Nationalism and Religious Persecution: A Study of Three Countries

By Linda Burkle, PhD

In observing the prevalence of religious persecution in various countries, I have noted that in countries with a strong national identity defined by those currently in power, religious liberty is constricted by those nationalistic ideologies. In this article, I will examine religious persecution in three countries wherein nationalism has been on the rise. Nationalism is defined as “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” Nationalism, as constructed in certain countries, aims to strengthen a defined political ideology to acquire and maintain power. [1]

China’s “Sinicization”

In recent years, the Chinese government has made numerous changes as part of an effort consolidate power and rally support around Chinese national pride. In March 2018, the National People’s Congress of China voted to abolish presidential term limits, effectively allowing President Xi Jinping to serve as president for life. Simultaneously, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ was added to the national constitution, thus codifying his nationalistic ideology. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) revised the Regulations of Religious Affairs, transferring jurisdiction over religious affairs from the State Administration of Religious Affairs to the United Front Work Department, an organ of the CCP. This shift enables the CCP to directly monitor all religious organizations and activities at both the local and national level.  Given the breadth and depth of the oversight and permission requirements, a church body or leader could easily commit even a slightest infraction unknowingly and be arrested. [2] It is not surprising that an estimated one-half to two-thirds of Protestant Christians worship in underground congregations.[3]

Churches are now required to incorporate communist ideology and “Sinicization” as preeminent in their theology and religious observance, inserting the government’s version of Chinese identity into religious doctrine. Crosses have been replaced with pictures of Xi Jinping and bibles are subjugated the Mao’s Red Book. Effectively, the church must now become an agent of the state, promoting communist ideology and “Sinicization” above any religious creed or deity. Services must begin with singing patriotic songs and bowing to a giant portrait of President Xi.

“The campaign of Sinicization, or making things Chinese in character or form, under Xi Jinping is an effort to consolidate power and curb social unrest. It is based upon a two-fold strategy of suppressing non-traditional or ‘foreign’ religions while promoting traditional faiths. The first part of its strategy is rooted in the party’s deep-seated fear that religious individuals could form allegiances to authorities outside the state’s control. ‘As long as China is a one-party state, [there can only be] a single center of power that views all other organizing mechanisms as threats,’. . . since Xi took the helm of the CCP, state religious policy has created a more restrictive legal environment, expanded its targets of repression, increased intrusion into religious life, and further capitalized on technological advancements.” [4]

Turkey’s Islamic Nationalism

In Turkey, religious freedom has been increasingly restricted in recent years and of growing concern to those monitoring the situation. According to Father Mario Alexis Portella, a cleric and author at Catholic Crisis Magazine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used Islamic Turkish nationalism to undo the secularization efforts of the early years of the Turkish Republic and has incited a jihad against Christianity. While building 17,000 mosques throughout Turkey and the world, he has simultaneously seized and closed churches.  Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Kurds have been displaced. [5] While Christians make up less than half of a percent of Turkey’s population, President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Reconciliation Party (AKP) depict them as a grave threat to the stability of the nation. [6] Particularly since an abortive coup in 2016, there is a concerted government orchestrated anti-Christian propaganda campaign accompanied by increasing restrictions of religious freedom in Turkey.  “The reality is that Turkey is neither a democracy nor a secular republic. There is no division between government affairs and religious affairs. There’s no doubt that the government uses the mosques to get is message across to its grassroots supporters.’’ lamented Istanbul pastor Yuce Kabakci.[7]

It should be noted that Turkey is the only member of NATO which has been highlighted as a country restricting and violating religious freedom in the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Annual Reports. NATO should reconsider Turkey’s longstanding membership considering its recent military incursions in the region and behavior toward religious minorities within its borders. If such nationalism continues, Erdogan may find Turkey isolated from Europe and the United States, losing key alliances upon which Turkey relies. [8]

India’s Hindu Nationalism

Historically, India has been a nation where religious freedom and tolerance have thrived. Dating back to biblical times, it has been a refuge of those fleeing persecution, including Jews, Christians, Parsi, Tibetan Buddhists, and Baha’i populations. [9]

In recent years however, religious persecution has increased in India, perpetrated by both private and public actors. In 2014 the Bharartiya Janata Party (BJP) took power promoting Hindu nationalism, which views religions other than Hindu as non-Indian. Such exclusionary extremist narratives and at times, government complicity, have facilitated an egregious and ongoing multi-faceted campaign of violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindu and lower-caste Hindu minorities. Radical extremist groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS), Sangh Parivar and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) have dramatically contributed to the rise in religious violence, enjoying impunity for their crimes while victims often do not receive justice. [10] In 2017, 111 people were killed and 2,384 injured in communal clashes incited by these groups, according to the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Ahir. [11] In addition, religious minorities face loss of political power and discrimination in accessing education, housing, and employment. Although there is a constitutionally mandated system of affirmative action, it has been unevenly and ineffectively applied.

In the 2019 national election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a second term, tightening power of the BJP at the federal level. Modi intends to impose anti-conversion and anti-cow slaughter laws nationwide, although such laws violate religious freedom rights and protections guaranteed in Articles 25 and 27 of the Constitution. [12] Both laws are used to target Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities while disregarding violations by Hindus. Although anti-conversion laws explicitly pertain to forced or coerced conversions, they have been used against Christians and Muslims in cases of proselytization and voluntary conversions. “Such laws are often used as an excuse to disrupt church services and harass Christians and make it incredibly difficult for Christians to share their faith with others. Converts to Christianity from a Hindu background are especially vulnerable to persecution and are constantly under pressure to return to Hinduism, especially through campaigns known as Ghar Wapsi (“home-coming”). They are often physically assaulted and sometimes killed.” [13]

In contrast to these examples, consider the current construction of the term “Christian nationalism” as a domestic threat promulgated in the United States by the administration and the media. Something to ponder indeed.


Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China, and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.


  1. Dictionary: definition from Oxford Languages (Google)
  2. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Tier1_CHINA_2019.pdf
  3. https://thefederalist.com/2020/01/07/xis-china-ends-2019-with-the-worst-religious-persecution-in-the-countrys-history 
  4. https://issuu.com/harvardpoliticalreview/docs/spring2019issuu
  5. http://ahval.co/en-65794
  6. http://www.meforum.org/7243/turkey-turns-on-its-christians
  7. Ibid.
  8. https://idsa.in/issuebrief/erdogan-islamist-foreign-policy-kagarwal-170321
  9. http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/population_enumeration.html
  10. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Tier2_INDIA_2019.pdf
  11. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2019/01/12/religious-freedom-is-on-the-decrease-in-india/?sh=6c0e1c61403b
  12. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/india
  13. https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/india/

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