Pilgrims still flee to America for free worship

This Thanksgiving story begins not with Pilgrims in the Old World, but with a veiled Iranian woman who whispers prayers as she slips past Tehran guards and boards a flight to religious freedom.

It is also the story of a small, naive Tibetan boy, hiking high into mountain pastures with his grandfather for a secret rendezvous with a Buddhist priest.

It tells, too, of a Vietnamese pastor who builds a church out of leaves deep in the jungle, so he and other compatriots can worship undetected by Communist pursuers.

These people and thousands more have fled religious persecution in their native lands and found refuge in the US, their ordeals giving fresh meaning to the Pilgrim journey and Thanksgiving.

Indeed, as religious persecution expands around the world, according to experts, America remains a relatively rare haven of religious tolerance.

Around the globe, attacks on religious freedom are "absolutely on the upswing," says the Rev. Steven Snyder, president of International Christian Concern, a Maryland-based Christian human rights group.

Religious liberty is "deteriorating," and today only one-quarter of the world's people enjoy broad religious freedom. Another 39 percent of the population faces partial constraints on practicing their faith, while the rest, more than one-third, suffer from fundamental violations of their religious freedoms, according to a survey released last month by Freedom House in Washington.

"It does seem that there's been an increase in religious persecution, most distressingly in countries where there hasn't been a tradition of it for some time," adds Lawrence Goodrich, communications director for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The end of the cold war has seen a rise in religious tensions along with heightened ethnic and communal rivalries, experts say. Meanwhile, foreign regimes seeking to buttress themselves are more likely to target as an enemy the United States, the only remaining superpower, and in turn Christianity.

"With those now seeking power, the scapegoat has been the West and the United States mainly," says Mr. Snyder. "With Christianity making inroads," thanks in part to high-tech evangelizing, "religious fundamentalist groups ... fear they will lose power over their own people."

Mina Nevisa understands this all too well. Her ordeal began one afternoon in 1982, when the 17-year-old Iranian student felt something under a table at the Teheran University library. She reached down and pulled out a Bible, the first one she had ever seen written in her native Persian.

Curious, she stayed up for the next two nights reading the book with a flashlight under a blanket, despite warnings from her father, an Islamic fundamentalist priest.

The discovery soon led to Ms. Nevisa's conversion to Christianity, denunciation by her parents and family, and - after the arrest and killing of members of her prayer group - her secret flight from Iran. In Europe, she received death threats after writing "Don't Keep Me Silent," a book about the persecution of converted Christians in Islamic countries. So in 1998 she moved again, to the United States.

Today, Nevisa is preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving at the Iranian Church of Eternal life in Oakton, Va., where her husband is pastor. As she anticipates the celebration, complete with roast turkey and cranberry sauce, and Iranian rice and pastries, Nevisa's feelings are bittersweet.

"Strength comes from suffering," she says. "I believe we appreciate the freedom we have in this country more than those who have not suffered."

China's culture wars

Pema Dorje, a Tibetan mathematician, grew up in a rural village in Amdu province during China's fanatical 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. In the 1950s and '60s, Chinese Communist occupiers had confiscated the property of his family, which herded sheep and grew barley. They also jailed his grandfather, seized religious scripts, and effectively cut the young Dorje off from the Tibetan Buddhism that formed the core of his native culture.

One summer day, when Dorje was 10 years old, his grandfather - out of prison and still deeply devout - led Dorje high into the grassy mountains to meet in secret with his spiritual master, a Tibetan lama, or priest, who was forced to work herding sheep.

So ignorant was Dorje that he was shocked to see a man, always believing that a lama was a kind of statue. "I didn't know anything about religion. I felt kind of illiterate, second-rank."

In 1994, Dorje won a scholarship to study math in Hawaii and moved to the United States, where he is now a Tibetan-language broadcaster for the Voice of America in Washington.

His living room has a small altar with Buddhist thangkas and photos of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. He is most grateful, he says, for the chance to freely teach his two children about his faith.

As Americans read reports on holiday travel, and how many cents a Thanksgiving dinner will cost them this year, Vietnamese pastor, the Rev. Yhin Nie can help them put things in perspective.

Rebuilding in US

Mr. Hin, whose adoptive American missionary parents were killed by Vietnamese Communists in 1968, fled into the jungle with a large group of Montagnards, people from the central Vietnamese highlands. There he lived and preached for a decade, surviving on dried, powdered roots, making clothes from old American sandbags, and living in tents of leaves.

In 1992, Hin and his group were rescued by the US military and flown to Greensboro, N.C., where today he is assistant pastor at the first Montagnard church that has been reestablished of some 400 shut down by Vietnamese Communists. "We will thank the Lord for our church."

Indeed, across the nation, victims of religious persecution abroad are finding special meaning in the American Thanksgiving.

Taking a break from her factory job in Stamford, Conn., Margaret Chu recalls the 23 years she spent in Chinese labor camps because she refused to renounce her Catholic faith. The hardest times, she said, were when she was forced to labor for 18 hours a day harvesting rice. Food was sometimes limited to grass or rice husks. Still, she prayed daily, using her fingers as a rosary, and somehow survived. "Here I have real freedom to believe in God, but my heart is still left behind in China with my friends still under the pressure," she says.

In Sacramento, Calif., Russian immigrant Vladimir Mysin, a Baptist whose family fled to Tashkent during the Stalin years, faced years of pressure from the KGB to become a Communist. Later, he lost his job because of his faith. Today, he works with the American Russian Relief Center and thankful for "a huge opportunity" to help other faithful.

In Boston, Sudanese refugee Francis Bol Bok has perhaps the most compelling story of all. Enslaved in Northern Sudan by Muslims as a seven-year-old boy for 10 years, he was beaten almost daily for his Christian beliefs. Mr. Bol Bok finally escaped in 1996. Today, he says simply: "I am most happy for my freedom."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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