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October 2017 Feature

For the seventh year in a row, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother, has spent Christmas in a dark and dingy prison cell in Pakistan.  Isolated from her husband and five children, she has been on death row for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad following an argument with a group of Muslim women in a small village in Punjab where she used to live.

During the argument, Bibi reportedly challenged the women by saying, “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Muhammad ever do to save mankind?” The question drew their ire.

The women gathered a local mob and beat up Asia Bibi. She was subsequently imprisoned for over a year before being formally charged with blasphemy, and has been languishing in prison ever since the incident took place in 2009.

Politicians who have tried to defend her or repeal the controversial law have been threatened, and some assassinated.  Pakistan’s blasphemy law prescribes a fixed death penalty for all those who are found guilty.

Her appeal to the Supreme Court has been delayed, amidst renewed Islamist calls for her death. Bibi’s fate now hangs on the court, and if her appeal to the Supreme Court fails, she will be the first woman to be executed under the country’s controversial blasphemy law, which according to critics has been used to target and persecute minorities.

Bibi is just an example of a rising global trend of persecution against Christians that is daily being played out not only in Asia but around world. According to Open Doors, nearly 215 million Christians experience high, very high, or extreme persecution, and the number is likely to increase in 2017.

The World Evangelical Alliance adds that over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. Consequently, Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Asia are being tested, and paying the price for their faith at the hands of Islamic State in the Middle East, and the militant Islamic group Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Research conducted by the Pew Foundation concludes that more believers were martyred in the 20th century than in all other centuries combined.

The Oxford dictionary defines persecution “Hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of race or political or religious beliefs. “

Asia is no different from any other region in the world. Persecution of Christians is sharply increasing in India, Bangladesh, Laos, Bhutan, and Vietnam to name a few countries. Much of it is driven by religious nationalism.

The tide is rising and gathering pace in India since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. There were four separate incidents instigated by Hindu extremists during the past Christmas season.

In one of them, six people were injured after a mob of young extremist Hindu nationalists attacked a church. They accused the pastor of allegedly forcibly converting Hindus.

Earlier in December, Christians were beaten up for singing Christmas carols. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Religious Liberty Commission there were 134 incidents recorded in the first half of 2016 in 21 of the 29 states.

The BJP advocates an ideology known as Hindutva that defines Indian culture in terms of Hindu values. Everything non-Hindu is therefore seen as a threat to the culture and identity of the country. Under this banner Hindu radicals have attacked Christians and churches with complete impunity. Complaints to the police and authorities have fallen on deaf ears.

Christians in Laos also face hostility from Buddhists with the tacit support of the government.  Christmas celebrations were restricted to two days in 2016. Anything outside this period was considered illegal. In previous years, churches were allowed to celebrate Christmas for more than a month across the country.

Christians are arrested on flimsy grounds and forced to sign a document recanting their faith.  Felix, a Lao pastor for example, has been harassed by the authorities and forced to move his home six times.  Police paid regular visits to his church, took photos and recorded names of people attending the service, and asked the pastor to stop all Christian meetings immediately.

In early October, Christians in two villages, Phone Sa’art and Thong Tae, were threatened by the village leaders to either give up their Christian faith or leave the villages. To date, no action has been taken by the government.

The Christians are still in their villages and still following Christ. The government has also started a campaign to register all house churches in the country.  House churches now have to set up a committee with members approved by the government, and leaders are required to be “trained,” or indoctrinated, by the government.

Ethnic and religious tensions are soaring in the land of the Pancasila.  The Chinese Christian Governor of Jakarta, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, is on trial for blasphemy for allegedly making derogatory remarks on Islam. He was tried in court on 13 December.

A day later the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa (religious ruling) forbidding Muslims from participating in Christmas festivities, and wearing or displaying any Christmas trappings.  The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) was out in force, visiting shopping malls and spreading the word as police refused to intervene.

Then there is North Korea where it is illegal to be a Christian, and any religious activity is seen as subversive. The only worship that is allowed is of the “great leader,” Kim IL Sung and his son Kim Jong IL.

Christians are forced to hide their faith from family members for fear of being reported. If they are found out, authorities arrest entire families and imprison them in hard labor camps, where they are tortured, beaten, and starved to death.

In 2015, Pastor Lim Hyeon-soo, a Canadian citizen, was tried and sentenced to life in a labour camp in North Korea for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government with the “love of God,” and speaking against its Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. Pastor Lim was involved in humanitarian projects in North Korea for over 20 years, visiting it more than 100 times.  The Canadian government says it is doing all it can to bring him home.

But those following Pastor Lim’s case are increasingly frustrated that nothing seems to be happening, and feel that Ottawa should take more direct and assertive action to secure his release.

Other Christians doing similar work in the area have also been detained by the government and compelled to make public confessions to win their release. Three South Koreans are also currently in prison, including two sentenced in June 2016 for “spying.” They are serving life sentences of hard labour.

To the average observer, China is flourishing, there is religious freedom and the church is growing at a phenomenal rate. At the same time there is concern about China’s plans to manage religion in the country. Last year the Chinese government issued a detailed set of regulations aimed at tightening government control.

The changes recommended include restrictions on religious schools and limits on access to foreign religious writings, including on the internet.  It also allows the government to monitor those who go abroad to study theology and punish landlords who rent space for house churches with heavy fines.

The draft raises many more questions than it provides answers. Believers fear it could potentially curtail the activities of China’s unregistered church. China also passed a law on non-governmental organisations operating inside the country.

Russia also took steps to tighten its grip on religion by passing the anti-terrorists “Yarovaya law.” Under the new law, evangelism is off limits to anyone not affiliated with a registered church or religious site. House churches are illegal.

The law has caused numerous problems for Protestants as well as ethnic Ukrainian and American priests, pastors and missionaries. The fines for violating these new regulations can reach up to one million rubles. Critics at home and abroad have branded it a draconian attempt to stifle religious freedom under the guise of clamping down on terrorism.

Christian populations across much of the conflict-stricken Middle East have rapidly declined in recent decades, and now many church leaders fear their presence in the region could soon disappear. War is a reality here and many children are growing up with the sounds of planes and guns wreaking havoc in the country.

With the growth of extremist Muslim groups, including the Islamic State group and al Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, Christians are certainly among the most vulnerable. Nearly 40 per cent of the Christian population has fled the country.

Those who remain are afraid to face what the next day might bring. Aleppo was until recently a driving force for the country’s economy, providing work to 1.2 million workers and hosting 150,000 university students.

“More than half of the city’s population left over the last four or five years,” says Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, who has served there since 1995. In the midst of the destruction in Syria, there is optimism. “The Church began in Syria and Christians should continue living in Syria until the coming back of the Lord,” he says.

It is not all bad news. Li Tien En, a renowned house church leader in China, used to say, “Persecution is two parts opportunity, one part crisis – God always brings opportunities out of a crisis.” So along with the darkness, there is also light.

About the Author

Michael Fischer has worked as a journalist in the Asia Pacific region for more than 20 years. He has been following stories of Christian persecution and has travelled to several countries to document them.