To coincide with the launch of Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian, researchers at the charity have identified two major trends accompanying faith-based persecution. One of those is nationalism.
Nationalism is a powerful tool in the hands of any government, and one of the many purposes it can serve is to act as a bulwark against foreign influence. Amid rapid, transformative globalisation, many Asian nations have in recent decades found nationalist voices coming to the fore. Religion can be co-opted into national identity. But where any one religion is made part of national identity, members of other faith groups quickly find themselves marginalised.
Nationalist Hinduism and Buddhism are gaining ground in Asia. “To be Indian is to be Hindu.” Or “to be Sri Lankan is to be Buddhist”. In India, 2017 was a record year for incidents of persecution, such as abuse and unjust imprisonment. Open Doors’ partners registered more than 600 incidents, and the actual figure may be higher because many incidents remain unreported.
India has risen through the ranks of countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, from 28th in 2014 to 11th in 2018.
Twenty or so years ago there was little persecution of Christians in India, and in the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, the now-ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had only two seats in parliament. Violence against Christians and other minorities was scarce: only 38 incidents were recorded between 1964 and 1996, according to Ron Boyd-Macmillan, Head of Strategic Research at Open Doors. For the next eight years the BJP was in power on its own or as part of a coalition, and violence against Christians shot up – 417 acts of violence against Christians were registered between 1999 and 2001.
Since 2014, the BJP has been back in power and there has been an immediate rise in incidents of persecution. The party espouses the ‘Hindutva’ ideology (literally “Hindu-ness”), which holds that the Indian nation can be a cohesive and aspiring force only if the tenets of one religion, one culture, and one nation are maintained.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi denies there is persecution of Christians or other minorities in India. During a television show he said he had no knowledge of churches being burnt down, or other types of persecution. However, an influential leader was reported as saying at a rally in December 2014 that India should be “free of Christians (and Muslims) by 2021”.
Meanwhile, Christians experience social exclusion, expulsion from villages, detention, threats, abuse, physical violence and sometimes killings. Local Open Doors’ partners say radical Hindus apply a five-step process to “bring Christians home”:
- The pastor is chased out of the community. Church members are not allowed to contact him or to leave their villages and worship with other Christians.
- The militants prevent Christians from participating in society. They are not allowed to have a government job, trade, draw water from the well, buy food and other products from local stores, or even to talk to other people in the village.
- As the records show, physical violence then happens more frequently. Families are threatened, Christians are beaten up, girls and women may be raped, children may be kidnapped.
- At some point, the Hindu priest will come to indoctrinate the Christians, to remind them that they were born as Hindus and to persuade them to come back to the religion of their community.
- If they still resist, they are often forcibly taken from their house, pushed into a Hindu procession and dragged to a temple. There they have to bow to idols, recite Hindu scriptures and often get smeared with cow dung and/or cow urine (to “cleanse” them).
But India is not the only country that finds itself undergoing this process of “Hinduisation”. Nepal is following in the footsteps of its “big brother”. The situation for Christians there has deteriorated markedly in the past year in all spheres of life, as Hindu radicals have become more active.
Government officials, Hindu clergy, Hindu political parties and the environment of family, friends, and community have all stepped up pressure. The number of reported violent incidents increased too – with reports of attacks on churches, arrests, assaults on dozens of Christians, and threats that caused some Christians to flee their homes and villages.
In Buddhist nations a similar trend is discernible. However, persecution in countries such as Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Myanmar is more subtle.
For example, there are few Christian schools in Buddhist countries, so if parents want their children to be educated, they have to send them to Buddhist schools. There, the children have to take part in Buddhist rituals and in classes that teach Buddhism: during the day they live as Buddhists. Christian adults may face legal obstacles, such as being refused a permit to rent premises to hold religious meetings.
Buddhists who convert to Christianity may experience considerable social pressure. They may be subjected to harassment until they leave their village, or be expected to continue giving alms to Buddhist monks, contribute to the renovation or building of Buddhist temples, and participate in Buddhist festivals. Christians, especially those who attend “house-churches”, are monitored, pressured into renouncing their faith and excluded from communal decisions and resources.
They may be refused help in gathering bamboo for repairing their homes, or denied access to water. Areas with a high percentage of Christians may be deliberately disadvantaged through poor infrastructure and healthcare. In conflict zones, such as the northern states of Myanmar, humanitarian aid to Christians is not allowed, or only given in minimal portions.
In many Buddhist countries, ethnic minorities face discrimination. But when a member of an ethnic minority community converts to Christianity they face persecution on ethnic and religious grounds.
There is another category of nationalists in Asia. While Hindu and Buddhist nationalists are religious nationalists, communists in countries such as China, Vietnam and Laos are, in effect, ideological nationalists. In these countries religion is still seen by the authorities as the “the opium of the people”, to quote Marx, and as something which should be eradicated if possible. This does not hinder them from cooperating with Buddhist or animist leaders against “foreign” Christianity from time to time.
In all these countries, communist ideology has been revived and any economic opening up to the West should not be mistaken for liberalisation.
For Vietnam, which has taken steps to integrate its economy with the international economy in recent decades, civil rights and freedom of religion remain elusive. It is unlikely that Christians will experience any real benefit from the country’s new law on religion, which is designed to regulate matters of faith. The increasing self-confidence of the communist rulers was illustrated last year when a Catholic Christian was deported to France and a Protestant Christian to the United States, both being Vietnamese citizens.
Sinicisation of religion
For China, it became clear that the over-arching goal of the Communist Party is to maintain its power through national unity and by limiting outside influences, which includes controlling the practice of all religions. Recent years have shown a growing orthodoxy in ideology and in emphasising communist rules, acting against everyone perceived as threat, including the rapidly growing number of Christians. The question of how to “regulate” Christianity is gaining momentum, and the guiding principle continues to be the Sinicisation of religion.
The Chinese government finally announced last September that the implementation of new regulations on religion, ostensibly designed to combat extremism, will begin on 1 February. The impact on Christians depends on how the regulations are implemented; it is likely that they will cause problems, however, especially members of “house-churches” that continue to withstand the pressure to join registered churches.