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Overlap on persecution lists reveals danger for Christians

Persecution | The Open Doors annual watch list includes all of the U.S. State Department’s 10 countries of concern
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 1/23/18, 03:26 pm

The week after the U.S. State Department redesignated 10 nations as countries of particular concern (CPCs) over “systemic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations,” the Christian group Open Doors USA released its annual World Watch List of the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians.

Both lists include Myanmar (also known as Burma), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with Open Doors noting all 10 countries had extreme, very high, or high levels of persecution against Christians.

Totalitarian North Korea created the most danger, followed closely by Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan, according to Open Doors’ analysis. India jumped from 15 to 11 on the list due to Hindu nationalists’ increased persecution and the growing power of the nationalist political party.

Overall, 215 million Christians around the world face threats due to their faith. Open Doors called Islamic extremism the “dominant” driver of persecution against Christians in 35 of the 50 countries listed. That included attacks by Islamic extremist groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Open Doors CEO David Curry said his team found a “shocking” escalation in attacks against Christian women. Researchers documented 2,260 separate cases of sexual harassment, rape, or forced marriage of Christian women in 2017—six women per day. Because of underreporting, Open Doors suspects many more cases likely happened.

Pakistan did not make the State Department’s list, but it was the fifth most dangerous country for Christians according to Open Doors, with the most recorded violence.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an advisory body to the State Department, also monitors religious freedom in dozens of countries and publishes findings and recommendations each April. 

For many years, it urged the State Department to put Pakistan on the list of CPCs. Although State Department officials didn’t heed that advice, they took a new step in 2018 by placing Pakistan on a “Special Watch List” for severe violations of religious freedom.

USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark applauded the latest State Department redesignations on Jan. 4, but added that they don’t go far enough.

“Secretary [Rex] Tillerson should have also designated the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam,” Mark said. He also called Pakistan’s absence a “surprise and disappointment.”

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, appreciated the State Department’s inclusion of Myanmar, but wanted Vietnam added to the list, VOA News reported.

“The Vietnamese people continue to have their religious freedom and other human rights violated. The United States should never shrink from calling out countries for such abuses,” he said.

In its 2017 report, USCIRF also recommended Tier 2 CPC designations for Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey. Tier 2 status indicates systemic, ongoing, or egregious violations of religious freedom, rather than all three, as covered by a Tier 1 designation.

For the first time, USCIRF named “entities of particular concern” (EPCs) for non-government perpetrators of violations if they exerted a certain level of territorial control. It recommended terror groups Islamic State, the Taliban, and al-Shabaab be named EPCs. So far, the State Department has not followed suit.

USCIRF looks broadly at religious freedom violations for citizens of all religions, including atheists, while Open Doors specifically documents Christian persecution. But their findings are very similar.

All but two countries USCIRF named in 2017 also ranked on the 2018 World Watch List: Russia and Cuba. Curry said Open Doors will watch Russia closely due to the potential negative effects of recent religious laws banning evangelism, among other things.

“As yet, it does not rise to the level of the other countries on the list,” he said. “Likewise, Cuba is a country to watch, but currently is not on the list.”

Associated Press/Photo by Vincent Yu Associated Press/Photo by Vincent Yu Protesters tape a photo of Gui Minhai to a Chinese government building in Hong Kong in January 2016.

China arrests Swedish publisher

Chinese authorities for the second time seized a Hong Kong–based publisher with Swedish citizenship as he traveled by train to Beijing with two Swedish diplomats. Gui Minhai was going to the Swedish Embassy with the diplomats for medical examinations, his daughter Angela, told The Guardian. About 10 plainclothes officers escorted him away when his train stopped at a station not far from Beijing. “I would like my father to be immediately released so he can return to Sweden and receive the medical care he urgently needs,” she said.

Authorities first arrested Gui Minhai and four other booksellers in a 2015 crackdown and accused him of publishing books that narrated the crimes of the Communist Party’s elite. He later appeared in a Chinese detention center and made a televised confession that many activists considered forced. Authorities formally released him in October, but he remained under close watch. John Kamm, an American human rights activist, told The New York Times that Gui’s neurological symptoms, for which he was seeking treatment at the time of his arrest, did not exist before his earlier imprisonment. Sweden summoned the Chinese ambassador to Stockholm to explain the situation.

“This is a shocking development, for Chinese police to do this to a foreign citizen, in the company of his country’s diplomats and when Chinese authorities have themselves said he is ‘free,’” said Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director. —Onize Ohikere

Associated Press/Photo by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi Associated Press/Photo by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi Roy and Heather Bennett in 2009

Zimbabwean opposition leader dies in the U.S.

A top Zimbabwean opposition leader and outspoken critic of former President Robert Mugabe died last week in a helicopter crash in New Mexico. Roy Bennett, 60, and his wife, Heather, boarded a private helicopter that crashed shortly after it departed from Raton, N.M. Friends and family members confirmed the couple traveled to New Mexico to spend their vacation with Texas businessman Charles Burnett. The helicopter’s pilot, co-pilot, and Burnett also died in the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident.

Bennett was one of the founding members of the Zimbabwean opposition group Movement for Democratic Change. He left for exile in South Africa in 2010 after facing several arrests and charges under Mugabe’s rule. Many black Zimbabweans referred to Bennett as “Pachedu,” which translates to “one of us.” Opposition party spokesman Obert Gutu in a statement confirmed the casualties and called Bennett’s death a tragic loss. Opposition politician David Coltart said Bennett and his wife were “two of Zimbabwe’s greatest patriots.” —O.O.

Malaysian police halt inquiry into pastor’s kidnapping

Police in Malaysia charged a man with kidnapping Pastor Raymond Koh, who went missing in February 2017. The pastor’s family expressed disappointment with the development because, under Malaysian law, the charges cut short an inquiry by the Human Rights Commission into what happened to Koh, who remains missing. On Feb. 13, 2017, approximately 15 masked men ambushed the 63-year-old pastor’s car in the daytime and kidnapped him. Inspector General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun said a new lead in the ongoing investigation associated Lam Chang Nam with the kidnapping. Police are still searching for seven other suspects. Malaysian authorities earlier in March cleared Lam for attempting to extort $6,700 from Koh’s son in exchange for his father’s release. Koh’s wife, Susanna Liew, said the abrupt end to the inquiry was a blow to the family, who felt close to getting answers that would lead them to Koh. “It is very shocking for us as a family, as we had no idea this was going to happen,” she told World Watch Monitor. “We still have hope in the system, but I’m afraid today this hope has been crushed.” —O.O.

Liberia’s new president takes office

George Weah, a former Liberian international soccer player, assumed office as the country’s president Monday after a weekend of prayers for the new leader. Weah previously served in the Senate for three years. He succeeds President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who led the country out of back-to-back civil wars and through the Ebola virus crisis. Liberians across the country held prayer services 48 hours ahead of the inauguration. At a service in downtown Monrovia, the capital, evangelical Pastor Nathaniel Zarway asked God to grant Weah “the grace and favor he needs to make a significant difference that will surprise the world.” The 51-year-old president, who converted from Christianity to Islam and back to Christianity, attended a similar prayer service on Friday at a mosque in Monrovia. Weah is taking over a weak economy and struggling health and education sectors. He said he did not promise “quick fixes or miracles” but will work to deliver progress in the country. —O.O.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia is a correspondent for WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and worked in communications in the Washington, D.C., area from 2005 to 2019. Julia resides in Denver, Colo. Follow her on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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