors, often in the name of their interpretation of religion, is a new phenomenon that has really escalated in the last 18 months. So on that level, there are trends that are deeply troubling.”

Saints in Waiting – the Christian Martyrs of North Korea

Korea has the fourth-highest number of Catholic saints in the world. Why? Because present-day Christianity in Korea – particularly the Catholic stream – was molded from the blood of its martyrs, thousands and thousands of them. Probably more so than just about anywhere else.

Christians were also at the forefront of the resistance against the Japanese occupation, that ended in 1945, and they helped lead the fight in the 1980s for democracy in their country. Today, Christians comprise about 30% of the South Korean population, and a vibrant Christian expression is everywhere.

By contrast, North Korea is once again a land of martyrs.

It is sadly ironic that former US President Jimmy Carter, after meeting North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, reportedly pronounced him “friendly” towards Christianity.

Yes, he was friendly when he thought Christians might help prop up his regime, and garner some international support. That’s why he occasionally sent North Korean “Christian” leaders to travel abroad for international conferences.

My wife is Korean, and a while ago some North Korean Christians came to Australia for talks. A pastor friend met them.

“They said that North Koreans couldn’t worship any more, because the Americans had bombed and destroyed their churches during the Korean War,” our friend told us. “They also said that North Koreans didn’t really need religion, because they had Kim Il Sung.”

And in a crazy way it was true that North Koreans didn’t need Christianity. After all, they already at that time had the father (the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung), son (his successor Dear Leader Kim Jong Il) and spirit (juche – the doctrine of self-reliance that supposedly inspires the populace).

Yet Christianity has persisted, even though any friendliness that might have been shown to the faith by Kim Il Sung was not replicated by his son. He was a tyrant. In the words of the National Association of Evangelicals, North Korea is “more brutal, more deliberate, more implacable, and more purely genocidal” than any other nation.

As many as 100,000 Christians are in concentration camps, enduring regular torture. Executions are common.

Prisoners unable to contain their horror at executions are deemed disloyal to the party and are punished with electrical shock, often to death. Others are sent into solitary confinement in containers so cramped that their legs become permanently paralyzed. Eight Christians working in a prison smelting factory died instantly when molten iron was poured onto them, one by one, for refusing to deny their faith.

Yet something remarkable is happening. A growing number of North Koreans are escaping, to China or South Korea, and many of them are turning to Christianity. There at last they find hope.

So while no decent person in a million years would wish on North Korean Christians their present sufferings, it is possible to see in them the seed of a future renaissance.

German doctor Norbert Vollertsen was stationed in North Korea in 1999-2000 for the relief agency German Emergency Doctors. Later he interviewed hundreds of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea. His message: what has been going on in North Korea for more than half a century bears a strong resemblance to the World War II Nazi genocide against Jews.

“Like the Jews then, Christians in North Korea face their executioners praying and singing hymns,” he related.

But as the church father Tertullian reportedly said at the dawn of Christianity: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Vollertsen, whose reports have made him a legendary figure in Japan and South Korea, found out that as a result of this Communist campaign of persecution an underground church was growing rapidly. “I am sure that once North Korea is free, Christianity will boom there in a way that will even dwarf its growth in the South.”

The Hope of a True Arab Spring

Spring has arrived here in my home city of Melbourne, Australia, the fruit trees are in blossom and once again our garden is full of color. And not before time. We have just endured our coldest winter in twenty-six years. So much for global warming.

I mention this because I wonder if we are also witnessing a few fresh buds of hope in what has been a relentless season of bad news for Christians in the Middle East. In just the past couple of weeks I have read four separate news articles that talk of Muslim refugees to Europe who are turning to Jesus.

For example, under the headline, “Muslim Migrants Find More Than Refuge in European Churches,” the Wall Street Journal reports: “Priests and researchers say they have witnessed a parallel trend to the surge in migrant numbers flocking to Germany in recent years: a rise in conversions from Islam to Christianity.”

Meanwhile, the “Christian Today” website writes: “Hundreds of Muslim refugees are converting to Christianity in a Berlin church. Pastor Gottfried Martens has seen his congregation at the evangelical Trinity Church grow from 150 to more than 600 in just two years, describing the number of conversions as a ‘miracle’, according to Associated Press.”

The journalist in me is cynical. The numbers involved are fairly small. And might this be no more than a ploy by our liberal/left-wing media to indoctrinate us into becoming more accepting of the waves of mainly-Muslim refugees?

Heed, too, the words of the Wall Street Journal: “While most converts invoke spiritual reasons, people involved in the process point to another motivation: a conversion could make the difference between obtaining asylum or being deported.”

Yet the Christian in me has hope.

I was a journalist in Japan for many years. I wasn’t a Christian back then, and in fact became quite involved in Zen Buddhism. Early this year I was asked to address some trainee missionaries on my experiences. Later, at morning tea, I casually remarked that I felt sorry for Christian missionaries to Japan, as I regarded the people there as not especially receptive to the message of Jesus.

An experienced missionary was in attendance, and he agreed. But then he added: “We used to say the same about the Middle East. I know missionaries who spent years there without much result. But suddenly in the last few years we are seeing a big change. More and more Muslims are turning to the cross.”

This June and July our church participated in the “30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World” event that is organized each year to coincide with the Ramadan festival. According to the official background booklet: “In our day we are seeing the greatest and most wide-reaching turning of Muslims to Christ in history.”

So are we actually witnessing the start of a real Arab spring, a turning to the true source of new life? Or do we see no more than a few weak buds that will quickly wither in the oppressive winter? I do not know. But I do know that God is actively at work, even – especially? – in the darkest of seasons. That is why I am filled with hope.

Cuba – Waiting for a Real Revolution of Religious Freedom

Pope Francis arrives in Cuba for a short visit. Might it lead to an end to the persecution of Christians that is a feature of this Communist nation? Unfortunately, the signs are not hopeful.

According to a June 2015 report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, violations of religious freedom have actually been growing in severity during the year, with the authorities targeting church property as a new means of controlling religious groups.

A further cause for concern is the arrest in February 2015 of a church leader Jesus Noel Carballeda and his imprisonment since then without charge, apparently for his continued leadership of an underground church group.

The report concluded, in part: “Many observers have wrongly interpreted concessions given to a few religious groups, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, and the upcoming papal visit, as indicative of a new and growing respect for religious freedom. However, the growing severity of violations of freedom of religion or belief reported by a wide range of denominations and religious groups, and new legislation used to justify the arbitrary expropriation of religious properties in order to exert more control over the relevant religious group, are evidence of the opposite.”

Roberto Ornan Roche is a Cuban writer and also a strong Christian. I would particularly recommend his short book “The Lighthouse of Asaph,” which is a moving collection of devotionals. A few years ago I interviewed him about the reality of being a Christian in today’s Cuba.

He said that persecution began at a young age. “I remember when I was a schoolboy that our teachers made us stand at the front of the classroom, so that the other students could make fun of us because we were Christians,” he told me.

“The other children were trained to hate us. This was not an isolated practice. It was mandatory for the teachers to embarrass the Christian children. Likewise, it was necessary for parents to deny their faith so that their children could study at university.”

Despite this, he said, Cuba boasts some strong churches and excellent leaders. “Our pastor is a very good preacher,” he said. “He is very inspiring and his sermons attract a lot of non-believers. We also have home prayer groups, and fasting and prayer in the mornings.”

He described the congregation as “simple and humble, very poor and unpretentious,” and noted that some members who had been able to leave Cuba to live abroad were helping the church with gifts.

He also said that after waiting many years for a permit, and “jumping over thousands of bureaucratic barriers,” his small church was constructing a new building.

So there is hope. And I assume that eventually the Communist thugs who rule Cuba – and North Korea too – will be forced into retreat, delivering a real revolution of religious freedom. But I do not see signs that the Pope’s visit will be the catalyst that brings this about. I hope I might be proven wrong.

Anger and Confusion – the New Normal

Our Christian brothers and sisters in many countries find themselves under increasingly violent attack. I feel sure that I am not the only Western Christian who is unsure about the best response.

Should they fight back? I have written already that I believe they have no choice. But this must be measured.

Earlier this year suicide bombers targeted two churches in Pakistan, killing 15 worshippers. Anguished Pakistani Christians subsequently went on a rampage through the streets of Lahore. They blocked roads, attacked police and then seized two innocent suspects who were being held in police custody, and beat them both to death.

I wrote what I thought was a highly sympathetic column, stressing that the Pakistani authorities were notorious for not helping persecuted Christians.

But I also said: “It may be difficult to condemn…the spontaneous retaliation in Pakistan, but condemn [it] we must. We might argue about when it is permissible for Christians to fight back, but we can surely agree that mob violence is never the answer.”

Now I have heard from a Christian who was upset by my words. Here is an excerpt from her email:

“I am curious – are you a martyr, have you suffered or watched your family suffer for generations? You so easily write. If you condemn these then condemn David in the Bible who went and fought to get his wife back with his whole army…do you think people died that day? Heck yes!

“I do not encourage people killing the Muslims but neither do I condemn them. Are you a martyr? I have met several martyrs – each will tell you of weaknesses they struggle with. Imagine the guilt of the Christians who actually did the killing…Here you condemn and they need forgiveness just as much as the Muslims they killed.”

No, I am not a martyr. Not even close. I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to live as a Christian in a strictly Muslim country, suffering for generations. So perhaps she is right. Perhaps I should not have condemned the actions of the men who went on a rampage and ended up killing two innocent suspects.

But I feel I am correct. We cannot condone Christians who form unruly mobs, leading to out-of-control violence. We can understand it, and we might even know that under similar circumstances we could have done the same. But still we must condemn it, for the sake of our civilization.

And yes, it is true – I sit comfortably at home, writing so easily about persecution. The woman who emailed me is, apparently, nearer the front lines, dealing directly with the persecuted. In further correspondence she said that she too did not condone mob violence. But she had become upset when she witnessed my column somehow being used – I don’t know how – to condemn Christians.

We live in tumultuous times, with violence against Christians on a scale not seen in many centuries, and with a global media that beams the atrocities into our living rooms.

No wonder Christians are angry and confused about how to respond. I am too. I am beginning to think that anger and confusion are the new normal for our age.