Backgrounder: Religious Persecution around the World Today

With the establishment of Canada’s new Office of Religious Freedom, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs provides the following snapshot of various countries in which religious persecution is particularly egregious. In some countries, persecution of religious minorities results from government policies or the actions of authorities, whereas in others it is driven by non-governmental forces in society, with failure to intervene – or even consent – on the part of the government. While this is a very cursory list and by no means comprehensive, it is indicative of the extent to which religious minorities continue to suffer from persecution worldwide.

North Korea

Governed by a totalitarian communist regime, North Korea is arguably the most controlled and closed country in the world today. The regime considers religion to be a challenge to its authority – particularly linking Christianity to North Korea’s enemies in the West – and as such heavily restricts freedom of religion. Christians in the country have suffered arrest, imprisonment, and execution. It is believed that thousands of Christians are among the multitudes currently languishing in North Korea’s torturous labour camps.


The Islamic Republic of Iran considers apostasy – including conversion from Islam to another faith – to be a crime punishable by death. While Christians have faced imprisonment for “evangelizing” and various fictional charges, Baha’i Iranians have particularly suffered under state-led persecution. The Iranian regime suppresses the Baha’i faith through various means – including violence. The international Baha’i community has noted that the Iranian regime was responsible for “the wholesale arrest or abduction of the members of two national Iranian Baha’i governing councils in the early 1980s – which led to the disappearance or execution of 17 individuals.” In the years since, Baha’i adherents have continued to experience government monitoring, state media incitement, arrest, imprisonment, torture, property seizures, and the destruction of holy sites – as well as the denial of state benefits, access to education, and employment.


Ahmadi Muslims (adherents of an offshoot of Sunni Islam) are considered heretics by many in the Muslim world, and as such have been persecuted in various countries – most notably in Pakistan. Home to more than 2 million Ahmadi Muslims, Pakistani law considers the sect to be non-Muslim and deprives its adherents of various religious freedoms. Although the community has suffered from riots and the desecration of holy sites for decades, there have been a number of high-profile terror attacks against Pakistan’s Ahmadi population since 2000. In May of 2010, gunmen affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban attacked two Ahmadi mosques – killing more than 85.


Egypt is home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, which now comprises some 8 million Christians (10% of the population). While Christians have long suffered discrimination in Egypt (particularly through a restrictive permit process that makes it difficult to build or repair churches), the post-Arab Spring period has proven challenging for Christians. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Egypt’s Christians have decried the failure of the new regime (under the Muslim Brotherhood) to enable Egypt’s Christians to play a meaningful role in government and society. This coincides with escalated violence against Christians in recent years. In the year after the fall of President Mubarak, violence (by Egyptian troops, as well as local mobs and extremists) claimed the lives of more than 100 Christians – while 100,000 others fled the country.


A number of states in northern Nigeria have adopted Sharia Law, sparking significant Muslim-Christian sectarian violence (Nigeria is home to nearly 70 million Christians, around 40% of the population). Hundreds of Nigerian villagers – both Christians and Muslims – were murdered in 2010 in inter-religious gang attacks. Boko Haram, a jihadist terror organization affiliated with Al Qaeda, has played a notorious role in escalating the situation. The group claimed responsibility for the horrific bombing of 3 churches (in which 44 lives were lost) on Christmas day in 2011. Weeks later, Boko Haram issued a three-day ultimatum to Christians in northern Nigeria – threatening to attack those who failed to leave.


While China allows worship for some communities through state-sanctioned institutions (such as churches affiliated with the state), religious activity in China is largely carried out underground. For example, the state-sanctioned Catholic church has no official relationship to the Vatican (which is considered a potentially threatening foreign influence). It is thus estimated that most Catholics worship in non-sanctioned churches, officials of which experience harassment and imprisonment. A similar situation faces Protestant worshippers in China, many of whom likewise worship in covert churches. In 1999, it was revealed that the Chinese government intended to launch a comprehensive campaign to “eradicate” Falun Gong (which it deems a political enemy rather than a faith movement). Tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have since been imprisoned, with widespread reports of torture and death at the hands of authorities. This has coincided with a public propaganda campaign to marginalize Falun Gong, as well as book burnings and “re-education” of adherents in detention facilities.

Saudi Arabia

The Sunni Islamic regime of Saudi Arabia considers conversion from Islam to another faith to be apostasy and punishable by execution (as is blasphemy). Saudi state textbooks have been found to incite children to hate Christians, Jews, and “polytheists”. Saudi authorities enforce Sharia Law on all who enter Saudi Arabia, including through the total banning of pork and alcohol, severe restrictions on women’s rights (including the right to drive a car), and a ban on non-Muslim admittance to the city of Mecca. The state forbids non-Islamic religious practices from being performed publicly, the entrance of non-Islamic religious officials, and the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials. There is significant discrimination against the country’s Shi’a Muslim minority, including in the areas of employment, legal standing, education, and restrictions on the public display of Shi’a celebrations.


Since 1990, the Christian population of Iraq has dropped from 1.2 million to approximately 200,000. Although most of this decline occurred prior to the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Christian flight has continued as a result of intimidation and violence from local Muslim extremist gangs. The past decade has seen particularly shocking attacks by Al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, which have declared Christians to be a legitimate target of the Islamic resistance in that country. In one such incident, more than 50 were killed when gunmen stormed a Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad in October 2010.

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