Wenzhou, China (CNN) - At a gray church on the outskirts of Wenzhou in eastern China, Christians from across the county keep a nervous watch.
Some stand behind the iron gate; others sit just inside the church door. For more than two months they've waited, preparing themselves to protect the cross on top of their church.
"If I have to, I am going to hold it in my arms and protect it," one elderly man says. "They have no right to tear it down, that is why we have to defend our church."
Wenzhou is known as the "Jerusalem of China" and throughout this year the local Communist Party authorities have demolished scores of churches and forcibly removed more than 300 church crosses.
Chinese church leaders say it's the worst anti-Christian crackdown in decades.
"What the government here is doing is so barbaric, they're like bandits and we are furious with them," says Chen Zhi'ai, a respected church leader in the Wenzhou area. "Today we've seen the fundamental symbol of our faith violated and it hurts us deep inside our hearts."
By Joshua Berlinger, CNN
(CNN) – In a church in Irbil, 40-day-old Yeshua lies asleep in a crib, his sister playfully rocking him. It's a peaceful scene. Their mother watches over them, but her face shows the fear and despair many Iraqi minorities have felt over the past few days.
The Sunni militant group ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, has steamrolled into Iraq's north, forcing hundreds of thousands of minorities from their homes. The militants have beheaded some who won't bend to their will and are "putting people's heads on spikes" to terrorize others, a senior U.S. administration official said.
Nearly 40,000 Yazidis are trapped on the top of Mount Sinjar with few resources; many with just the clothes on their back, U.S. President Barack Obama said in an address late Thursday evening.
"These innocent families are faced with a horrible choice," Obama said. "Descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger."
So who are these people being threatened by the Islamic State? And why do the militant Islamists have them in their cross hairs?
By Candida Moss and Joel Baden, special to CNN
(CNN) – Last week a video of Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan emerged in which he claimed that Jews use the blood of non-Jewish children to make matzo for Passover.
The translation of Hamdan’s interview with the Lebanese television station Al-Quds on July 28 reports him as saying:
We all remember how the Jews used to slaughter Christians, in order to mix their blood in their holy matzos. This is not a figment of imagination or something taken from a film. It is a fact, acknowledged by their own books and by historical evidence. It happened everywhere, here and there.
When confronted about his statements by CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Monday, Hamdan did not retract his claim or distance himself from the blood libel slur. His only defense was that he “has Jewish friends.”
Whatever “historical evidence” or “facts” Hamdan believes himself to be remembering, this is nothing more than the infamous blood libel: the most persistent and longest-lived anti-Semitic myth in history, aside from the claim that the Jews killed Jesus.
The blood libel originated in medieval England with the death of William of Norwich. William was a 12-year-old tanner’s apprentice who was killed in 1144. At the time of his death, his parents accused the local Jewish community of responsibility, but investigations revealed nothing.
Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) - Just days after the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria said they killed hundreds of Syrians, dozens of Iraqi Christian families are now fleeing the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul, hoping to avoid a similar fate.
On Friday, the al Qaeda splinter group issued an ultimatum to Iraqi Christians living in Mosul - by Saturday they must convert to Islam, pay a fine or face "death by the sword."
A total of 52 Christian families left the city of Mosul early Saturday morning, with an armed group prohibiting some of them from taking anything but the clothes on their backs.
"They told us, 'You to leave all of your money, gold, jewelry and go out with only the clothes on you,'" Wadie Salim told CNN.
Images obtained exclusively by CNN show that the phrase "property of ISIS" scrawled in black paint on a number of the homes that were abandoned.
Some of the families headed for Irbil - which is currently controlled by Kurdish forces - and others toward the Dohuk province. The majority went to Dohuk, which is 140 kilometers (87 miles) north of Mosul.
"We did not know how to act," said another Mosul resident, Um Nazik. "Are we going to get killed?"
ISIS was able to take over large swaths of land due to the lack of centralized authority in both Iraq and war-torn Syria. The Sunni militants hope to establish an Islamic state throughout the region it currently controls.
Opinion by Randal Maurice Jelks, special to CNN
(CNN) – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate from South Africa, called one of his books “God is Not a Christian.”
He might have added a subtitle, “God is not a man, either!”
One of the great problems in our world is patriarchy. The late James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, put best in song, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.”
Patriarchy assumes that men are made to lead and women are simply cooperative and reproductive subordinates.
These assumptions come to light in all kinds of ways, but especially through religion — the various faiths that treat women as though they are not equal to men.
We read it in the Quran and the Bible. We see it in iconic imagery, and religious taboos about sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality. And we see that around the world these days, from Salt Lake City to Sudan.
Men continue to dominate religious institutions, and use them to judge whether women can be in religious leadership or change faiths.
There is a direct link between Kate Kelly, a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter day-Saints, who was excommunicated on charges of apostasy, and Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman sentenced to death for her supposed apostasy.
And the link is deeper than the charge of abandoning one's faith.
(CNN) - A Sudanese woman has been freed from prison a month after being sentenced to die by hanging for refusing to renounce her Christian faith.
"I am a Christian," Meriam Yehya Ibrahim told the judge at her sentencing hearing in May, "and I will remain a Christian."
An appeals court in Sudan ruled that a lower court's judgment against the 27-year-old was faulty, her lawyer, Mohaned Mustafa El-Nour, said Monday. He declined to elaborate.
An international controversy erupted over Ibraham's conviction in May by a Sudanese court on charges of apostasy, or the renunciation of faith, and adultery. Ibrahim was eight months pregnant when was sentenced to suffer 100 lashes and then be hanged.
"I'm so frustrated. I don't know what to do," her husband, Daniel Wani told CNN in May. "I'm just praying." Wani, uses a wheelchair and "totally depends on her for all details of his life," Ibrahim's lawyer said.
Ibrahim was reunited with her husband after getting out of custody, her lawyer said Monday.
Opinion by William McKenzie, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Early on the morning of November 28, 2007, Jia Weihan was forced to think the unthinkable: Was her father really a bad man?
At the time, she was an 11-year-old attending a school in Beijing that taught her to respect the communist authorities. When 30 or so police officers arrived to arrest her father, she did not know what to think.
As it turned out, her father, Shi Weihan, the pastor of a house church, was simply trying to live out his religious beliefs. That should be a fundamental right, but in China - even the more economically liberalized China – it’s not.
Twenty-five years after Tiananmen Square - where on June 4, 1989, Chinese soldiers turned their guns on protesting students and activists - freedom remains elusive.
In China, Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims face worse conditions than at any time over the past decade, according to a report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The report warns that independent Protestants and Catholics face arrests, fines and the closing of their churches. The government recently bulldozed one large church in the city of Wenzhou.
The report also highlights other restrictions, including these problems:
"Practitioners of Falun Gong, as well as other Buddhist, folk religionist, and Protestant groups deemed 'superstitious' or 'evil cults' face long jail terms, forced denunciations of faith and torture in detention, and the government has not sufficiently answered accusations of psychiatric experimentation and organ harvesting."
In Shi's case, he had decided not to tell Jia and her 7-year-old sister, Enmei, that he was printing Bibles and Christian literature. That was against Chinese law, so he did not want to put his children in jeopardy by letting them in on the secret.
Their children soon came to understand the secret, in a life-altering way.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN) - Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has tracked the world's worst abusers of religious rights.
As the most recent report notes, it has never lacked for material. Persecutions of people of faith are rising across the globe.
Among the most worrying trends, according to the State Department, are "authoritarian governments that restrict their citizens’ ability to practice their religion."
In typically bland bureaucratic language, the State Department calls these "countries of particular concern." But the designation can come with some teeth.
Sudan, for example, where a Christian woman was sentenced to death this week for leaving Islam, is ineligible for some types of foreign aid.
In addition to Sudan, here are the State Department's "countries of particular concern." You might call them "The Worst Places in the World to Be Religious."
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Lampedusa, Italy (CNN) – Abdel clung to his pregnant wife, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter as they sailed across an open stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.
They were in a dilapidated fishing boat with limited provisions and almost no sanitation, sharing a cramped space with some 400 other Syrians.
Abdel prayed quietly and recited verses from the Quran for two days and two nights as the boat swayed and motored precariously along the 180-mile route from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.
If they could make it, his young family would be one step closer to freedom.
He knew thousands had died making the same voyage.
Opinion by Edward J. Blum, special to CNN
(CNN) - Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly sparked outrage this week by insisting that Jesus and Santa Claus are both white, saying it's "ridiculous" to argue that depicting Christ and St. Nick as Caucasian is "racist."
"And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white," Kelly said, "but this person is arguing that we should also have a black Santa."
Kelly was responding to an article in Slate that said St. Nick needs a makeover from fat, old white guy to something less "melanin-deficient."
The Fox News host would have none of it.
"Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change," Kelly said. "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure; that's a verifiable fact. As is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy, in the story, and change Santa from white to black?"
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.