In its 2019 World Watch List, Open Doors International reports that 11 countries score highly enough to fit into the ‘extreme’ category for the level of persecution of Christians. It was the same last year, but five years ago, only North Korea was in that category.
From roughly 2006, and accelerating from 2012, the NGO says the List has recorded more persecution of Christians around the world each year. Partly this reporting has become more possible as digital technology has enabled global communication. The technology has also enabled stricter government monitoring of its citizens.
This year more countries than before have risen on the list without scoring significantly in the ‘violent incidents’ sphere of research. This points to greater structural, legal and societal restrictions, manifesting in discrimination and hostility, aside from violent attacks on people and property ending in death or destruction.
Analysts for the global NGO point to three key trends which emerge from the data:
1) State authoritarianism: more countries add laws to control religion
For the 18th year in a row, North Korea (no. 1) holds the top spot on the World Watch List because it is the most stiflingly authoritarian regime in the world, where any faith not placed in the Supreme Leader is a political crime.
But the trend is that 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.
The trend is most clearly seen in China (no. 27), where new Regulations for Religious Affairs came into force February 1, 2018. Since then, a focus on prohibiting children and youth from hearing religious teaching has seen nursery and Sunday schools closed down, summer camps banned and churches forced to place signs at the entrance forbidding anyone under 18 to enter.
In March 2018, President Xi Jinping was allowed to rule indefinitely, the first since Mao to hold such power. China also announced its ‘Principle for the Promotion of Chinese Christianity in China for the Next Five Years’ (2018 – 2022).
The State Administration of Religious Affairs has closed, its function now controlled by the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which also manages ethnic affairs, such as those of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
A government document says “Active guidance” is provided to help religion “adapt to socialist society”; it must serve the Communist Party. The need for the Sinicization [‘China-ization’] of religion attempts to use religion as a tool for stability – mirroring the approaches of other authoritarian governments, such as Vietnam (no. 20) or Laos (no. 19). Ultimately, President Xi is using religion as one of many tools to build a socialist society of Chinese characteristics free of other belief systems.
Chinese churches have been pressured to fly the national flag higher than the cross, sing the national anthem before services and, in one area, a few Roman Catholic churches were told to replace pictures of Jesus with pictures of President Xi.
In September, the Vatican finally agreed with the government on the appointment of bishops, with the Pope only allowed to veto. (Of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics, half belong to ‘underground’ churches). The websites of two state structures, that oversee 60 bishops who are recognized by both the Vatican and Beijing, posted a vow to adhere to the principles of “independence” from the Vatican. Other Catholic priests continue to be ‘missing.’ In October, authorities finished demolishing two popular Catholic pilgrimage shrines.
Church meetings continue to be disrupted in several provinces, especially rural Henan in central China where 60 percent of the thousands of churches have been closed (three of the big five ‘house church’ networks started here). In Zhejiang, on the east coast, where exterior church crosses were torn down in previous years, they are now regulated in size, position and colour.
Churches registered in the state-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement now find themselves bearing the brunt of the regulations, such as having to install CCTV cameras. (In September, Beijing’s largest ‘house’ church, Zion – with 1,500 members – was shut down for refusing to install CCTV cameras facing the congregation. The official reason was “illegal meetings held by an unauthorized church group in an unregistered building”). Landlords are pressured to stop renting to Christians.
However, the religious affairs departments of local governments are empowered to decide registration applications, as well as the authorization of venues as places of worship, so implementation varies. Pastors and religious teachers can be told to report to their local police station every few weeks: some are fined excessively for ‘transgressions’ such as ‘inadequate fire safety equipment.’ A small number are arrested and questioned, but often released the same day. Occasionally, churches are completely destroyed.
The recent removal of Bibles from e-commerce platforms means they can’t be downloaded or sold (though they can be read) online; they are officially available only from state-sanctioned church shops, though un-official ‘house’ churches can still sell them through their own channels.
Over 2017-18, foreigners have been forced to leave cities all across China due to perceived missionary activities and, in some cases, helping to lead a house church.
The world has recently become aware of re-education camps in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, where ethnic Uighur Muslims form 45 percent of the population. Of the estimated 6,000 Christians from a Muslim background there, some have disappeared into such camps and not been heard of since.
The same state authoritarianism also pressures Christians in Vietnam (no. 20). Its first-ever law on religions since Vietnam was re-unified under Communist rule in 1975, the Law on Belief and Religion, came into force on 1 January 2018. Vietnam also treats religion as a social problem and potential threat to national security. It, too, has produced an extensive bureaucracy, the Committee on Religious Affairs, whose role is more firmly entrenched in the Ministry of Interior.
State authoritarianism combines with nationalism when it comes to Myanmar (no. 18). The country’s first Catholic cardinal, Charles Bo, says that “over the decades of armed conflict, the military has turned religion into a tool of [ethnic] oppression.”
More than 100,000 members of a majority-Christian ethnic tribe, the Karen, remain in refugee camps just across the border in Thailand. Meanwhile, thousands have been killed and least 120,000 displaced in majority-Christian Kachin state.
Recently, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the largest ethnic militia in Myanmar – supported by neighbouring China – declared almost all churches built after the Communist Party’s 1989 collapse must be destroyed. No new churches will be allowed. All churches, missionaries, schoolteachers and clergy are to be investigated, with foreign workers banned and those found to support missionary activities set to be punished.
2) Ultra-nationalistic governments and societies where minority Christians are seen as ‘alien’
In a growing number of countries, nationalism is intensifying into an ultra-nationalism that not only considers law-abiding minority groups to be a threat, but also employs aggression to force minorities to forsake their identity or even to leave the country. Where Christians are in a minority – perhaps due to a colonial past – they are increasingly under attack both by government and society as “Western” and “alien.”
Often laws are designed to enshrine a growing ultra-nationalistic agenda, such as in India (no. 10) where, increasingly, the BJP-led government promotes an extremist militant Hindu agenda, where to be Indian, one must be Hindu. Eight states out of 29 have passed ‘anti-conversion’ laws, which, among other things, require anyone who wants to change religion to give a month’s notice to local officials, and to submit to a government interview. (Two states have not implemented the law).
In India, as in many other countries, ‘foreign’ institutions such as Christian-led schools, hospitals, orphanages and charities, often churches themselves, are targeted for attack and even closure, often under new or revised laws. This year, all children’s homes run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity were told they must submit to inspection after a nun and a staff member in one home were accused of child trafficking.
Since Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, the level of persecution of Christians has gone up dramatically. Every year more violent incidents are registered, mainly because government authorities such as police and local officials frequently allow a culture of impunity, especially when a mob is involved. Hindu militants target church leaders, beat them up, and try to force them out of their villages. The latest trend is not only to threaten the church leader, but also to threaten or rape his wife, and even his young children. This reflects global trends which increasingly have identified the direct targeting of women and children as part of the dynamics of persecution.
Militant Hindus see Christians as a threat to the nation because of their growth in numbers and strong presence in the tribal regions. Discrimination also is very common, based on the age-old caste system. It affects Christians all over India because most converts to Christianity come from the lower and ‘untouchable’ (Dalit) castes.
In the most recent year, solely from documented incidents, at least 12,500 Christians and about 100 churches have been attacked. At least 200 people have been arrested solely for their faith, and at least 10 have been killed. However, many incidents go undocumented, so true figures could be much higher.
Neighbouring countries, themselves majority-Hindu and -Buddhist, such as Nepal (no. 32) and Bhutan (no. 33), also have found that appeals to national religious identity are a potent formula to boost their own position of power, especially in their rural regions.
Turkey (no. 26): While the case of Andrew Brunson was in the headlines, the Erdogan government was actively accusing the USA of trying to undermine the country. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been stirring up ultra-nationalistic sentiment for some time and this has caused added difficulties for Christians in Turkey, especially evangelicals. In Turkey, Christianity is seen as a Western religion and evangelicals in particular are considered by many to have links with the USA.
3) Spread of radical Islam from Middle East across sub-Saharan Africa
The third noticeable trend in this year’s World Watch List is that, while the violent excesses of Islamic State 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 which broke away from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and which also enslaves Christian women and girls as an integral part of their strategy.
Since 2017, Islamic militants also have gained strength in Egypt, Somalia, Libya (and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula), where they continue to recruit, and capture pockets of territory.
In Egypt (no. 16), which has the Middle East’s largest population of Christians (Copts) – estimated at about 10 percent of the close to 100 million population – Islamic State in Sinai continued to threaten to ‘wipe out’ the Copts by terrorizing the community with targeted murders of respected local leaders such as doctors and vets. Other Islamist groups bombed churches (once, just before Christmas 2017) and killed a bus-load of pilgrims on the same road twice within 18 months. Copts’ pleas for protection largely fall on deaf government ears, though some killers and attackers have been convicted.
In Somalia (no. 3), an Islamic State-affiliated group of 200-plus has recruited fighters who fled Iraq and Syria, as well as ex-fighters of Somali Islamist al-Shabaab, which also continues to be active. The group choose Somalia because there is no central authority: “It represents a good possibility to continue their search for an Islamic state or, at least, they can continue their ideology without obstacles”, said the Catholic bishop of Mogadishu.
Though there may be only hundreds of Christians amongst its 10 million people, the intensely tribal character of Somali society also means any Muslim who converts to Christianity is likely to be immediately detected by family and friends and risks death.
As a ‘failed’ state without unified government, Libya (no. 4) continues to be a deadly environment, mainly for sub-Saharan African migrants – many of whom are Christians – trapped there by tighter European migration controls. Trusted sources (who must remain anonymous) report that at least 10 Christians have been killed solely for their faith, even though they received no media attention – unlike the 21 Copts beheaded on a Libyan beach in 2015.
Yemen (no. 8), at the crossroads of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, is the Arab world’s poorest nation, with close to 29 million people. It’s ruled by Sharia law. Fighting between Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, and government forces, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, is a ‘proxy’ war which allows Islamic militant groups, such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to gain significant influence.
Most expatriate and migrant Christians have left, leaving a small but growing church of indigenous Christians of a Muslim background. Experts say the war did not scatter this church as might have been expected, and, with now near-famine conditions, this church is serving society – but at extreme risk.
Of countries which have ‘high’ levels of persecution (scoring 41+ points), but which fall outside the top 50, 18 out of the 23 are in sub-Saharan Africa: Comoros (no. 51), Djibouti (no. 53), the Democratic Republic of the Congo DRC (no. 54), Cameroon (no. 56), Tanzania (no. 57), Niger (no.58), Chad (no. 60), Burkina Faso (no. 61), Uganda (no. 62), Guinea (no. 63), S. Sudan (no. 64) Mozambique (no. 65), the Gambia (no. 66), Ivory Coast (no. 67), Burundi (no. 68), Angola (no. 69), Togo (no. 70) and Rwanda (no. 73).
Sub-Saharan Africa poses one of the world’s most potent security challenges, as weak governance, poverty and radical Islam increasingly collide. Instability, corruption, poverty, unemployment and lack of governance feed into Christian persecution because states are either ineffective, or sometimes actively collude in it due to ethnic, tribal or political affiliations. The effect of the ensuing accumulation of structural vulnerabilities is also borne out in distinct patterns of persecution for men and women of the region.
The chaos of Libya’s collapse, leading to weapons pouring into the region, combines with the lucrative trade – for criminal gangs – of human trafficking of sub-Saharan migrants, many of whom are Christians. Increasingly sophisticated organized crime and drugs cartels stretch across sub-Saharan Africa. Young men especially seek a better life by leaving countries where they may be better educated than ever before, but lack jobs and economic and social advancement in the face of corrupt political and social elites.
Almost 30 violent Islamist groups are known to be active in the region: most perpetrate violence in more than one country. Some of them continue to hold expatriate Christian aid workers as hostages in Mali, Burkina Faso and other countries. Nigeria’s Boko Haram shows the fluidity of violence across the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin, instigating attacks in four countries.
The potent mix of radical Islam layered on top of regional and local conflicts means that African Christians continue to die in north-east Kenya (no. 40), the Central African Republic (no. 21), and north and central Nigeria (no. 12).
While Boko Haram continues deadly attacks – even killing Muslims working for the Red Cross, thus defying Nigerian Army claims that it has been defeated – Christian persecution is not at the same level of intensity from the Islamist group as in the past few years.
However, in the 12 northern Nigeria states ruled by Sharia law, Christians continue to report being denied the rights, opportunities, provisions and protections afforded to Muslims – to which they are constitutionally entitled. Violations include difficulty in accessing education and denial of access to jobs in security and many other sectors.
Across the Christian-Muslim fault-line in middle Nigeria, decades of climate change and creeping desertification, combined with rapid population growth, has meant a fight for land and resources. The intensifying conflict between nomadic, predominantly Muslim Fulani cattle herders and indigenous, predominantly Christian farmers in the Middle Belt means that Christians continue to experience the highest possible levels of violence to be measured by the World Watch research (a score of 16.7 in the ‘violence’ category). Scored according to ‘violent’ persecution alone, Nigeria would tie for top place with Pakistan this year.
An increase in the use of AK-47s and heavier weapons, and the murder of entire families in their homes – such as in the city suburbs of Jos in October 2018 – has led many Christians to claim such attacks amount to a campaign of ethno-religious cleansing. This opinion is not helped by government accounts of incidents, which often under-report the number of victims. For instance, over one weekend in June, around 230 were killed, but the BBC and other news agencies quoted the government official figure of 86, shaping the international view of the crisis.
During the first quarter of 2018, the most recent for which comparison figures are available, 1,061 deaths were documented in 106 attacks by the Fulani militia on communities in Adamawa, Benue, southern Kaduna, Kogi, Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba states, with an additional 17 lives lost in attacks in the south of Nigeria. Seven instances of violence targeting Fulani herders or communities, in which 61 people lost their lives, are also documented; two of these attacks were in the south of the country.
When he met the Archbishop of Canterbury in London in April, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari told him that foreign fighters from Libya had come via the Sahara region to exacerbate the long-running, but increasing, farmers-herders conflict, which experts say has killed more people than has the Boko Haram insurgency.
The World Watch List 2019 Africa analyst said Islamist militias ‘instrumentalize’ existing identity-based conflicts to forge alliances to strengthen their base and widen the risk they pose to global security. There are signs of this possibly happening in a number of the countries where persecution of Christians is already at a ‘high’ level. These include the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – (no. 54) an already complex conflict involving numerous political and economic factors – Burkina Faso (no. 61) and northern Mozambique (no.65).
Glimmer of good news for Christians
Despite its ranking in the top slot as in every year since the World Watch List 2002, diplomatic meetings ahead of the Donald Trump – Kim Jong Un summit did free three Korean-American Christians from a North Korean prison. Two were lecturers at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), arrested in 2017, accused of “behaviour against the regime”. PUST has now changed its recruiting policy. The third was a pastor, convicted as a ‘spy.’
The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar – at risk of his own life – kept his promise to hear the Supreme Court appeal of Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi before he retires early in 2019. He and his fellow two judges ruled to acquit her, saying her accuser had been lying, and the blasphemy charge, for which she had spent eight years on death row, was a fabrication. However, their landmark ruling was challenged by days of mass protest and disruption across Pakistan by radical Islamic groups who called for the judges and Asia Bibi to be killed. While Asia Bibi is technically ‘free,’ she is still in fear of her life, and unable to leave Pakistan for asylum in a country where she can live safely with her family.
There are 3,700 churches waiting to be registered under a 2016 law. By the end of August, 220, and by October, another 120 had been registered, making a total of 340, or 9 percent. However, at this rate, it will take 12 years to complete all registrations.