Terror Against the Church

Early this year, Hollywood launched a protest on behalf of religious liberty. Dustin Hoffman, Goldie Hawn, Oliver Stone, Larry King, and thirty other celebrities sponsored newspaper ads throughout Europe vehemently denouncing Germany’s exclusion of Scientologists from government jobs, comparing the discrimination with the practices of the Nazis. Within hours, the U.S. State Department issued a public statement rebuking Germany, while appealing to the stars to tone down the rhetoric.

Never has anything similar been done on behalf of Christians facing not simply discrimination, but real terror in Sudan, China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, and numerous other places. Not even Catholics know about their bishops in China’s religious gulag, about the enslavement of Catholic children in Sudan, or the impediments to the Church as an institution in Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea. If Catholics in America do not speak up for the persecuted Church, no one will.

China’s Roman Catholic Bishop Su Chimin of the large Catholic Diocese of Baoding in Heibei Province had endured fifteen years in Mao’s labor camps for remaining loyal to the See of Peter. On one occasion he had been beaten by security police until the board they were using was reduce to splinters. Not satisfied, the police then dismantled a wooden doorframe and used that to continue the beating. On another occasion, the bishop was bound by the wrists, suspended from the ceiling, and beaten until partially deaf. In another torture Bishop Su was placed in a closet-sized room with water kept at varying levels, from ankle to hip-deep. There he was left for several days, unable to sit or sleep.

Frequently harassed but relatively free in recent years, the sixty five-year-old bishop has been pivotal in keeping the Catholic faith alive and vibrant in Heibei. At great personal risk, he has organized the building of a church brick by brick, guided pilgrimages, presided over large celebrations of the liturgy, and served as a contact for visiting American congressmen and other coreligionists from outside China—all of which are illegal and have caused the bishop periodic short- term jail stints throughout the ’90s.

Last June 15, Bishop Su released a courageous letter of protest to the National People’s Congress that detailed a massive crackdown against Catholics in Heibei during the time of a popular Marian feast last May: “The civil rights of the people, especially in the matter of religious worship, have been violated… There is no way that Roman Catholics can practice their religion routinely and normally.”

That was the last anyone has heard from Bishop Su. The Connecticut-based Cardinal Kung Foundation reports he has either joined two other Catholic bishops, dozens of priests, and thousands of lay Christians in China’s vast religious gulag, or he has been forced into hiding. China requires all Christians to worship in atheistic government-controlled church organizations, which in December the Holy Father flatly condemned:

All Chinese Catholics are called to remain loyal to the faith received and passed on, and not to yield to models of a Church, which do not correspond to the will of the Lord Jesus, to the Catholic faith, or to the feelings and convictions of the great majority of Chinese Catholics.

Like Bishop Su, between sixty and one hundred million Christians risk their lives and liberty to worship freely in underground “house-churches.” Late last year, the Chinese Communist party issued a document detailing procedures for the step-by-step eradication of the underground Roman Catholic Church—steps that included systematic brainwashing, ideological “struggle sessions,” and criminal prosecution of pro-Vatican Catholics.

Mass Persecutions

Last September both houses of Congress unanimously adopted resolutions that “unequivocally condemn the egregious human rights abuses and denials of religious liberty to Christians,” and strongly recommend that the Clinton administration “expand and invigorate” its advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians.

These resolutions, though nonbinding, were the first official recognition of a fact that the Christian community itself has failed sufficiently to acknowledge: Christians today are the most persecuted religious group in the world and their persecution is intensifying. The shocking, untold story of our time is that more Christians have died this century simply for being Christian than in the first nineteen centuries after the birth of Christ. It opened with the mass murder of Christians in Armenia and is closing with the annihilation of Christians in the Sudan. In between, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, and other demagogic ideologies have taken a heavy toll on Christians as well.

Persecution in the Middle East has wrought a vastly diminished Christian presence. According to the Vatican archives, in Turkey, Christians have decreased from 32 percent to 0.2 percent of the overall population since the early part of the twentieth century.

In Iraq, from 35 percent to 5 percent. In Iran, from 15 percent to 2 percent. And in Syria, from 40 percent to 10 percent.

Persecution is not simply the discrimination or bias that is found in all societies. The most atrocious human rights abuses are committed against Christians solely because of their religious beliefs and activities, atrocities such as torture, enslavement, rape, imprisonment, killings, and even crucifixion. Roman Catholics, together with Protestant evangelicals, are the prime targets.

Mounting evidence indicates a worldwide trend of anti- Christian persecution based on two political ideologies—communism and militant, politicized Islam. Around the globe, these two ideological movements have consistently persecuted Christians, as well as other independent groups and individuals. While there are cases of persecution of Christian minorities by Hindus, Buddhists, and even by certain dominant Christian groups, it is anti-Christian persecution by the remnant communist regimes and by Islamic militants that, because of their global sweep and virulence, poses the greatest threat today.

Jealous of God

Christians are being targeted by ruthless dictators who demand total power and control, intolerant of those who believe in the Supreme Being—the transcendent God—or in the inherent dignity of all persons created in God’s image. They serve as scapegoats for societies aiming to vent, foment, and popularize hatred of the West and, most specifically, the United States. They are demonized by militant and xenophobic Islamic movements seeking to capture the soul of a historically tolerant Islamic faith.

Consider these facts:

Sudan is waging a jihad, or holy war, against its Christian and non-Muslim population. What the large Christian population in the south is facing is unspeakable. Christians are sold into slavery for as little as $15 a piece; the UN Rapporteur on Sudan last year stated that slavery is increasing. Catholic Bishop Macram Max Gassis from the Nuba Mountains has determined that Khartoum’s campaign against the Christians in his diocese has reached “genocidal proportions.” Forced into exile, the bishop now spends his time raising money in Europe and then surreptitiously returning to Sudan to buy back the enslaved children of his diocese. Christian mothers are forced to convert to Islam or watch their children starve because the government withholds food from them. Christian boys in the north are taken from their families and, put in government camps where they are forced to convert to Islam, adopt Arabic names, and then be sent as cannon fodder into battle.

Saudi Arabia completely bans Christianity. No churches, Bibles, Christian artifacts, symbols, or literature are permitted. Religion police seek out secret worship services by raiding private homes. A quarter of the population are foreign workers and many are Christian. Thousands are in prison for Christian worship. In 1992, two Filipino evangelicals were scheduled to be beheaded on Christmas Day for holding secret Christian prayer services; instead they were deported after an appeal from President Fidel Ramos. Amnesty International recently testified that the oppression against Christians has worsened since the Gulf War.

North Korea, called “Asia’s Jerusalem” fifty years ago because of its vibrant Christianity, now has three communist- run churches for its population of twenty-five million and even these are widely viewed as mere showcases for foreign visitors. North Korea bars priests and so no sacraments are available. The late founder Kim Il Sung not only stamped out Christianity with his Stalinist practices, but also established a personality cult around himself as a type of coerced religion.

Vietnam puts severe pressure on the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. The government has barred the appointment of a bishop to the key diocese of Saigon and has sharply restricted graduates from the seminary to be ordained as priests. All religious activities must receive prior government approval. The harshest persecution continues to be directed against the popular Congregation of Mother Coredemptrix, the only order founded by Vietnamese Catholics. About a dozen priests and monks have been imprisoned since 1987. Seventy-year-old Brother Nguyen Chau Dat, for example, is halfway through his twenty-year sentence.

Egypt’s Coptic community, believed to have been evangelized by St. Mark in the first century, is vanishing under the violent aggression of Muslim extremists. Tens of thousands of Coptic Christians have been forced to flee their homes and leave the country, or else convert to Islam, after large mobs of fanatical Muslim youths laid waste to their villages in the Upper Egypt region in early 1996.

In Algeria last year, seven Trappist monks, the oldest an eighty-two-year-old physician, were taken hostage by Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group. Two months later their throats were slit by their terrorist captors. In all, nineteen Catholic priests, including a bishop, have been assassinated in Algeria over the past four years.

Iran, Nigeria, Cuba, Laos, Uzbekistan . . . the list of countries where Christians are under siege extends from the rising of the sun to its setting.

Blind Indifference

With rare exception, our political leaders have been unknowing or else blindly tolerated this unfolding tragedy. Since the end of the Cold War, American political leaders generally have shown indifference—even hostility—to Christians abroad, rarely taking their religious oppression into account when devising foreign policy. Our presidents in recent years have repeatedly spoken about human rights abuses against vulnerable minorities throughout the world, but they have failed to address the persecution of Christians, even though such persecution is among the most pervasive problems in international human rights. In some instances the U.S. even has agreed to curb the religious freedom of American citizens abroad under pressure from tyrannical regimes.

Why? No doubt it is difficult for most Westerners to imagine the savageries encountered by these Christians—or the spiritual constitution necessary to endure persecution and even death for the sake of the faith. While democracy activists who voluntarily place themselves in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square are viewed as heroes in the West, Christians who risk religious martyrdom are often dismissed as “fanatics” by our political elites.

There also are trade considerations at stake. Powerful trade lobbies consistently prevail over the relatively few human rights activists who speak out. A fresh example occurred in August when the Administration exempted Occidental Petroleum from a U. S. law banning trade with the abominable regime in Khartoum. The pursuit of profit has edged out religious freedom and other human rights concerns in American foreign policy. The policy justification that trade will open up closed political systems often has not proved true; too often Americans shamefully have adopted the restrictive practices of foreign regimes.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, the United States has capitulated to Saudi demands to restrict Christian worship services, including a Catholic Sunday Mass, on U.S. embassy grounds. During the Gulf War the U.S., under Saudi pressure, prohibited displays of Christianity, like the wearing of crucifixes, by American troops defending Saudi interests.

Vietnam provides another example. Naturalized American citizen Man Thi Jones was arrested in Vietnam on October 6, 1996, and subsequently endured detention, interrogation, and harassment for two months on charges that she was engaging in “religious propaganda.” The criminal charges were triggered when the fifty two-year-old Sacramento, California, nurse was caught giving ballpoint pens with Christian crosses on them and audiotapes of the book of Genesis to relatives and friends in her family’s home in her native village. The U.S. treated her case as if she were a common criminal and not a human rights victim under international law.

The State Department decided to “let Vietnam’s legal process play out,” ignoring human rights appeals by a bipartisan group of congressional representatives led by Rep. Frank Wolf to make a diplomatic protest on her behalf. As the State Department well knows, there is scant due process in Vietnam. Jones neither had a hearing nor came before a judge. The Christian American was finally released after the U.S. embassy pressured her to pay Vietnamese local authorities a $1,000 “fine.”

Jones was the fifth case of American Christians being arrested, detained, and fined in Vietnam for peaceful religious activity since trade relations were restored with that country in 1994. Earlier in 1996, a group of Americans had been arrested, detained and fined for singing Christian hymns in a private home. In another case Americans were arrested for reading the Bible in their hotel room. It is bewildering to compare the differences between this Administration’s refusal to take decisive action in the Jones case in Vietnam and the extraordinary measures it took in sending its envoy, Rep. Bill Richardson, to negotiate the release of Americans unjustly detained in North Korea and Sudan, or in posting rewards for Americans detained by terrorists in Kashmir, none of which is a commercial partner.

Unprepared Ambassador

In China, where both Catholics and Protestants are saying that 1996 was the harshest year of persecution since the Mao era, the U.S. government has here again failed to champion religious freedom for either Chinese or U.S. citizens. I met with new American Ambassador Jim Sasser a few days before he took up his post in China in early 1996. Well-versed on the problems facing women, the Tibetans, and intellectuals, he was singularly clueless when it came to the Christian situation. He asked: “What is a house-church?” The ambassador clearly had never been briefed about the existence of, much less the persecution facing, the some sixty million-strong house- church Christians. When the UN Women’s Conference took place in Beijing in September 1995, the U.S. State Department admonished American delegates to leave their Bibles home.

The United States regularly denies religious refugee status to Christians fleeing persecution in Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, and China. An immigration judge in Boston denied religious asylum to a persecuted Catholic from Sudan because he could not explain the doctrine of “transubstantiation” to the judge’s satisfaction. After spending three years in an immigration detention center awaiting deportation, the Sudanese was finally granted asylum when the Boston Globe and other media picked up his case.

Even after the three top Christian pastors of Iran were murdered in 1994 following a fiery speech by Iran’s Islamic president that “there is no longer validity to other religions,” the United States rejected the religious refugee claims of twenty Christian clerics. This was because the U.S. delegates its refugee screening to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which in turn delegates screening to the Turkish police, who are Muslim. A fourth prominent evangelical pastor was murdered in Iran in October 1996.

A current example concerns an Iranian woman named Mariam who converted from Islam to Protestant evangelicalism. Unable to worship freely as a Christian and fearing for her life since she is considered an apostate by Muslim extremists, Mariam fled with her two young children to Turkey last year, where she applied for religious asylum in the United States. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ankara granted her refugee status. But in October 1996, U.S. immigration officials denied her claim. From the transcript of her interview, it seems that U.S. immigration doubted her sincerity because she had not yet baptized her two sons, ages five and six. She tried to explain that “until the kids understand what sin is and the significance of baptism, we do not baptize.” The INS examiner seemed unfamiliar with the practice of adult baptism. Mariam and her children are now in hiding from Turkish police who seek to deport her back to Iran and to certain execution.

Forgotten Origins

Even as the United States is creating new asylum categories— for persecuted homosexuals, HIV sufferers, and victims of spousal abuse, for example—it all too frequently is denying the most fundamental basis for asylum in the American experience. We are a nation founded as a haven for religious refugees. Our government seems to have forgotten our origins as a nation. In violation of its own laws, the United States frequently closes its doors to Christians fleeing for their lives from religious persecution.

America’s policy toward other nations should seek not only to meet the requirements of the oil trade and investors in new markets, but also to embody American values. Religious freedom is the bedrock value on which this country was founded. Religious liberty is not a privilege bestowed by men, no matter how politically powerful they might be. It is a God- given right—one that is recognized in the first clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution and in every major international agreement on civil and political rights.

America is a great power and wields tremendous influence. If the American president were to speak out on behalf of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities and exert pressure on their oppressors, it would bring dramatic results. Soviet refuseniks Anatoly Scharansky and Joseph Begun are alive today because the United States took up the campaign for Soviet Jewry. It is indeed ironic that the Christian community that supported the movement to free Soviet Jews is silent about the persecution of its own faith community.

Congress is right. The U.S. government urgently needs to review and reform its policies to defend Christians persecuted abroad. And American Catholics need to find their voice upon the stage of this human rights tragedy. These Catholics and other Christians are being persecuted and martyred before an unknowing, indifferent world and before a largely mute Christian community.

American Catholics must show leadership in sustaining the effort to cure the foreign policy establishment of its “secular myopia.” Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and president of the Institute for Religion and Public Life, reasons: “Christians in this country need make no apology for insisting that their government demonstrate its concern for the persecution of fellow Christians. In fact, popular support for foreign policy in a democracy depends upon the responsiveness of the government to the concerns of its citizens.”

For American Catholics, the choice to become informed spokesmen against this persecution should be easy. Pope John Paul II always has been a stalwart defender of religious freedom. During the Second Vatican Council, he was the chief drafter of the Catholic Church’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” and has since made it a central theme of his papacy.

In his 1996 address to the Diplomatic Corps, the Holy Father denounced the persecution of Christians by China, Vietnam, and certain Muslim countries and he did so in the name of “the most fundamental freedom—that of practicing one’s faith openly, which, for human beings, is their reason for living.” He has used various occasions—visits to Sudan and Taiwan, the opening of a mosque in Rome, the liturgical anniversaries of martyred saints, mission founders, and so on—to condemn particular regimes that repress Catholics and other Christians.

There are many reasons why the Catholic Church in America has not given priority to the defense of the Church persecuted abroad. Certainly the U.S. bishops have many competing domestic concerns. But there is an ideological element as well. Michael Novak describes it this way:

The Christian church has a tradition of passivity and long-suffering. The awakening occurred in domestic matters in the emergence of a vocal conservative-activist wing of Christians. This Christian wing is one of the great events of the last twenty years, but it has taken a little longer for it to acquire an international dimension. A certain self-confidence is required. On the other hand, the Christian left was so busy issuing warnings against conservatives and against anti-Communism that there was a tendency to constantly be apologizing for or minimizing persecution of the faith under left-wing dictatorships, including Arab socialism.

Wake Up

For many years, the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC), the social policy arm of the bishops, has protested persecution in China, East Timor, and other specific countries. It is now beginning to examine the issue of global anti-Christian persecution as such. This is a hopeful sign. Unfortunately too many Catholics hesitate championing specifically the rights of their own on the basis that it would be “too narrowly sectarian”— even though Christians are now the most persecuted religious group in the world. In my ten years of religious freedom work, I have never heard anyone denounce the many initiatives specifically on behalf of Soviet Jews, Tibetan Buddhists, and Scientologists on that basis.

But in the end, to achieve the reforms needed in U.S. foreign policy to ensure the defense of persecuted Christians abroad, a broad-based, grass-roots effort will be needed. The Administration finds it too easy to ignore an appeal letter by an episcopal committee. The bishops can and should perform a critical leadership role, but it is incumbent on the American Catholic laity and their local parishes to take up the defense of the persecuted Church. A good place to start would be to include the persecuted Church abroad in the Prayers of the Faithful every Sunday and to report on the issue in local diocesan newspapers. Parish social action committees and individual Catholics also should appeal to their members of Congress and to President Clinton for greater sensitivity to Christian asylum and refugee cases, for attention to anti-Christian persecution issues both at the United Nations and at summit meetings with the Chinese leadership, and, more generally, whenever they confer trade benefits and appropriations to known repressive regimes.

Richard Land, director of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the leaders of an embryonic movement to rally the Protestant evangelical community to the cause of persecuted Christians, has neatly summarized the situation: “A focused campaign against these persecutions supported by a committed domestic constituency—such as sensitized and informed American Christians—can, and we believe will, have tremendous and far-reaching results.”


  • Nina Shea

    Nina Shea is an international human-rights lawyer, and international Christian religious freedom advocate.

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