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In some corners of the world, Christian persecution is apparently on the rise, fueled, as The Guardian recently put it, “by Islamic extremism and repressive governments.” The report (and others like it) notes that extremists persecute Christians and non-Christians alike, but it leaves the impression that this trend is recent and primarily concerns Christians living in the Muslim world. That is incorrect: religious discrimination is an equal opportunity endeavor.
There is little doubt that religious freedom is under serious threat in many Muslim-majority countries. Some of the world’s most repressed religious minorities include Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority; the Baha’i in Iran; the Ahmadis in Pakistan; and Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia. In these places, religious repression has been a ubiquitous fact of life for years, irrespective of a person’s creed. Yet religious repression is not limited to the autocratic Muslim-majority governments.
The Religion and State Project (which I head) tracks religious freedom across the globe and has established a number of clear patterns of pan-religious persecution dating as far back as 1990—the year when the project began tracking religious freedom. Of the 30 specific types of limitations tracked by the Religion and State Project, 28 are now more common than in 1990. Proselytizing, for example, is now restricted by 99 countries around the world, compared with 79 in 1990. Meanwhile, 82 countries, including Austria, Belarus, China, and Russia, require people from minority religions to register with the state, compared with 60 in 1990. Further, 73 countries limit places of worship from being erected, and 65 restrict public observance of religion. In 1990, those numbers were 53 and 36, respectively.
Western democracies, despite professing freedom, are not immune to religious persecution, either. Denmark’s 2004 “Imam Law,” for example, limits the number of religious residence visas—the kind of visa that clergy and religious workers need—that it issues based on the size of the community that person will serve. It also requires the visa applicant to be associated with a recognized religion, to demonstrate a proven relevant background for religious work, and to be self-financing. If there is “reason to believe the foreigner will be a threat to public safety, security, public order, health, decency, or other people's rights and duties,” visas are denied. For many communities that rely on foreign clergy, this limits their access to spiritual guidance and other religious services.
In a 2009 referendum, Swiss citizens approved a ban on the construction of minarets on mosques. This regulation is just one of the larger bans or limitations on the places of worship for religious minorities in the West. In most cases, restrictions are neither official nor nationwide. Rather, local governments typically deny building permits or use other bureaucratic obstacles to prevent new places of worship from opening. In Italy, for example, Islam is not recognized as an official religion, which makes the construction of new mosques exceedingly difficult. Italy is not alone in letting the state decide what religions qualify as religions; in fact, in most Western countries, religions must register with the state in some manner. Registration is often, but not always, pro forma: in Austria, the Unification Church was only recently allowed to legally incorporate after its legal status was revoked in 1974. Until this recent registration, it was not allowed to own property or open bank accounts.
THE BIGGER PICTURE OF OPPRESSION
The fact that most minority groups around the world face persecution does not, of course, diminish the threats faced by Christian minorities. Based on the Religion and State Project measure, which assesses 30 types of discrimination that are then incorporated into a unified quantity, Christians experience the world’s highest level of persecution.
The problem cannot be solely attributed to Muslim extremists and authoritarian governments in Muslim-majority countries. Although Middle Eastern governments and extremists are part of the problem, they tend to treat other minorities even worse. For example, the Baha’i are considered an apostate sect of Islam, a distinction that comes with consequences in many countries. In Jordan and Tunisia, for example, the Baha’i are not recognized as a legitimate religion, which limits their ability to establish places of worship and publicly observe their religious practices. Further, although Islamist extremists clearly target non-Muslims, they also target Muslims who fail to comply with their rule and their interpretation of Islam.
In fact, much of the persecution of Christians occurs in Christian-majority countries. Specifically, some of the most severe restrictions are applied to minority Christian sects in Orthodox-majority countries in the former Soviet bloc.
For example, Russia’s 1997 Law on Religion acknowledges Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, among others, as constituting a part of the country's historical heritage and recognizes the “special contribution” that Orthodoxy has provided to Russia. However, many Russians perceive those denominations, including many Christian sects that are not native to the region, as attempting to alter the religious and cultural status quo. And so they are often among the most persecuted.
Things got worse for minority Christian groups in 2010, when Russia published a list of “totalitarian sects” and required local institutions to prevent them from using movie theaters and recreation centers and to refuse to provide them facilities for any events. The list included Christian Scientists, Evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Pentecostals. These groups are regularly harassed on the grounds that they are not properly registered or licensed—they routinely receive fines, have their churches closed, and are banned from holding services. Members are often arrested, alongside other participants, during organized activities. And when these groups apply for the proper licenses and registration, they are generally denied.
Likewise, Romania’s 2007 Law on the Freedom of Religion and the General Status of Denominations formally recognizes 18 denominations. Groups such as Mormons, who are not among these 18 denominations, have difficulty building or even renting places to meet and are often persecuted for engaging in missionary work. An Orthodox religion textbook, published with the coordination of the government, depicts Mormons and other non-indigenous religions as “threatening” and alleges that they use brainwashing, bribes, and blackmail as part of their proselytizing efforts.
Belarus similarly limits non-indigenous religious organizations through onerous registration laws, but it often harasses even registered groups. Police regularly raid Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant, and Jehovah’s Witness services. Participants, including children, are interrogated and charged for holding unauthorized religious services. Local governments regularly deny building permits even to registered Christian denominations and often cancel or refuse to extend leases to properties where religious groups conduct their services.
In Armenia, Article 162 of the Criminal Code outlaws religious organizations that inflict damage to individuals’ health, impact others’ rights, or encourage refusal to perform civic duties. Its 1991 Law of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations reiterates the restrictions on religious freedom in the interest of public security, health, morality, and the protection of rights and freedoms of others. As a result, the government has not only determined that non-indigenous Christian sects are “destructive,” it created an interagency committee in 2011 to monitor and combat them. Since then, there have been multiple reports of National Security Service officers threatening clergy and members of Baptist and Evangelical organizations.
Elsewhere in the world, countries without Christian or Muslim majorities—particularly those with authoritarian regimes—still repress religious minorities. China supports official “patriotic associations” for Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and Taoists but relentlessly represses any religious expression outside the auspices of these associations. Until recently, this repression focused on movements that did not join the patriotic associations such as the house church movement, but now it has even begun to include affiliated congregations that are perceived as being too large. Although there is little accurate information on North Korea, the country—whose majority religion can be classified either as none or as a unique form of leader worship—likely has at least tens of thousands of Christian prisoners of conscience.
To be sure, although many governments in Christian-majority states have religious freedom records that rival those of the most oppressive governments in Muslim-majority countries, violence by Islamic extremists such as Boko Haram, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and al Qaeda against non-Muslims is increasing and is considerably more severe than any comparable acts by Christians against religious minorities.
But to blame only Muslim extremists for declining religious freedom in the world would be a mistake. They certainly are among the most visible violators of religious freedom, but the greater danger is from governments across the world and across religious traditions. Only nine out of 177 governments tracked by the Religion and State Project have maintained complete religious freedom since 1990: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Suriname. There are few governments with clean hands, but safe havens do exist for various religious traditions. Among Christian-majority countries, the most tolerant countries are often found in the developing world, particularly within sub-Saharan Africa. And on average, Latin American countries are more tolerant than Western democracies. Among Muslim-majority countries, several sub-Saharan African countries, mostly in western Africa—Burkina Faso, Gambia, Niger, Senegal, and Sierra Leone—provide a safe space for worship, as they place no limitations on religious minorities that are not also placed on a majority religion.
Although each country is unique, one likely reason that many governments in the developing world are tolerant of religious minorities is that they possess limited resources to do otherwise. As Anthony Gill, a professor at the University of Washington argues, religious repression requires resources. Less developed countries are simply less able to afford the luxury of repressing their religious minorities. This explanation is not at all universal, however; some of the world’s most intolerant states—Afghanistan, Comoros, Eritrea, Laos, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan—are also among the least wealthy countries. Democracy likely plays a role, since most of these intolerant developing states are autocratic, but that is not true of Comoros and Pakistan, both of which have flawed democracies but cannot be classified as autocratic. If anything, the fact that such variegated countries and regions still grapple with elements of religions repression demonstrates that the problem transcends class, color, and creed.