Over 200 million silent sufferers win their day in the spotlight on Nov. 14 when churchgoers in the United States and around the world commemorate the eighth annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Some live in countries long pegged as religious persecutors, such as Iran, Sudan, China, and North Korea. Others face religious harassment in the shadow of terrorism: Christians in Iraq this year, for instance, have faced multiple targeted bombings and in some cases are fleeing the country, leaving stalwart believers to face attacks from Muslim terrorists.
Where Communism once threatened the church, militant Islam's spread is the heftiest challenge facing Christians today. "The Iron Curtain fell down and there's this whole switch," said Jerry Dykstra, media relations director at Open Doors, a California-based ministry that monitors persecution and delivers Bibles in 60 countries. "It seems there's even more of a battleground now." A further 200 million to 400 million Christians around the world endure discrimination and restrictions on their worship. The global spread of persecution presents a fresh need for prayer, highlighted by trends that affect not only those in the spotlight, like Iraq, but those in lesser known countries.
Islamic oppression is not confined to the Middle East. The most populous Muslim country in the world is Indonesia, a former Dutch colony where Christians make up about one-tenth of the population. Many live in the eastern part of the 17,000-island archipelago, in provinces with the most flammable flashpoints.
In the last month, Christians in the province of Central Sulawesi have seen a spike in attacks, Compass News reports. On Oct. 21 gunmen on motorcycles shot into a crowd of Christians outside a Pentecostal church in the city of Poso, injuring the custodian, Hans Sanipi. The drive-by shooters have been on the prowl since April, killing at least five Christians.
A day earlier, Muslim youths attacked Christian-owned pig farms with machetes, spears, and wooden sticks, slaughtering 20 pigs. The animals are "unclean" in Islam, and the attackers said their odor was offensive during the Muslim period of fasting, or Ramadan. Elsewhere on Sulawesi island, in Mamasa regency, interreligious fighting broke out in mid-October after a new law redrawing local boundaries put Muslims in Christian majority areas. More than 1,000 have fled their homes, too afraid to return home.
In the midst of the turmoil, however, one glimmer of good news appeared in Central Sulawesi. Imprisoned pastor Rinaldy Damanik, jailed for three years, prepared to leave prison this month after winning an early release. Authorities convicted him on dubious charges of possessing illegal weapons, but cut short his sentence this year. The advocacy group Jubilee Campaign reported that in mid-October officials let him attend church meetings for five days. Members of the Christian Church of Central Sulawesi elected him president of their body, the largest Protestant group in the province.
Friction from expanding Islam in other countries is also putting pressure on Christians. One is Nigeria, where 12 of its 36 states-mostly in the north-implemented Islamic law four years ago. The death toll from the country's Muslim-Christian violence is often pegged at 10,000 since 1999. But in October officials said the toll was 53,000 in Plateau state alone in the last three years.
One instigator is a militant band in the north calling itself the "Talibans" after the deposed extremist regime in Afghanistan. On Sept. 20 it attacked police stations in Borno state, according to Compass News, then struck Christians, burning villages and killing and raping inhabitants. At least 14 died, but police could not recover all the bodies in the mountainous area.
Even in northern states with relatively little violence, such as Kaduna, Christians must avoid attracting too much attention. "We have to be very careful not to be the source of any explosion," said Josiah Idwu Fearon, the province's Anglican archbishop. "The Muslims want to insist on application of Shariah. In some of the places it is very difficult to evangelize and do things in the name of Christ."
The usual Communist suspects still dictate what is and is not acceptable religious activity. Countries such as Vietnam, China, and North Korea-all pegged as some of the world's worst persecutors by the United States-keep the closest eye on underground churches. But even more than 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and some of its old republics keep a heavy heel on religious activity.
One of the worst is Belarus, where a sham referendum on Oct. 17 allowed President Alexander Lukashenko to amend the constitution and stand for a third term in 2006. Since he came to power 10 years ago, he has consolidated authority in his hands and trampled his opponents. Since 2002, only religions registered with the state have been legally allowed to worship.
Registration has not proved much of a buffer against persecution for "nontraditional" religions, however, such as Baptists and Pentecostals. According to Forum 18 News, they fear the referendum victory-declared despite voter irregularities-will prompt Mr. Lukashenko's government to implement the religion law more forcefully. Police reportedly beat Baptist evangelist Andrei Fokun in the city of Leped on Oct. 2, after he and a friend set up a small street table with Christian literature. Authorities have repeatedly detained the two men, though they deny beating Mr. Fokun.
Central Asian countries have also become prime grounds for persecution against Christians. Compass News and Forum 18 report that on Oct. 17 police in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, raided a Baptist church and demanded the pastor halt all future religious activity or face criminal charges.
The congregation has tried to register with the state for several years without success. Pastor Nikolai Shevchenko had to sign a statement saying he was conducting an illegal service, and eight volunteers from the 120 members present also penned their signatures. The congregation had not been raided for three years. Mr. Shevchenko believes the government timed the raid to coincide with the visit of members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal body: "Tashkent is using this to try and demonstrate that it is not afraid of pressure from the international community and that it does not intend to observe international standards on the rights of believers."
Threats from other religions
Militant Islam gobbles the most press, but militant Buddhism also claims Christian casualties. In the last year the island nation of Sri Lanka has seen about 200 attacks on Christian churches. Buddhists make up 70 percent of the population and Christians about 8 percent.
An ethnic civil war that has raged for more than 20 years is now dying down, and in its place Buddhist nationalism is growing. Radical monks are now pushing for a law that would make religious conversions from supposed coercion or bribery illegal, and for the first time won nine seats in parliament in April. In practice, an anti-conversion law would severely limit Christian evangelism.
The Jubilee Campaign, whose U.S. team recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Sri Lanka, reported a Nov. 1 attack on a pastor's family outside the capital of Colombo. In the early hours of the morning, four masked men identifying themselves as Buddhist activists broke into the Margaya Fellowship Church, hit the pastor's wife on the head and set fire to household appliances. They fled in a van when she and her two children screamed for help.
Even with church attacks coming almost every week, Jubilee's USA Director Ann Buwalda says Sri Lankan Christians are not losing hope, as is often the case among persecuted minorities. "The comment we heard over and over again was 'Bow the head, take the hemorrhage' and 'We want to be salt and light.' They believe that with enough influence and prayer, it could be reversed."