Chances are, if you follow the news, you have been too busy lately tracking polls, arguing about Iraq or nervously eyeing North Korea to pay much attention to persecution of Christians abroad. Religious persecution of Christians? Where in the world is that happening? Now, in the millisecond between the elections just completed and the opening of the 2008 presidential campaign, let's pause to take a look at how our brothers and sisters in the faith are faring abroad.
Things are not good, and they tend to be worst in those parts of the world that are already causing us concern for other reasons. North Korea has long been one of the most brazen persecutors of Christians (and other believers); the US Commission on International Religious Freedom annually recommends North Korea's continued position on the State Department's list of Countries of Particular Concern. One all-too-typical anecdote conveys what it is like to be a Christian in North Korea. A young woman washing clothes in the river let slip a small Bible. Someone reported her to the police, who arrested her and her father, and after three months detention, had them publicly executed in the town marketplace. Schoolchildren from 4th grade through high school were accompanied to the marketplace by their teachers to view the father and daughter's death by firing squad.
Another "country of particular concern" is Vietnam, which tried last year to get off the list by releasing some big-name religious prisoners and publicizing a new regulation outlawing forced renunciation of religion. But at the same time Vietnamese security forces continue to arrest and imprison many members of religious communities, including three Catholic priests from the Congregation of Mother Co-Redemptrix, now serving a 20-year prison sentence for distributing religious literature without permission. Peaceful demonstrations for religious freedom, including one attended by 45,000 people on Easter 2004, have been violently disrupted by security police, causing some deaths, as well as imprisonment of protest organizers. Right now Protestants are generally facing rougher treatment than Catholics, due to some recent improvements in Vatican-government relations.
Former Soviet republics like Turkmenistan are also major violators of religious rights. Turkmenistan's President Niyazov, though a Muslim like the majority of his countrymen, is well on his way to establishing his own Muslim heresy. He has written a book of spiritual thoughts that all students are required to study in school (anyone who reads it three times, however, is promised a place in heaven) and he's ordered its placement in mosques next to the Koran. Niyazov persecutes Christians, Muslims who object to his cult of personality, and other believers, outlawing their gatherings, confiscating their literature, imprisoning those caught praying together even in private homes, and, in a throwback to Soviet-era practice, reportedly confining some in psychiatric hospitals.
Other nations on the current Countries of Particular Concern list or recommended for inclusion innext year's list are: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. Since the Sudanese government's signing of a peace agreement in 2005, much of the violence against the Christian south has ceased (while the government has turned its destructive action primarily against the ethnic African Muslims of Darfur). However, much of the Christian population was murdered or fled before the peace agreement. Today, most of the villages, schools, and churches still haven't been rebuilt, and the area is in no condition to support some 5 million displaced former inhabitants. Most horrifying, the majority of the thousands of Christian children kidnapped by government-supported Muslim militia and sold into slavery over the course of the past 20-years have never been recovered; even many of those who have been located have not yet been returned to their families.
Parents of teenagers may be accustomed to hearing the word "persecuted" tossed around loosely. And, though American Catholics need to alertly resist the encroachments of state and society against religion, it's a useful corrective to read about the real thing when we are feeling put upon. It would be even more useful if we prayed for our suffering fellow believers, spread the word a little, and kept it in mind when the legislative and executive branches are deciding whom our foreign friends are.