Last month Eritrea, the east African nation that gained independence from Ethiopia after a 30-year civil war, announced that it was closing all churches other than Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Mekane Yesus (Evangelical Lutheran) denominations. Officials also ordered smaller churches, including Kale Hiwot Church and other evangelical and charismatic churches, shut down, according to Mark Albrecht, religious liberty moderator for World Evangelical Alliance.
"This crackdown comes as somewhat of a surprise," reports Mr. Albrecht, "as Eritrea's constitution allows for full freedom of religion." Until these recent developments, he said, Muslims, who outnumber Christians only slightly in a country of 4 million, have had "good inter-religious relations."
Budding revivals have been reported in those churches, including Eritrean soldiers converted to Christianity during recent fighting. Christian radio broadcasts in the native Tigrinya language from Seychelles-based Far Eastern Broadcasting Associates also contribute to a widespread evangelical boom. Church members believe the crackdown may be a reaction to pressure from the dominant Orthodox church or outside Muslim forces as a result of the new interest in Christianity.
The order also targets the Reform Orthodox Church, with 70,000 members, which broke off from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (now known as the Eritrean Orthodox Church), an evangelical branch of traditional Orthodoxy. It has grown from five founders who met together to study the Bible in the 1970s, and clearly presents a challenge to the mainline denomination. In addition, recent military action between Eritrea and Ethiopia has prompted the Muslim-led government to crack down on all "splinter groups."
Persecution of Christians is not diminishing, but U.S. monitoring of religious freedom is on the rise. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued its annual report last month with reports of progress since it first began reporting to Congress and the executive branch three years ago, as well as condemnation for repeat offenders. The commission is an independent panel with its nine members appointed by lawmakers in the House and Senate, and by the White House (three from each).
Both the State Department and White House have adopted many of its recommendations to date, most notably the appointment of a Special Envoy for Sudan. (Mr. Bush appointed former Missouri Sen. John Danforth to fill that office last September. His effectiveness in that role is another question; see Rumors of war/African wars.)
The commission reported less success in pressing the government to take preemptive action to address the growing violence and religious extremism spewing from Pakistan's madrassas, or religious schools. Prior to Sept. 11 the commission had urged diplomats to raise the issue.
The report said the United States "should not compromise" on religious freedom because of the war on terrorism and "should not 'trade off' that commitment for the cooperation of foreign governments in that campaign." The report also warned U.S. officials to watch out for countries that crack down on religious freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are prominent oppressors of Christians whose alliance is helpful in the war.
Other highlights of the report include:
Three strikes you're out? No, the U.S. government is presently negotiating peace with a country the commission has for three years cited as "the world's most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion and belief." Sudan received this distinction because "religion is a major factor in Sudan's ongoing civil war."
The Khartoum regime "is intertwined with other human rights and humanitarian violations, including aerial bombardment of civilians and of humanitarian facilities, deliberate denial of humanitarian assistance, abduction of women and children into conditions of slavery, and the forcible displacement of populations from oil-producing areas."
In addition to its previous recommendation, the report urged the administration to limit oil revenues-which Khartoum achieves largely by extracting oil from Christian areas in the south.
China's "serious deterioration of religious freedom" comes despite visits by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell this year. Chinese officials have rejected a request by the commission to visit China. This year Chinese authorities sentenced a Chinese pastor to death and indicted a Hong Kong businessman for allegedly smuggling Bibles.
Burma "systematically violates the religious freedom of Buddhist monks and ethnic-minority Christians and Muslims."
Violence in Indonesia, the commissioners said, is a serious threat not only to religious freedom, but to the country's future democratic development and stability. In signs of progress, Muslims and Christians in Sulawesi signed in December 2001 a declaration to "end conflict and create peace." Using that agreement as a model, 35 Muslim and 35 Christian delegates signed an accord in the Moluccas on Feb. 12 to "cease conflicts and violence and respect the rights and practices of all religious believers."
Iran "engages in or tolerates systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom." These include prolonged detention and executions of religious minorities, principally followers of the Baha'i faith.
Iraq conducts "a brutal campaign of murder, summary execution, arbitrary arrest, and protracted detention against the religious leaders and followers of the majority Shi'a Muslim population." Saddam Hussein's regime also works to eliminate minority Christians, both Assyrian and Chaldean groups.
In North Korea "religious freedom is nonexistent." The commission asked Congress to form a caucus addressing human-rights conditions in North Korea.
Pakistan continues to receive bad marks for a blasphemy law that every year puts about 60 Christians in jail. Earlier this year President Pervez Musharraf's government did announce plans to abolish a separate-electorate system for religious minorities, but it has not yet followed through. The government has taken action against extremist Islamic schools, emptying some of weapons, and will receive $8 million from the United States for basic education programs in return.
In one notable case the Bush administration has failed to act on recommendations of the commission: Saudi Arabia. "The government of Saudi Arabia denies religious freedom and vigorously enforces its prohibition against all forms of public religious expression" other than those based on its Wahabi fundamentalism. In April Saudi officials released the last two of 14 Christians held for nearly a year for participating in expatriate house churches who met in private worship. Those arrested were citizens of India, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. Yet Mr. Powell for a second year refused to officially cite Saudi Arabia for the violations, as recommended.
A surprise addition is Belgium, which earned poor marks from commissioners for "a growing atmosphere of intolerance with respect to new religious movements and other religious minorities." In February police in Brussels arrested four American Assemblies of God missionaries who were volunteering at the International Christian Academy and deported them for failing to obtain work permits.
France earned a slap, too, for enacting an "anti-cult law" and for recent anti-Semitic attacks.