Nationalism, authoritarianism and militant Islamism: across Asia, the faithful are facing a perfect storm

The unprecedented scale of anti-Christian persecution in Asia

St Mary’s Cathedral, Marawi, Philippines, was targeted by Islamists in 2018 (Aid to the Church in Need)

John Pontifex
24 October, 2019

When an elderly Christian woman in a village in India’s Tamil Nadu state was beaten by extremists, her attackers defended their actions by saying that she had defiled the road by walking on it during a Hindu festival. A dozen Christians who tried to rescue her were also injured when the extremists threw stones at them.  

The incident is part of a surge in attacks against Christians in India. The number of reported incidents rose from 440 in 2017 to 477 in 2018, and more than 1,000 attacks on Christians were reported in the 15 months to March 2019. 

Investigating the reasons for this outbreak of anti-Christian hatred shines a light not just on the problem in India but also elsewhere in the region, where the complex range of threats has shifted dramatically to pose a unique challenge to the faithful. The result is that South Asia and East Asia have become the new hotspots of persecution of Christians, and the indications are that the situation will only get worse. 

That the phenomenon of anti-Christian persecution in Asia is little known iTn the West compounds the problem. The necessary spotlight on genocidal violence against Christians in the Middle East has run the risk of eclipsing worsening persecution elsewhere.  

This new crisis for Christianity in Asia emerges as a principal finding in Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2017-19, a global study released this week by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.  

Of the 12 countries around the world examined in depth for the report, five – Burma, China, India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka – indicate that the situation for Christians has worsened markedly over the past two years.  

The underlying causes are complex but three factors primarily account for this new climate of violence and oppression. The threats – sometimes found separately but more frequently in combination – involve nationalist extremists; authoritarian regimes; and/or Islamist militants.  

This three-pronged threat has the potential to undermine the Church in regions where, until recently, Christian communities have been a long-established part of the local community, recognised for their contribution to the common good. Across the region, it is a rise in state authoritarianism that frequently emerges as the central threat to Christians.  

China is perhaps the clearest example of this. Evidence from the Persecuted and Forgotten? report demonstrates the increased difficulties for Christians posed by the 2018 Regulations on Religious Affairs, which limit religious activities to registered sites. The regulations in effect outlaw “unauthorised” religious teachings and insist that religious groups report all online activity.  

Despite the September 2018 agreement between the Holy See and China, the Church’s relationship with the state continues to be fraught. Two “underground” bishops were formally replaced by prelates from the government-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Even after the agreement, state agents destroyed Marian shrines in Shaanxi and Guizhou. A United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report concluded that “repression of the Catholic Church increased in the second half of 2018”. 

Undoubtedly, the Uighur Muslims have suffered acutely from this new wave of authoritarianism, but evidence shows that Christians – who make up 9.3 per cent of the population – have also become a target. Persecuted and Forgotten? describes how Christians have been offered money at Christmas to replace images of the Christ Child with pictures of President Xi Jinping.  

Education is used as a tool of social conditioning: in some regions, there have been reports of students being required to sign a statement saying that, in line with Chinese state values, they will “promote atheism and oppose belief in God”. In April 2018, two state-controlled Protestant bodies announced they would be pursuing a new “secularised” version of the Bible compatible with “sinicisation” and “socialism”.  

Across South Asia and East Asia, governments are increasingly hostile to Christians on the grounds of nationalism. Increasingly, the identification of the state with one faith – or no faith – to the exclusion of all other forms of religion has resulted in regimes viewing minorities, particularly Christians, with growing hostility. At the very least, Christians are seen as out of step with the state’s projection of the country’s values.  

North Korea remains the worst offender in this regard. Amid clear signs that the situation for Christians has worsened since Kim Jong-un took power, reports claim that up to 70,000 Christians are being held as political prisoners in camps. Defectors have described how, if caught practising or admitting their faith, Christians are tortured. There have been reports of Christians “hung on a cross over fire, crushed under a steamroller, hurled off bridges and trampled underfoot”. 

In Burma (Myanmar), state oppression against Christians has also worsened. International media reporting on the army’s genocidal campaign in Kachin State have been slow to acknowledge that up to 95 per cent of the state’s 1.6 million population are Christian (Baptist and Catholic). Amid reports of more than 200 churches destroyed since 2011, the US State Department has raised the alarm about 100,000 displaced Christians living in camps. Local officials have refused to amend identity cards erroneously describing Christians as Buddhists. Permits to build or repair church buildings have been denied and other churches and chapels have been destroyed.  

In other parts of the region, governments stand accused of colluding with violent nationalist extremists, portraying Christianity as an unwanted hangover from colonialism, its communities disloyal to the state and in sympathy with the much-despised West.  

In India, bishops and other Church leaders have repeatedly linked the surge in violence against Christians to the rise to power of Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Hindu nationalist organisation.  

The 2014 general election, which resulted in Modi becoming prime minister, is increasingly seen as a turning point in the marginalisation of Christians.  

In a recent interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Kumar Kujur of Rourkela accused the government of “causing problems” with support from right-wing groups hostile to Christians and other minorities. While stressing that “generally” Hindus show goodwill towards Christians, he said that the threat comes from “a minority which are radicalised”.  

What unites authoritarian government leaders and nationalist extremists in India are surveys showing that the country’s Hindu population has slipped below 80 per cent. Christians are only 4.7 per cent. Extremists have repeatedly accused Christians of breaking anti-conversion laws by carrying out acts of proselytism. There is strict enforcement of anti-conversion laws in place in nine of the country’s 29 states. On September 12, 2018, for example, police in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district charged 271 Christians with “spreading lies about Hinduism” and, absurdly, using drugs to induce people to convert.    

Growing religious nationalism is also evident in Sri Lanka, where again the state and non-state actors have put increased pressure on the faithful. Here it is Sinhalese Buddhist extremists who perceive Christianity to be a threat to the national identity.  

Amid reports of Christians being denied burial in public cemeteries and refusals to enrol Christian children in schools, there were as many as 90 attacks on Christians in 2017 and another 67 between January and September the following year. Some of the worst attacks took place after the Sinhalese New Year in March 2019, which coincided with Palm Sunday. On that day, a nationalist mob surrounded the Methodist church in Anuradhapura and made “murderous threats” against Bishop Asiri Perera and his congregation, pelting the building with stones and firecrackers.

The case of Sri Lanka is particularly compelling as it demonstrates the third of the three threats now facing Christians across the region, and the only one to gain ample coverage in the Western media: militant Islam.  

The Easter Sunday bombings became an international lead story, especially after ISIS claimed responsibility. Indeed, April 21, 2019 might be the deadliest day in the modern era of Christian persecution. Nearly 260 people died and more than 500 were injured in attacks on three churches packed with worshippers.  

It was almost a month before churches reopened their doors, by which time Sri Lankan police had discovered a 10-acre Islamist training camp in the eastern town of Kattankudy. In June, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo criticised the Sri Lankan government for failing to tackle Islamist militancy and protect Christians. He told Aid to the Church in Need that in total “five training camps for jihadists” had been found. 

The Persecuted and Forgotten? report highlights the increasing threat of militant Islamists across the region. The Sri Lanka attacks seemed to signal that Christians in South Asia are now a favoured target, in an apparent shift from territorial gain to guerrilla attacks. With increasing signs of an Islamist intercontinental contagion, ISIS has shown its capacity to bring misery to Christians well beyond the Philippines and Pakistan, long since noted for their problems with Islamist militancy.

On the positive side, the Persecuted and Forgotten? report highlights unprecedented engagement by the international community with the topic of persecution.  

In particular, the report praises the Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary of Foreign Office support for persecuted Christians. It came a year after the appointment of Lord Ahmad to a new government post as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief. With the role now passed to Rehman Chishti MP, all the signs are that the crisis of persecuted Christians might at last be emerging as a priority among our political classes.  

But statements of intent urgently need to be translated into policies that will bring help and hope. Before it’s too late, governments both in the UK and around the world need to listen to the voice of suffering Christians in South and East Asia – cries for help that have as yet failed to get a proper hearing.   

John Pontifex is editor-in-chief of Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2017-19 and head of press and information at Aid to the Church in Need (UK)