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Remember the persecuted

Religion | This year's special day of prayer will highlight those who "bow the head, take the hemorrhage"

Issue: "Bush's moral mandate," Nov. 13, 2004

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.

Militant Islam

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.

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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."

State-sanctioned persecution

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.

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