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Today, religious persecution by communist regimes and militant Islamic societies poses the greatest threat to religious freedom
The twentieth century has seen the worst religious persecution in history. More Christians, Jews, and Buddhists have been martyred for religious reasons during the last hundred years than in any comparable period.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and al-Turabi are some of the large-scale persecutors responsible for many millions of deaths. As the century draws to a close, religious persecution by communist regimes and militant Islamic societies poses the greatest threat, because of its global sweep and virulence.

Persecution connotes the most brutal forms of repression: genocide, murder, torture, imprisonment, slavery, rape, and forcible separation of children from parents. Discrimination on the basis of religion, a lesser form of intolerance, also has persisted and continues to be prevalent.

Civil war in Sudan

Non-Muslims are subject to brutal religious persecution in Sudan. The country's sizable Christian and animist population is facing a holocaust unleashed by a hostile Islamic regime notorious for terror. Khartoum's threatened application of Islamic law to non-Muslims, who reside mostly in the south and constitute almost 30 percent of the population, demonstrates that the conflict is fundamentally a religious one.

The body count is staggering. More people from Sudan's nonMuslim regions have been murdered than all the victims in Bosnia (300,000), Kosovo (1,000), and Rwanda (500,000) combined. The Sudanese government's scorched-earth and forced-starvation tactics have caused the deaths of over 1.5 million people and displaced 5 million civilians, mostly Christians. Another 2.6 million are in imminent danger of starvation as Khartoum now escalates its jihad, or holy war, against the non-Muslim south.

As it has done routinely over the past decade, the Sudanese government is bombing, burning, and raiding southern villages; enslaving thousands of women and children; kidnapping and forcibly converting Christian and other non-Muslim boys and sending them to the front as cannon fodder; annihilating entire villages or relocating them into concentration camps called "peace villages"; and preventing food from reaching starving communities. Individual Christians, including clergy, continue to be assassinated, imprisoned, tortured, flogged, and even crucified for their faith.

Throughout the past spring, the government bombed and pillaged agricultural areas to exacerbate the effects of drought and simultaneously blocked international relief flights from importing desperately needed medicine and food. Khartoum has recently stepped up its bombing raids. In mid-September, the Washington Post reported that a government warplane bombed the largest refugee camp in southern Sudan, killing refugees and violating its own announcement of a unilateral cease-fire that had been declared the month before. A UN investigating team also reported that government troops are looting international food-aid deliveries to the starving south.

Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), after visiting southern Sudan, wrote in the July 19 Washington Post:

The radical Islamic regime in Khartoum is unmatched in its barbarity toward the sub-Saharan or "black African" Christians of the country's South. It is largely responsible for creating this impending disaster through a concerted and sustained war on its own people, in which calculated starvation, bombing of hospitals, slavery and the killing of innocent women and children are standard procedure.

The deputy speaker of the United Kingdom's House of Lords, Baroness Caroline Cox, called what she witnessed this summer in southern Sudan "genocide," reporting that she found "man-made death and destruction on an unprecedented scale."

Anti-Baha'i in Iran

The fundamentalist Islamic government of Iran distinguishes between "infidels," whom it openly persecutes, and "people of the Book," whom it provides certain legal protections but treats as second-class citizens. Members of the Baha'i faith are in the former category. They constitute Iran's largest religious minority but are not recognized as a legitimate religion and have no legal rights.

More than 200 Baha'is, mostly elected community leaders, have been executed since 1979, solely on account of their religion. Four more are currently on death row. On July 21, Ruhollah Rowhani, aged 52, a medical supplies salesman and father of four, was executed by hanging for converting a Muslim to his own Baha'i faith. There is no evidence that Rowhani was accorded due process of law. He was arrested and jailed in September 1997 and had been kept in solitary confinement since then. Rowhani's family learned of the execution when they were called to pick up the body.

Since the Islamic republic came to power in Iran, Baha'is have been barred from electing leaders, organizing schools, and conducting other religious activities. All cemeteries, holy places, and community properties were seized soon after the 1979 revolution. More than 10,000 Baha'is have been dismissed from government and university posts due to their beliefs, and Baha'i students have been barred from universities. Baha'i marriages and divorces are not recognized by the state, and the right to inherit is denied.

The Iranian constitution grants certain civil rights to Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians. Members of these groups cannot be employed by the government, however, and permits for highly profitable businesses are granted only to Muslims. Jews are especially vulnerable to violence and vandalism because of the militantly anti-Zionist regime. Iran continues to call for the destruction of the state of Israel, opposing the Middle East peace process. Iran funds anti-Israel terrorist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizballah. Iranian Jews are banned from traveling to Israel and are imprisoned or fined if suspected of visiting secretly.

Christian evangelicals and members of the Unification Church are forced underground in their work to attract converts. Muslims who convert to another religion are considered "apostates" and may be executed. In the past four years, four top Protestant pastors were murdered under circumstances pointing to government death squads or radical Muslim elements in society.

Only Muslims tolerated in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has zero tolerance for non-Muslim religions. In the entire country, no churches, synagogues, temples, or other non-Muslim places of worship are permitted. It is illegal to read Bibles or utter a non-Islamic prayer even in the privacy of the home. In its role as the keeper of global Islam, the Saudi Arabian government does not tolerate any practice of religion other than Islam--either by its own citizens or by foreigners. Special religious police, muttawa, enter homes forcibly, searching for evidence of non-Islamic behavior.

A full quarter of the population are foreign workers, many of whom are not Muslims; most frequently, this community is targeted. Last summer 30 foreigners were found to be practicing Christianity in a private home and were imprisoned until, under international pressure, they were deported. In 1997, two Filipino Christians were reportedly executed for praying, and a third was imprisoned and flogged.

State worship in North Korea and China

Within the communist world, no place is harsher than North Korea,where since 1948 religion has been virtually eliminated as a "superstition" and a "hindrance to the socialist revolution." In 1948, to further a systematic campaign of indoctrination in his own Stalinist ideology, the late communist dictator Kim Il Sung killed, imprisoned, or exiled all religious leaders and closed houses of worship. He then imposed an alternative religion--a personality cult built around himself and his son, current dictator Kim Jong Il.

From early childhood, North Koreans are taught to look on the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung and "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il as infallible, godlike beings and the progenitors of the Korean race. To deflect criticism from Western visitors, Kim allowed three Christian churches to open in the late 1980s, but they are under strict government control.

While China has discarded communist economic policies in favor of capitalism, it is no democracy. In the face of astronomical growth in public worship, Beijing attempts to control religion as it did in the early days of communist rule. China rognizes only five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam.

All religious believers must worship within churches sanctioned and controlled by the government. Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Muslims who persist in praying independently are sent to labor camp, imprisoned, or heavily fined.

Despite assurances to the West that this is a "golden period" for religion, Chinese authorities have issued documents in recent years directing a "special class struggle" against unregistered Christian churches. Catholics and Protestants in some regions are reporting that this is the worst period of persecution since the catastrophic Cultural Revolution ended 20 years ago.

Hundreds of Chinese Christian leaders, including about 10 Catholic bishops, are under some form of detention or restriction. One is Peter Xu, an evangelical pastor who was sentenced in 1997 to a three-year labor camp term and is now forced to work as a slave making Christmas ornaments for export. Another is Catholic Bishop James Su, who was imprisoned a year ago after issuing a petition asking for greater religious freedom.

Beatings, electric shock torture, and church closings are frequently reported by the Christian underground, particularly in hard-hit Hebei, Henan, Zhejiang, and Jiangxi Provinces.

Two American journalists traveling in September to China were handed an unprecedented appeal by a dozen Chinese Protestant pastors, claiming to have 15 million followers in their underground "house church." Their appeal asked authorities to release Christian prisoners and stop attacks on their churches. This act of desperation could be cause for arrest; it showed that persecution has reached intolerable levels for Christians, who want the West to know and intervene on their behalf.

No freedom in Tibet--harsh conditions elsewhere

The Chinese regime has been even more brutal with Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs from western Xinjiang Autonomous Region, because their religious expression has been entangled with a nationalist movement. Recent reports state that there are currently more Chinese prisons than Buddhist monasteries in Lhasa, Tibet's capital.

In 1997, according to Tibetan exiles, there were 1,216 known Tibetan Buddhist political prisoners, many of them monks and nuns. Among them is Chadrel Rinpoche, a former abbot who headed the search party for the discovery of the reincarnation of the tenth Panchen Lama. Now serving a six-year prison term, he is the most senior lama to have been convicted in recent years. More than 50 Buddhists have been detained in connection with this search, and the chosen Panchen Lama, a young boy, is being held captive by Beijing.

On the eve of Ramadan in 1997, 30 Uighur religious leaders were arrested and accused of rioting. When local people protested the arrests, police fired into the crowd, killing 167 people and arresting 5,000, according to the Uighur exile community. Beijing has since intensified its control over the Uighurs by systematically repressing religious authority, restricting religious study and traditional practices, destroying mosques, and increasing the persecution of clergy.

Vietnam, Pakistan, Egypt, and Laos are some of the other places where religious minorities, such as Buddhists, Ahmadis, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and other, smaller religious groups face severe repression.

In late 1997, Russia passed a law stating that only those churches and places of worship recognized during the hard-line Brezhnev period could continue to operate. This law takes away many religious freedoms won by Russian citizens following the 1992 dissolution of the Soviet Union. The new law, bad as it is, is being further abused by officials during this current time of legal breakdown. Houses of worship are being closed, and some foreign religious leaders are being forced to leave the country.

Intolerance and discrimination, while not as severe as outfight persecution, are making a comeback in certain Western nations. Belgium, France, and Germany are considering proposals for controlling what it considers dangerous "sects" and "cults." Roman Catholic organizations, some evangelical churches, Pentecostal churches, Jewish groups, the Unification Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, Buddhists, Quakers, and Scientologists are some of the groups identified by "anticult" movements that are seeking to restrict religious freedom. While there are no reports of arrests in western Europe, some of the restrictions already adopted are ominous.

The idealistic principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--whose fiftieth anniversary is being celebrated this year--are deemed by legal scholars to be part of "customary" international law, which means they are binding on all nations. It is urgent that over the next half century, the world community addresses ways to enforce Article 18 of the declaration, which ensures religious freedom for all.

Religious Intolerance around the World

In Sudan, non-Muslims are subject to brutal religious persecution.

The Baha'i, Iran's largest religious minority, are not recognized as a legitimate religion and have no legal rights.

Saudi Arabia has zero tolerance for non-Muslim religions.

The late Kim II Sung and his son, Kim Jong II, are worshiped as godlike figures in North Korea.

In China, Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Muslims who pray independently of government-approved churches are often sent to labor camp, imprisoned, or heavily fined.

©Copyright 1998, World & I (News World Communications, Inc.)

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