The Islamic State genocide against Christians in Iraq and Syria, beginning in 2014, drew international condemnation. In 2020, Southeast Asia is the new hotspot for Christian persecution. Communism and religious fundamentalism appear to be the main driving forces of Christian Persecution. Such oppression will only be increased by the global COVID-19 pandemic as Christians are more likely to experience discrimination when seeking basic provisions in many countries.
Here are just a few examples of the kinds of persecution that Christians face in Australia’s backyard.
As of 2018, the Xi Jingping’s government has implemented draconian laws on religious practices. Increased surveillance and restriction of privacy have severely constrained the religious freedoms of the Chinese people. Christians found to publically profess their faith have experienced interrogation, imprisonment and loss of property. The Chinese Communist Party is driving ‘thought reform’ with plans to retranslate and annotate the Bible so that the text is compatible with sinicization and socialism. Troubling parallels can be observed between this heavy-handed response to Christianity and Mao-era attempts to control hearts and minds.
Opposition to Christianity has reached unprecedented levels in India due to the rise of Hindutva nationalism. Aid to the Church in Need reported nation-wide attacks on Christians in 24 of India’s 29 states from 2017 to 2019. Indian Christians face physical abuse, rape and murder for professing their faith. Sectarian violence remains wide-spread. However, of greatest concern is the growing impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators, engendered by the failure of authorities to address attacks on religious minorities.
North Korea is an exceptionally dangerous place to be a Christian. The bible is illegal and from a young age citizens are taught to worship Kim Jong-Un. Christians in North Korea are routinely deported to kwanliso, maximum security political prisons or ‘re-education’ camps. Torture, starvation, sexual assault and death are frequently reported within these facilities. CEO of Open Doors David Curry, cautioned that as COVID-19 ravages health conditions in developing countries, “North Korean Christians who are already seen as second-class citizens, traitors, and infidels” face exceptional risks.
In Laos, Christianity is branded as a harmful Western influence which challenges the nation’s communist values. Government officials use Laotians’ hostile attitude towards Christians to justify strict monitoring of believers. Converts to Christianity in Laos face the most severe forms of persecution. Abandoning Buddhism or tribal animist beliefs is seen as a betrayal to family members and the community.
The international community has rightly condemned the horrific ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Yet, the Buddhist-dominated military has also systematically attacked other religious minorities including Christians. The military routinely engage in torture, rape, abduction and murder of Christians. Efforts to force conversions to Buddhism are common. Thousands of Christians have also been displaced and forced to flee to refugee camps. As access to these regions is very limited, their plight goes widely unnoticed outside Myanmar.
Brunei is an Islamic absolute monarchy ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. In 2014, Brunei became the first East Asian country to adopt parts of Sharia law, despite condemnation from the UN. The Sultan, along with the prime minister, has declared his vision that Brunei will be an entirely Muslim nation by 2035. All churches, including registered ones, are monitored and restricted by the authorities. Further, Islamic authorities offer financial bonuses and employment opportunities to those who follow Islam. This creates a social hierarchy that discriminates against non-Muslims.
The Federal Constitution of Malaysia purports to protect the right to freedom of religion, including the profession, practicing and propagating of a person’s religious beliefs. Despite this, federal law favours the Islamic faith. Article 3 of the Federal Constitution privileges Islam with special status. Although it is more subtle than in neighbouring countries, examples of discrimination against Christians include the existence of sharia courts available to Muslims and the constitutional definition of ‘Malay’ to mean only those who profess the religion of Islam.
An opportunity for the United States and Australia
Under President Trump, the US has affirmed its strong commitment to the freedom of religion both domestically and internationally. While I was at the UN during Leaders Week 2019, the US hosted a high-level event titled ‘The Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom’. The scheduling of this event at the same time as the Climate Summit sent a clear message to the international community about the foreign policy priorities of the Trump/Pence administration.
Domestically, Trump has made a 2017 executive order to advance religious freedom as a centre-piece of his administration’s human rights agenda. The President has also taken action to ensure that Americans and American organisations are not forced to violate their religious or moral beliefs by complying with the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. Further, the Administration has dedicated $25 million to protect religious freedom and religious sites and relics around the world.
Given our shared liberal-democratic values, Australia is uniquely positioned to cooperate with the US on this serious international human rights issue in our region. With rising Christian persecution in Southeast Asia and the Indo-pacific, Australia’s strong bilateral relationship with the United States may provide a solution. As an evangelical Christian, Prime Minister Scott Morrison shares a unique personal connection with persecuted Christians in our region and a commitment to protecting religious freedoms alongside President Trump and Vice President Pence. If there were ever a time to ignite a global crusade to combat religious persecution, this would be that time.