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Persecution goes global: Over time, only the names have changed

Issue: "Pilgrims' progress," Nov. 28, 1998

Puritan father William Bradford wrote that the persecutors of his day used "bloody death and cruel torments, ... imprisonments, banishments, and other hard usages" in their attempts to wipe out Christian faith. Nearly 400 years later, the only thing that has changed are the names. And, like everything else, persecution in 1998 is more global than ever.

If there is a persecuting country of choice, this is it. An offensive directed by the government of Hassan Turabi against the mostly Christian inhabitants of south Sudan has persecution monitors touting the plight of Sudan's Christians above all others. Center for Religious Freedom director Nina Shea calls Sudan "the world's harshest spiritual vineyard." More people from the predominantly Christian south have been murdered than all the victims of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda combined, she notes. Attacks by the Islamic regime in Khartoum and forced-starvation tactics visited on the south have resulted in 1.5 million deaths. At a conference on Sudan two weeks ago, persecution watchdogs and student activists said privately that they would like to see Mr. Turabi brought before an international tribunal on war crimes. Publicly they stated a more modest goal: Persuade Western leaders the Khartoum government should at least get no respect. At present, relief aid to Sudan by large aid agencies and the UN goes only where and when Khartoum wishes.

Lost in the news of Indonesia's economic crisis and class wars are the rising numbers of attacks on Christians. Church leaders say Muslim gangs in Java have attacked 90-100 churches during the last year. More recently, a moderate Muslim organization called Nahdlatul Ulama, which has publicly offered support to the besieged Christians, found itself under attack, too. Experts say the trend supercedes the economic tension; it began over two years ago with the rise of radical Islamic elements in what has been considered a tolerant Muslim society. "It's disappointing because we've always looked to Indonesia as a source of hope, a model, where Christians and Muslims were getting along," says author and persecution expert Paul Marshall.

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This year the communist government of China tipped its hat to international standards on religious freedom, but kept the truncheon at the ready. Chinese leaders met with American religious leaders in the spring, and listened politely when the issue of religious freedom was raised again during summits with President Clinton and British Prime Minister Blair. They even signed an international covenant on freedom of expression and assembly, and held their own human-rights conference in October. Old habits die hard. Within the last month, Chinese police arrested more than 140 members of underground Protestant churches in Henan province. After jailing 40 church leaders from 16 provinces who gathered in Henan on Oct. 26, police beat at least 13 detainees. Church leaders say 100 worshippers in a different location were arrested on Nov. 5. Eleven worshippers remain in custody in Fengcheng, according to Voice of the Martyrs. "These two acts of religious persecution are not isolated. Even greater religious persecution will unfold over the next two months," read a letter published in the United States and written by one of the house-church members, David Zhang. Mr. Zhang believes the raids and arrests are in retaliation for a letter sent to the United States from Fengcheng Fellowship, his house church, which appealed to the West and to Chinese leaders to recognize the house-church movement.

India & Sri Lanka
In India's western Gujarat state, delegates attending the Alpha Missionary Movement convention were attacked and forced from their lodgings in the early morning hours of Oct. 30. Members of a Hindu group used sticks, belts, and chains to beat 150 delegates and force them into the streets. Police responded to the assault, but remained "mute spectators to the whole scene," according to Christian workers and missionaries who witnessed it. Forty people were injured, including one person who was pushed from a second-story window. Bibles and other conference material were destroyed. The Christian minority in this region has experienced growing harassment from fanatical Hindu groups since the Hindu nationalist party BJP took over in nationwide elections earlier this year. In neighboring Sri Lanka, pastor Vasu Sritharan was murdered on Nov. 5 after Hindu militants told him to stop evangelizing their brethren. A reputation for bold, uncompromising preaching among the Hindus made Mr. Sritharan a target of the militants, who are fighting a civil war in Sri Lanka and are jealous to mobilize fellow Hindus. Two weeks before his death, the Hindu groups sent a petition to Mr. Sritharan, warning against continuing his work.


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