For years, Saudia Arabia was one of only two countries where religious freedom outright "does not exist" in the annual U.S. religious freedom report. While the State Department always went on to brand the other country, North Korea, as one of the world's worst religious persecutors, Saudi Arabia escaped censure. Until this year.
Secretary of State Colin Powell announced on Sept. 15 that the kingdom and key U.S. ally in the Middle East was the newest addition to a small club of countries in this year's Report on International Religious Freedom singled out as abusers of religious freedom. Violators who make the list risk trade and other U.S. sanctions. This year Vietnam and Eritrea also joined the roll for the first time, while officials dropped post-Saddam Iraq. For the largely static list, which named the same five or six countries every year, the shift was momentous.
Religious freedom advocates have waited years to see Saudi Arabia added. The country allows only its strict version of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, to operate freely. Even other Muslims who don't conform suffer restrictions on worship, particularly Shiites. Christians and other minorities may not worship in public. Sharing other faiths with Muslims is illegal, while Muslims who convert to other religions risk the death penalty.
Besides being a major U.S. oil supplier, the country has staunch allies within Washington and the State Department. Only within the last year or so has the U.S. diplomatic corps risked debate about the links between Saudi extremist Islam and terrorism.
"We felt the time had finally come to make that designation," said John Hanford, U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom. "There are positive developments in Saudi Arabia that we take encouragement from, but there are a number of problems that persist that place them over the line."
"Events since 9/11-when most hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and indoctrinated with this ideology of hatred-led to the United States raising its concerns and not seeing much progress," said Nina Shea, director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom. "It's gotten to the point where the United States realizes this is a problem."
Vietnam earned recognition as a religious freedom violator-in spite of a bilateral trade agreement reached with the United States in 2000-for its persistent crackdown on Christians and followers of other religions, particularly Protestant members of ethnic minorities. Vietnam's communist government has closed hundreds of churches. It plans to implement a new law in November that could snuff out house-church activity altogether. And authorities continue to arrest pastors: Compass News reported on Aug. 29 that they held prominent leader Rev. Tran Mai for eight days of interrogation over his travels abroad and links to other pastors.
Eritrea also persecutes religious followers outside its four state-sanctioned faiths: Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and the Evangelical Lutherans. According to the State Department, about 400 members of other faiths have been arrested this year, with some 200 still imprisoned. Just a week before the United States included Eritrea among the worst persecutors, the government arrested five evangelicals in Asmara who were worshipping together in their church office.
With the three new additions, the number of the world's most egregious violators stands at eight. North Korea, Sudan, Iran, China, and Burma remain on the list this year. But the changes signal a new realization as the United States fights global terrorism. Mr. Hanford drew the link: "Nations that respect religious freedom rarely pose a threat to their neighbors."
If Iraq has turned a corner both on battling Christians and threatening its neighbors, other persecution hotspots endure. Christians in Iran and China endured heightened roundups and arrests, while those in other countries expected change but saw little reprieve from persecution.
Iran: The Islamic theocracy usually keeps a heavy thumb on Christians, but its latest act was even harsher than usual. Police raided the annual general meeting of the Assemblies of God outside Tehran on Sept. 9, arresting 74 leaders and 12 conference staff, according to the Jubilee Campaign. They reportedly told delegates, "We have taken control, no one should move, no one is to pick anything up, mobile phones should be switched off, and all documents must be left on tables."
Compass News reported that the police drove the captives around for hours blindfolded so they wouldn't know where they were, then took them in for questioning. They released all but one pastor within three days, and his family did not know where he was being held days after the raid. Officials interrogated each person arrested, but closely questioned top leaders.
While authorities do arrest individual Christians, such a large-scale raid is unusual, especially so close upon the heels of another pastor's arrest in May. According to Jubilee, this is the first time the entire leadership of a church has been arrested since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Those released had strict orders not to evangelize.
"It has to be indicative of a sudden chill towards Christian minorities," says Ann Buwalda, Jubilee's U.S. director. "I think somehow the Iranian authorities must have been slipping, and they're trying to get a better handle on who's in leadership . . . they didn't just shut the church down."
In February Islamic hardliners won control of the parliament after the Council of Guardians disqualified thousands of reform candidates. These officials are "very nervous" because Christianity is spreading in Iran, says Hormoz Shariat of International Antioch Ministries: "They feel that control is getting out of their hands and want to send the message, 'We're watching you.'" Apart from traditionally Christian communities, such as Assyrians, the number of Muslim converts may be between 4,000 and 20,000, up from about 500 in 1979.
India: Christians are looking for a long-awaited reprieve from Hindu extremist violence, but it may take awhile. The surprise defeat of the Hindu nationalist BJP last April meant an official return to traditionally secular government led by the Congress Party. The returning officials quickly quashed anti-conversion legislation in some states, but vigilante attacks on Christians continue.
Among several reported by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP): 300 Hindu fundamentalists burned Bibles and tore down the tabernacle of the Church of Our Lady of Charity in Orissa on Aug. 26; Father Job Chittilappilly in Kerala was killed on Aug. 28 after receiving threatening phone calls against his social work among Hindus; and armed attackers beat up two parish priests on Aug. 22 in Jharkhand state, leaving one in a coma.
IRPP president Joseph Grieboski said institutional improvement, such as repealing anti-conversion laws, only goes so far. Far-reaching change will only come with better attitudes among political leaders toward religious minorities and Dalits, the lowest Hindu caste: "Just because the BJP is no longer in power does not mean the steps they put forth will change overnight."
China: One hundred a month seems to be the new tally authorities are aiming for in arrests of house-church leaders. According to the China Aid Association, authorities arrested 100 at a retreat in Henan Province on Aug. 6. A month earlier on July 12, roughly the same number were arrested in Xinjiang state in western China. Same story on June 11 in the central city of Wuhan, where members of the 5-million-strong China Gospel Fellowship were arrested.
Authorities released most church members in Xinjiang and Wuhan, but ordered those in Wuhan to stay at home, hampering their ability to roam and evangelize. Most surprising was the arrest of Samuel Lamb after Sunday worship on June 13, the first time in 14 years that authorities have clamped down on the activities of the house-church leader perhaps most well known in the West, according to Compass News. Mr. Lamb reportedly leads 3,000 worshippers a week in Guangzhou.
So why the sudden swoop on Christians? According to China Aid, the Communist Party's Politburo members recently met to discuss how to handle religious affairs in the country and decided to crack down on "illegal religious activities." They have also ordered their propaganda machinery to spread atheism more vociferously.
Colombia: Masked gunmen sprayed worshippers with bullets at an evening church service in Puerto Asis on Sept. 4, killing three and injuring 13, Compass News reports. Army officials pegged the assailants as guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), saying they disliked the church discouraging youth from joining the Marxist militants. Local authorities, however, believe the men were targeting a former police officer in the congregation, who was seriously wounded in the attack.
Guerrillas have launched a spate of attacks on Christians in the last two months: The second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), kidnapped a Roman Catholic bishop on July 24 but released him three days later after an international outcry. Two rebel groups, including ELN, have agreements with evangelicals not to target them for kidnappings, but FARC continues to issue threats. Members released a government agronomist and evangelical Christian in June after a three-month captivity.