PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When asked to assess religious freedom worldwide compared to a decade ago, Edward Clancy, the director of outreach for Aid to the Church in Need, doesn’t hesitate with his answer.
“It’s worse. It’s worse,” Clancy said.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) — the U.S. government’s religious freedom watchdog — released its own assessment of religious freedom worldwide earlier this month, recommending the State Department designate 17 countries “Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs)” for their religious freedom abuses. The designation, created by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, leads the government to attempt noneconomic policy options to end the country’s religious freedom violations and impose economic penalties thereafter if the noneconomic attempts fail.
Twelve of those countries that the State Department has designated CPCs: Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. USCIRF wants five others added: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam.
Clancy highlighted the fact that in Africa alone, “there are so many hotspots” of Christian persecution in particular, including Nigeria, Mozambique, Mali, across the Lake Chad region, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic. He also highlighted countries across the Americas, particularly Cuba and Nicaragua.
And then there’s China, which Clancy said could be “a series of articles all by itself.”
Here is The Tablet’s look at the religious persecution that exists in eight countries, representing every region of the world. No two countries are the same, but at the heart of each is a government intent on its beliefs alone being represented in the country.
Nigeria (Region: Africa)
Last year, gunmen attacked St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo on Pentecost Sunday, killing at least 40 people. The attack is a microcosm of what Christians in Nigeria have experienced for
more than a decade, with consistent persecution at the hands of terror groups and other ethnic groups, and a consistently ineffective government response.
A recent report from the International Society of Civil Liberties and Rule of Law found that at least 52,250 Christians in Nigeria have been killed for their faith since 2014 — 30,250 of those since 2015. Over that same span, the report found about 18,000 Christian churches and 2,200 Christian schools were set on fire.
In the first 100 days of 2023, there were 1,041 “defenseless Christians” killed in Nigeria, according to the report. It also found that there are about 5 million displaced Christians who have been forced into Internally Displaced Persons camps within Nigeria.
USCIRF recently recommended the State Department designate Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” given the “rampant violence and atrocities” across the country that continue to impact religious freedom.
Clancy recently told The Tablet that Nigeria is “the principal country” when it comes to Christian persecution worldwide, saying, “The U.S. government has to start using diplomatic pressure to help change these things.”
Sudan (Region: Africa)
As Sudan descends into a potential civil war, Clancy fears the conflict could lead to further persecution of the nation’s Christians.
Christians are less than 5% of Sudan’s population, but for years have been persecuted.
According to Aid to the Church in Need’s 2020-2022 report on Christian persecution, there was optimism for Christians when Sudan’s former President, Omar al-Bashir, was killed in 2019. Al-Bashir ran the country under a strict interpretation of Shariah (Islamic law), which led to Christian persecution throughout his almost 30-year tenure.
That optimism initially proved true. After al-Bashir was killed, the death penalty was no longer applied to incidents of people converting faiths, public flogging was ended, and the public consumption of alcohol by non-Muslims was permitted.
However, the persecution persisted, especially after another military coup in October 2021 saw individuals connected to al-Bashir’s ruling party reclaim power.
In May 2022, a couple was charged with adultery and faced 100 lashes after a Shariah court annulled their marriage on the grounds of the husband’s conversion to Christianity. A month prior, a pastor was sentenced to a month in prison at the hands of a Muslim judge under a law against disturbing the peace after being attacked during a worship service.
Afghanistan (Middle East)
Religious freedom in Afghanistan has continued to worsen, and religious persecution has increased since the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021. Although the Islamic fundamentalist group pledged change and inclusivity when it came to power, the opposite has been true, as it has implemented rigorous enforcement of Shariah.
The Taliban has also been unable or unwilling to provide religious minorities safety and security against radical Islamist violence, usually by groups affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS), according to USCIRF.
In April 2022, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) bombed multiple religious sites, two of which saw more than 30 deaths. Other places of worship and schools have been bombed and attacked, as well. Violence has been particularly committed against Hazara communities — a predominantly Shiite Muslim group in Afghanistan.
That same month, the Taliban tortured and killed a Hazara midwife — amputating her legs, stabbing her, and shooting her 12 times. Another attack against a Shiite Muslim neighborhood in Kabul in August 2022 left eight people dead.
The federal religious freedom watchdog recently recommended the State Department designate Afghanistan a “Country of Particular Concern” and called for sanctions on the Taliban.
Last May, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired Catholic archbishop of Hong Kong, was arrested on suspicion of “collusion with foreign forces,” stemming from his involvement in a now-defunct humanitarian relief fund that provided aid to people who participated in pro-democracy protests in 2019. He was convicted in November — a decision he appealed a month later.
Another prominent Catholic, media and business tycoon, Jimmy Lai, was sentenced to 20 months in prison in October for charges related to his role in unauthorized demonstrations during 2019 pro-democracy protests. He is awaiting trial on separate national security law charges, in which he could be sentenced to life in prison.
The cases of Lai and Zen are examples of how the Chinese government has continued to implement its “sinicization of religion.” In essence, the Chinese Communist Party demands that any religious person or group support its rule and ideology.
And even though China officially recognizes Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Taoism, groups and people with perceived foreign connections — including Uyghurs and other Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, underground Catholics, and house church Protestants — are especially vulnerable to persecution by the Chinese government.
Persecution against the Uyghurs has been especially reported on, with the Chinese government using prisons and concentration camps in a forced assimilation campaign. Uyghurs have also been subjected to forced labor, political indoctrination, mass surveillance, a homestay program that embeds officials in Uyghur households, and forced interfaith marriages, according to USCIRF.
China has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” by the State Department for its religious freedom violations every year since 1999.
Last August, more than 150 Sikhs disrupted an evangelical Christian event and beat the organizers. Last May, a mob dragged a
Protestant pastor out of a prayer hall where he was leading worship, and he — not the assailants — was later arrested. A month prior, 55 Christians were detained for “illegal conversions.” Around the same time, Christian pastor Yalam Sankar was dragged out of his house and stabbed to death by five men.
These instances were all highlighted in Aid to the Church in Need’s 2020-2022 report on Christian persecution to illustrate how religious freedom in India continues to deteriorate. The report cites data that there were 505 incidences of violence and hate in 2021, up from 279 in 2020. There were 302 in the first seven months of 2022.
Christians are about 5% of the population in India, but persecution against them is on the rise.
USCIRF recently reported that throughout 2022 the Indian government at the national, state, and local levels promoted and enforced a number of religious discriminatory policies and laws that impact not just Christians, but Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits, and Adivasis, as well.
Last May, 15 Christians in Vietnam were arrested at the funeral of a local pastor and charged with resisting officers on duty and violating the safety regulations of crowded areas. They faced up to four years in prison for the alleged transgression. In January 2022, a Bible study session in a private home was broken up by police, and all of the Christian materials were confiscated. And in December 2021, police entered the home of a Christian pastor, demanded he stop the service, and took him to the local police station for questioning.
The form of religious persecution in Vietnam may not rise to the level of that in other countries like China, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, but religious freedom watchdog organizations report that religious freedom conditions are worsening in the Asian nation as the government continues to clamp down on different religious groups.
In particular, unregistered religious groups bear the brunt of the persecution.
USCIRF recently reported that Montagnard and Hmong Protestants, Cao Dai followers, and Hoa Hao Buddhists are among the most targeted. Harassment of Catholic communities is also on the rise.
Cuba is another country where the government took steps to restrict religious freedom.
According to USCIRF, over the past year, Cuba has worked to tightly control religious activity through increased surveillance, harassment of religious leaders and laypeople, forced exile, fines, and ill-treatment of religious prisoners of conscience.
The Cuban government has taken these steps largely through strict regulations set out by its Office of Religious Affairs and state security forces. Through these regulations, pastors, in particular, have been subjected to detention, interrogation, threats of prison, sentencing on
false charges, and confiscation of property.
For example, in February 2022, authorities detained Christian Rev. Yordanys Díaz Arteaga after an extensive search of his home and the confiscation of technology belonging to his church. He was threatened with criminal charges and effectively put under house arrest.
There were other reports of authorities detaining citizens who traveled or planned to travel to the United States in 2022, including Catholic Dagoberto Valdés and his son and Mildrey Betancourt Rodríguez, a member of the Alliance of Non-Registered Churches.
The State Department designated Cuba a “Country of Particular Concern” because of its religious freedom violations.
Nicaragua (Central America)
Last year was the first time the State Department designated Nicaragua a “Country of Particular Concern,” which USCIRF wants it to do again this year, as well as impose sanctions on the government, press for the release of religious prisoners, and exercise increased scrutiny of financial assistance.
Persecution of Catholics has increased significantly in Nicaragua since 2018 when President Daniel Ortega accused church leaders of attempting to overthrow the government when they acted as mediators after deadly protests broke out that left more than 300 people dead.
On Feb. 10, Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa was sentenced to 26 years in prison, stripped of his citizenship, and given a large fine on charges of treason, undermining national integrity, and spreading false news.
Ortega also banned outdoor Holy Week celebrations and processions, and two women religious and a priest were recently expelled from the country.
USCIRF notes that in 2022 “the Nicaraguan government heightened its crackdown against members of the clergy,” including for the first time imprisoning clergy. The regime engaged in widespread hate speech against clergy and expelled priests or prevented them from returning.
Further, in 2022 the Nicaraguan government shut down over 3,000 nongovernmental organizations, revoked the legal status of a Catholic university, stripped funding from another learning institution, and approved a law that strengthens its control over educational outlets.
Clancy recently told The Tablet that Nicaragua is another country where Catholics are persecuted for the good they try to do.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “It’s another situation where the Church, by doing its mission of helping people and advocating for the poor and for the disenfranchised, someone on the front lines of that like Bishop Álvarez is now in prison.”