Jeremy Reynalds, ASSIST News Service

As many as 250 million Christians worldwide will face persecution and repression in 2007, just for following Jesus Christ.

Release International, a voice for the persecuted church, has found that most persecution takes place in four distinct “zones;” those of Islam, Communism, Hinduism and Buddhism. But persecution is growing fastest of all in the Islamic world.

Governments in even moderate Muslim countries often fail to safeguard the rights of their Christian minorities. According to Release, abuses suffered by Christians include kidnapping, forced conversion, imprisonment, church destruction, torture, rape and execution.

One of the world’s worst abusers of religious freedom is Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam’s holiest sites Mecca and Medina. A Muslim found “guilty” of converting to Christianity could face the death sentence for apostasy. And anyone who leads a Muslim to Christ faces jail, expulsion, or execution.

“There’s a conspiracy of silence around Saudi,” said Release International’s CEO Andy Dipper, “probably because the West wants their oil and their money. But this is a government that hands out the death sentence for its own citizens who want nothing more than the freedom to choose their own faith. And while Saudi bans all Christian literature, it spends billions of dollars each year propagating Islam around the world.”

But some of the most violent persecution in the Islamic world is beyond government control. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 2001, the world has been made dramatically aware of Islamist global networks. Although the best known is Al-Qaeda, there are others who exploit religious tensions for their own political ends.

A rising number of extremists interpret the call to jihad as a call to violence. Release added that extremists apparently regard it as their religious duty to force Christians and non-Muslims to convert to Islam. Those who refuse must be driven out or killed.

There is a growing movement to impose Islamic (Sha’ria) law, which results in increased pressure on Christians. Despite the collapse of Communism in Europe, persecution of Christians continues in China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea.

Communist governments remain ideologically opposed to Christianity and have pursued systematic programs to weaken and destroy the Church. Some persecution also continues under the “old guard” in the former Soviet Union, and China – for all its economic openness – continues to drive Christians underground.

“As China prepares for the Olympic Games, Western governments would do well to remember that China detains more Christians than any other country,” Dipper commented. “Believers and leaders who want nothing more than to worship freely face imprisonment, torture, and even death.”

In the Hindu world Christians face persecution in India and Nepal. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), one of India’s largest political parties, is associated with militant Hindu nationalist groups. Extremists have been involved in a growing number of attacks against both Christians and Muslims.

Several Indian states have introduced laws against forced conversion, but these are wide open to abuse. Christians face most pressure in rural areas, where militants have destroyed churches and threatened, attacked, and killed Church leaders.

In the Buddhist world, Christians face persecution in Bhutan, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Release reported that Buddhist militants regard Christianity as a threat to their national identity and unity. They have stirred up harassment and violence against Christians in Bhutan and Sri Lanka.

Back in 1966 Burma expelled most of its Christian missions. Today the repressive military regime still maintains controls over religious activity. There have been many cases of forced conversion to Buddhism as well as violence against Christians, Release stated.

Through its partners in 30 countries, Release International supports Christians imprisoned for their faith and their families. Release supplies Bibles and Christian literature, gives medical aid and welfare, provides legal aid and sanctuary, and supports church workers.

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