For 20 years, an American missionary couple pastoring Protestant Resurrection Church in Izmir, Turkey, lived there and ministered in peace. Then, in October 2016, Andrew Brunson and his wife Norine were suddenly detained and accused of being involved in plots against the government. Norine was released after a few weeks, but Andrew has remained in custody and his punishment has escalated from deportation to imprisonment on the charge of terrorism. By now his case has become familiar to most American Christians, and a petition to the White House on his behalf has been begun.
But what happened with Brunson in Turkey has only been a small, though significant, part of a recently occurring trend of increased legal persecution or restrictions in countries that have typically been considered relatively modern or moderate in terms of religious freedom. In three countries, in particular, the government has been the core player in using stringent regulations to shoulder Christianity silently out into the cold. But, at the same time, Christianity in those countries has surged in growth.
Turkey has been one of these countries, and while one that shows a great deal of largesse among eastern Muslim-majority nations – and which promises freedom of religion and belief for all of its citizens in its constitution – a growing strictness toward Christianity has been noted.
The International Institute for Religious Freedom published the 2016 Human Rights Violations Report for the Association of Protestant Churches (Turkey). The report describes various types of abuses conducted against Christians for practicing religious freedom as permitted in Turkey’s constitution. Among these were physical attacks on Christians and churches; lack of legal rights to establish new church fellowships, provide Christian education, or train church leaders; propaganda against Christians broadcast in newspapers and television; grouping churches along with terrorist organizations; and mandatory declaration of religious identity on government-issued ID. Several foreign Christian workers, in addition to the Brunsons, were also deported from Turkey during 2016.
In a similar situation, China, although a secular state, continues to target Christianity – largely viewed by government authorities as a threat to communism. For that reason, churches are meticulously overseen and only government-approved congregations are granted the right to meet and worship under the watchful eye of officials. Undocumented house churches and meetings are subject to raids and arrests, which have been known to lead to torture, kidnappings, and secret imprisonments. Also, recently, in the last two or three years, the government-led cross-removal campaign has caught widespread attention as government officials forcibly remove the crosses from church buildings, often in the face of a human barrier of loyal church members.
In India, since the 2014 election of Narendra Modi as the country’s prime minister, the pro-Hindu nationalist party that he heads has been easing a variety of government regulations onto organizations related to Christian efforts. This includes nonprofit schools and orphan homes, particularly those receiving foreign funding; such funding flags them as being tied to Christian missions projects.
Although religious freedom is also built into the Indian constitution, over the past three years, a subtle legislative war has amounted to a governmental crackdown that has forced many Christian groups to close their doors. Compassion International is one such group that, after a long and hard struggle to find a legal right to continue to exist, is now being forced to pull all of its many aid projects, shut down 589 centers serving more than 145,000 children, and leave the country by March 15.
The slow creep of religious restrictions at the hands of government agents is a subtle, yet hard to resist, form of persecution against religious minorities. Yet, in each of the three countries mentioned, Christianity is on the rise. China’s long-standing Christian awakening has only picked up force and speed, although the secretive nature necessary for undocumented churches makes it hard to keep up with the numbers. Meanwhile, according to the IIRF report, “the number of Protestant Christians and the number of churches in Turkey are growing continuously.” The report mentions 140 Protestant congregations and about 5,000 church members. And in India, small indigenous churches are cropping up faster than one can count, despite increasingly aggressive Hindu nationalism on the part of both the populace and those in power.
If the challenges faced by Christian brothers and sisters in Asia and elsewhere around the world inspire nothing more in us, their situations should give us reason to pause and take a cue for steering our own government and official policies. The Christian advocacy group, International Christian Concern, recently noted that even traditionally Christian western countries have cause to be concerned about the risk of future losses of religious freedom. Both the U.S. and Russia were tagged in the ICC 2016 Hall of Shame report as countries that have recently seen a wave of governmental strong-arming that could have the power to strip away religious liberties.