Religious Liberty in 2018 — A Look Back

By Tom Gilson Published on December 29, 2018

Religious liberty took steps forward and backward in 2018. We begin with a rundown of some of the most concerning events of the year. This is far from the whole story. It’s only meant to illustrate the state of the Church across the world today.

Christians face persecution in multiple hot spots globally. There is only one part of the world, though, where anti-Christian hostility has increased on two fronts at the same time: state policies and the general social climate.


China has varied its policies toward churches repeatedly over the decades. Some observers have even wondered whether the inconsistency was intentional. This year marked another new assault on churches across several provinces. Attention in the West has focused on arrests at Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. Before his arrest, the church’s pastor, Wang Yi, prepared a moving and widely-shared letter affirming his commitment to Christ no matter what.

Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi was acquitted on blasphemy charges but remains in hiding, for her own safety.

Africa and the Middle East

Turkey’s aggression in Syria’s Afrin region was focused largely against Christians there. Aid from the West has been sparse. In some cases it’s been the wrong kind of help altogether.

Observers say there’s “genocide” underway against Christians in parts of Nigeria. Oppression remains constant in most of Muslim North Africa and the Middle East.

Europe and the United Kingdom

Scotland took an official police stance designating as “hate” any form of disagreement with homosexuality. The message was far from subtle: “We’re reporting you” — to the police.

In Britain, Tommy Robinson, a voice of dissent against highly criminal behaviors by Muslims, was detained by police and tried in secret for “breaching the peace.” He’s also received multiple death threats.

The Netherlands banned the burqa.

The Americas (Outside the U.S.)

The Pew Forum identifies the Americas as the one region where state-directed persecution has been growing, at the same time social attitudes have turned increasingly hostile against believers. Our sampling continues, country by country:

Nicaragua persecuted Catholics heavily this year. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence labeled the acts as an “extreme violation” of religious freedom.

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Canada forced Trinity Western University to drop its sexual morality rules for law students. Prominent agnostic Jordan Peterson warned Canadian Christians the government would continue to trample their rights. Sure enough, the Canadian government there sought to force Catholics to commit to support for abortion. (Catholics chose not to “bend the knee.”)

United States — Governmental Actions

Despite some good news (see below) Christians continue to be challenged in America’s courts. A 2018 decision in the 2nd Circuit Court appeared to ban historic Christian beliefs regarding sexuality. Two artists in Phoenix face the threat of stiff fines and jail time for refusing to hand-letter gay marriage wedding invites. Philadelphia barred Catholic agencies from helping children who needed homes, based on Catholic moral beliefs.

The school board in West Point, VA fired a teacher for his beliefs regarding gender. The board refused his offers for a compromise solution were rejected. It was either toe the line or get the boot.

Air Force General John Teichert led prayers for our country, and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation called him a “fundamentalist Christian tyrant and religious extremist predator.” He was hauled up on charges that could lead to jail time.

The U.S. Supreme Court only narrowly fended off attempts to force pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise for abortion.

United States — Hostility From Private and Educational Centers

Hollywood continued its predictable intolerance toward sane beliefs on marriage and morality this year. Corporations including J. Crew joined in on enforcing leftist orthodoxy. Surprisingly — and sadly — even CPAC joined in support of revisionist marriage and morality views.

An Iranian pastor was arrested and faces trial for answering questions about his faith at Minnesota’s Mall of America.

Prayer continued to be an issue at public schools, and atheists challenged the presence of crosses on public land.

Higher education continued its attacks on Christianity. For Berkeley’s Isabella Chow, much of the hostility came from classmates. Administrators tried to prohibit a Colorado Mesa University student from using the word “Jesus” at graduation. The University of Iowa first enacted, then reversed (for now), a ruling to de-recognize several religious groups on campus. The decisions were based on groups’ requirements that leaders share the groups’ stated beliefs.

Twitter, Amazon and Google all took steps limiting conservative and/or Christian speech.

Finally, Some Good News

Much more could be said about hostility and persecution around the globe. Some of the news, thankfully, is good, however. Hostility has been headed off in some quarters this year.

Turkey released American pastor Andrew Brunson, allowing him to come home after nearly two years in prison.

Kelvin Cochran won an important free speech case in court. The case followed Atlanta’s move to fire him as fire chief for a devotional he’d written, which included his Christian beliefs regarding homosexuality.

The Little Sisters of the Poor gained their final exemption from Obamacare birth control requirements.

Alabama restored the motto “In God We Trust” to public school classrooms.

The U.S. Department of Justice established a Religious Liberty Task Force, and Health and Human Services set up a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.

Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Bakery won victory at the Supreme Court in the case brought against him by gay activists. California did not enact the seriously repressive AB 2943.

But wait — did I say this was good news? Not so fast. The state of Colorado is trying again against Jack Phillips, and it’s no good sign at all that a bill like AB 2943 was even considered.

The Best News of All

In sum, persecution is heating up in the West. I do not hesitate to use that word for it. Jesus did, even where jobs and lives weren’t at stake: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.”

And yes, He did say “blessed.” He even added, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad.” That’s because “great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:11-12)

Our world is getting harder to live in, as followers of Christ. But we can take heart, for Jesus also said (John 16:33), “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

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