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WWL: Focus on the Top Ten

1. North Korea

For the fifth year in a row, North Korea heads the World Watch List as the worst violator of religious rights for Christians. Media attention was focused on the country in 2006 but nothing has changed for the North Korean people. The North Korean regime launched missiles and tested nuclear weapons in 2006, which meant a further increase of pressure in the country. We were able to trace more information, which indicated that more Christians were arrested in 2006 than in 2005. There are still many people in labor camps, and everyday life in North Korea is inhuman. Between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are currently suffering in prison camps. Many of them are tortured. People are still putting their lives at stake by trying to flee to China. After crossing the border, several people have converted after coming into contact with Christians. The newborn Christians are very brave and return to North Korea to tell others about Jesus. Considering Christianity to be a tremendous threat to stability in the country, the North Korean government hunts Christians all over the country, especially those who try to return from China. Many of them were arrested, tortured and even killed. But amidst all the harshness in the country, the local Christians are dedicated to serving the local Body of Christ and are firmly standing strong during this period of relentless persecution.

2. Saudi Arabia

In Sharia-ruled Saudi Arabia, the deplorable state of religious freedom remained unaltered in 2006. Four East African Christians were harassed and arrested when meeting for worship during the second quarter of the year. After being detained for more than a month in tortuous conditions, the believers were deported to their home countries. Reportedly, they were not formally informed of the charges against them. However, the four had allegedly been detained for “preaching to Muslims, planting churches and gathering ladies and gentlemen together for prayer.’’ Under the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, apostasy (conversion to another religion) is punishable by death. Public non-Muslim worship is prohibited, although members of the royal family insist that Christians are free to worship in their own homes. Practice has proven otherwise. The total number of arrested Christians during the past year was lower than in 2005, when as many as 70 expatriate Christians were arrested, which explains the slight decline in total points.

3. Iran

Islam is the official religion in Iran, and all laws and regulations must be consistent with the official interpretation of Sharia law. Since the beginning of 2004 when conservative parties won the elections, religious freedom deteriorated considerably. The situation grew worse after hard-line conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005. Although Christians belong to one of the recognized religious minorities who are guaranteed religious freedom, they have reported imprisonment, harassment and discrimination because of their faith.  Various Christian groups known to use literature and other means to spread their faith among the majority Shiite Muslim population were targeted over the past year. In at least eight known incidents, former Muslims who had converted to Christianity were arrested and held in custody for several weeks before being released. In most cases, they were forced to pay large bail amounts and were told their cases remained open for possible criminal prosecution. Under Iran's strict apostasy laws, any Muslim who leaves Islam to embrace another religion faces the death penalty. On the positive side, a former army colonel, who had converted to Christianity and was falsely accused of hiding his faith, was released after two years in jail.

4. Somalia

Somalia has no constitution or any legal provision for the protection of religious freedom. Islam is the official religion, and social pressure is strong to respect Islamic tradition, especially in certain rural parts of the country. Most regions make use of local forms of conflict resolution, either secular, traditional clan-based arbitration, or Islamic (Sharia) law. Less than one percent of ethnic Somalis are Christian, practicing their faith in secret.  At the beginning of June, the capital of Mogadishu fell to an alliance of Islamic militias after they had fought for four months against an alliance of warlords. The «Islamic Courts Union’» (ICU) Shura Council acted as a parliament in all areas the ICU controlled. Sharia was imposed in the capital. At the end of the year, the ICU was pushed back by troops from the Transitional government. The rise of the ICU was bad news for Somalia’s handful of Christians. Though it is hard to determine a connection to the political developments of last year, at least six Christians were killed for their faith in Somalia in 2006. Most of them had an Islamic background and were killed after this was revealed. An Italian nun was killed, possibly as a result of remarks made by Pope Benedict XVI when quoting a medieval text on violence in Islam. Some children of Somali Christian refugees in Kenya have allegedly been kidnapped by Muslim relatives and taken to Islamic institutions in Somalia for «rehabilitation».

5. Maldives

In the archipelago of the Maldives, Islam is the official state religion and all citizens must be Muslims. Sharia law is observed, which prohibits the conversion from Islam to another religion. A convert could lose citizenship. It is prohibited to practice any other religion than Islam, which is considered to be an important tool in stimulating national unity and maintenance of the government’s power. Thus it is impossible to open any churches, though foreigners are allowed to practice their religion in private if they don’t encourage citizens to participate. The Bible and other Christian materials cannot be imported apart from a copy for personal use. In the country -- one of the least evangelized countries on earth -- there are only a handful of indigenous believers, and they live their faith in complete secrecy. The lack of respect for religious freedom in the Maldives remained the same during 2006. Thanks to the fact that we received four reports this year of believers who have stayed for a longer time in the Maldives, our information for the country is more accurate, hence the slightly higher score this year. We also learned of the arrest of an older indigenous believer. He was later sent to a drug rehabilitation center. This happened in August 2006.

6. Yemen

The Yemeni constitution guarantees freedom of religion but it also declares that Islam is the state religion and that Sharia is the source of all legislation. The Yemeni government allows expatriates some freedom to live out their faith, but Yemeni citizens are not allowed to convert to Christianity (or other religions). Converts from Islamic background may face the death penalty if they are discovered. During the past year, several Christian converts were arrested and physically harmed for their faith. At least one was put under severe pressure to renounce his new faith, to which he succumbed. These incidents, and the fact that we received more information on the situation of Christians in Yemen, caused a slight increase in points.

7. Bhutan

Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Officially, the Christian faith does not exist and Christians are not allowed to pray or celebrate in public. Also, the government forbids Christian house gatherings that involve several families. Religious workers are denied visas to enter the country. Many Christian children are able to go to school but face much discrimination. Higher education in most cases is denied when officials find out that the student is a Christian. For Christians with government jobs, discrimination is also the main issue, although there are cases of believers being deprived of government jobs simply because of their faith. The import of printed religious matter is restricted, and only Buddhist religious texts are allowed in the country. Society exerts strong pressure to comply with Buddhist norms. Harassment and pressure by Buddhist zealots, especially in strong Buddhist areas, is the main cause of concern for many Christians. Believers are not only experiencing pressure from the authorities but also from Buddhist clerics and are sometimes faced with physical assaults. In 2006, two imprisoned indigenous believers were released at the end of July. In December, the king (who had promised to give up his hereditary powers and turn the Himalayan country into a democracy) stepped down and was succeeded by his son. It is too early to say if the son will respect the promises of his father.

8. Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the last communist-ruled countries in the world. Although the constitution provides for religious freedom, the atheist regime tries to keep religion under strict control with a system of obligatory registrations. Many churches have chosen to remain unregistered because of the unreasonable restrictions the government imposes on registered churches and believers. From time to time the Vietnamese government holds campaigns and closes churches, especially in the Central Highlands. In 2006, the U.S. State Department dropped Vietnam from its List of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), and provided supporting data to justify this decision. The information contained in the report covered mostly registered churches in the bigger cities. Our teams working in the country reported that in areas with ethnic minorities there were hardly any improvements. Arbitrary arrests, harassment, and fines are still the order of the day. In the months leading up to the November 2006 session of APEC in Hanoi, Vietnam was trying to polish its image -- a few dissidents were released and the number of incidents of religious persecution dropped. After the meetings were held and Vietnam had realized its goal of being admitted to the WTO, the dissidents were arrested again. In November 2006, Christian Solidarity Worldwide published a government document (a manual) that “ultimately aims to manage, limit and reverse the growth of Protestantism in the northwestern highland region, within the context of ostensibly offering religious freedom.” We are cautious about our conclusion on the improving religious liberty situation in Vietnam because the newly published manual is still so fresh. But we think we can safely say that the Vietnamese government is very good in presenting a positive image regarding human rights and religious freedom, and that western countries are only too eager to accept what Hanoi is showing them. Since reality on human rights may differ in many aspects, and religious persecution is going on in more remote regions, it is no time to sit back and relax. In January 2007, Human Rights Watch published a report on Vietnam, claiming there are no human rights improvements.

9. Laos

Laos is a communist state, like Vietnam and China. Laos’ constitution provides for religious freedom. However, the absence of rule of law and specific regulation on religious matters allows local officials to interpret and implement the constitutional provisions as they choose. The Laotian authorities allow limited presence of Christianity and put believers under strict surveillance. The regime limits the number of open churches and regularly closes churches, especially in the countryside. The church in Laos experiences societal pressure against converts who renounce evil spirit worship, surveillance at every level by the state, and social control. Still there are many unregistered activities and the church seems to be growing despite persecution. Our staff in the region report that the situation for Christians has improved in 2006: persecution was definitely less harsh, less brutal than before. This year there were no reports of Christians being killed for their faith. Laos is still detaining about 10 Christians for their faith. On the positive side, the Catholic Church was able to ordain a priest for the first time in 30 years.

10. Afghanistan

Afghanistan is an Islamic republic with no churches and a Christian population of about 0.01%. After domination by Muslim fundamentalists, the country is now ruled by a coalition government. There is still much anarchy, and the central government does not control the entire country. Violence occurs frequently, as Muslim fundamentalist resistance is still active. Freedom of religion as stated in the nation's constitution remains a contradiction as Islamic law is promoted as the law of the land. Although it guarantees freedom of religion to non-Muslims, laws that are “contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” are prohibited by the same constitution. Christians need to be very careful. Foreigners caught in outreach are jailed and usually deported. Local Afghans who commit themselves to Christ are often pressured by family and society to follow the cultural norms of Islam. Converts to Christ suffer repeated verbal abuse and intimidation, beatings, loss of employment and even imprisonment. The arrest of Abdul Rahman demonstrated the harsh life of being a Christian, as he faced trial and execution for apostasy. Rahman's case is the local judiciary's first known prosecution case for apostasy in recent decades. He was freed after being deemed mentally unfit to stand trial; he ultimately found refuge in Italy. An avalanche of media coverage of this case has sparked the arrest and deepening harassment of other Afghan Christians in the ultra-conservative Muslim country.