Category Archives: World Watch List

Liberal and Tolerant Malaysia Heading Down the Islamist Path?

I sometimes struggle to understand why Malaysia should be moving steadily up the rankings in the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith. In the 2016 list Malaysia is ranked at No. 30 – classified as moderate persecution – compared to No. 37 last year and No. 40 in 2014.

I live in Australia and have travelled to Malaysia several times – my wife and I took our three sons there on holiday some years ago when they were young – and have always found it pleasurable, open and extremely friendly.

We have many Malaysian migrants in Australia, and every church I have attended seems to have its quota of Malaysian worshippers (mainly of Chinese background). They sometimes travel back to their home country, and – as best as I can tell – attend church in Malaysia with complete freedom.

A young missionary friend found himself sent to do administrative work at one of his mission group’s regional offices. It was in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. He loved the vibrant life there. His wife’s parents, when they visited, used to take advantage of the excellent dentists to have major procedures done at less than half the Australian cost.

The former minister of a church I attended now has a roving ministry, teaching at seminaries around Asia. He bases himself in Kuala Lumpur. He sometimes preaches at the Anglican cathedral there.

Now aged in my sixties, I receive occasional newsletters aimed at retirees. Go and live in Malaysia, they sometimes urge. Enjoy an Aussie lifestyle at half the cost of Australia.

So it is hard for me to envisage Malaysia as a country where Christians experience moderate persecution. And certainly not on the scale of, say, the Central African Republic, China or Algeria, all of which Open Doors ranks similarly to Malaysia.

Indeed, even Open Doors concedes, “Malaysia is still known as probably the best role model of a liberal and tolerant Islamic country in the world.” But then it adds ominously that “this image is increasingly fading, especially given incidents that have occurred over the past year.”

What incidents? “One example of this is the effort to introduce Sharia penal law (hudud) in the federal state of Kelantan. Its implementation requires amendments to the federal law, so the introduction is still pending, but it clearly shows an increasing Islamic conservatism.”

So even in “liberal and tolerant” Malaysia we witness the spreading tentacles of radical Islamism. We have seen this already in neighboring Indonesia, where an aggressive fundamentalist movement increasingly pressures the authorities to place restrictions on Christian worship, with dire results.

Violence is one of the tactics that is used, and so it is little surprise to find this warning to travellers, on the website of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “Terrorists may be planning attacks in and around Kuala Lumpur. Attacks could be indiscriminate and may target Western interests or locations frequented by Westerners.”

Last year, observing the escalating persecution of Christians in Indonesia I wrote: “This is exactly what Christians in Muslim countries fear – the growing belligerence of a violent and intolerant minority who intimidate the majority into passive silence. If ‘moderate’ Indonesia is unable to stand up to this minority, the outlook for Christians in much of the Muslim world is grim.”

It is nothing less than tragic that we can now see the same trends in liberal and tolerant Malaysia.

Who is Truly Happy in Bhutan?

Last week’s official visit to the Kingdom of Bhutan by Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has put the spotlight on this tiny nation, wedged between China and India high in the Himalayas.

With a total population of only around 750,000, Bhutan is not well known to most people in the West, apart from a single snippet of trivia. In 1972 the country’s king introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness – based on Buddhist values – as a gauge of the nation’s development.

So the Gross National Happiness Index embodies not only economic development but also the preservation of traditional cultural values, ethical governance and the protection of the environment. It is rare nowadays to find a media report on Bhutan that does not somehow incorporate a reference to the index and the perceived happiness of the nation’s people.

Sadly this happiness does not necessarily extend to the country’s small Christian population, estimated at fewer than 20,000 people. For Bhutan is ranked at No. 38 in the latest Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith.

The “Operation World” prayer guide comments: “Christians are denied religious freedom and are persecuted in various ways. Church buildings are forbidden in all but a very few cases; most fellowships must meet in homes. Bhutanese who become Christian face the loss of their citizenship, of other benefits – such as free education, health care, employment – and of access to electricity and water. In some instances, harassment and beatings occur.”

(The Duke Of Cambridge is the elder son of Prince Charles, and when he ascends to the throne of the United Kingdom he will also become Supreme Governor of the Church of England. It would be pleasant to imagine that he raised these matters with the Bhutanese authorities. Perhaps he did, though I assume not.)

By chance, happiness has been on my mind recently. This week my church is starting a Bible study group for newcomers to the congregation, and I shall be leading. Our first study is on Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount.

Traditionally, this Bible passage is presented in English as a series of blessings – “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and so on. But the study guide we are using, aimed at new Christians, replaces the word “blessed” with “happy.” Thus, “Happy are the poor in spirit,” and, of course, “Happy are those who are persecuted.”

Clearly Christian notions of happiness are radically different from those of the secular world – or of Bhutan. For a Christian’s happiness is a spiritual happiness that derives from our complete dependence on our mighty God and the blessings we receive from Him.

Now I do not want to downplay the persecution or the suffering of Bhutan’s Christians. I do not envy them their plight. I would not wish it on anyone. Yet, based on words of Jesus, they are among the happiest of all people in their country.

“He Knew!” Persecution Eases in Sri Lanka

I read regular commentaries on the persecuted church, but one in particular has stuck in my mind. It is a chilling 2013 article in America’s Baptist Press titled “Sri Lankan churches attacked, closed.”

It detailed an escalating series of attacks on churches by mobs of Buddhist extremists. In many cases local authorities refused help, sometimes even effectively endorsing the violence. According to the report, some people had become afraid of stepping foot in church.

But it was something else that caught my attention and has remained in my memory. For the article said that the attacks and church closings had not hampered the spread of the gospel. It quoted a pastor as follows: “God has been preparing us for this persecution all along. He knew!…He opened our minds to a new way of doing ‘church’ last year. Before this even started happening, we were training lay leaders to lead house churches in their homes.”

So as official churches were closing, house churches were starting up, “in someone’s house, a business or even outside under a shade tree.”

One pastor said his church had started meeting in 16 different homes and was growing for the first time in years. Another said his church had separated into eight groups, and these were reproducing and starting new churches.

According to the report: “Those who were once afraid to go to a religious place for fear of a mob or the monks asking questions are not concerned about going to a friend’s home.”

In 2013 Sri Lanka gave the impression that it might become a country like Pakistan is today, with a Christian minority living in fear of the increasing aggression of belligerent extremists from the religious majority. In 2014 Sri Lanka was ranked at No. 29 in the annual Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith.

But then in 2015 it fell sharply to No. 44. And in the 2016 list, released this January, it has dropped out altogether.

Open Doors commented: “A dictatorial president, Mahina Rajapaksa, was unexpectedly defeated in January [2015] elections after appearing confident of victory. He had close ties to two radical Buddhist movements and, since then, both movements have been quiet.

“Churches are still attacked by local communities, but nationally-approved violence seems to be on the decrease, even if it continues to make little difference if Christians complain after an attack.”

I do not know enough about current conditions in Sri Lanka to be able to draw a direct connection between the rise of the house church movement and the decline in persecution. But that pastor’s beautiful comment has remained lodged in my brain: “God has been preparing us for this persecution all along. He knew!”

As we witness the dramatic escalation in the persecution of Christians in so many countries we should heed what has happened in Sri Lanka and we should remember that pastor’s words.

God knows! He is in control. That is a message of hope for all Christians.

India – Fears of Worsening Tensions

One of the sadder entries in the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List – of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith – is that of India, which has risen into the top 20 for the very first time. It is at No. 17, compared to No. 21 in 2015 and No. 28 in the previous year.

My parents were old-fashioned Socialists, and I grew up in a household in which India was viewed as a diversely multicultural and enlightened democracy, a country that pointed the way to a bright (and Socialist) future of harmony for the entire world. Our family revered leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

We were not religious, but it even seemed to us – wrongly, it must be noted – that India was a wonderful melting pot where people of many faiths could live happily and peacefully together.

Indeed, Ghandi himself was greatly influenced by Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, which he once said, “went straight to my heart.” Though, when asked why he did not himself become a follower of the Christ whom he so much loved, he famously replied: “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

As for Nehru, he once told the Indian Parliament: “Christianity is as old in India as Christianity itself. Christianity found its roots in India before it went to countries like England, Portugal and Spain. Christianity is as much a religion of the Indian soil as any other religion in India.”

The atmosphere has changed dramatically in the ensuing decades. A new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was elected to power in 2014. He is a staunch Hindu nationalist, and has been accused of turning a blind eye to radical Hindu groups as they persecute Indians of other faiths.

According to Open Doors:

It has been a year [2015] of deafening silence from its Hindu extremist leader Narendra Modi, as attacks on churches and pastors climbed even higher than in 2014. Mobs can act with impunity, as Hindu extremism is deliberately stoked. Rev. Richard Howell of the Evangelical Fellowship of India said: “Political Hinduism has arrived and majoritarian persecution has begun….Every week there are three to four incidents of mobs attacking Christians.”

The International Christian Concern organization reports that there have been widespread reports of further attacks on Christians and churches this year, leading to worries that 2016 could be a worse period for India’s Christian community than 2015, which itself was the worst year on record for Christians in India’s independent history.

Such has been the rise in attacks on Christians that at the end of February a group of 34 US congressmen sent a letter to Prime Minister Modi, calling on him to condemn the persecution and to uphold the rule of law.

It is difficult to be optimistic. I fear a grim future for many Indian Christians, of worsening tensions and increased hostility.

But then, I was wrong in my idealistic youth, when I viewed India as a multicultural utopia. I hope and pray I am wrong now.

Please Continue to Pray for North Korea

It is easy nowadays to overlook North Korea. Many Christians who are burdened by the plight of the persecuted church now direct much of their prayer to the Middle East, where the flood of horrific news seems ceaseless. By contrast, so encompassing is the veil of secrecy over North Korea that we hear little about the suffering of Christians there.

Thus, the Open Doors World Watch List for 2016 of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith has performed an important service in once again highlighting the appalling regime of North Korea.

For the 14th straight year North Korea has been listed as the country where it is most dangerous to be a Christian.

According to Open Doors, some 50,000 to 70,000 of an estimated 300,000 North Korean Christians are in prison camps.

It says:

Christianity is not only seen as “opium for the people,” as is normal for all communist states, it is also seen as deeply Western and despicable. Christians try to hide their faith as far as possible to avoid arrest and being sent to labor camps with horrific conditions. Thus, one’s Christian faith usually remains a well-protected secret, and most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith in order to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked.

Such is the secrecy that prevails, we learn little about true conditions within the country, and in particular the predicament of Christians.

Occasional items of news sneak out. For example, I recently met a man who actually visited the country a few years ago. It is known that North Korea has a tuberculosis problem. According to the World Health Organization, 5,000 died from the disease in 2014. But this man said medical workers told him the problem is almost certainly significantly worse, with numerous cases that are not officially recorded.

In another glimpse, a Bangkok newspaper reported recently that some 2,000 North Korean refugees were arriving illegally in Thailand each year, and the number seemed set to rise.

Most come via China and Laos and were, according to the report, a “growing dilemma.” The newspaper quoted an immigration official as stating that the Thai government wished to work with the Laotian government to stem the refugee flow.

But these are just snapshots, and otherwise we must assume that conditions remain as dire as has sometimes been reported.

I have a particular concern for North Korea. My wife is Korean, from Seoul. But both her parents are refugees who fled from the North during the Korean War. My wife probably has relatives in North Korea, but she does not know who they are and she has certainly never been able to contact them.

So she prays, for North Korean Christians and for all North Koreans. She feels that is about all she can do. Please join her in prayer. Please do not forget North Korea.

Religious Freedom Tightening in Former Soviet Republics

The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union sparked hopes among Christians for a new era of religious freedom. Sadly, these dreams have been only partially realized.

This has been confirmed in the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most severely persecuted for their faith. Five of the 15 former Soviet republics – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – make the list. Three others – Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus – are just outside the top 50, but are nevertheless characterized by Open Doors as countries with “high” levels of persecution.

Worse, in the 2016 list, two of the biggest jumps from the previous year – showing a sharp deterioration in religious freedom – came from a couple of these nations. Tajikistan rose from No. 45 to No. 31. Azerbaijan went from No. 46 to No. 34.

All of these countries have their own peculiarities, but certainly a unifying factor is the rise of Islamic extremism. It means that many Muslim states that are often thought to practise a more “moderate” form of Islam – and this includes those former Soviet republics where Muslims comprise a majority of the population – are rushing to regulate all religious expression, ostensibly to stall the rise of extremism.

Evangelical Christians, though generally small in number in most of these places, can find themselves a particular target.

Other factors are also at work in some of the countries, including a potent dose of what Open Doors describes as “dictatorial paranoia.”

In addition, we see moves in regions of the Muslim world towards a stronger religious observance among parts of the population. Again, this would seem to be in some measure a response to the rise of Islamic extremism.

A young church friend spent some years with a mission organization in one of the former Soviet republics, working especially with university students.

“When I arrived only a minority of the students observed Muslim rituals like Ramadan,” he told me. “But by the time I left I would guess that a majority were taking part. They would joke about it to me. ‘Fasting is good for my health, so I’m doing it,’ they would say. But it was clear that they felt a lot of pressure on them to become more religious. It happened in a relatively short period of time.”

He also noted that in his years in the country there was a noticeable increase in the number of mosques, with foreign countries often providing the financing.

This is a disturbing trend. The rise of Islamic extremism has been a tragedy for Christians in parts of the Middle East. But increasingly it seems that it has ramifications that extend right throughout the entire Muslim world. This is very much to the detriment of Christians.

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.

Bangladesh – Making News for the Wrong Reasons

Cricket is little known outside countries that were once part of the British Empire. Yet in some of those places, and particularly on the Indian sub-continent, it enjoys immense popularity. In India itself it is by far the most popular sport, and here in Australia our national team attracts a large and enthusiastic following.

So it was big news in early October when Cricket Australia announced that it had abandoned plans for a short series of test matches in Bangladesh, because of security concerns.

In the words of an official statement: “Following the most recent information from Australian Government agencies and our own security advisors, we have decided that, regrettably, we have no alternative but to postpone the tour.”

Unofficially, cricket executives were more blunt – they had received intelligence that Islamic State terrorists were becoming more active in Bangladesh, with foreigners a particular target. Now our national soccer team, the Socceroos, must decide what to do about its World Cup qualifying match in the country that is scheduled for November.

Sadly, this also has implications for Christians.

Until recently Bangladesh has not featured greatly in the concerns of Christians who follow the pains of the persecuted church. Yes, it is ranked at Number 43 in the latest Open Doors World Watch List of the countries where Christians face most persecution.

But even Open Doors conceded: “Bangladesh continues to be a secular country, and its constitution gives freedom to all religions to practice their own faith. The country does not have blasphemy laws or an anti-conversion bill.” It thus stands in contrast to Pakistan, with which it was once joined as a single nation.

But unfortunately, it shares one particular characteristic with Pakistan – a rise in extremist Islam. Open Doors has noted that radical Islamic groups have been pushing the government to modify the constitution, including demands for Sharia Islamic law.

On October 5th three men attacked a local Christian pastor and tried to slit his throat. He survived, and police have arrested a member of an Islamic political party in connection with the attack.

There have also been some recent attacks on foreigners in the country, with Islamic State claiming responsibility.

Bangladesh is not a country that is often in the news. I am guessing that it seldom features in the prayers of most Christians. It would be terribly sad if all this were to change because of the rise of Islamic extremism.