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Countries of concern for 2018 in new Release report include China, Nigeria and India.

China has been cracking down on Christmas celebrations in some districts, banning Santa Claus and Christmas hats to further tighten its squeeze on Christianity.

China is a key country of concern for 2018 for Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world. Their latest Persecution Trends Report warns Christians in China look set to face a harsh new year.

Tougher regulations on religious affairs come into force in February, giving the state greater control over churches and other places of worship. Those new rules will mean unregistered house churches will face increasingly tough measures to control their activities.

The restrictions are being promoted to ‘block extremism’ and prevent the use of religion to ‘endanger national security and undermine social order’. They reflect the Communist Party’s fear that foreign powers are working to undermine its authority by supporting Christianity.

It follows moves by Chinese president Xi Jinping to strengthen his control over the country by writing his name into the constitution. Although that constitution supposedly safeguards religious freedom, President Xi’s administration has been tearing down symbols of Christianity, such as crosses on churches, and imprisoning Christian lawyers who take legal action to prevent their removal.

Release partners China Aid say the clampdown on Christianity in the atheist state is at its severest since the cultural revolution.

At Christmas, that tightened into a shutdown on anything resembling festive celebrations in some places.

In Anhui, an official public security notice declared, ‘Public places are not allowed to celebrate Christmas. Even creating a Christmas atmosphere – such as putting up Christmas trees, Santa Claus, wearing Christmas hats, and all other items related to Christmas is severely restricted. All Christmas-related activities are required to be cancelled.’

In Zhejiang, officials tore down a Christmas tree and in Hangzhou authorities warned Christians not to attend a Christmas celebration, leaving empty tables that had been laid and decorated, according to Release partner, China Aid.

The continuing measures against Christianity will also impact refugees from North Korea, as many who flee the country are cared for by Chinese Christians. Another Release partner Dr Eric Foley says, ‘The Chinese government crackdown on Christians is causing many to withdraw their willing hand to the North Korean underground church.’

Neighbouring Vietnam, which is communist, is also set to impose a new law on belief and religion in 2018 which will increase pressure on churches and their leaders.

Another country of concern to Release is Nigeria, where Christian villages have been coming under sustained attack by armed Fulani herdsman. The militants are driving Christians from their farms, killing and displacing thousands. A Nigerian partner of Release says the Fulani are being armed and encouraged to drive out Christians from the north in pursuit of an Islamist agenda.

Attacks against Christians are also increasing in India, fostered by militants, who believe that every Indian should be a Hindu. Extremists have been pressurising officials to close churches and prevent Christian services.

In the Middle East, countries of particular concern include Iran, where the authorities are targeting Christian leaders. Release’s partner says, ‘This is a campaign to stop the spread of Christianity, to arrest those who are leading house churches and those involved in evangelism and teaching.’

The continuing clampdown has been driving Christians out of Iran, fuelling the exodus of the Christian minority from the Middle East.

Also of concern in the region is Egypt, where militants have been grooming Christian girls to seduce them and force them into marriage to change their religion. Release partners say Christian girls are being systematically targeted for kidnap. Observers believe the practice is being funded from Saudi Arabia.

Release International celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2018. Release, which was founded by Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand, today supports persecuted Christians in more than 30 nations.

‘Fifty years is a significant milestone for our ministry,’ says Release CEO Paul Robinson. ‘Since 1968, the prayers and gifts of supporters throughout the UK and Ireland have helped many thousands of Christians who have been persecuted for their faith. For this we are truly humbled and deeply grateful to God. Today, as our Persecution Trends Report for 2018 shows, the need for prayer and support is greater than ever.’

Release is asking Christians to pledge to pray for the persecuted throughout 2018.

Through its international network of missions UK-based Release International serves persecuted Christians by supporting pastors and Christian prisoners and their families, supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.