LONDON – Around 250 million Christians worldwide will face persecution in 2007, simply for following Jesus Christ, according to persecution watchdog Release International. In particular the U.K.-based group found that persecution is growing the fastest in the Muslim world.
According to Release, most persecution takes place in four distinct "zones": those of Islam, Communism, Hinduism and Buddhism. But persecution is growing fastest of all in the Muslim world.
Governments in even moderate Muslim countries often fail to safeguard the rights of their Christian minorities, explained RI. Abuses suffered by Christians include kidnapping, forced conversion, imprisonment, church destruction, torture, rape and execution.
One of the world’s worst abusers of religious freedom is Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam’s holiest sites – Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia forbids all other religions. A Muslim found "guilty" of converting to Christianity could face the death sentence for apostasy. And anyone who leads a Muslim to Christ faces jail, expulsion or execution.
"There’s a conspiracy of silence around Saudi," said Release International’s CEO Andy Dipper, "probably because the West wants their oil and their money. But this is a government that hands out the death sentence for its own citizens who want nothing more than the freedom to choose their own faith. And while Saudi bans all Christian literature, it spends billions of dollars each year propagating Islam around the world."
But some of the most violent persecution in the Muslim world is beyond government control. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the world has been made dramatically aware of extremist Islamist global networks. Although the best known is Al Qaeda, there are others who exploit religious tensions for their own political ends, RI told U.K.-based Christian Today.
"A rising number of extremists interpret the call to jihad as a call to violence. They seem to regard it as their religious duty to force Christians and non-Muslims to convert to Islam. Those who refuse must be driven out or killed," said RI.
The persecution watchdog continued: "There is a growing movement to impose Islamic Sharia law, which results in increased pressure on Christians. In Nigeria, militants have driven Christians from their homes to remove political opposition and pave the way for Sharia law.
"Despite the spectacular collapse of communism in Europe, persecution of Christians continues in China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam, while the dubious accolade of the world’s worst persecutor of Christians goes to North Korea."
Communist governments remain ideologically opposed to Christianity and have pursued systematic programs to weaken and destroy the church. Some persecution also continues under the "old guard" in the former Soviet Union, and China – for all its economic openness – continues to drive Christians underground.
"As China prepares for the Olympic Games, western governments would do well to remember that China detains more Christians than any other country," said Dipper. "Believers and leaders who want nothing more than to worship freely face imprisonment, torture and even death."
RI also explained to Christian Today that in the Hindu world Christians face persecution in India and Nepal. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), one of India’s largest political parties, is associated with militant Hindu nationalist groups. Extremists have been involved in a growing number of attacks against both Christians and Muslims.
Several Indian states have introduced laws against forced conversion, but these are wide open to abuse. Christians face most pressure in rural areas, where militants have destroyed churches and threatened, attacked and killed church leaders.
In the Buddhist world, Christians face persecution in Bhutan, Burma and Sri Lanka. Buddhist militants regard Christianity as a threat to their national identity and unity. They have stirred up harassment and violence against Christians in Bhutan and Sri Lanka.
Back in 1966, Burma expelled most of its Christian missions. Today, the repressive military regime still maintains controls over religious activity. There have been many cases of forced conversion to Buddhism as well as violence against Christians.
Through its partners in 30 countries, Release International supports Christians imprisoned for their faith and their families. Release supplies Bibles and Christian literature, gives medical aid and welfare, provides legal aid and sanctuary, and supports church workers.