The Global Threats to Religious Freedom

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: As 2022 ends, Christians in some countries are facing increasingly dire acts of state-sponsored persecution.

A woman prays during a mass at the Matagalpa Cathedral in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, on August 19, 2022.
A woman prays during a mass at the Matagalpa Cathedral in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, on August 19, 2022. (photo: Oswaldo Rivas / Getty)

As African Cardinal Robert Sarah recently noted, Christians in Western countries like the U.S. face growing threats to our own religious-liberty rights. But when reviewing the worldwide religious-freedom situation in 2022, it’s important to acknowledge that believers in many other nations continue to face far more dire and direct persecution than we Americans are currently encountering.

In terms of global threats to the religious liberty of Christians, three nations come particularly to mind: Nicaragua, China and Nigeria. Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s virulently anti-Catholic president, further escalated his government’s four-year campaign of oppression against the Church as the year came to a close. On Dec. 12, that government formally charged Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, who has been under house arrest since August, on trumped-up charges of “conspiracy,” “spreading false news” and “damaging the Nicaraguan government and society.” 

According to a recent report, Ortega — who described the Nicaraguan bishops as “terrorists” late last year — has been responsible for almost 400 acts of persecution against the Church since 2018, including this year’s shutdown of Catholic radio stations and the expulsion of the Vatican nuncio and the Missionaries of Charity religious order as well as other Catholic organizations. 

These anti-Catholic actions were initiated in the context of the ongoing national pro-democracy protests against the Ortega government, triggered by its economic and political mismanagement, that first erupted in 2018. The regime has retaliated harshly against its critics, including through the arrest of Bishop Álvarez and other Church leaders who have spoken out bravely against the government’s anti-democratic actions and human-rights abuses and advocated for political reforms. 

The attacks on the religious liberty of Catholics are not confined to punishing Catholic leaders; the government has also clamped down on public expressions of worship by the faithful. This demonstrates that the Ortega regime is motivated not merely by a desire to retaliate against its critics, but also by a more generalized antipathy toward our Catholic faith.

China is another country where religious freedom is under direct attack from an anti-democratic national government. Indeed, discrimination against religion has been part of the formal creed of the atheistic Chinese Communist Party — which bans religious believers from party membership — ever since it seized power in the late 1940s. And while the Chinese constitution was later modified to include nominal guarantees of freedom of religion, in practice the CCP’s long-standing oppression has intensified sharply in recent years following President Xi Jinping’s 2016 pledge to “actively guide the adaption of religions to socialist society.” 

In pursuit of this objective, the CCP imposed new regulations in 2017 that strictly govern every element of religious worship and followed up with a 2021 decree mandating that all religious leaders must “follow the lead of and support the Communist Party.” Obviously, such measures are intended to extinguish whatever minimal degree of religious liberty has previously existed in China. 

In the case of the local Catholic Church, the crackdown on religion has coincided with the unpublished provisional agreement regarding the appointment of bishops that the Vatican signed with the CCP in 2018. 

When the agreement was signed, critics such as Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, decried it as a complete abandonment of millions of faithful local Catholics who had refused to participate in the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and instead have remained loyal to the “underground” Catholic Church, whose bishops are in communion with Rome. The cardinal’s objections now appear to have been proven wholly accurate: In November, just one month after renewing the provisional agreement for another two years, the Vatican was forced to publicly denounce the Chinese government’s unilateral appointment of a new auxiliary bishop to a diocese that the Church does not recognize. 

The situation is further compromised by the CCP’s targeting of prominent Catholics, including Cardinal Zen and media magnate Jimmy Lai, in retribution for their support of the protests in Hong Kong against the government’s continuing efforts to strip away the remaining democratic freedoms that the former British colony has been able to preserve since Beijing assumed control in 1997.

In Nigeria, the religious liberty of Catholics and other Christians is not being attacked as openly by the national government. 

But Christians, who comprise nearly half of the African nation’s 210 million residents, are suffering deeply as a result of years of deadly attacks primarily by Muslim militants Boko Haram in the north and by Muslim Fulani tribesmen elsewhere in Nigeria. 

An estimated 60,000 Christians have been killed over the past 20 years, with the toll rising to more than 3,400 in just the first nine months of 2022, according to a recent study that also reported that another 3,000 people were abducted and 300 churches and 10 priests were attacked over the same period.

The report noted that Nigeria’s national government, headed by President Muhammadu Buhari, who is a member of the Fulani himself, “has continued to face sharp criticisms and strong accusations of culpability and complicity in the killings” because of the frequent failure of national security forces to intervene on behalf of Christians. 

Despite such documentation of this rising tide of horrendous violence, for the second year running, the U.S. State Department declined to designate Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” that perpetrates or tolerates extreme violations of religious freedom. In a statement, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said it was “outraged” by the exclusion of Nigeria and of India, another of the world’s worst transgressors against religious freedom, from this year’s State Department watchlist. The list did cite Nicaragua and China as countries of particular concern, alongside of Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. 

As U.S. Catholics concerned about the fate of our fellow believers elsewhere, we too should be offended by what appears to be a manipulation of the State Department’s watchlist of religious-liberty violators for unstated political reasons. Christians and other people of faith who are unjustly under attack in other countries around the world deserve concrete recognition of their plight from the U.S. government — and concrete action to pressure egregious offenders like the Nigerian government to change course.

Looking ahead to 2023, it’s certain that the international religious-liberty situation will continue to be one of the world’s most pressing human-rights issues. Consequently, we will need to redouble our prayers for our brothers and sisters in faith elsewhere, as well as continuing our support for Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need that are on the frontlines of defending persecuted Christians.

God bless you!