According to persecution watchdog Release International, some of the harshest persecution endured by Christians in 2008 is likely to take place in states where Christianity is illegal - North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Elsewhere, millions of Christians this coming year will face varying degrees of harassment, persecution and repression simply because of where they live.
“Imprisonment, torture and even summary execution continue to be a fact of life for secret Christians in North Korea,” says Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, which supports refugees escaping the repressive regime of Kim Jong-Il.
Saudi Arabia punishes anyone involved in evangelism or who converts a Muslim with jail or expulsion. Christian leaders have also been threatened with execution.
“Help us to stand with our persecuted brothers and sisters in 2008 – we have much to give them, and they have much to teach us,” says Andy Dipper, the CEO of Release International, which serves the persecuted church in 30 nations.
Most persecution of Christians in 2008 is set to take place in the four ‘zones’ of Islam, communism, Hinduism and Buddhism, says Release. Persecution may stem from the government or its agents, such as the secret police, military or judiciary, or from non-governmental movements, such as militant Islamic groups.
THE ISLAMIC WORLD
For many years, one of the most repressive Islamic nations has been Saudi Arabia. As guardian of Islam’s holiest sites Mecca and Medina Saudi forbids all other religions and threatens evangelists with execution. The government bans all Christian literature yet spends billions of dollars each year propagating Islam around the world.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the world has been made dramatically aware of Islamist global networks such as Al Qaeda, who exploit religious tensions and differences for their own political ends.
Islamist militants often view Christians and non-Muslims as infidels, who must be converted, by force if necessary, or be killed or driven out of Islamic lands. They believe it is their religious duty to impose Islamic Sharia law throughout their nation.
Even seemingly moderate Muslim countries’ governments often fail to safeguard the rights of their Christian minorities. Christians suffer kidnapping, forced conversion to Islam, imprisonment, destruction of churches, discrimination in education, employment, housing and the legal system, executions, rape of Christian girls and torture.
Among other Islamic nations of particular concern Release International’s partners report that Pakistan is becoming increasingly dangerous for Christians, as the turmoil in that nation continues.
In the latest edition of Release’s Witness Magazine, the organisation’s partner, Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan (SLMP), elaborated on some of the difficulties facing the minority Christian community there.
"Christians face many forms of persecution in Pakistan: false implication in blasphemy cases, attacks against churches, land grabbing, forced conversion,maltreatment of Christian prisoners, rape and sometimes killing,” said SLMP. “They don’t have the same rights as the Muslim majority.”
THE COMMUNIST WORLD
Communist regimes continue to persecute Christians in China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam, where they have pursued systematic programmes to weaken and destroy the church. And persecution is growing in China, as the authorities clamp down on potential dissent in preparation for the Olympic Games.
“Security in China has tightened up in the run-up to the Olympics,” reports Release International’s partner Chinese Church Support Ministries (CCSM). “Persecution has increased in 2007, and will continue into 2008. Christians have been arrested and put in prison because of their faith.
“Christian groups are meeting in smaller numbers, and changing the meeting place each week. People are very nervous. Western believers working in China have also been told they must leave the country.”
With support from Release International, CCSM is hoping to print and distribute one and a half million Bibles and Christian teaching books in China in 2008.
CCSM has asked for prayer “for the safety of the believers in China, that they will remain strong in their faith”.
But what is widely regarded as the severest oppression of Christians in the world takes place in North Korea.
“Imprisonment, torture and even summary execution continue to be a fact of life for secret Christians in North Korea,” says Tim Peters of RI’s partner Helping Hands Korea, which supports refugees escaping the repressive regime of Kim Jong-Il.
“Pressures include an absolute ban on owning a Bible, assembling to pray or to read the Scriptures, and evangelism - even of one's own children.
“Being discovered as a member of the underground church inside North Korea can result in one's entire family being sent to a prison camp, and even torture and summary execution in extreme cases.”
Seong Min Kim, a North Korean who managed to escape from his country, said: “Although the North Korean government tries to silence North Korean Christians by calling them spies, the praise and prayer of our brothers and sisters cannot be silenced, even in a political concentration camp or a prison.”
Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea has asked for prayer: “That we can continue to assist a growing number of North Korean refugees in China, despite the harsh crackdown by Chinese in preparation for staging the 2008 Beijing Olympics.”
Persecution also continues in the former Soviet Union under some ‘old guard’ communists who remain ideologically opposed to Christianity.
THE HINDU WORLD
In India, Hindu extremists have been involved in a growing number of attacks against Christians and Muslims.
The All India Christian Council says that while there were 190 recorded cases of anti-Christian violence in 2007, the real figure may actually be closer to 1,000.
“The incidence of anti-Christian violence is much higher than available statistics indicate, as most cases are not reported to the police and are ignored by the media,” it said.
Hindu nationalism or ‘Hindutva’ is closely linked with one of India’s largest political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP is associated with a number of militant Hindu groups, who regard Hindu culture as essential to Indian identity.
“The persecution of Christians in India is increasing day by day as Hindu fundamentalists are becoming moreorganised and influencing both state and central governments to pass anti-conversion laws,” said the AICC.
Christians also face persecution from Hindus in Nepal.
THE BUDDHIST WORLD
Christians are persecuted in Burma. And in Bhutan and Sri Lanka Buddhist militants who fear that Christianity threatens national identity and unity have stirred up harassment and violence against Christians.
“In 2008 millions of Christians will face persecution,” says Andy Dipper, Release International’s CEO. “They’re our family. If it was your husband, wife, daughter or son behind bars you’d move heaven and earth to help them.
“So what better new year’s resolution than to take your stand with your brothers and sisters imprisoned for their faith?
“Persecution is part of the normal Christian life – just as Jesus warned. But Jesus also told us to love one another, sacrificially. And the Bible encourages us to bear one another’s burdens. At Release we’ve found it an immense privilege to stand with these faithful, overcoming Christians in prayer and in providing practical support. And we have so much to learn from them.”
Through its international network of missions, Release International works to support persecuted Christians in some 30 nations. Release is supporting Christians imprisoned for their faith and their families. It supports church workers, pastors and evangelists, and provides training, Bibles, Christian literature and broadcasts. Release has been involved in reconstructing the homes of Christians destroyed in riots, and in providing legal aid and sanctuary, medicine and welfare.
Release International is a member of the UK organisations Global Connections, the Evangelical Alliance and the Micah Network.