By Bob Smietana
The arrest and trial of American pastor Andrew Brunson on terrorism charges have had a “chilling effect” on Christians in Turkey, the head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) told reporters Wednesday.
Brunson was a pastor for more than two decades in that country and never caused any trouble, said Daniel Mark, USCIRF chairman.
Now he’s been swept up into international politics. Mark called that a “travesty of justice.”
Because of the government’s actions, other Christians in Turkey fear they could be next, Mark said.
“Every Christian in the country would think that they are a potential target,” he said.
The commission released its latest report this week, detailing religion freedom concerns in 28 countries. Sixteen countries were labeled as “countries of particular concern” (CPC).
Those countries “engage in or tolerate systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,” said Mark.
The 16 countries are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, along with Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
The first 10 were labeled as CPCs by both the commission and the State Department last year. The State Department will decide how to handle this new list later this year.
Russia was first labeled as a CPC last year, and things have only gotten worse, said Mark.
That nation recently banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group. “It’s the first time that an entire group was banned outright,” said Mark. “That is cataclysmic.”
Russia has also cracked down on some Orthodox Christians as well.
The report highlighted the plight of Christians around the world.
Among the report’s concerns:
- In Iraq and Syria, ISIS continued a “genocidal campaign against Christians, Yazidis, and Shi’a Muslims.”
- Blasphemy laws continued to threaten Christians in Pakistan.
- In Burma, Christians are often “not allowed to worship in their homes.” Christians and other religious minorities also face violence.
- Militia violence in the Central African Republic threatens Christians there.
- In China, the government has torn down churches, cracked down on unregistered churches, and even tried to install video cameras in church buildings. Pastors have also been arrested.
- In Eritrea, the government has cracked down on evangelical and Pentecostal Christians—going door-to-door and arresting people “solely for their religious identity.”
- In Iran, evangelical Christians and Christian converts “are particularly targeted for repression because many conduct services in Persian and proselytize to those outside their community.”
North Korean Christians face a great deal of persecution, according to the report.
“The North Korean regime reviles Christianity and considers it the biggest threat among religions,” the report states.
“[T]he regime associates Christianity with the West, particularly the United States. Through robust surveillance, the regime actively tries to identify and seek out Christians practicing their faith in secret and imprisons those it apprehends, often along with their family members even if they are not similarly religious.”
Along with the 16 countries designed as CPCs, 12 others were labeled as “tier 2” countries of concerns. Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey all made that list.
All have significant religious freedom issues. But they don’t have systematic, ongoing, egregious violations, according to the report.
In some parts of India, religious freedom is thriving—but not everywhere, said Mark.
He pointed to the case of Compassion International, which left India in 2017 due to government restrictions. “There are problems that cannot be overlooked,” Mark said.
Officials at the USCIFR continue to monitor the trial of Pastor Brunson. The U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, was present during a recent court hearing for Brunson.
Mark said that another USCIRF officials hope to attend a future hearing in May. The commission wants to make it clear that “this is an injustice that will not stand.”
Overall the report found troubling signs that religious freedom around the globe is in danger. But there was some hope as well.
“Sadly, religious freedom conditions deteriorated in many countries in 2017, often due to increasing authoritarianism or under the guise of countering terrorism,” Mark said.
“Yet there is also reason for optimism 20 years after the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. The importance of this foundational right is appreciated more now than ever, and egregious violations are less likely to go unnoticed.”
- Pastor Charged With Terrorism for ‘Sharing the Gospel’
- Quarter of a Billion Christians Face Major Persecution in 2018
- Pastor Sentenced to Prison Over Mission Trip
- 5,000 Chinese Christians Lost Their Church Building
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.