2012 a dark year for religious freedom

For many Christians in America, 2012 will be remembered as a year of intensifying attacks on the right to practice their faith according to their consciences. Most prominent among these attacks came from the Obama Administration???s push of abortion-related policies in Obamacare, including a contraceptive mandate that required all insurance plans to cover their employees??? contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs free of charge.

Employers face the force of law if they do not put aside their beliefs to follow the demands of elected and unelected officials. At stake are First Amendment Constitutional rights of freedom of conscience and religion. And all this is being fought right now in the courts.

While this unprecedented attack against Christian???s Constitutional rights caught the eye of many concerned people of faith in 2012, little noticed was how Christians across the globe are experiencing unprecedented levels of oppression. Events during the Christmas season highlight just how pervasive the persecution is.

On Christmas Eve, 12 Christians were killed in two attacks by the Nigerian Islamic Jihadist group Boko Haram, which seeks to establish Sharia law in Nigeria. Five of the victims were gunned down while at a Christmas service at their church, which was then set ablaze. In his Christmas message, Pope Benedict XVI lamented the ???savage acts of terrorism??? that have become common against Christian churches in Nigeria.

On Christmas Day, an Iran Christian pastor named Youcef Nadarkhani was taken into custody by Iranian police. Nadarkhani had been imprisoned for apostasy, the ???crime??? of converting from Islam to Christianity. Facing a death sentence, Nadarkhani received international acclaim and support for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

A court acquitted him of apostasy in September but it upheld a three-year sentence for evangelizing to Muslims. Nadarkhani had already served nearly three years before his Christmas Day imprisonment.

Nadarkhani???s case is similar to that of Saeed Abedini, a 32-year-old Iranian-born American citizen who was arrested in September while visiting his family in Iran. After converting from Islam to Christianity, Abedini helped lead underground churches in Iran and began humanitarian efforts to establish an orphanage for Iranian children. Abedini is being held without charge in Iran???s notoriously brutal Evin Prison.

Christmas also brought more proof that the so-called Arab Spring is turning into a Christian Winter for the region???s beleaguered Christian population. The day after Christmas, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi signed a new Egyptian constitution into law. Approved by referendum, the new Sharia-based constitution was written by Morsi???s Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist allies, and Christians and other religious minorities fear it will leave them with little legal protection.

Also last week, a United Nations panel stated that the Syrian civil war is increasingly divided on ethnic and religious lines. ???As battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature,??? the panel stated.

Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, but an estimated 10 percent are Christians, and they have been the primary targets of Radical Islamist groups since the country???s civil war started.

Finally, in early December, ChinaAid, an organization that documents persecution of Chinese Christians, revealed that in 2011, the number of Christians detained for their religious beliefs grew 132 percent from 2010. Preliminary reports suggest persecution of Christians by the Chinese government may have grown even more in 2012.

The escalating oppression of Christians worldwide is the subject of an enlightening new book titled Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack, by Rupert Shortt.

Shortt, religion editor of The Times Literary Supplement, argues that while all religions face discrimination and persecution in some form, Christians have been facing unprecedented attacks, especially in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Shortt quotes estimates that between half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have fled or been killed over the last 100 years. He also estimates that some 200 million Christians worldwide are ???socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs.???

Shortt???s analysis concurs with conclusions made by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In its 2012 report, the USCIRF stated:

Over the past year, while economic woes captured world headlines, an ongoing crisis of equal breadth and scope frequently went unnoticed. Across the global landscape, the pivotal human right of religious freedom was under escalating attack. To an alarming extent, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief was being curtailed, often threatening the safety and survival of innocent persons, including members of religious minorities.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has come to a similar conclusion. In a September 2012 report called ???Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion,??? Pew estimated that ???75 percent of the world???s population lives in countries where governments, social groups or individuals restrict people???s ability to freely practice their faith.???

According to Pew, from mid-2007 to mid-2010, the number of countries with very high government restrictions on religion grew from 10 to 18, as 10 countries (most of them with Muslim governments) were added to the ???very high??? category and only two were removed. According to Pew???s estimates, the number of countries with low levels of government restrictions on religious practice dropped from 117 (59 percent of all countries) to 94 (48 percent of all countries).

We???ve been told that ???Islamophobia??? is a real and increasing phenomenon throughout the world. But hatred of, and discrimination against, Christians and other religious minorities is a much more pervasive problem. And it???s a problem that will not improve until the world begins to acknowledge where the real threat to religious freedom comes from.

Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.