(RNS) — A retired U.S. Army lieutenant general spurred debate recently when he said that the rise in global attacks on Christians could become a national security threat to the United States.
In an interview with The Washington Times, retired Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a former commander of Delta Force and undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said the attacks indicate an increased religious intolerance that could hit closer to home. He warned that Christian persecution is “only going to grow unless we wake up and start taking a very strong stand against this.”
Boykin is not alone in his fear that America is plunging toward an increasingly anti-Christian future. A 2017 survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute found that millions of Americans, including 57% of white evangelical Protestants, say that “there is a lot of discrimination” against Christians in the U.S. today.
Those who follow the news have heard countless stories of Christians who have, to one degree or another, experienced some level of pressure about their faith from individuals and institutions in our increasingly secular society. Certainly, domestic trends around religious freedom should be closely monitored.
And yet, at least right now, there is a marked difference between the treatment of Christians in many countries abroad and what believers are facing here at home. American Christians still enjoy broad religious protections under the law, and the intensity of what Christians face here pales in comparison to the depths of persecution suffered by followers of Jesus in many places around the world.
While a Christian college student in New York City might face ridicule for their beliefs, it would be impossible for them to live openly as a believer if they were living in Afghanistan, ranked No. 1 on Open Doors USA’s World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Last year, the Taliban began the restoration of their oppressive rule by going door to door looking for Christian leaders. Those who are identified as Christian face dire consequences — our sources indicate torture or death are possible. The prospect of fleeing the country is largely hopeless. Refugees face chaotic and difficult journeys, risking being kidnapped and trafficked along the way. The governments across the Pakistan and Iran borders are little more accepting of Christians. Given these dangers, unmarried women, widows and older people especially have a very small chance of getting out of Afghanistan safely.
Christian politicians in America have been attacked for their religious convictions, but in places such as Vietnam, Christians face much more than mere criticism. Several house churches in Dak Lok province were recently harassed and fined by police because they publicly honored the United Nations’ International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
In the central Vietnam province of Nghệ An, government officials compete to create “Christian-free zones,” and authorities pressure animist relatives to drive Christians from their homes and communities. Some have been forcibly separated from their spouses, children, farm fields and even their wedding rings. The head of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ was tortured and imprisoned until the government yielded to international pressure urging his release. Despite his nominal freedom — the government tracks him constantly — he was kept from attending the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington this summer.
Similarly harrowing anti-Christian discrimination and violence exist in numerous other countries — from the slaughterous actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria to China’s surveillance state to Iran’s state-sanctioned crackdown.
While we cannot deny that Christians in America today experience discomforts, inconveniences and sometimes even social ostracization, these instances simply do not rise to the level of the horror that countless global Christians face every day. Moreover, there is very little evidence that this level of carnage is coming to the United States soon.
In America, we’re blessed with incredible amounts of freedom. We can attend church, pray, meet with fellow believers and read the Bible whenever we want without legal consequence. But many millions of our brothers and sisters around the world simply cannot do those same things without facing repercussions, often dire.
David Curry. Courtesy photo
We should be “wise as serpents,” as the Gospel of Matthew counsels, when it comes to monitoring domestic trends around religious freedom. The liberties we enjoy should be defended at all costs. But we must also invest the resources we have where the needs are so much greater, to defend those around the globe who risk life and livelihood simply for confessing the name of Jesus.
(David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which advocates on behalf of those who are persecuted for their Christian faith throughout the world. Open Doors publishes the World Watch List, an annual report on the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — In Kenya’s coastal region, interfaith efforts to slow down or end youth recruitment into the militant Islamist group al-Shabab are gaining progress, with some recruits abandoning the extremist group’s training grounds in Southern Somalia to return home.
The group — al-Qaida’s affiliate in East Africa — had stepped up secret recruitments in the coastal and northeastern regions since 2011, when the East African nation’s military entered southern Somalia. The radicalized youth, many of them younger than 30, were often sent across the border to train as jihadists.
But now, the activity has slowed down, partly due to efforts by the interfaith groups. More than 300 such youths who had traveled to Somalia for training as jihadists had been rescued and brought back to the country.
Across Africa, hijab in schools divides Christians and Muslims
The reports attributed to security officials last week indicated that the youths will be vetted and de-radicalized before being reintegrated into their communities.
Shamsa Abubakar Fadhili, the chairperson of the Mombasa Women of Faith Network, a branch of the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya, has been leading interfaith efforts to resettle the returned former militants. The Inter-Religious Council of Kenya brings together Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.
“We need to bring them back to the communities,” said Fadhili. “We use the youth to find others who have been led away and try to change them. Some have police records, or pending court cases.”
“I applaud the efforts. Something is happening and I think there is hope that those who have been recruited into militancy can be rescued,” said retired Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu of Mombasa, who is involved in peace efforts in the coastal region.
Although the recruitment has slowed, there are still thousands of Kenyans fighting alongside al-Shabab. In 2015, the government announced an amnesty for those who had joined the group. Some of the recruits returned home, but human rights organizations raised concerns over the returnees’ disappearances and extra-judicial killings.
Clerics familiar with the matter have described the efforts as a balancing act, using faith to combat hopelessness, marginalization and unemployment while working with government authorities. “It’s a delicate matter, but I think what we need now are closer collaborations, even with the security agencies,” said Kalu.
According to the Rev. Stephen Anyenda, a Baptist who is the chief executive officer of the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, youth are recruited through a gradual process in which recruiters offer incentives and make promises until the targeted youth acquires full trust.
“Many of them are unemployed, so they are vulnerable to recruitment. They see little meaning in life. They also feel bullied by the society and start engaging in unhealthy activities, sometimes due to peer pressure,” said Anyenda. “Recruiters targeting the youths may offer money for a new lifestyle or even support the families to start small businesses.”
According to Fadhili, many of the young people have no spiritual nourishment and are therefore susceptible to radical political ideas.
However, said Fadhili, “Many of them are eager to change, so we stay with them.” She said she had recently rescued 12 youths who had already started their journey to Somalia to join al-Shabab.
Fadhili has been helping the youth start small businesses, giving them seed capital so that they can improve themselves and avoid the lure of criminality.
Islamist militants fuel Christian persecution in Kenya, faith leaders say
According to Fadhili, the work has also reduced crime in the most dangerous areas of the city of Mombasa by 45%, in addition to helping slow al-Shabab recruitments.
At the same time, she fears that limited resources may force her to stop, and she fears for the worst when that happens. “I am concerned the youths will simply slide back,” said Fadhili.
The United States Supreme Court declined this month to hear an appeal of a lower court’s decision to uphold the New York City Board of Education’s ban on holding worship services in public schools and one church facing eviction held a party to celebrate, according to its pastor, Rev. Sam Andreades.
UrbanFaith talked to Andreades in July after Katherine Stewart, author of the forthcoming The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (PublicAffairs, January 2012) mentioned his church in a New York Times op-ed column about the issue. Stewart had said it was “hard to imagine” how The Village Church was “representative” of the Greenwich Village community, given its affiliation with the homosexual “recovery” organization Exodus International.This week, we talked to both Andreades and Stewart about the Supreme Court’s decision.
Rejoicing in Inconvenience
Andreades said it means The Village Church will have to find new worship space by February 12, 2012. The congregation is small and considering studio space that is comparable in price to what it paid PS 3 in fees, he said. After the decision came down, Andreades was contacted by a representative of New York City councilman and pastor Fernando Cabrera about supporting new legislation that would permit religious groups to use public school space for worship, but he declined to participate in that pursuit.
“They’re trying to make a push for all the different religious organizations to contact their local council members and get their support for this. It’s bipartisan because actually politicians know that it’s ridiculous to alienate religious folks,” said Andreades, but he thinks the political route represents a missed opportunity.
“This is pretty clearly an effort of the New York Legal Association, the legal community, in conjunction with willing parties in the Board of Education to bring this discrimination. The legal reasoning is just so bizarre. Somehow doing worship in a space transubstantiates the space. That’s really weird. So I think it really qualifies as genuine persecution,” said Andreades.
(In the lower court decision, a judge had said that “when worship services are performed in a place … the nature of the site changes,” according to The New York Times.)
“Jesus and his disciples said that when you are actually experiencing suffering–and in this case it’s not even high level persecution, it’s kind of low level persecution—when you experience inconvenience is what this is, for the cause of Christ, for wearing the name of Christ, there’s only one appropriate response and that’s to rejoice,” Andreades explained.
Church/State Separation Guards Against Ill Will
Stewart disagreed (via email) with Andreades’ characterization of the court decision as discrimination.
“Just as it is possible to categorically exclude political groups from the schools without discriminating against any one particular political viewpoint, it is also possible to exclude religious worship as a category of activity from the schools without discriminating against any one religious viewpoint. It is not discrimination when religious groups of all stripes fail to get a subsidy from the state. And it is precisely to guard against the kind of ill will that inevitably ensues when that subsidy is revoked that the subsidy should not be demanded in the first place,” said Stewart.
“According to the New York City Department of Education, the churches in public schools were only paying custodial fees. They were not paying rent, nor did they pay for heating, air-conditioning, electricity, or furniture, and they had no leases. Such arrangements are a taxpayer subsidy to religious groups; if Andreades has a different arrangement, I would be eager to know,” she added.
Even if religious groups in public schools are paying market rent, Stewart thinks the arrangement “could still be problematic, though perhaps less so.”
“Schools are more than buildings, just as houses of worship are more than buildings. He and his group may be exercising good sense in their approach to the school children in the local community, but there are a number of other cases in which religious groups that happened to be located in schools wished to approach kids or use their association with the school in inappropriate ways,” she explained.
Andreades wondered if Stewart really understands the relationships that exist between congregations and the school communities that host them. Although he doesn’t think the principal of PS 3 ever wanted a relationship with The Village Church, the custodial staff is “not happy” about the situation, he said, because it has good relationships with members of the congregation and because custodians will lose income. Parents “aren’t thrilled” either, he said, in part because the church provides a Parents Night Out service to the community once a month.
“I imagine that we could still do it at the school, because that’s not a worship service,” said Andreades. “It’s just to bless the parents and give the kids a fun time.”
Funding Equals Government Endorsement
While Stewart appreciates that Andreades and his congregants “feel that the presence of their faith community is beneficial to many people,” she said, “One of the reasons we have such a vibrant and diverse religious landscape here in the United States is the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government endorsement – widely interpreted to include direct subsidies or funding — of any particular denomination or form of faith.”
“It may seem convenient now to use school facilities as houses of worship, but think about the long-term; if school administrators and city officials are put in positions where they have to make judgments or mediate disputes about religion, both religion and education will suffer,” argued Stewart.
Praying for a Place to Worship
Andreades has not had much discussion with pastors of other churches impacted by the decision, he said, but he has been in contact with the Bronx Household of Faith, the church at the center of the legal battle, and said the church is asking for prayer that it can find a new place to meet for worship. To read the prayer that Andreades composed and that The Village Church prayed after news broke of the Supreme Court decision, go to page 2.
What do you think?
Is this a case of religious discrimination or did the courts make the right decision?
FAITH ON TRIAL: Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran because of his Christian beliefs.
For most Christians, answering whether they believe Jesus is the Son of God, died and rose again for their sins is an easy question with an obvious answer.
It’s easy, that is, for Christians across the United States. However, the same answer guaranteeing eternal life could elsewhere yield a death sentence.
While we can imagine that scenario in, say, first-century Rome, a modern-day pastor facing martyrdom in 2011 is almost unconscionable. But it’s really happening for Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor imprisoned right now in Iran. Pastor Nadarkhani was arrested two years ago for objecting to the teaching of Islam to Christian children at Iranian schools.
Nadarkhani was convicted of “apostasy” late last month and sentenced to death by the Islamic nation. But the story has taken several strange twists since, with Iranian officials now claiming Nadarkhani actually was convicted of crimes of rape and extortion. This curious 180-degree turn by Iran, in the wake of an international outcry against Nadarkhani’s conviction, has left many observers scratching their heads.
Whatever the latest spin from Iran, it’s clear that Nadarkhani’s commitment to his Christian faith lies at the heart of the case against him. According to the International Business Times, Nadarkhani was deemed an apostate because Iranian clerics determined that his ancestors were followers of Islam and that his professed belief in Christ constituted a rejection of that faith.
Given four chances to “repent and convert to Islam,” the Times reported that Nadarkhani refused. And for that, he was sentenced to die.
“Repent means to return. What should I return to?” he reportedly said in testimony during his four-day trial last month. “To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ? I cannot.”
And I cannot imagine that level of boldness in the face of actual persecution. This is far beyond being called a “Jesus freak” or a “holy roller.” I’ve even evolved to a point of shakingoff discrimination I experience because I’m black or because I’m a woman. I don’t know what process I’d have to go through mentally to fearlessly stare down death just because I believe Jesus is who He said He is.
Yet we all worship among those who are often quick to call it persecution when they become the subject of the latest church gossip, when others disagree withthem, or even when their bosses require themto work on a Sunday. They’ll sing and shout that “no weapon formed against me shall prosper” from Isaiah 54:17, but the battle cry would assuredly have a lower volume if the weapon were death and prospering meant finally meeting Jesus face to face.
Nadarkhani’s case brings home Jesus’ words to his new disciples, formally introduced in Matthew 10, to expect to suffer in much the way He did. While we remember the ridicule, the scorn, and the disregard Jesus suffered and expect to experience it all as we live out a Christian lifestyle, we forget that as He died, we could die also. Western-dwelling Christians have been fortunate to avoid those more serious consequences, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t or won’t happen.
And the threat for Nadarkhani remains very real, though his lawyer said last week that the sentence could still be overturned. It’s hard to believe, though, considering Iranian officials have more recently accused Nadarkhani of these additional charges. Others argue that even if he evades execution, Nadarkhani could remain in jail.
As much as I am disheartened when I consider Nadarkhani’s plight, I’m encouraged by his faith, which serves as a platform for witnessing to others — just as Jesus said such persecution would. “Physically, he looks weak,” his lawyer said of him last week, as reported by Reuters. “But emotionally his belief in Christ is keeping his spirits high.”
What if it were you in Nadarkhani’s place? Could you be as resolute in your faith?
When you’re Christian and actively trying to live it out past Sunday, you learn that it isn’t as easy to pull off as some make it seem. You risk losing friends because you might not support some of their lifestyle choices. You endure name-calling because you avoid using profanity. Maybe you don’t go out to lunch as often because you’re giving more money to your church. Those are small sacrifices compared to the possibility that Nadarkhani might have to die for just stating and standing by his Christians beliefs. The prospect alone should be a wake-up call for everyone with the freedom to openly proclaim Christ as Savior of the world.
Such a proclamation doesn’t have to come from a bullhorn. It should be evident in the way we live, the way we treat one another, and the way we support various ministries, including our own churches. Above all, though, it should come in how we share with others the ways that Christ’s life has made our lives more meaningful and abundant.
Rather than wavering, our boldness in professing Christ — loving out loud, living to honor Him, and increasing His kingdom — should increase knowing that, at least for the time being, we can do it without the threat of being executed.