At this week’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, billed as the largest human rights event the US State Department has ever held, 30 people were invited to share theirs or their loved ones’ stories of religious persecution.
Below are the 13 Christian survivors from 13 nations, followed by the non-Christian survivors.
Christian survivors of religious persecution:
China: Ouyang Manping is the wife of Pastor Su Tifan, who on December 9, 2015, was placed under administrative detention after law enforcement raided the Three Living Stone Church.
Cuba: Reverend Mario Félix Lleonart Barroso is currently the pastor of the Iglesia Bautista de Waldorf (Baptist Church of Waldorf), where he ministers to the Latino community. While in Cuba, he planted and pastored Baptist churches in the province of Villa Clara and in Havana. In 2016, after years of being harassed, detained, and arrested multiple times because of his faith activities, Pastor Leonard, his wife, Yoaxis, and his two daughters sought asylum in the United States. They arrived in the United States on September 11, 2016.
Egypt: Demiana Kamal Youssef Shehata Hanna is a survivor victim of the November 2, 2018, attack in the governorate of al-Minya, in which armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Coptic pilgrims to the Saint Samuel the Confessor Monastery in al-Minya, killing seven and wounding 19. In addition to being among those attacked, she spoke to the assailants. She was identified with the assistance of Coptic Orthodox Bishop Makarios, bishop of al-Minya, the governorate with the highest incidence of sectarian attacks and tension. She would be accompanied by a male relative: Youssef Nady Youssef Shehata Hanna.
Eritrea: Helen Berhane was held in a container for almost three years because of her faith. She is now a gospel singer and wrote a book about her experience.
Malaysia: Wife of Pastor Raymond Koh, the pastor kidnapped on a highway by at least 15 men in three black SUVs on CCTV in February 2017 with no proof of life since. Police say one demand for money was opportunistic but that there is no evidence to the pastor’s whereabouts. There are possible links to Koh’s role as a Christian activist at a time when Malaysia was moving to enforce stricter Islamic laws.
The pastor was accused of proselytizing Muslims in 2011, and a box containing two bullets, with a note in Malay threatening his life, was sent to Koh’s house. On April 3, the country’s civil rights commission ruled that that the disappearance probably was the act of the national police intelligence branch.
Iran: Pastor Mojtaba Hosseini, age 30, was one of the leaders of a quickly growing house church movement in Iran. After receiving a probation sentence in 2009, he was imprisoned in 2012 and released in 2015.
Iraq: Father Thabet Habib Yousif, Chaldean Catholic Priest from Karamles, Ninevah. When ISIS came, the residents of Karamles fled. Fr. Thabet remained behind to ensure everyone fled and ensure his congregation was cared for in displacement. He helped organize accommodation, food, and work. When Karamles was liberated, he was one of the first to return home and help coordinate rebuilding. These efforts included extending assistance for the small remnant of Shabak families also returning.
Nigeria: “Esther,” 20, is from Gwoza in southern Borno. She was held captive by Boko Haram for over three years. During her captivity, she experienced terrible trauma—from witnessing how people died to surviving sexual abuse. She escaped and was rescued by the military. But her escape did not bring the freedom she had long hoped and prayed for. She was kept in near-prison conditions until a Christian doctor was able to reconnect her with her family. Her family now welcomes her but local gossip attacking her daughter Rebecca as a “Boko Haram Child” was very hurtful. With some help, she has become stronger and ignores the public hate.
North Korea: Ill Yong Joo is a 23-year-old student who defected from North Korea in 2008 at the age of 12. Joo has been an active advocate in the past year. He visited the Department in October 2018 as a Liberty in North Korea Advocacy Fellow. For 10 years, his family listened to South Korean radio, including Christian broadcasting, which was one of the motivating factors for their escape.
He said, “Even listening to foreign radio is considered a crime against the state. If I had been caught, I could have been executed.” His father escaped first, years before he, his mother, and sister crossed the Tumen River, trekked across Southeast Asia, and finally resettled in South Korea after five months of traveling. His father is now a missionary in South Korea.
Sri Lanka: UK-based father of an Easter bombing victim, Matt Linsey, lost two children in the attack and has done press engagements to discuss the attacks.
Sudan: Meriam Yahia Ibrahim was charged with apostasy and adultery in May 2014 for marrying a Christian man. She was raised by her Christian mother and identified as Christian but her father was Muslim and left her to be raised by her mother. She refused to renounce her Christian faith and was sentenced to death row. She was detained when she tried to leave the country after her release in July 2014 and now lives in the US.
Turkey: After practicing his faith in Turkey for more than 20 years, Pastor Andrew Brunson was imprisoned in October 2016 on false charges without a trial until the spring of 2018. The Turkish government presented no evidence that he was guilty, when finally indicted in April 2018, on charges referencing “Christianization” and religious activity, which raised questions about religious freedom in Turkey and indicated that he has been targeted because of his faith. He was released in October 2018 after a few “show” trials.
Vietnam: Pastor A Ga oversaw 12 house churches associated with the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ of Vietnam in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. After several detentions and over 40 police interrogation sessions involving torture, he and his immediate family fled to Thailand in 2014. In 2017, the Vietnamese government issued an arrest warrant against him. The Thai police arrested him, his wife, and their son. Due to US intervention, Pastor A Ga and his family resettled in the US as refugees in September 2018.
Non-Christian survivors of religious persecution:
Hazara Shia: Farahnaz Ikhitari is a survivor of ISIS attacks. Ikhitari is a Hazara Shia from Lashkargah in Helmand Province, who lives in Afghanistan and is fluent in English. She received a BA in law and an LLB in law from American University of Afghanistan, and got engaged with another Hazara studying computer science at American University. On the first day of Nowruz on March 21, 2018, her fiancé, her future brother-in-law (12 years old), and her own brother (18) went to Karte Sakhie to celebrate the New Year, along with many other Hazaras. ISIS planted a bomb near the shrine in Karte Sakhie, and all three were killed, along with 30 other people.
Secular: Rafida Ahmed, who survived a 2015 ISIS-inspired assassination attempt but lost a thumb to the assailant (her husband, Bangladesh American atheist Avijit Roy, was killed in the same attack) is a prominent blogger. In November 2017 Bangladesh arrested the attacker.
Hindu: Priya Biswas Saha is General Secretary of Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council. Priya Biswas Saha is a well-known figure in Bangladesh, both among the Hindu and human rights communities. She recently addressed the IRF Roundtable and Ambassador Sam Brownback, describing the situation of her ancestral home in Firozpur being burnt by arsonists in 2019. Priya is a human rights specialist in Bangladesh and focuses on religious minorities in Bangladesh. She has authored and provided insight for numerous reports on the plight of Bangladeshi minorities, particularly women who suffer sexual and physical intimidation. She has a current visa to travel to the United States.
Uighur Muslim: Jewher Ilham is the daughter of Uyghur scholar, Ilham Tohti, an internationally noted moderate voice who was dedicated to bridging the gap between the Uyghur people and the Han Chinese. Jewher’s father was given an unprecedented life sentence based on the writings on his website, Uyghur Online. As an advocate for her father, she testified before the US Congressional-Executive Committee on China, wrote op-eds in The New York Times, met with a number of government officials including Secretary of State John Kerry, and received numerous awards worldwide on behalf of her father. In 2015, she recounted her experiences in the book, Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur’s Fight to Free Her Father (University of New Orleans Press). Currently, Jewher is finishing her degree in political science, Arabic (Near Eastern Studies), and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University.
Tibetan Buddhist: Nyima Lhamo, a human rights activist and the niece of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist lama who died in a Chinese prison while serving a life sentence. She was born in Tibet but is now based in the US. She has testified before the Congressional Lantos Human Rights Commission and briefed numerous UN Special Mandate holders.
Falun Gong practitioner: Yuhua Zhang is a former professor in China whose husband was arrested, tortured, and has been disappeared by Chinese authorities.
Jewish: Irene Weiss is a Holocaust survivor born in Bótrágy, Czechoslovakia (now Batrad, Ukraine). She moved to northern Virginia in 1953. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in education from American University and taught in the Fairfax County Public School system in Virginia for 13 years. Irene is a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Jewish: Rabbi Houman Yaghoubzar, a member of the United Jewish Organizations (UJO), said he entered the US through the Lautenberg program. UJO (with whom we worked in 2006 to rescue Yemeni Jews) says he is respected in the Iranian Jewish community in New York. Resides in New York.
Baha’i: Mona Amri is one of 24 Baha’is arrested in the town of Gorgan, Iran, in 2012. She was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison but fled the country with her husband and young child before the sentence could be implemented. She is to speak about solitary confinement, interrogation techniques, and the steps taken by the prison guards to avoid touching the “unclean” Baha’is.
Yezidi: Nadia Murad won the Nobel Prize last year for her work as a Yezidi survivor.
Yezidi: Badeeah Hassan Ahmed published a book in April 2019 about her experiences—A Cave in the Clouds: A Young Woman’s Escape from ISIS. Badeeah was sold to a high-ranking ISIS commander in Syria known as Al Amriki, “the American,” kept as a house slave, raped, and routinely assaulted. The presence of her young nephew Eivan and her friend Navine, also prisoners, kept her from harming herself. She drew on memories and stories from her childhood to survive. Ultimately, her faith and resistance led her to escape with Eivan and reunite with family.
Shia Muslim: Wife of Amri Che Mat, Shia Muslim, also disappeared by last government. Koh’s disappearance led to the revelation that Amri Che Mat, a Shia Muslim who, like Koh, worked with the poor and underprivileged, had been kidnapped in the northern state of Perlis in November 2016. Human rights group Hakam expressed concern over the apparent abduction of another pastor. The civil rights commission tenure ran out before it could investigate these other cases.
Ahmadiyya: Abdul Shakoor, elderly prisoner of conscience released March 18, 2019. Was detained since December 2, 2015, on charges of propagating the Ahmadiyya faith and stirring up “religious hatred” and “sectarianism”; sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy and five years under the Anti-Terrorism Act on January 2, 2016. Shakoor ran a bookshop in Rabwah, Punjab province, a city of 70,000 that is 95% Ahmadiyya. Police and elite counter-terror forces raided his shop, accusing him and his Shia assistant of selling an Ahmadiyya commentary on the Quran and possessing sensitive materials. His conviction was for “printing, publishing, or disseminating any material to incite hatred” as well as for acts and speech that insult a religion or religious beliefs or defile the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, a place of worship, or religious symbols. His appeal was listed on the High Court docket in Lahore several times but never actually heard. On March 18, 2019, he was released from prison, but the charges against him were not dropped.
Advocate: Shaan Taseer is an advocate of international religious freedom and based in Canada. He is the son of Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, Pakistan. Taseer called for repealing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and was then assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri in January 2011. Shaan Taseer has since been an advocate against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and has supported Pakistani NGOs working on blasphemy cases.
Minority Muslim: Badreldin Yousif Elsimat writes and practices a moderate version of Islam advocating separation of mosque and state and did not have a communal space to meet with his followers. He wrote many books about his beliefs that are sold around the world except in Sudan. He was arrested at his home on January 12 with five followers regarding his sermons and the recent protests in Khartoum. When detained he was asked about his religion and was placed with ISIS fighters. He was not tortured but was forced to watch his followers be tortured. Minority religious groups, including Muslim minority groups, express concern they could be convicted of apostasy if they express beliefs or discuss religious practices that differ from those of the Sunni majority group.
Cao Dai: Luong Xuan Duong is a Cao Dai follower, currently in Texas. He is a member of the Popular Council of Cao Dai Religion. Due to his advocacy for religious freedom for his religious organization, he was jailed for 30 months in 1996. In 2008, he was issued an arrest warrant after he tried to convene a general assembly of Cao Dai followers. He went into hiding for eight years and escaped to Thailand in March 2016. In late 2017, he reunited with his wife and daughter in Dallas, where he continues to fight for religious freedom in Vietnam.
Jewish: Rabbi Faiz Grady was a rabbi in Raydah, Yemen, and was forced into hiding in Sanaa and then ultimately fled Yemen for speaking out publicly after the murder of Rabbi Moshe Nahari in 2008. US Ambassador Seche assisted United Jewish Organizations with his rescue in 2009.