Christian persecution in focus

It may be surprising, but the persecution of Christians around the world is one of the biggest human rights issues of this era.

A woman in India watches as her sister is dragged off by Hindu nationalists. She doesn’t know if her sister is alive or dead.

 

A man in a North Korean prison camp is shaken awake after being beaten unconscious; the beatings begin again.

 

A woman in Nigeria runs for her life. She has escaped from Boko Haram, who kidnapped her. She is pregnant, and when she returns home, her community will reject her and her baby.

 

A group of children are laughing and talking as they come down to their church’s sanctuary after eating together. Instantly, many of them are killed by a bomb blast. It’s Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.

These people don’t live in the same region, or even on the same continent. But they share an important characteristic: They are all Christians, and they suffer because of their faith. While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Jesus Christ. From Sudan to Russia, from Nigeria to North Korea, from Colombia to India, followers of Christianity are targeted for their faith. They are attacked; they are discriminated against at work and at school; they risk sexual violence, torture, arrest and much more.

In just the last year*, there have been:

  • Over 245 million Christians living in places where they experience high levels of persecution
  • 4,305 Christians killed for their faith
  • 1,847 churches and other Christian buildings attacked.
  • 3,150 believers detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned

These numbers are heart-breaking. And yet, they do not tell the whole story. James 1:2-4 says “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” That joy is what we see when we hear and work with Christians all over the world who suffer because of they serve Jesus. God cares for His people, and He will never leave or forsake them.

* 2019 World Watch List reporting period, November 1, 2017-October 31, 2018

Why does persecution against Christians happen?

There are many reasons why Christians are persecuted. Sometimes, religion may be tied to ethnic or cultural identity. In other places, governments who thrive on power view Jesus as competition and those who follow Him as threats. Still other areas put such a high value on their majority religion that any other faith is seen as something to be rooted out and violently oppressed.

Here are some of the main reasons Christians are targeted for following Jesus:

  1. Authoritarian governments who view Christianity as a threat to power

In some countries, severe abuse of Christians takes place under authoritarian governments. In places like North Korea or Eritrea, authoritarian governments seek to control all religious thought and expression as part of a comprehensive plan to tightly oversee all aspects of political and everyday life. These governments regard some religious groups as enemies of the state because they hold religious beliefs that may challenge loyalty to the rulers.

  1. Suspicion of anything outside the majority cultural faith

In some places, there is great hostility towards nontraditional and minority religious groups viewed as foreign or non-native to the culture. For example, in Niger, more than 98 percent of the population is Muslim, and hostility comes more from society than from the government. In India, Hindu nationalists claim that to be Indian is to be Hindu, so non-Hindus—religious minorities like Christians and Muslims—are targeted for abuse. In these places, to be a Christian is to claim an identity other than the one claimed by the dominant culture, and that is often powerfully opposed.

245 million Christians experience high levels of persecution in the countries on the World Watch List. And worldwide, 1 in 9 Christians experience high levels of persecution.

  1. Extremists groups who want to destroy Christians

In some areas of the world, there are radicalized extremist groups who wage war against anyone who doesn’t adhere to their specific interpretation of religion. For instance, in places like the Middle East and Nigeria, Islamic extremist groups terrorize communities and churches, killing those they consider to be “infidels” (often in coordinated bombings), raping and kidnapping women and burning down homes and churches. Their victims can be fellow adherents of a religion—for instance, Boko Haram attacks Muslims in Nigeria—but they always target Christians out of hatred for other faiths.

  1. Official and cultural domination of a single religion

Around the world, there are many places that have official laws instilled to tightly control or even discourage Christians from openly practicing their faith, all in the name of service to a dominant religion. In places like the Maldives or Saudi Arabia, Islam is such a dominant religion that to try to worship Jesus openly can be unheard of—especially outside of the prescribed (and restrictive) settings. In places like Pakistan, the laws are guided by Islamic law, which means if a Christian is accused of “blasphemy”hey can be sentenced to death. Christians in Iran are only allowed to worship in churches that don’t speak the language of everyday Iranians. And in places like Malaysia, there are restrictive rules about conversion from Islam for certain ethnic groups.

Religious freedom is a disrespected human right

Freedom of religion, like all freedoms of thought and expression, is inherent. Our beliefs help define who we are and serve as a foundation for what we contribute to our societies. However, today, many people live under governments that abuse or restrict freedom of religion. Christians in such areas face persecution, suffer deeply, and are denied basic freedoms that humans should be entitled to.

For instance, in Eritrea, there are violations of the freedom of expression, assembly, and religious belief and movement, in addition to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, extended detention, torture, and indefinite national service, which cause many Eritreans to flee the country.

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration came as a result of the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany. The document states that every person is entitled to basic human rights. This reaffirmed the dignity and worth of all human beings no matter what a person’s race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth, or another status. In 1966, the United Nations developed the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of the ICCPR focuses on four elements of religious freedom:

  • Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  • No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  • Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  • The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

When countries restrict religious freedom—including the free expression of Christianity and free worship of Jesus—they are rejecting this vital human right, which is built into the conscience of every human being and has been validated time-and-time again throughout history.

Persecution at a glance:

Open Doors has—and continues to—tracked the rise of Christian persecution for years. Our annual World Watch List, which examines the 50 countries worldwide where it’s most difficult to be a Christian, is the only annual in-depth survey of its kind. Here is the latest data we have available; it indicates Christian persecution is higher today than at any other time in modern history:

  • 245 Million: In the top 50 World Watch List countries alone, 245 million Christians in the world experience high levels of persecution for their choice to follow Christ.
  • 1 in 9: Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution
  • 14%: The rise in the number of Christians in the top 50 countries on the 2019 World Watch List (WWL) who experience high levels of persecution. (from the 2018 reporting period to 2019’s)
A brief look at the 2019 World Watch
A brief look at the 2019 World Watch
  • 4,136: Christians killed for faith-related reasons in the top 50 WWL countries.
  • 2,625: Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned in the top 50 WWL countries.
  • 1,266: churches or Christian buildings attacked in the top 50 WWL countries.
  • 7 out of 9: In seven of the countries in the World Watch List’s top 10, the primary cause of persecution is Islamic oppression.
  • 11: countries scoring in the “extreme” level for their persecution of Christians. Five years ago, North Korea was the only one.
  • 18:Consecutive years North Korea has ranked No. 1 as the world’s most dangerous place for Christians.

Trends in Christian persecution

Open Doors’ annual World Watch List examines the 50 countries worldwide where it’s most difficult to be a Christian. It is the only annual in-depth survey of its kind, and reveals several trends in how Christians are being targeted around the world:

  1. The shocking reality of persecution against women

In the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, there were shocking details about the persecution experienced by Christian women. In many places, they experience “double persecution”—one for being a Christian and one for being a woman. Even in the most restricted circumstances, gender-specific persecution is a key means of destroying the minority Christian community. This kind of persecution is difficult to assess because it is complex, violent and hidden—in many cultures where women are specifically targeted, it is difficult if not impossible to report accurate numbers.

  1. Islamic oppression continues to impact millions of Christians

In seven out of the top 10 World Watch List countries, the primary cause of persecution is Islamic oppression. This means, for millions of Christians—particularly those who grew up Muslim or were born into Muslim families—openly follow-ing Jesus can have painful consequences. They can be treated as second-class citizens, discriminated against for jobs or even violently attacked.

  1. The world’s two most-populated countries on the World Watch List

For the first time since the start of the World Watch List, India has entered the top 10. Additionally, China jumped 16 spots, from 43 to 27. Each of these countries is home to more than a billion people, so these trends are distressing. Hindu nationalists in India continue to attack Christians with what seems like no consequences, and in China, the increased power of the government and the rule of Xi Jinping continue to make open worship difficult in some parts of the country. 

  1. The spread of Islam across sub-Saharan Africa

While the violent excesses of ISIS and other Islamic militants have mostly disappeared from headlines from the Middle East, their loss of territory there means that fighters have dispersed to a larger number of countries not only in the region but, increasingly, into sub-Saharan Africa. Their radical ideology has inspired or infiltrated, numerous splinter groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a deadly group that broke away from Nigeria’s Boko Haram that also enslaves Christian women and girls as an integral part of their strategy.

  1. More laws added to control religion

State authoritarianism is increasing in many parts of the world, supported by the ever-spreading availability of personal digital technology, which governments can increasingly track through facial recognition, electronic chips and so on. Places like Vietnam, Myanmar, China and North Korea all saw increases in stricter state control of religious rights.

The 2019 World Watch List

Download the latest edition of the World Watch, the only annual report that measures persecution against Christians around the world.

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