Release International is warning that the flight of faith witnessed in 2015 is set to continue into 2016, as Christian refugees are driven out of their communities and countries because of their religious beliefs.
‘This flight of faith is a growing trend around the world,’ says Paul Robinson, the chief executive of Release International, which serves persecuted Christians.
Release’s annual review of persecution trends finds two key contexts where persecution is set to increase in 2016: in the wake of Islamist terror groups, such as IS and Boko Haram, and under authoritarian governments, which regard Christians as a threat, or even enemies of the state.
‘Under militant Islam Christians are being driven out from their countries and their communities. And authoritarian governments are driving Christians underground,’ says Paul Robinson.
‘Christians are being forced out of the Middle East – the very birthplace of the faith. Yet in the current refugee crisis, it is all too easy to overlook the religious dimension to the massive displacement taking place.’
Religious dimension to refugee crisis
Terrorists have been targeting Christians in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. And in East Africa, Islamist terrorists are set to continue their campaigns of violence in Kenya and Tanzania, attacking Christian leaders and churches.
The Syrian civil war has had a devastating impact on the church. More than half the nation’s Christian pre-war population of 1.4 million have fled.
In Iraq, the picture is similar. Iraq once had a million Christians. Today, half have now been driven out. ‘Many Christians have lost their trust in the land and in the future,’ Chaldean Archbishop Bashar M Wardar told Release.
In Nigeria, Islamist terrorists including Boko Haram have claimed more than 14,000 lives since 2013, driving some 60,000 from their homes. Boko Haram continues to abduct girls and women in the north, selling them into slavery, forcing them into ‘marriage’ with jihadists, or turning them into fighters. Those who refuse to convert to Islam or to kill others are themselves killed, according to Amnesty International.
In Iran, radical Islam and authoritarianism combine. Observers say the government stepped up its crackdown on Christians and activists in September 2015. That looks set to continue into the New Year.
Christians in Iran who meet to worship or share their faith are convicted on false political charges, such as ‘undermining national security’. Those who are released come under such strict surveillance that many have to leave the country. Yet the underground house church in Iran continues to grow.
Countries which practise Islamic law (Sharia) are often hostile to Christianity.
In Pakistan, Christians and others can easily fall foul of the country’s notorious blasphemy laws. These laws have become a charter for taking out opponents and eliminating rivals. The mere allegation of blasphemy has led to arrest, murder and attacks against Christian villages by armed mobs. Release has long been calling for the repeal of the blasphemy laws.
Islamic and post-communist governments in Central Asia are also detaining and imprisoning Christians and trying to eradicate the church by legislation. A common example is the requirement for churches to register, followed by the routine refusal of registration – effectively outlawing that church.
In 2015, Burma passed anti-conversion legislation and Nepal inserted an anti-conversion clause into its constitution.
In India, a growing number of states have now passed so-called ‘Freedom of Religion’ laws, which are actually intended to prevent conversion. In India, the driving force behind this is militant Hinduism, which is trying to prevent a turning to Christianity among the Dalit underclass – the untouchables.
Legal pressure to prevent the spread of Christianity has been building, and looks like continuing in India and elsewhere in 2016.
Enemies of the state
Many authoritarian governments regard Christianity as a threat to the ruling party’s powerbase. They fear Christians have split allegiances, and may even be working for foreign powers to undermine the state. This trend of portraying Christians as enemies of state is set to continue across many parts of the Muslim world and under authoritarian rule.
‘This too has a religious dimension,’ says Paul Robinson, ‘as the state is effectively challenging Christians as to whom they worship and whom they serve – who is the highest authority in their lives.’
In that most authoritarian of regimes, North Korea, a form of emperor worship is encouraged, and Christians are jailed as political prisoners. The recent change of leadership has brought no respite in the way Christians are treated, and their situation is unlikely to improve in the coming year.
Suspicion and hostility towards independent-minded Christians is likely to continue in China in 2016, under the atheist, communist authorities.
China has rounded up and detained some of its key human rights lawyers. Many of these lawyers are Christians, yet they are treated as political prisoners for questioning the way the law is being applied in their land.
In 2015 China stepped up a campaign in Wenzhou to demolish churches and tear down their crosses. Some lawyers who challenged this in the courts have been put under arrest.
Christians are also treated harshly and with suspicion in neighbouring Laos and Vietnam.
‘Many repressive governments try to silence those who speak out. Often it is Christians who are jailed for standing up for fundamental human and religious freedoms,’ says Paul Robinson of Release.
‘2016 is likely to see the further arrest and imprisonment of Christians, under the mistaken view that those who speak up for justice are opposing those in authority. This belief that Christians are striving to undermine the state is a fundamental misconception, which appears to be gaining ground,’ he adds.
Release International is supporting Christians who have had to flee for their lives from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Eritrea and others. It is also supporting the families of Christian prisoners in other nations and working for justice.
‘In 2016, the signs are the flight of faith will continue, as Christians are driven out or underground,’ says Paul Robinson of Release.
‘Let us pray for persecuted Christians, but let us also serve. Let us speak out and stand up for justice for the many caught up in the tidal wave of refugees, who have been persecuted simply for their faith.
‘And may we rise to the challenge of reaching out to refugees of all faiths with the love of God.’
Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by: supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.
Source: Release International