Chinese Officials Interrupt Seminary, Arrest Pastors Without Warrants

(China Aid)  Officials interrupted a seminary class in China’s eastern Jiangsu province on Wednesday and brought away two pastors without displaying any warrants.

Saying that the seminary lacked proper credentials for operating a school, approximately seven police officers and several agents from the local religious affairs bureau broke into the classroom at 10 a.m. on May 23 and threatened to arrest the teacher and more than 20 students without giving any legal documentation.

The class negotiated with the police and questioned which law allowed them to arbitrarily arrest people, and the argument became physical. In the end, a Christian said, “The police softened a little, but they still brought away Pastor Fang and Pastor Wang.” They also took down ID card information while the students sang hymns.

Afterwards, many Christians arrived at Shitun Police Station, where the pastors were being held, to inquire about the details of the case. Wang and Fang were both released shortly after noon on the same day.

Persecution of Christian schools is not limited to one province, however. On May 19, the landlord of Zhongzi School, which is run by Shangli Church in Xiamen, Fujian, succumbed to government pressure and hired an unknown man to lock the school’s gate, preventing children from bringing their parents to class. The next day, the church’s members and their children prayed in front of the church to pray and express their anger. The local education departments accused the school of lacking registration and operating illegally. One of the church’s preachers wrote, “The government is still persecuting the school. I received a call from the police station, who has my household registration and came to investigate the school.”

Previously, landlords have repeatedly evicted the school and church. On May 15, the church’s landlord locked the front gate of the church. When Pastor Yang Xibo arrived early, he found he could not enter, and then led a group of children outside of the church to pray.

ChinaAid exposes abuses, such as those suffered by the members of Shangli Church, in order to stand in solidarity with the persecuted and promote religious freedom, human rights, and rule of law.

Chinese officials pressure Beijing landlords to cancel contracts with house churches

Chinese officials in Beijing have reportedly been pressuring landlords in the past week to cancel their leases to house churches.

According to China Aid, the national security brigade of the Xicheng District Public Security Bureau visited a church on May 6 and investigated the proceedings. Two days after the visit, the brigade reportedly asked the landlord of the building to cancel the lease of the church.

The church had asked to remain anonymous, but a member had told China Aid how the officials pressured the Christians to stop conducting services at the building.

“The police called us today and forbade us from organizing religious activities in any form,” a church member only identified as Yin said, according to China Aid.

“In the morning, the government forced the [Christian] brother who rented the building to sign a letter guaranteeing that he would not participate in any religious activities. We haven’t met with any representatives from the religious affairs bureau yet, and we don’t know how to handle all of this,” the church member added.

Another parishioner recounted that the police have promised to leave the church alone if it moves to a location out of their jurisdiction. However, the church members were concerned that they would just face harassment from the authorities in the new area.

An elder from another church told China Aid on May 9 that the authorities have also been harassing Christians in his neighborhood.

Xu Yonghai, an elder from Holy Love Fellowship, said that the normal activities of his church were disrupted by the police, who have been asking him about people who will attend a Bible study session.

“[W]e gathered for a Bible study on Friday, April 20. On April 19, the police showed up at my house and asked me: ‘Who is going to attend the gathering tomorrow? Will there be reporters?’ A few reporters visit our church frequently and attend the Bible study sessions. Two reporters had planned to come on April 20,” Xu narrated.

According to Xu, one reporter had called him and said that he would not go inside the building after seeing the police and officials from the neighborhood committee.

The church elder noted that the authorities had harassed members of Holy Love Fellowship in the past.

In January 2014, 13 members of the church were detained for “gathering illegally.” Seven more members of the church were arrested for “using evil cults to disrupt law enforcement,” according to China Aid.

Beijing officials have stepped up the crackdown against religion in the past few weeks. In April, government officials have reportedly forced the Zion Church to install surveillance cameras inside and outside of the church premises.

Members were reportedly interrogated by officials regarding their housing situations, occupations, details about their families as well as their relationship with the church.

The unregistered house church reportedly tried to calm its members by quoting part of China’s Constitution that guarantees the freedom of religion for citizens. The church also promised parishioners that it will safeguard their rights, maintain their safety and support them in accordance with Chinese law.

Authorities in Zanzibar, Tanzania Close Down Pentecostal Church

Bishop Daniel Kwileba Kwiyeya. (Morning Star News)

Officials stop worship service as crackdown continues.

NAIROBIKenya (Morning Star News) – The pastor of a church on Tanzania’s semi-autonomous Zanzibar Island was preaching earlier this month when a plainclothes police officer and local officials strode into the church service.

“One of the police officers in civilian clothes walked through the church’s door, stepped up to the podium and then grabbed the bishop by the arm,” a church member told Morning Star News. “The bishop pleaded with him to allow him finish the preaching.”

The congregation of the Pentecostal Evangelistic Fellowship of Africa (PEFA) church in Kisauni, near the Zanzibar City airport, was gripped with fear that day (May 6) as the pulpit microphone picked up Bishop Daniel Kwileba Kwiyeya’s plea. The regional and local district commissioners ordered him to stop the worship service as the officer dragged him into a police car, said the church member, unidentified for security reasons.

“Why are you arresting my father without giving us the reasons for his arrest?” the pastor’s daughter cried. “This is very inhumane.”

The local district commissioner slapped her and pushed her into the police vehicle, the source said.

Other church members tried to intervene, in vain. Bishop Kwiyeya and his daughter were taken to the police station in Mazizini. The 160-member congregation went back into their church building and began praying for them.

“No one can take away our faith in Jesus Christ – Jesus is always with us and is ready to help us,” a church elder told them.

Congregation members later went to the police station, where the chief officer told them there were no charges against the pastor and his daughter, and they were released later that day.

The incident followed an order to close the church after Muslim sheikhs from a nearby mosque complained that services on Sundays and weeknights were too loud – though the congregation does not use loudspeakers as the neighboring mosque does.

“We have the right to worship God just like our brothers the Muslims who worship God using loudspeakers, but no one terms their worship a nuisance,” the church member told Morning Star News. “We as the church are of the opinion that the order to close the church is tainted with favoritism and unconstitutional.”

On April 26, the regional and local district commissioners met with Muslim leaders on the church premises – without inviting the church leaders – and discussed the allegations that the church was becoming a nuisance to the community due to loud noise. The regional district commissioner then ordered the church be closed.

The church did not comply with the order since leaders had not been given the opportunity to defend themselves, the source said. The church instead filed an objection with the regional district commissioner.

“The church could have been given a hearing before such radical decision of closing the church was taken,” he said. “This is quite unfair and contrary to the provision of the constitutional rights of freedom of worship of the United Republic of Tanzania.”

Church members say the closure was a calculated move to weaken Christianity and do away with it in Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, he said.

“The worship by the church should be respected as it is guaranteed by the constitution of Tanzania,” the church member said.

Area Muslims did not complain about noise at the church until it completed a worship building with a seating capacity of 500 people in February, he said. Previously church members worshipped in a tent.

In March, authorities closed another church in Zanzibar when police pulled down the temporary structure of 50 iron sheets of the Free Pentecost Church of Tanzania in Kiwengwa, sources said. The congregation has yet to find another worship place.

On Jan. 7, local government officials in Zanzibar Town gave no prior warning to church leaders before a bulldozer arrived and razed the building of Zanzibar Pentecostal Church of Jesus to make way for a state university.

Pastor’s Wife Hides Husband from Hindu Extremists Seeking to Kill Him in Northern India

Christian leaders pray for Ram Prasad, wounded in church attack in Uttar Pradesh state, India. (Morning Star News)

Police disparage Christians for holding worship services, sources say.

NEW DELHI (Morning Star News) – In an attack on a church service in northern India that left a 55-year-old man unconscious, the wife of a pastor hid her husband after Hindu extremists said they would kill him, sources said.

Women and children were not spared in the attack by 25 masked extremists armed with wooden sticks last month on the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in Baburia Khera, Uttar Pradesh state, after which police treated church members as criminals.

“They were looking for the pastor, saying, ‘We will kill him today,’” pastor Kamlesh Kumar’s wife, identified only as Shashikala, told Morning Star News. Her voice shaking, she said, “We had hidden him inside a room and locked the room from outside. They went on hunting for him everywhere. This is how we were able to save his life.”

Ram Prasad, 55, tried to stop the attackers from hitting congregation members in the April 29 assault, and the Hindu extremists seized him and beat him until he lost his consciousness, she said.

“I saw Ram Prasad fall on the floor bleeding profusely after being hit by a brick, but the attackers continued kicking him and hitting him with wooden sticks until he lay motionless on the floor,” Shashikala said.

The masked men forced their way into neighboring homes in search of Pastor Kumar, terrifying the resident women and girls.

“They manhandled women, beat them, pulled their clothes, spoke to them in a filthy language and disgraced them,” Pastor Kumar told Morning Star News.

The women and girls began to flee the chaos, Shashikala said.

“The neighbors just stood watching us in fear during the attack,” she said. “No one came to our rescue for fear of getting beaten up.”

The congregation had gathered for worship in Baburia Khera, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Raebareli, when the Hindu extremists entered and, chanting “Jai Shri Ram (Hail lord Ram),” quickly attacked the congregation, beating men, women and small children, Pastor Kumar said. Besides using wooden sticks and bricks, they picked up chairs as weapons, he said.

Prasad received stiches for his head wound, and several other church members sustained injuries requiring medical examination. Shashikala and three other women, identified as Mithlesh, Kalavati and Maya, received hospital treatment.

There were 32 incidents of persecution of Christians in Uttar Pradesh state last year, according to the United Christian Forum advocacy group.

Police Disdain

A church member called police, but the officer who arrived chastised the Christians for being an active church.

“Instead of taking action against our plight,” Pastor Kumar said, “the police began to question us as to, ‘Why are you running a church? You are not supposed to worship here…otherwise you will get killed and we can do nothing to help you.’”

The officer told the Christians in a derogatory way to “flee from the church,” Shashikala said. Interrogating church members, he asked them if they had been forcibly converted to Christianity.

“The people told the police that none of them have been forced, but that they all come willingly,” Shashikala said. “They told the interrogating police personnel that they come here for prayers and get healed from their diseases and get peace of mind.”

Police have registered a First Information Report but no arrests have been made, church leaders said.

“We have been serving here for many years now. We had received threats even in October 2017 by the same people, but they had not attacked us then,” Pastor Kumar said.

The church was established in 2014, with about 55 people from neighboring villages regularly attending the Sunday worship service.

The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.

India ranked 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of countries where Christians experience the most persecution.

Authorities in Zanzibar, Tanzania Close Down Pentecostal Church

Bishop Daniel Kwileba Kwiyeya. (Morning Star News)

NAIROBIKenya (Morning Star News) – The pastor of a church on Tanzania’s semi-autonomous Zanzibar Island was preaching earlier this month when a plainclothes police officer and local officials strode into the church service.

“One of the police officers in civilian clothes walked through the church’s door, stepped up to the podium and then grabbed the bishop by the arm,” a church member told Morning Star News. “The bishop pleaded with him to allow him finish the preaching.”

The congregation of the Pentecostal Evangelistic Fellowship of Africa (PEFA) church in Kisauni, near the Zanzibar City airport, was gripped with fear that day (May 6) as the pulpit microphone picked up Bishop Daniel Kwileba Kwiyeya’s plea. The regional and local district commissioners ordered him to stop the worship service as the officer dragged him into a police car, said the church member, unidentified for security reasons.

“Why are you arresting my father without giving us the reasons for his arrest?” the pastor’s daughter cried. “This is very inhumane.”

The local district commissioner slapped her and pushed her into the police vehicle, the source said.

Other church members tried to intervene, in vain. Bishop Kwiyeya and his daughter were taken to the police station in Mazizini. The 160-member congregation went back into their church building and began praying for them.

“No one can take away our faith in Jesus Christ – Jesus is always with us and is ready to help us,” a church elder told them.

Congregation members later went to the police station, where the chief officer told them there were no charges against the pastor and his daughter, and they were released later that day.

The incident followed an order to close the church after Muslim sheikhs from a nearby mosque complained that services on Sundays and weeknights were too loud – though the congregation does not use loudspeakers as the neighboring mosque does.

“We have the right to worship God just like our brothers the Muslims who worship God using loudspeakers, but no one terms their worship a nuisance,” the church member told Morning Star News. “We as the church are of the opinion that the order to close the church is tainted with favoritism and unconstitutional.”

On April 26, the regional and local district commissioners met with Muslim leaders on the church premises – without inviting the church leaders – and discussed the allegations that the church was becoming a nuisance to the community due to loud noise. The regional district commissioner then ordered the church be closed.

The church did not comply with the order since leaders had not been given the opportunity to defend themselves, the source said. The church instead filed an objection with the regional district commissioner.

“The church could have been given a hearing before such radical decision of closing the church was taken,” he said. “This is quite unfair and contrary to the provision of the constitutional rights of freedom of worship of the United Republic of Tanzania.”

Church members say the closure was a calculated move to weaken Christianity and do away with it in Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, he said.

“The worship by the church should be respected as it is guaranteed by the constitution of Tanzania,” the church member said.

Area Muslims did not complain about noise at the church until it completed a worship building with a seating capacity of 500 people in February, he said. Previously church members worshipped in a tent.

In March, authorities closed another church in Zanzibar when police pulled down the temporary structure of 50 iron sheets of the Free Pentecost Church of Tanzania in Kiwengwa, sources said. The congregation has yet to find another worship place.

On Jan. 7, local government officials in Zanzibar Town gave no prior warning to church leaders before a bulldozer arrived and razed the building of Zanzibar Pentecostal Church of Jesus to make way for a state university.

Sentence Upheld for Pastor in Algeria Stopped for Carrying Christian Literature

Court in Tiaret, Algeria. (Morning Star News)

TIZI-OUZOUAlgeria (Morning Star News) – A case that began with police in Algeria stopping a Christian suspected of carrying Bibles in his car ended yesterday with a large fine for the church leader.

A judge in Tiaret, 600 kilometers (372 miles) southwest of Algiers, on Wednesday (May 16) denied pastor Nouredine Belabed’s appeal of a sentence of a 100,000-dinar (US$868) fine and payment of court fees under a controversial law that forbids “undermining the faith of a Muslim.” Belabed had received the sentenceon March 8, including a three-month suspended prison term reduced from what had been a two-year prison term.

The 37-year-old father of three was traveling with a companion, identified only as 26-year-old Khalil, to Tiaret on March 14, 2015 when gendarmes stopped their vehicle, Pastor Belabed told Morning Star News. National Gendarmerie in Tiaret had contacted officers in Sidi Abderrahmane to report two suspects driving an Opel Zaphira coming from El-Bayadh toward Tiaret with Christian books on board.

“We went to El-Bayadh to see our Christian brothers, but also to answer the call of a man who contacted us to know Christ,” Pastor Belabed told Morning Star News. “I do not know him, but we are used to working that way. But once there, he called me to apologize for not being able to come. Back at a gendarmerie checkpoint at a junction, we were stopped to search the vehicle from top to bottom. I was sure someone pointed us out.”

A thorough search followed, ending with the officers seizing 56 books, according to a police report delivered to prosecutors at a court in Frenda, 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Tiaret. The books included the Gospel of Mathew, Bibles, a Bible commentary, a book on church history and some pamphlets.

Pastor Belabed told officers that he had bought them at a Christian bookstore in Algiers after a meeting with other church leaders at the headquarters of the legally recognized Protestant Church of Algeria (l’Église Protestante d’Algérie, or EPA). He told them he meant to distribute them free to other Christians or any other person who wanted to know Christ, he said.

“They detained us at the gendarmerie brigade from 3 p.m. until 10 p.m. after photocopying each of the books we were carrying,” he said. “Since then we did not hear of this case. I thought they had forgotten us.”

Nearly two years later, around Christmas of 2017, he was informed that a security warrant had been issued on him and that he had been sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars (US$434) by a court in Frenda. The judgment was dated October 27, 2015.

“It was at the police station that I was informed,” he said. “The two of us had been sentenced for possession and distribution of Christian articles in order to destabilize and undermine the faith of Muslim according to article 02/11 of the Law 03/06.”

Law 03/2006, commonly known as Law 03/06, calls for a prison term of two to five years and a fine of 500,000 to 1 million dinars (US$4,343 to US$8,687) for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction tending to convert a Muslim to another religion, or using for this purpose the institutions of education, health, social, cultural, or educational institutions, or other establishment, or financial advantage; or makes, stores or distributes printed documents or films or other audiovisual medium or means intended to undermine the faith of a Muslim.”

Christian leaders say the charge is unconstitutional, citing the Algerian constitution’s Article 42, which guarantees freedom of belief, opinion and worship.

During interrogation Pastor Belabed told officers he converted from Islam to Christianity in 2003, and Khalil said he had converted in 2009.

Judge Rebukes Pastor

While the pastor secured an attorney with the EPA’s help, Khalil fled the country for Europe with others in a makeshift boat at the risk of their lives, Pastor Belabed said.

After he fought the sentence with legal defense, in March a court in Frenda convicted both Christians of undermining the faith of a Muslim and sentenced them to pay the fine and court fees; the two-year prison sentence was cancelled in favor of the three-month suspended sentence, while the fine of 50,000 dinars was doubled.

The pastor opted to appeal, and the case was transferred to the Tiaret Criminal Court. On May 9, he appeared before the same judge who had sentenced him in 2015.

“When I saw and recognized the judge, knowing that it was the same who had sentenced me in Frenda, I was scared,” Pastor Belabed said. “But, encouraged by the Lord, I tried to defend my cause somehow. But the judge was harsh and said, “Why do you carry those Christian books, Are not you ashamed?’ The judge used intimidation and told me repeatedly, ‘You’re not ashamed to do that? Algeria is a Muslim country.’”

He replied that he was a Christian who loved Muslims and did not seek to harm their peace, he said. The pastor said he told the judge, “I did not do anything wrong, judge. The Bibles I carried were intended for members of our community, our Tiaret church, which is affiliated with the EPA. I did not give them to others or try to evangelize anyone.”

The May 16 verdict did not appear to mention Khalil.

“Nouredine B. alone was found guilty for carrying and distributing Christian articles in order to undermine and destabilize the faith of a Muslim, in accordance with Article 11/02 of Law 03/06, and for that he is ordered to pay a fine of 100,000. DA ($ 862),” the verdict read.

Pastor Belabed said he would not file any more appeals.

“I am tired,” he said. “The police keep watching us, my wife and me. They watch all our movements. I do not want to inflict more on my family than that; I decide to choose to pay the fine.”

Algeria ranked 42nd on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Another court hears fight over Pensacola cross

Pensacola cross

Oral arguments are scheduled for today over a public cross that could be taken down if atheist plaintiffs succeed with their lawsuit.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) and the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed for summary judgment in April 2017 on behalf of local residents, arguing that the City of Pensacola’s large cross, maintained by the city in a city park, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The District Court ruled against the City in June 2017, and the City appealed a month later.

That brings the case to today’s argument before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta, Georgia.

Erected in 1941, the cross has been included in Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations, and it was the site of a community-wide memorial site after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the other side of the First Amendment issue is Becket attorney Joe Davis, who says the legal arguments against the cross are too broad.

“They effectively say that crosses are unconstitutional under the First Amendment, no matter what,” Davis tells OneNewsNow.

“There’s no other facts that’s relevant other than that it’s a cross,” he continues, “and our view is that the Constitution is not a body of some sort of distinct hostility to one particular symbol.”

Becket also contends in its court brief that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on an Establishment Clause test for legal purposes, which focuses on history and thus makes the historical cross legal and constitutional.

“So this cross has very much become a part of the fabric of Pensacola, for reasons religious and non-religious,” Davis says. “And the point of this lawsuit is to erase that part of Pensacola’s history.”

Family of suicide bombers attack Indonesia churches; 13 dead

SURABAYA, Indonesia (May 13, 2018) — Suicide bombers who carried out deadly attacks on three churches in Indonesia’s second-largest city on Sunday were a family of six that included two young children, police said, as the world’s most populous Muslim nation recoiled in horror at one of the worst attacks on its Christian minority.

At least 13 people, including all six family members, died in the attacks in Surabaya and at least 41 were injured, according to police, in acts that Indonesia’s president condemned as “barbaric.”

The bombings were the worst to target churches in Indonesia since a series of attacks on Christmas Eve in 2000 killed 15 people and wounded nearly 100. Religious minorities in Indonesia, especially Christians, have been repeatedly targeted by militants.

National police chief Tito Karnavian said that the father exploded a car bomb, two sons aged 18 and 16 used a motorcycle for their attack, and the mother was with daughters aged 12 and 9 for her attack.

Karnavian said the family had returned to Indonesia from Syria, where until recently the Islamic State group controlled significant territory.

The extremist group claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attacks in a statement carried by its Aamaq news agency.

The first attack struck the Santa Maria Roman Catholic Church in Surabaya, police spokesman Frans Barung Mangera told reporters at the scene. That blast was followed by a second explosion minutes later at the Christian Church of Diponegoro and a third at the city’s Pantekosta Church, Mangera said.

A witness described the woman’s attack at the Diponegoro church, saying she was carrying two bags when she arrived.

“At first officers blocked them in front of the churchyard, but the woman ignored them and forced her way inside. Suddenly she hugged a civilian then (the bomb) exploded,” said the witness, a security guard who identified himself as Antonius.

Mangera said three unexploded homemade bombs, two at the Pantekosta church and one at the Diponegoro church, were detonated by a bomb squad.

Shattered glass and chunks of concrete littered the entrance of the Santa Maria Church, which was sealed off by armed police. Rescue personnel treated victims at a nearby field while officers inspected wrecked motorcycles in the parking lot that had been burned in the explosion.

A street merchant outside the church said she was blown several meters (yards) by the blast.

“I saw two men riding a motorbike force their way into the churchyard. One was wearing black pants and one with a backpack,” said the merchant, Samsia, who uses a single name. “Soon after that the explosion happened.”

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visited the scenes of the attacks and described them as “cowardly actions” that were “very barbaric and beyond the limit of humanity.”

In Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, the Indonesian Church Association condemned the attacks.

“We are angry,” said Gormar Gultom, an official with the association, but urged people to let the police investigation take its course.

Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, also condemned the attacks.

Separately, national police spokesman Setyo Wasisto said police fatally shot four suspected militants and arrested two others early Sunday in West Java towns. It wasn’t clear whether the shootings were connected to the church attacks.

“They have trained in order to attack police,” Wasisto said, identifying the militants as members of Jemaah Anshorut Daulah, an Islamic State group-affiliated network of about two dozen extremist groups that has been implicated in a number of attacks in Indonesia over the past year.

Jakarta police placed the capital and surrounding areas on high alert, while the transportation ministry warned airports to be on guard.

The church attacks came days after police ended a hostage-taking ordeal by imprisoned Islamic militants at a detention center near Jakarta in which six officers and three inmates died. IS claimed responsibility.

Indonesia has carried out a sustained crackdown on militants since bombings by al-Qaida-affiliated radicals in Bali in 2002 killed 202 people. In recent years, the country has faced a new threat as the rise of IS in the Middle East invigorated local militant networks.

Christians, many of whom are from the ethnic Chinese minority, make up about 9 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million people.

Islamism’s spread challenges religious rights

When a Filipino city of 200,000 inhabitants fell into the hands of militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group, political leaders could no longer ignore the jihadists’ move east. The regional governments knew it would happen one day, given the presence of groups allying with IS and an Islamist separatist group operating in the south of the archipelago. The battle of Marawi, described by one press agency as “the Philippines’ longest urban war”, was only ended after five months and large-scale intervention by government armed forces. First attacked were a church and a Christian school; Christians were singled out and killed, a priest was abducted and held for four months. But the question that remained was: Where will the radicals go next? Critics say Indonesia and Malaysia have been too lenient with Islamic militants, which could make them vulnerable to intensified violent activity.

The battle to wrest control of Marawi from fighters claiming allegiance to IS paralysed the city and two months after it ended, almost 300 people, including some Christians, were unaccounted for. A priest was kidnapped for four months

While IS is the most extreme movement, a spectrum of Islamist groups operates in different contexts around the world. The aims of the various groups vary from overthrowing non-Islamic rule by force to introducing sharia (Islamic law) through activism, participation in public life and democratic processes. The question of how much space one Islamic creed or another should occupy in public life has opened up fault-lines between Islamists and secularists, extremists and moderates, Sunni and Shia, not to mention Muslims and non-Muslims. In Muslim-majority countries Islamists can be observed trying to normalise a more radical form of Islam, and in Muslim-minority countries, they can be seen trying to radicalise the Muslim communities there and expanding their influence. Recruits can be successful, educated professionals, as well as less educated, poorer Muslims attracted by a victimhood narrative. One regional expert has suggested some young people see jihad as providing meaning amid the materialistic, superficial “selfie” age.

However, Islamic law poses a threat to religious freedom. Living under it places non-Muslims under pressure in their day-to-day lives and their interaction with neighbours, colleagues and relatives, and it can present security threats. Not only Christians have become targets in places where more radical forms of Islam have spread: in Bangladesh, Hindus as well as Christians, foreigners, and liberal writers have been targets of increasing attacks and Islamic fundamentalism. Islamists have also targeted other Muslim minority groups, such as practitioners of Sufi Islam, a more mystical form of the religion. The South Asian Terrorism Portal writes in its Bangladesh Report of 2017 that “there is the threat of increasing radicalisation, as significant numbers of youth[s] appear to be attracted to the movements of global jihad”.

The Bangladeshi government has consistently denied the presence of international terrorist organisations such IS and Al-Qaeda in the country, despite growing evidence, and has taken a stand against secular critics, arguing that citizens have no right to write or speak against any religion. The government has also been accused of arbitrarily cracking down on political opponents, stifling media and arresting critics.

Militancy and division in Asia

Overall, an increase in Islamic militancy has begun affecting many Asian countries: foiled bomb attacks in Bangladesh and Indonesia; the political fall-out of the blasphemy conviction of the Christian ex-Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed Ahok, in the Indonesian capital; the battle of Marawi and wider Mindanao unrest in the Philippines; and the forging of an “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army” in Myanmar, to name but a few. Observers believe that the fight for control of Marawi and the expulsion of the Rohingya Muslim minority from Myanmar could serve as a rallying cry to would-be jihadists around the world.

Harder to record than violent attacks in Asia are increases in social pressure. Nonetheless, observers point to trends they have seen. In Indonesia, intolerance towards Christians became visible on banners, in publications and on social media posts during Ahok’s blasphemy trial. It has filtered down to educational institutions, where non-Muslim children can reportedly face overt discrimination. At the same time, government agencies that once secretly funded the proselytism of Christians by Muslims – especially in areas such as Papua New Guinea – are now doing so in an open manner. Such evangelism is strong among the more impoverished groups in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. One researcher at Open Doors said: “Call it what it is: Islamisation strategies. Some even illicit – just buying poor people.”

Money is an important factor behind proselytism. In Indonesia and the Maldives, Saudi Arabia has been aggressively expanding its financial prowess through a large number of investment projects. These include building mosques and Islamic boarding schools, where Wahhabism, a fundamentalist form of Islam, is taught. The result, however, is the creation of intolerant societies where freedom of religion is trampled underfoot.

Expansion in Africa

Many of the trends seen in Asia are also occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. Islamic NGOs that have been or still are funded by countries with strong political Islamic agendas, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, have in the last 20 years expanded madrassas and Islamic schools that teach radical views. The effect of this is increasing intolerance towards Christians that can been seen on the newly launched  World Watch List, where several sub-Saharan African countries have moved up in the direction of the Top 50. 

Indeed, Christians are facing increasing pressure and persecution in Muslim-majority countries in East, West and North Africa. In Egypt last year Islamic State announced that it aimed to wipe out Christians from the region through violence. In parts of northern Nigeria, different forms of Islamism coexist: extremist jihadist attacks by Boko Haram, and sharia creating a tolerance for some of the group’s actions. Other factors come into play, including the reduction of grazing land due to climate change: Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen, often assisted by like-minded settlers, carry out attacks on the country’s Middle Belt’s majority-Christian and African traditionalist inhabitants. This situation suggests ethnic cleansing based on religious affiliation.

Observers have noted a pattern of Christian properties being targeted as Fulani-Hausa herdsmen carry out attacks in Nigeria’s Middle Belt

In addition, researchers at Open Doors believe there is a gradual expansion of political Islam over majority-Christian southern Nigeria, with the intention to Islamise the south. They say this occurs when Muslim leaders and their constituents pressure adherents of other religions “via banking, businesses, symbolism, mosque-building, schools and NGOs, to the extent that Christians (and adherents of other religions) must either leave or gradually adopt Islamic mores and, in some cases, convert to Islam or resist this attempt to impose an Islamic identity on their land.” They argue that similar dynamics can be observed in other countries with different intensities.

A more overt form of pressure being observed in some African countries is a sort of voluntary ghettoisation that serves to radicalise a Muslim community and, as a result, cleanse it of non-Muslims. The result is a stratification of society between Islam and Christianity which is furthered by Muslim communities side-stepping national legislation by setting up informal Sharia courts, and trying to expand into majority-Christian areas. Where governments are unable to create stable states that can protect their citizens, this easily leads to a vicious circle in which authorities are side-lined or co-opted, giving in to perpetrators of persecution for the sake of “peace”.

And a still more overt form of pressure is being applied in northeast Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan, where Open Doors researchers believe the murders, torture, displacement and deportation of civilians, and destruction of property, could constitute ethnic cleansing or even genocide, both of which are punishable under international law.

Finally, it is worth mentioning instances where Christians are not targeted but find themselves caught in the crossfire of violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In such instances, as was seen in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, Christians were easy targets and their neighbourhoods easy to take control of.

In sum, the increase in Islamist influence in recent decades takes different forms in different contexts. However, from the perspective of the Christian, these developments have resulted in religious freedom being placed under ever greater pressure.

Highland schools ‘increasingly hostile’ to Christians UK

Children across the Highlands are being bullied in schools for their religious beliefs, an MSP has revealed.

Kate Forbes, who represents Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, said she was recently approached by families in her constituency about the matter.

They told her there was a lack of understanding about the diversity of religion in Scotland, which can often result in “a lack of tolerance or mockery of religious practices”.

’Intolerance’

Free Church of Scotland minister Revd Alasdair Macleod agreed. He believes there is a ‘growing problem of intolerance’ towards Christian pupils.

He said: “It feels to me that schools are becoming an increasingly hostile environment for Christian pupils, and this hostility must stop.

“Bullying, mocking or intimidation towards pupils on the basis of their Christian faith is unacceptable and needs to be recognised as such.

“Until this happens, many pupils and their families will continue to be reluctant to speak out.”

’Worrying’

The parents’ concerns prompted Miss Forbes to question the Scottish Government over its stance on protecting young people’s freedom of religion and beliefs in the Scottish parliament last week.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney responded by saying that freedom of religious belief is an important feature of Scottish life which must also apply in schools.

Revd Dr Richard Frazer, convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, congratulated Miss Forbes for raising the issue in parliament, and stressed the importance of freedom of belief for all faiths and none in schools.