Worsening persecution in the Middle East and Africa commanded headlines in 2015, but Christians in many other countries also saw a deterioration of religious freedom or increased hostility last year.
In the cluster of former Soviet states including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, Christians faced more scrutiny from authorities and greater community persecution. Open Doors International listed all but one of those countries, Kyrgystan, on its 2016 World Watch List of the 50 places where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Government paranoia about religious groups is the engine of persecution in the region, said Wade Kusack, director for the religious freedom department of Mission Eurasia.
Ranked 15th on the list, Uzbekistan is the most persecuting country in Central Asia, according to Open Doors communications director Emily Fuentes.
Uzbek Christians endure phone tapping and spying, raids on house churches, and fines for possessing religious literature or music. Families in the majority Muslim country often kick out relatives who convert to Christianity, Fuentes said.
Authorities fined Presbyterian Pastor Sergei Rychagov in 2015 for “illegal” religious teaching, meetings, and missionary activity after bullying children into writing statements against him, Mission Eurasia reported.
The republic of Azerbaijan moved dramatically up the list from the 46th to 34th. The U.S. State Department said the country tightly regulates religious institutions and requires all congregations to register. Open Doors reported Protestants are considered “extremists.” According to Forum 18, Azerbaijan has many “prisoners of conscience” who are Christian, Muslim, or other religions.
Fuentes said authorities throughout the region are utilizing more Soviet Union-style tactics against Christians. Families and communities also pressure or threaten believers, especially former Muslims.
“They are the most vulnerable,” Kusack said.
Although Kazakhstan remained 42nd on the most recent World Watch List, Kusack expressed concern about Christians there. In 2013, Kazakhstani authorities charged a pastor “for causing considerable harm to the psychological health” for praying and giving communion. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment, but the sentence was suspended.
But in December 2015, the city court of Astana, Kazakhstan, sentenced a Seventh Day Adventist pastor to two years in a prison labor camp for “inciting religious hatred” after secret police spied on him for a year.
“We expect next year to be even worse,” Kusack said, adding that Soviets made a “monster” out of evangelical churches with propaganda, and many of the region’s political leaders came from that system. “Many Christian leaders still see the government as an enemy,” he said.
Islamic intolerance of Christianity and the way many people in these countries view being Muslim as part of their cultural and ethnic identities also contribute to persecution of Christians in Central Asia. Kusack said the people often view Muslim converts to Christianity as traitors and perceive missionaries as a “threat to the national identity.”
— by Julia A. Seymour | WNS