*World Watch Research is our research department on the persecution of Christians worldwide. Its research and analysis can help you understand the impulses, carriers and engines behind the persecution of Christians.
World Watch Research bimonthly update: March 2017
Azerbaijan: Aliyev appoints wife as first vice-president
According to Radio Free Europe reporting on 21 February 2017, President Ilham Aliyev announced that he has appointed his wife as first vice-president of the country. This means that she would take over as president if Aliyev was unable to rule the country himself.
Rolf Zeegers, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “The fact that President Aliyev can take such an important decision without consulting parliament and/or the cabinet shows the authoritarian nature of his rule. He has been president of the former Soviet republic since October 2003, when he was steered into office by his ailing father, Heydar Aliyev, who had ruled with an iron fist since 1993. Now that Aliyev has appointed his wife as vice-president, it is clear that he intends to keep all power in family hands.”
Rolf Zeegers adds: “For Christians in Azerbaijan this step also holds a message: Their current oppressors are definitely planning to remain in place and continue their policies. No improvement is to be expected for a long time to come.”
Central African Republic: UN peacekeepers disperse former Seleka militants
As reported by Reuters on 26 February 2017, the UN peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) have conducted an operation against 40 fighters belonging to the Popular Front for the Renaissance of CAR (FPRC). This is one of two rival militant groups made up of former Seleka militants; the other is the Union for Peace in CAR (UPC). The two mainly Islamic factions fell out over territory issues and the control of illicit tax revenues. According to Reuters, the FPRC fighters were armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades and were about to attack UPC forces in the town of Bambari.
Yonas Dembele, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “This incident shows that former Seleka fighters are still armed and threaten the fragile peace. The security situation remains tenuous and the continued existence of these militias poses a serious threat to the safety of Christians in the predominantly Muslim parts of the country. While the UN peacekeeping mission can play an important role in providing a degree of protection from these groups, in the long run, only their effective disarmament can really bring lasting relief.”
China/North Korea: Coal import ban goes beyond UN sanctions
Just a few days after Kim Jong Nam’s assassination, China announced a total ban on coal imported from North Korea for the rest of the year, as reported by Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) on 19 February 2017. If this ban comes into effect – and it is not an obligatory part of UN sanctions – it would mean North Korea losing about half of its income in foreign currency. It is said that Kim Jong Nam was under Chinese protection and this reaction could be a signal of China’s growing frustration with North Korea’s government. However, PIIE suggests it may be China’s way of offering a “cooperative gesture” to get direct negotiations going between USA and North Korea. Reuters reported on 28 February that a senior North Korean envoy has been sent to Beijing for discussions.
Thomas Muller, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “If the import-ban is meant to get USA and North Korea negotiating, that would seem to have been scuppered at present by the US administration’s visa denial for a North Korean delegation, as reported by NK-News on 25 February 2017. The ban does, however, clearly show that China is increasingly unhappy with an unruly North Korea, even though it can do little about it. Volatile times are always very hard for Christians in North Korea as they need to exercise an extra level of caution. Should North Korean citizens suffer economically from this decision, Christians are of course affected as well.”
Cuba: ‘Ladies in White’ arrested again
Diario de Cuba reported on 20 February 2017 that police detained more than 50 “Ladies in White” as they were on their way to attend a church service. “Ladies in White” are an opposition movement in Cuba founded in 2003 by female relatives of 75 jailed dissidents. The women protest against the imprisonments by attending Catholic Mass each Sunday wearing white clothes (the color symbolizing peace) and by silently marching through the streets in a group afterwards.
Rossana Ramirez, working for World Watch Research explains: “Women belonging to the ‘Ladies in White’ have been arrested on a regular basis and make up a significant part of the 9,940 arbitrary arrests carried out by the Cuban security forces in 2016, as recorded by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) and published in January 2017. To hinder a person from attending Christian worship is a serious violation of the right to religious freedom and worship, not to mention the right to freedom of speech and free association.”
Egypt: Hundreds of Christians flee North Sinai
Over a hundred Christian families have fled the North Sinai Governorate due to a spate of violent attacks by Islamic militants, according to a report by the Associated Press on 27 February 2017. At least seven Christians have been killed over the last few weeks and, although no group has claimed responsibility for the killings, a group affiliated with Islamic State (IS) has recently released a video in which it vows to increase its attacks against Christians.
Yonas Dembele, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “These attacks, which had previously targeted police, military personnel and checkpoints, have now come to focus on ordinary Christians. They seem to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the militants to drive out Christians from the region, spark religious conflict and destabilize the country. The Egyptian State has so far failed to safeguard the security of Christians, especially in the North Sinai, despite the serious threats they have faced for a long time. Currently, many of those displaced from their homes because of their faith are in a state of shock and in need of urgent assistance.”
Europe/Nigeria and Lake Chad region: Conference seeks to avert humanitarian crisis
On 24 February 2017, an international conference took place in Oslo, Norway, seeking to mobilize greater international involvement and increased funding for humanitarian measures in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. In his opening speech, the Norwegian Minister for Foreign affairs summed up the situation: “More than ten million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Seven million experience food insecurity. More than 1200 schools are damaged or destroyed. Three million children need educational assistance.” The summit raised one-third of the $1.5bn needed by the UN, according to The Guardian reporting on 24 February 2017.
Yonas Dembele, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “This is a laudable initiative creating international awareness both of the plight of the victims of Boko Haram’s violence and of the environmental and economic degradation in the region. Thousands of Christians are suffering not only directly from the violence of an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria but also indirectly as a result of the displacement and loss of livelihood resulting from the violence.”
Europe/UK: Non-Muslims’ choice side-lined by global halal industry
At the end of April 2017 Halal Expo Europe is due to be staged in Holland under the title “From niche to mainstream”. The event’s website claims that the European halal industry has an estimated value of almost 70 billion dollars and that the global halal industry has an annual growth rate between 10 – 20%. The aim of this upcoming event is to show Europeans that the Islamic halal system is much more than just the preparation of food for Muslims, a fact which has been highlighted for some time through such publications as the annual Global Islamic Finance Report. In the UK, however, the focus in the national media is nearly always restricted to halal slaughter methods (The Express, 16 August 2016) and the discussion about animal welfare has all but eclipsed the question of whether or not a religious discrimination of non-Muslims is beginning to take place. An exception was a detailed article by Barnabas Fund back in October 2010.
David Davidson, working at World Watch Research, gives some background information: “Three years ago, halal abattoirs in Britain (as reported by the Daily Mail on 7 May 2014) already accounted for roughly a quarter of the country’s 352 slaughterhouses. The UK Food Standard Agency expects the number of slaughterhouses specializing in halal produce to continue rising for two simple reasons: 1) there are lucrative exporting possibilities to be taken advantage of; and 2) the growing industrialization of the food industry achieves cost savings through a system of ‘one size fits all’. Because the Muslim population of the UK is only approximately 5%, disproportionately large amounts of surplus halal meat are produced which is then supplied for general (i.e. non-Muslim) consumption in supermarket chains, restaurants and other outlets. There is currently no formal legislation requiring that customers in the UK be informed whether the meat they are purchasing and consuming is of Islamic origin (i.e. halal) or not.”
David Davidson continues: “In Britain, the halal method of slaughter – always under recitation of the name of Allah – was originally allowed as an exception (on religious grounds) to the otherwise usual (and many would claim: more humane) methods of slaughter regulated by the official Food Standards Agency. This exception looks like it could quietly become the norm in a non-Islamic society. Through the widespread sale of surplus halal produce, non-Muslim customers at major supermarkets and restaurants find they are being increasingly left with no choice (due to lack of distinct labelling) but to purchase what is effectively Muslim religious food. Could it be that, through this means, Islamic culture is silently being imposed upon non-Muslims? It can certainly be said that both politicians and the economic interests of global industries seem to be encouraging a background Islamization of the British and international food market.”
India: Chhattisgarh village prohibits non-Hindu practices
Benje village council in India’s Chhattisgarh State passed a resolution on 6 February 2017 banning the practice of non-Hindu faiths, according to a report by International Christian Concern on 24 February 2017. This resolution, which effectively makes Christianity illegal, was passed despite a decision by the High Court of Chhattisgarh overturning similar resolutions.
Rolf Zeegers, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, says that the decision of the village council is clear proof of diminishing tolerance in India. He states: “It shows how little respect Hindu radicals have for established institutions that protect the cause of religious minorities. If the government of Chhattisgarh will do nothing about this case, the situation for Christians and other religious minorities could deteriorate rapidly. So far, Hindu radicals have been able to commit their atrocities with impunity. If this impunity is now reaching the levels of the High Court in the state, what will hold them back now?”
India: Late marriages cause decline in Christian share of population in Kerala, says bishop
In an interview published in The Hindu, on 18 February 2017, Catholic Bishop Remigiose Inchananiyil of Thamarassery stated that late marriages – coupled with the widespread use of modern family planning methods – are causing the Christian community in Kerala to shrink. To reverse this trend, he feels that young men should marry by the age of 25 and women by 23.
Rolf Zeegers, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “The bishop’s statements caused quite a stir. Christians in Kerala are accustomed to Hindu extremists calling for the sterilization of non-Hindus and for Hindus to have more children in order to counter the downward trend of the share of Hindus in the population. It was hardly a pleasant surprise that one of their own leaders was now making similar statements. Kerala is a state where Christians form a sizeable minority. According to 2011 Census of India figures, 54.73% of Kerala’s residents are Hindus, 26.56% are Muslims, 18.38% are Christians, and the remaining 0.32% follow another or have no religious affiliation. In all India the Christian share of the population is 2.3% according to the same 2011 census.”
Malaysia: Islamic conservatism growing in confidence
As reported by Reuters on 21 February 2017, thousands of Malaysians rallied in Kuala Lumpur on 18 February to show support for the introduction of Sharia Bill. Prime Minister Najib Razak is backing this contentious bill, which religious minorities fear could infringe their rights.
Meanwhile, a Christian pastor is still missing after being abducted by masked men on 13 February, as reported by World Watch Monitor on 27 February 2017. Pastor Koh had received a death-threat six years ago and was accused of trying to convert Muslims to the Christian faith in 2011.
Thomas Muller, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “It would appear that the prime minister is using this Sharia Bill to avert interest away from the current corruption scandal surrounding him and boost his chances in the national elections to be held in 2018. Society is becoming more conservative and it may well be (though this is not yet proven) that an Islamic group is responsible for Pastor Koh’s disappearance. The abduction, which was carried out and filmed by the gang in broad daylight, raises many questions and the Christian community is feeling increasingly vulnerable.”
Mexico: Drug-trafficking linked with militant Islamic groups
According to an article by El Diario de Cohauila on 22 February 2017, 20 terrorist groups worldwide have links with Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking cartels. Using information from a 2014 report by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the article shows how Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Hezbollah in Lebanon are being “sponsored” by such cartels as Sinaloa, headed by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
Rossana Ramirez, working for World Watch Research, comments: “The links between drug- trafficking and ‘narco-terrorism’ continue to grow and is not a new trend. The danger for Mexico is that terrorist know-how from abroad is likely to increase criminal firepower and, consequently, threaten Mexican stability. In this context, any communities and churches involved in tackling organized corruption and crime are likely to be victims of reprisals. In 2016, at least 3 Catholic priests lost their lives for this reason, as reported by The Guardian on 23 September 2016.”
Mexico: High numbers of attacks on church leaders
Several Roman Catholic priests in Mexico have been attacked in the last weeks. According to Church in Need (as quoted by the news platform, El Heraldo de Chihuahua, on 17 February 2017), Mexico ranks number one in attacks on Roman Catholic priests for the sixth consecutive year, with most deaths occurring where priests work in drug-trafficking areas. The latest victims are Andres Verónica Fernandez (who is assumed to have been abducted according to NWNoticias reporting on 2 February 2017) and Joaquín Hernández Sifuentes (who was found murdered, as reported by The Excelsior on 12 February 2017).
Rossana Ramirez, working for World Watch Research, confirms: “Many priests are victims of organized crime because they actively evangelize and seek to banish practices which harm society – such as drug-dealing. According to Open Doors World Watch List 2017, a ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution for their faith, Mexico ranks 41 with 51 points and has registered extreme levels of violence over the last two years.”
Myanmar: Dire humanitarian situation, radical Buddhist group threatens government
The Myanmar government has been forced to postpone the next Panglong peace conference planned to take place on 28 February 2017 due to fighting against ethnic minorities, as reported by IRIN News on 21 February 2017. Humanitarian groups claim the government is preventing them from bringing aid to displaced people, including those in predominantly Christian Kachin State.
In a separate development, the government has confirmed plans for a new Law for the Prevention of Violence Against Women which would override some sections of the “race and religion” laws championed by the Buddhist nationalist movement, Ma Ba Tha. The movement has reacted by threatening to stage “a rebellion that will make the prisons overflow”, according to an article in Frontier News on 20 February 2017.
Thomas Muller, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “While the peace process is stalemated, Christians continue to suffer from a humanitarian catastrophe, partly due to restricted access to the war-torn areas. Meanwhile, sections of the ‘race and religion’ laws of 2015 need to be amended to avoid violation of Myanmar’s UN human rights obligations. By opposing this, the Buddhist nationalists show that they care more about their influence than the country as a whole.”
Peru: Gender ideology influences 2017 national curriculum
As reported by Noticia Cristiana on 10 February 2017, various Christian groups have organized themselves collectively to oppose the new national curriculum for schools. Peru 21 reported on 31 January 2017, that a lawsuit has even been filed against the Peruvian government. The Ministry of Education has introduced a new national educational model focusing on gender equality, starting 1 January 2017. According to Peru 21 reporting on 5 December 2016, the government denies accusations that this new focus violates the right of parents to educate their children according to their religious beliefs.
Rossana Ramirez, working for World Watch Research, explains: “Parents of schoolchildren are standing up against the creeping introduction of gender ideology into the classrooms. The current Peruvian government, which took power in 2016, has been steadily bringing a new secular wind into the country which has affected Christian values in particular, as can be seen in reports by America TV (29 September 2016) and Pareja Reales (13 September 2016). La Republica reported on 23 August 2016 how politicians have also been ridiculing religious leaders. This all indicates a growing secular intolerance in the country.”
Russia: Putin on flying visit to Central Asia
On 27 and 28 February 2017 Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, as reported by The Diplomat on 1 March 2017. According to Radio Free Europe reporting on 22 February 2017, Presidential aide Yury Ushakov told reporters in advance that Putin’s trip marks the 25th anniversary of Moscow’s diplomatic relations with the three Central Asian countries.
Rolf Zeegers, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, thinks there is more to Putin’s visit than just celebrating the 25th anniversary of the independence of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan: “Russia is working hard to re-establish its former domination in the region. Visiting three countries in just two days meant there was no time to discuss economic and humanitarian issues in any detail. Putin’s visit was probably intended simply to remind to the governments of these states who the real boss is.”
Rolf Zeegers adds: “For the church in Central Asia, Putin’s visit is of little consequence as religious liberty is not usually seen as been a high priority by Russia. We may therefore safely assume that the governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and to a lesser extent also Kyrgyzstan, will continue to impose restrictions on Christians in their countries.”
Sudan: Will those jailed with Czech aid worker be freed too?
Petr Jašek, a Czech aid worker sentenced to more than 20 years imprisonment on 22 January 2017, has been released from prison and has left Sudan, as reported by World Watch Monitor and Daily Mail on 26 February 2017. According to the report, President Bashir ordered his release after the Czech Republic’s foreign minister visited Khartoum.
Yonas Dembele, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “This is good news and yet it poses more questions than it answers: What about the other two Christians who are still in prison – Sudanese church leader, Hassan Taour, and Darfuri graduate, Abdulmonem Abdumawla? They were sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for ‘aiding and abetting’ Jašek. Surely they should also be released if the one they were jailed for ‘aiding’ and ‘abetting’ has been pardoned. If not, this is clearly another testament to how harsh the country’s law is on Christians who are ethnic Africans. This situation is just a microcosm of the life of the majority Christians in the country. The government continues to restrict the freedom of Christians in many ways, most recently through its plans to demolish 27 churches, as reported by Dabanga News on 28 February 2017.”
Turkey: Death-threat for spokesperson of biggest opposition party
According to Hurriyet Daily News reporting on 27 February 2017, Selin Sayek Böke received a death threat while appearing on a television program on 21 February. She is vice-chair and spokesperson of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). During the live TV program, an anonymous person phoned up CNNTürk, threatening that Böke would not get home alive and would be killed on leaving the studios. She was escorted home in a heavily armored convoy.
Rolf Zeegers, persecution analyst at World Watch Research (WWR), points out: “The CHP is the biggest political body in Turkey to oppose the upcoming April referendum which is set to change the country’s constitution and expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Unfortunately, demonization of the word “no” is reaching new, seemingly absurd levels (as reported by BBC News on 24 February 2017) in a country that is increasingly becoming polarized. Hence the death-threat against a politician who clearly defies this trend.”
Rolf Zeegers adds an important point: “There is however another dimension to this whole affair. This is not the first time Selin Sayek Böke has come under attack. A year ago in February 2016 the government-controlled newspaper, Daily Bugün, wrote a scathing attack against her not because she belongs to CHP, but because she is a Christian (see WRR post of 17 March 2016). Maybe this also played a part in the death threat of February 2017?”
UK: Street preachers testing the laws on free speech to their limits
On 28 February 2017, the Bristol Post reported that evangelical preachers, Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell, were both found guilty by Bristol Magistrate’s Court of causing a religiously aggravated public disorder and fined just over £2,000 each. A hearing for the implementation of a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) will take place on 22 May 2017. On 6 July 2016, a small group of Christians had been speaking about the differences between Islam and Christianity for an hour in a shopping area in Bristol before a police officer removed them from the scene (which was recorded on video). The three evangelical Christians involved were subsequently charged under Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
David Davidson, working for World Watch Research, comments: “It is clear that preaching in a shopping area can be offensive to some, especially if delivered in an argumentative manner. When a crowd gathers shouting opposition it is understandable when a local police officer requires the person or persons causing the disturbance to move on. In this case, the three Christians refused and were subsequently arrested. Judging by the video footage, the cause of the arrest in this case could be said to be not the actual preaching but the refusal to heed a policeman’s polite warning and request. There was the freedom to leave and preach elsewhere. Is this an attack on free speech? At least one of the preachers has a record for testing the laws on free speech to their limits and has been fined in the past (BBC News, 23 March 2015). Yes, it remains important that the message of Christ is not shut out of public debate, but – particularly at a public venue – that message needs to be delivered with a respect worthy of Christ. To a certain extent, the intended CBO will enforce that by law.”
Uruguay: Pastor accused of hate speech for criticizing gender ideology
As reported by Tele Doce on 2 February 2017, the pastor of Life Mission Church criticized the Ministry of Social Development’s “Guide to education and sexual diversity” for promoting gender ideology and a radical sexual education. A number of organizations reacted negatively to this criticism and accused the pastor of hate speech and of fuelling discrimination, prejudice and violence. According to a report by Entorno Intelegente on 12 February 2017, legal action is likely to be taken against the pastor.
Rossina Ramirez, working for World Watch Research, comments: “The right to religious freedom implies that a person has the right to express personal beliefs concerning political, social and other issues. To attack a person for criticizing gender ideology and its negative influence in schools would seem to be a violation of the exercise of freedom speech. As in so many Latin American countries secular intolerance is also on the rise in Uruguay.”
Venezuela: Government sympathizers attack Christians
According to Xinuanet, reporting on 24 February 2017, President Nicolás Maduro is calling for dialogue with all religions to take place. Yet on the same day, Noticia Cristiana reported that socialist militants attacked churches shouting “satan” and “fascist” at religious leaders. One incident involved about 20 people bursting into the church of San Pedro Claver, in Maracaibo, shouting ‘Chavez lives’. The pulpit microphone was then used to demand that the Catholic Church stop criticizing the government of President Maduro. The current violence against Christians was also the focus of an article in La Razon on 27 February 2017.
Rossana Ramirez, working at World Watch Research, explains: “The repression currently being suffered by Venezuelan Christians is well-illustrated by these incidents. In Venezuela, where approximately 92% of the population is Christian, the main persecution engine is Communist and post-Communist oppression. There is a political trend towards establishing a socialist society, with the government aiming to crush all opposition. Tensions between President Maduro (Chavez’ successor) and the leadership of the Catholic Church in particular have been growing steadily. Open Doors categorizes Venezuela as one of the ‘Persecution Watch Countries’, a group of countries beyond the World Watch List Top 50, in which serious degrees of hostility against Christians and churches are prevalent.”