The Dirty Dozen

A look at the state department’s list of the worst violators of religious freedom.

In the middle of his second term, President Bill Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which made religious freedom concerns a more significant part of US foreign policy. The law directed the state department to report annually on the state of religious freedom in each nation and established the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The USCIRF, in turn, would compile a list of the most flagrant religious-rights violators and recommend to the state department that these nations be designated “countries of particular concern” (CPCs).

Over time, the state department reports have become an important annual source of evidence documenting instances of religious persecution, and the USCIRF’s recommendations regarding countries of particular concern have helped focus international attention on egregious religious-rights violators. At present, the USCIRF recommends that 12 nations be designated as CPCs.

CWR asked two prominent Catholics associated with the USCIRF to assess whether these 12 nations are also those in which Catholics face the greatest persecution. Federalist Society executive vice president Leonard Leo, a current USCIRF commissioner, told CWR, “With regard to the countries where Catholics face the greatest persecution, that list would be identical to the commission’s CPC list.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, who served as a commissioner from 2003 to 2007, concurs. “I think the USCIRF list is a good guide to the most systematic offenders—North Korea probably worst of all—but the list of nations where Catholics face real persecution is actually much longer,” he says. “It would include even legitimate democracies like India, where the government repudiates religious discrimination but terrible anti-Christian violence can take place on a regional basis.”

Officials of nondenominational organizations that aid persecuted Christians agree that persecution is widespread. “Based on population estimates from countries where Christians experience opposition, ranging from discriminatory laws to murder and execution, we estimate that there are roughly 200 million Christians around the world who experience serious opposition for practicing their faith,” says Jeremy Sewall, advocacy director for International Christian Concern. “This makes Christians the single largest persecuted religious community in the world.”

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, trends in the persecution of Christians have changed. “There was a time when Marxist-inspired states were the worst persecutors of the Gospel, and the Church still suffers gravely in Vietnam and China,” says Archbishop Chaput. “But globally, the single greatest persecutor of Christians and their faith is radical Islam.” Sewall agrees: persecution, he says, “has shifted from primarily coming from atheists and communists (with the notable exception of North Korea) and…is becoming more and more severe in Muslim countries.”

In the midst of persecution in Islamic nations and elsewhere, “the real heroes,” says Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, “are those who quietly stand strong in their faith despite overwhelming pressure to recant, especially Muslim-background believers in countries like Iran and Iraq. Many face daily threats—including death threats to their families.”

The state department’s annual reports, as well as reports from Catholic news agencies such as UCAN, AsiaNews, and VietCatholic News, offer a glimpse at religious-freedom conditions in which such heroism is exercised.


Government repression of the underground Catholic Church in China—the first in an alphabetical list of countries of particular concern—is well known and has been documented over the years by the Cardinal Kung Foundation and others. Despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedom for its 1.33 billion citizens, and despite progress since the regime of Mao Zedong (1949-76), the nation remains officially an atheist and communist state. The government controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) claims 5.3 million Catholics as members, and the state department estimates that at least 12 million more Catholics are affiliated with the underground Church. The CCPA is permitted to worship openly, to print Bibles, and to operate seminaries, while underground Catholics loyal to the Holy See continue to suffer repression. In December, the government and CCPA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the “self-ordination” and “self-selection” of bishops. In his 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, Pope Benedict reminded the faithful that this aim of the CCPA is “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”

Since the 1980s, increasing numbers of CCPA bishops, whose ordinations were valid but illicit, have sought reconciliation with the Holy See, which in many cases granted pontifical approval after consultation with legitimate local bishops. Pope Benedict observed, “Unfortunately, in most cases, priests and the faithful have not been adequately informed that their bishop has been legitimized, and this has given rise to a number of grave problems of conscience. What is more, some legitimized bishops have failed to provide any clear signs to prove that they have been legitimized.” In recent years, some of the bishops appointed by the government have received pontifical approval at the time of the appointment.

Because the situation varies in different locales, Pope Benedict has permitted underground bishops, after consultation with their priests and faithful, to “seek recognition from civil authorities” and thus minister openly so long as scandal is avoided and recognition does “not entail the denial of unrenounceable principles of faith and of ecclesiastical communion.” At present, the Pope believes that “almost always, in the process of recognition the intervention of certain bodies obliges the people involved to adopt attitudes, make gestures, and undertake commitments that are contrary to the dictates of their consciences as Catholics.”

According to recent news reports, there are now approximately 25 legitimate underground bishops, 60 legitimate bishops who are affiliated with the CCPA and thus can exercise their ministry openly, and 15 bishops who are part of the CCPA and whose ministry is not recognized by the Holy See. To clear up any confusion among Chinese bishops over who is in communion with the Holy See, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in 2008 sent a letter to Chinese bishops that listed the names of all bishops in communion with Rome and urged them to meet as a body. A few bishops commented anonymously that this request was unrealistic because of government restrictions.


Colonized by Italy, Eritrea was awarded to Ethiopia in 1952 and eventually annexed, leading to a decadeslong civil war. Eritrea regained its independence in 1993 under the leadership of Isaias Afwerki, a Marxist who received his military training in Mao Zedong’s China. Afwerki remains the totalitarian nation’s leader today. Reporters Without Borders deems Eritrea’s treatment of press freedom the worst in the world.

A longtime Christian area—local bishops were part of an Oriental Orthodox Church that ceased communion with the Holy See following the Council of Chalcedon in 451—the nation of 5.5 million is now half Muslim, 30 percent Eritrean Orthodox, and less than 4 percent Eastern Catholic. The government recognizes the existence only of Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, and the Lutheran Church; according to the state department, it systematically arrests and imprisons other believers, in some cases reportedly making their conversion to Eritrean Orthodoxy, obtained under torture, a condition for release.

Official recognition does not provide immunity from persecution. In 2005, the government appointed a layman to administer the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and the following year, the Church’s patriarch was deposed. In 1998, the government took over Catholic schools and health clinics; last June, it took over all Catholic Church property in the nation’s capital.


In his annual address to the diplomatic corps in January, Pope Benedict asked the Lord to grant Myanmar (formerly Burma) “true respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Only 1.2 percent of Myanmar’s approximately 50 million people are Catholic; in all, 89 percent are Buddhist, 4 percent are Christian, and 4 percent are Muslim.

Since 1962, the nation has been ruled by authoritarian military regimes, which expelled missionaries and nationalized Catholic schools and hospitals in the 1960s and abolished constitutional religious freedom protections in the late 1980s. The current junta, headed by General Than Shwe since 1992, has gained a reputation for brutality. In 2005, the United Nation’s International Labor Organization estimated that 800,000 citizens are subjected to forced labor.

According to the state department, this atmosphere of repression is particularly unfavorable to non-Buddhists, for “the Ministry of Religious Affairs includes the powerful Department for the Promotion and Propagation of Sasana (Buddhist teaching).”


Only 0.02 percent of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s 66 million people are Catholic, and they, like other minority religious groups, suffer pervasive discrimination and government monitoring of religious activities. It is illegal for Christians to evangelize Muslims, and the conversion of Muslims to Christianity and other religions is punishable by death. According to the state department, “Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance.… The government [has] vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing their churches, and arresting Christian converts.”


Since the Iraq War began six years ago, Iraq’s Christian population has endured increasing discrimination and persecution. The Iraqi constitution of 2005, while respecting religious freedom, affirmed Islam—practiced by 95 percent of citizens—as the nation’s official religion.

Over half of the nation’s Christian population has left Iraq in the past six years. According to a USCIRF report issued in December, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2003. Between 700,000 and 900,000 of them have since fled the country. A Syrian bishop observed in 2007 that many Catholics, who fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs, have turned to prostitution in order to survive. “This is a big problem, and we don’t know how to deal with it,” Bishop Antoine Audo said. “It is a new problem to have prostitution in this quantity in a Christian community.”

Campaigns of kidnapping against Christians—whether conducted by criminals, Islamic extremists, or terrorists— have contributed to this flight. An Anglican cleric in Baghdad said in 2007, “I sat down with my congregation … and I said to them, tell me your story, what’s happened in the past week? And the people went through what had happened, and I realized that 36 of my congregation in that past week had been kidnapped. None of them had been returned.” In one Baghdad neighborhood, Christian residents received letters saying they must convert to Islam, pay protection money, leave, or be killed. 1,700 of the 2,000 Christian families there fled.

The Christians of Mosul, the nation’s second largest city, experienced a wave of persecution in 2008. In late February, gunmen kidnapped Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, killing him and two of his aides. In autumn, half of the city’s Christian population fled following widespread harassment and the killing of at least 14 Christians.


Ruled for six decades by Kim Il Sung (1948-94) and his son Kim Jong Il (since 1994), the communist regime of North Korea is perhaps the world’s worst violator of religious freedom. “Open Doors [has] named North Korea the number one persecutor of believers for the seventh straight year,” Moeller told CWR. “Christians there continue to suffer, including thousands tortured in prison camps.”

According to the state department, “ownership of Bibles or other religious materials is reportedly illegal and may be punished by imprisonment or execution.” Contact with foreigners or missionaries—even if the contact occurs outside the nation, in China—also carries heavy penalties. Reports from defectors and others relate that evangelization can end in execution.

An estimated 3,000 of the nation’s 23 million people are Catholic. In the nation’s capital of Pyongyang, there are four churches built by the government— one Catholic, one Russian Orthodox, and two Protestant—with weekly lay-led services, attended by 150 to 200, taking place at the Catholic church. The state department observes, “Church services appeared staged and contained political content supportive of the regime, in addition to religious themes. Foreign legislators attending services in Pyongyang in previous years noted that congregations arrived at and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed that they did not include any children.… Following instructions from the Vatican, the Catholic members of [a 2007 South Korean] delegation refrained from celebrating Mass to avoid giving the Eucharist to North Koreans posing as Catholics.”


The one million Catholics of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan—the world’s sixth most populous nation, with 173 million citizens—face social discrimination and the prospect of arrest, torture, and even execution under charges of blaspheming Islam.

“Discriminatory legislation and the government’s failure to take action against societal forces hostile to those who practice a different religious belief,” notes the state department, has “fostered religious intolerance, acts of violence, and intimidation against religious minorities.”

Shahbaz Bhatti, a lay Catholic who recently became Federal Minister of Minority Affairs, said in 2007: “Christians and other religious minorities are being subjected to false accusations under the blasphemy law.… Often they are murdered in extrajudicial killings or languish in prison for years. Victims’ families are forced out of their homes as a result of threats, harassment, and a sense of insecurity.”


A surprisingly high number—nearly one million—of Saudi Arabia’s 28 million residents is Catholic, but they are all guest workers, principally from India and the Philippines. Four priests discreetly minister to them, but the government makes regular contact impossible. Although public Christian worship is forbidden, the government theoretically permits private home worship. In practice, though, the nation’s religious police breaks up such meetings. In 2006, an Indian priest ministering to fellow Syro-Malankara Catholics had just offered Mass in a private home when nine policemen broke in and arrested him. Imprisoned for four days, he was expelled from the country. That same year, a Filipino Christian, charged with proselytizing, was imprisoned for eight months and received 60 lashes before being deported.


Sudan evokes images of the genocide in Darfur, in which Arab Muslim Janjaweed militias have killed some 300,000 black African Muslims in the nation’s western region. Darfur is not the only conflict that has plagued the nation of 40 million: between 1983 and 2005, a civil war between the Muslim north and the largely animist and Christian south claimed the lives of two million. The civil war ended when General Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir, in power since 1989, granted the south limited autonomy.

Since 2005, the nation’s five million Catholics have fallen under two sets of religion laws. In the north, all schools— even Christian schools—must offer instruction in Islam, and converts from Islam to Christianity face not only criminal charges but also death at the hands of their families. When a Muslim woman expressed interest in Anglicanism in 2006, both Anglican and Catholic clergy were harassed, and the vicar general of the Catholic Archdiocese of Khartoum declared, “We are not interested in converting Muslims.” In the south, on the other hand, Christians enjoy religious freedom, though police throughout the nation, according to the state department, spy on religious services.


Nearly 90 percent of the five million residents of the central Asian nation of Turkmenistan—independent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991— practice a regional version of Islam, while 9 percent are Russian Orthodox. The authoritarian government forbids all unregistered religious activity and has not permitted the Catholic Church to register because heads of the nation’s religious bodies must be citizens. It is illegal for Catholics, as members of an unregistered religion, to practice their faith, import or disseminate religious literature, or evangelize. Two priests minister to the nation’s 1,000 Catholics, with Catholic worship taking place in the nunciature’s chapel.


Neighboring Uzbekistan has over five times the population but similar religious demographics as Turkmenistan: 88 percent of citizens are Muslim, and 9 percent are Russian Orthodox. The Church, however, has been permitted to register, and a bishop and nine priests minister to 4,000 Catholics in five parishes. Ruled by ex-communist President Islam A. Karimov since 1991, Uzbekistan requires that all religious literature receive government approval. Evangelization is illegal, and the fine for illegal religious activity is up to 300 times the average monthly salary of under $200.


At the 2008 Synod of Bishops, a Vietnamese bishop, quoting the Second Vatican Council, said, “The Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or who persecute her.” 650,000 Catholics fled North Vietnam when the communist regime of Ho Chi Minh assumed power in 1954. Twenty-one years later, when the fall of Saigon ushered in a unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the totalitarian regime seized over 2,200 Church-related properties. The late Cardinal Francois- Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, then coadjutor archbishop of Saigon, spent 13 years in a reeducation camp, nine of them in solitary confinement.

Communist attempts to set up a Vietnamese equivalent of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association proved fruitless because most priests refused to participate. Within the past two decades, Vietnam, which now has 86 million people, has slowly shown more openness to religious freedom. The communist regime still has a veto power over the appointment of bishops, which can be held up for years. Each of Vietnam’s 2,500 parishes is required to register with authorities, some of whom put up bureaucratic roadblocks, but the Church is generally free to hold public worship and operate charitable institutions.

The Church there has six million Catholics and over 2,300 seminarians, but government approval is necessary before entrance into the seminary and again before ordination— sometimes with years passing before the required approval. The Church is seeking to open additional seminaries, and a government cap on the number of seminarians has harmed Church life.

Despite improvements over the decades, religious education is forbidden in some areas, as is attendance at the Christmas Midnight Mass. Catholics in one province have reportedly endured repeated arrests, beatings, and the burning of rice fields.

In 2008, the government returned the land around the nation’s principal Marian shrine to the Church. Later in the year, tensions flared between the hierarchy and the government over other confiscated Church properties, such as the former apostolic nunciature in Hanoi. After authorities in September threatened to bulldoze the nunciature, the archbishop of Hanoi led a peaceful protest of 10,000 Catholics. The city’s mayor has called for the removal of the archbishop. In other areas of Vietnam, police have begun to confiscate Church properties. Vietnam, observes the USCIRF’s Leo, teaches Western Catholics that a nation’s new openness to capitalism does not necessarily entail an embrace of religious freedom.


What can Catholics and other Christians in the West do to assist their persecuted brethren? Archbishop Chaput urges sacrificial giving to the missions in light of the pivotal struggle between Christianity and Islam in the southern hemisphere. “We tend to over-focus on the problems of the Church in the northern hemisphere and ignore the massive growth of the Church in the South, and what that growth implies. The two trends that really concern me at the moment are the intensifying competition between Christianity and Islam in the South—a competition that has huge consequences for global culture over the next 100 years—and the decline of missionary zeal, generosity, and a sense of international Christian solidarity among Catholics in the United States and Europe.”

Archbishop Chaput adds, “The American mass media consistently ignore or under-report the suffering of Christians around the world. That’s inexcusable, and American Catholics need to organize to change that by demanding better coverage from their national news organizations. The Muslim and Jewish communities are very good, and rightly so, in defending the rights of their fellow believers through the news media. Catholics and others Christians need to get over the illusion that the mass media are instinctively ‘fair’ or even adequately informed in their coverage of religious issues. So it’s our job to make and keep the news media honest.”


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About J. J. Ziegler 62 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.