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Christians under siege globally, Land, others say

WASHINGTON (BP)–American Christians may live with concerns about whether “Merry Christmas” greetings are welcome at their local retailers or in the public square, but followers of Christ in numerous countries live with the knowledge that expressing their faith may result in torture, imprisonment or death.

The persecution of Christians overseas continues and, in some countries, is increasing, specialists on international religious liberty said at a Dec. 14 briefing at the U.S. Capitol.

Charles Chaput, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Denver, said three things distinguish persecution of and discrimination against Christians globally.

“First of all, it’s ugly,” said Chaput, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “Secondly, it’s growing. And third, the mass media … seem to generally ignore or downplay its gravity.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and also a USCIRF member, told the audience of congressional staffers, activists and reporters, “We come here at Christmastime, and we can celebrate our religious freedom. [W]e’re hear to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves because they live in countries where they are not free to worship….”

In a briefing titled “Christmas Under Siege Around the World,” Land, Chaput and five other experts on the issue described the conditions for Christians in countries such as North Korea, China, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and India.

Though North Korea is the “world’s most closed society,” a recently released USCIRF report based on interviews with refugees and escapees gives some indication of the ongoing repression of believers in that Asian country in which the late dictator, Kim Il Sung, is the object of a “quasi-religious cult of personality,” Land said.

The findings in interviews of the North Koreans included, Land said: 1) “[T]here is no freedom of thought, conscience or belief in North Korea”; 2) North Koreans are required to attend indoctrination sessions at least weekly at Kim Il Sung Revolutionary Research Centers; 3) none knew of “any authorized religious activity;” 4) some reported on executions of people who participated in religious activities or possessed a Bible or other religious material.

Summarizing a November report based on a trip to China by Land and six other USCIRF members, the ERLC president said the “scope of political openness and individual freedom is narrowing” in the world’s most populous country.

Chinese parents “are not free to raise their children in their faith,” Land said. “That is not religious freedom. I wouldn’t even dignify it by [calling it] toleration. I would say it is persecution. And it’s getting worse, not better, and it’s up to us and the rest of the world to call for” religious freedom, he said.

Indonesia “has the largest Muslim population of any nation in the world, and violence against the Christian minority has steadily continued over the past decade,” Chaput said. The October beheadings of three teenage Christian girls “were part of a brutal, ongoing war by Islamic militants,” he said.

“Anti-Christian violence in Indonesia poses a threat not just to regional peace but also to mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims worldwide,” Chaput said. “And that is something neither community of faith can afford.”

New Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad desires to increase the oppression of the country’s 20,000-plus Christians, said Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International.

In a November meeting with 30 provincial governors, Ahmadinejad said the government “should eradicate the growing house church movement across Iran,” Roderick said at the briefing. “Reportedly, he said, ‘I will stop Christianity in this country.’”

Lawrence Uzzell, president of the International Religious Freedom Watch, said it is scandalous that the State Department under the Bush administration has not declared Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as “countries of particular concern,” a classification reserved for the most severe violators of religious freedom. The USCIRF has recommended both countries be designated as CPCs.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are “by far the most oppressive of the former Soviet republics,” Uzzell said.

He expressed concern that the Pentagon, in its execution of a war on terrorism, is winning the debate with the USCIRF and human rights groups regarding the Central Asian regimes. U.S. officials are overlooking human rights violations by dictators in both governments to gain their support against terrorism, he said.

“We may win the war on terrorism but lose our souls,” Uzzell said. “If we continue our current ham-fisted policies in Central Asia, we may lose both.”

The countries practicing religious persecution can be divided into three categories, said Paul Marshall, senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom: 1) Remaining and former communist countries, including China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and Belarus; 2) countries in which religious nationalism is practiced, such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma, and 3) countries dominated by Islam, including Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Unlike the others, the countries controlled by radical Islam are “expansionist,” Marshall said.

The Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom and the Center for Religious Freedom sponsored the briefing.