Communist countries are not alone in the oppression of religious believers.

Last December, unregistered Pentecostal leaders in the Soviet Union secretly planned to hold a conference in Moscow. But as the 60 participants arrived at various Moscow railway stations, they were individually arrested, held until the following day, and put on trains back to their homes.

A couple of weeks earlier, however, the registered All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists had held a seminar at its Moscow headquarters to commemorate the reception of Pentecostal congregations into the union 40 years earlier. Three prominent Pentecostals addressed the gathering.

Those two incidents underscore what many champions of the suffering church de-emphasize: Most nations that restrict religious freedom are not seeking to stamp out the church as much as to manipulate it. Of course, grim exceptions exist. The nation of Albania has carried a commitment to atheistic ideology to its logical conclusion by obliterating all signs of the church. North Korea has followed the same course.

But other Communist-bloc nations practice a mixture of toleration and restriction. Romania is one of the most repressive, imposing government-selected candidates for denominational offices, restricting seminary enrollments, and stifling church growth by refusing to grant building permits—or bulldozing existing structures for minor infractions. The dissemination of information is checked by forbidding the importation of mimeograph machines and photocopiers. Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia are not far behind with their restrictions on religious freedom.

Easing Of Restrictions

In Hungary, as believers involve themselves in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, for instance, the authorities are gradually relaxing some strictures. Events of the last five years in Poland have raised awareness of the strong position the Roman Catholic church holds in that country’s society. And its clout increases the maneuvering space for Protestants as well.

The most liberal of the Soviet satellite nations is East Germany, where believers operate seminaries, retirement homes, and conference grounds. They also are allowed to publish their own periodicals and conduct communitywide evangelistic campaigns. Yugoslavia—not part of the Soviet bloc—is also relatively benign.

Outside Europe, China has moved from total suppression to the regimentation of corporate Christianity. And Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who last year attended a Protestant service in Havana with Jesse Jackson, has entered into dialogue with Roman Catholic prelates.

But toleration has its limits. In Communist countries, the faithful forfeit their opportunity to pursue desirable academic and professional careers. In addition, public criticism of government policy and conscientious objection to military service bring swift retribution.

Non-Communist Oppression

Christians are oppressed as well in a number of countries where other religions predominate. Islamic republics such as Iran and Pakistan deliberately make life difficult for non-Muslims. Saudi Arabia does not permit congregations of non-Muslim believers to meet. Other Muslim states provide inadequate constitutional protection for religious minorities, ignore any constitutional protections that do exist, or protect religious minorities while forbidding evangelistic activity among members of the religious majority.

The conversion of Hindus to Christianity is prohibited in the Hindu kingdom of Nepal. The Greek Orthodox church has used its official status in Greece to legally prosecute Christians of other traditions. And in Israel, Orthodox Jews use their influence to suppress Christian faith among that country’s non-Arab population.

Patterns of government intervention in religious activity shift constantly. In the last several years, Spain and Italy have changed from officially Roman Catholic countries to secular states. The African nation of Nigeria joined the Islamic Conference Organization in January. But the public outcry in predominantly Christian southern Nigeria prompted President Ibrahim Babangida to appoint a committee to study the issue.

Popular pressures against religious minorities also wax and wane. A surge of nationalism among Hindus in India could present a threat to both Muslims and Christians. And the recent police insurrection in Egypt is another manifestation of growing pressures by Muslim fundamentalists to force Egypt to become an Islamic state. In a separate incident, four Muslim converts to Christianity were arrested in Cairo. They have been cited for “despising Islam.” At press time, they were still being held, but charges had not been filed against them.

Dictators in countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia have oppressed believers and nonbelievers alike. But prominent churchmen who are seen as potential opposition leaders become special targets for silencing. Peru is an example of a country in which believers have sometimes become pawns in a contest between government authorities and armed rebels.

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Finally, Christians are suffering in countries polarized along politico-religious lines. Protestants and Catholics oppose each other in Northern Ireland; and in Lebanon, Muslims and Eastern Rite Christians battle one another.

The wide range of situations in countries where religious freedom is being assaulted calls for sensitivity in response by Christians elsewhere. It is appropriate for American Christians to campaign for the withdrawal of Most Favored Nation status for a blatant persecutor such as Romania. But in other countries, discreet efforts to nurture existing freedoms and to encourage their expansion will accomplish far more than frontal attacks.

Indeed, outside Christian agencies that act before seeking the counsel of believers in lands where faith is restricted can create undue hardships for the people they are trying to help.

HARRY GENETGenet serves as director of communications for the World Evangelical Fellowship, an alliance of 52 national and regional evangelical fellowships.

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