The stark fact is this: globally, persecution of Christians is increasing. For millions of Christians around the world, 2017 has been a 'year of fear', so they need our support now more than ever.
But where there is great fear, there is also great faith. What this List also shows is that the church may be persecuted, it may be suppressed, attacked, vilified, lied about. But it has not been, and will never be, defeated.
Globally there are 2.48 billion Christians. Out of these, approximately 215 million or 1 in every 12 Christians in the Top 50 countries of the World Watch List, is considered to be suffering from “extreme” levels of persecution, according to the Open Doors 2018 World Watch List (WWL), released today.
Every year, Open Doors publishes the World Watch List, the list of the top 50 countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian. The WWL measures the types of persecution Christians all over the world experience from their government, community and even their own families. It also accounts for the restrictions Christians face in their private lives, their ability to meet and worship with other believers, as well as the physical violence they are subjected to.
This year, North Korea and Afghanistan scored highest in the persecution of Christians, topping the 2018 WWL. Although completely different in politics and social structure, research for the period November 2016 – October 2017 showed these two countries receiving maximum scores for pressure on Christians. Only the score for violence made a distinction between first and second place. It was, however, Pakistan which had the unenviable honour of being the only country on the 2018 WWL to score maximum points for violence against Christians.
The top ten countries where Christians currently face the most persecution are:
#1 North Korea (94/100)
#2 Afghanistan (93/100)
#3 Somalia (91/100)
#4 Sudan (87/100)
#5 Pakistan (86/100)
#6 Eritrea (86/100)
#7 Libya (86/100)
#8 Iraq (86/100)
#9 Yemen (85/100)
#10 Iran (85/100)
Source: Open Doors/World Watch Research
New to the Top 50 and risers
Libya (86 points/Rank7) and India (81 points/Rank 11) are the biggest risers in the 2018 WWL, both rising by 8 points, which in the case of India was clearly due to the increasing influence of radical Hinduism. In the 2018 WWL reporting period, at least 8 Christians were killed for their faith by militant Hindus, at least 34 churches were damaged, and close to 24,000 Christians suffered attacks in India.
New countries that have entered the Top 50 this year, are Nepal (64 points/Rank 25) and Azerbaijan (57 points/Rank 45). Nepal has seen a strong rise in Religious nationalism, with Hindu radicals becoming much more active both in putting pressure on Christians and in perpetrating violence. In Azerbaijan, increased access to information through police raids and arrests has caused a rise in score among other factors.
Over 3 000 Christians killed for their faith
Total recorded no. of Christians killed:
2018 WWL: 3,066
2017 WWL: 1,207
2016 WWL: 7,106
Source: Open Doors/World Watch Research
That decrease was due especially to a reduction in Boko Haram activity in Nigeria in the 2017 WWL reporting period. However, the killings in Nigeria have risen again due to waves of attacks by well-armed Fulani Muslim herdsmen on Christian communities in the Middle Belt states and reports are naming this “religious cleansing” (ethnic cleansing based on religious affiliation).
Measuring persecution is more than just recording violent incidents
Persecution does not always mean killings or long prison sentences. The Maldives is a good example, with 78 points at Rank 13. Although reports of violent incidents against Christians are few in this supposed holiday paradise, research into the church life in the Maldives showed that pressure is at a maximum level.
As the Managing Director of Open Doors’ World Watch Research team, Frans Veerman, explains: “No church meetings are possible there and even most expatriate Christians prefer not to organize meetings out of fear of repercussions. By reading the individual country profiles, the numbers in the list suddenly take on real depth of meaning.”
Making the plight of persecuted Christians public
The Open Doors World Watch List and the in-depth country profiles are published annually as a tool for 1) media to raise awareness 2) politicians to make informed decisions and 3) churches around the world to support Christians on the front lines
While persecution can hardly constitute “good news,” many Christians in these countries are quick to state that their trials are often turned to good through the providence of God. Indeed, a central ministry of Open Doors is to be present to these suffering communities and find ways of making local believers more resilient so that their persecution becomes an opportunity to spread the Gospel, “good news,” often in a way that would not be possible in more peaceful circumstances. Below is a round-up of some of these “good news” elements.
Tanzania tumbles off the list
Tanzania is the most eye-catching example of a country where the situation for Christians considerably improved. It was Rank 33 in 2017 WWL list with 59 points. For 2018 WWL it dropped six points and did not make the Top 50. (However, 53 points still means there is a high level of persecution occurring in the country.)
The majority of people in Tanzania are Christian, but the percentage of Muslims is growing and especially younger Muslims are susceptible to ‘radical influences’ from groups in neighbouring countries, such as Al-Shabaab (operating in Somalia and also Kenya).
There is a group called ‘Uamsho’ (lit. ‘The Awakening’) that wants autonomy and Islamic law for the island of Zanzibar. They started using violence against Christians to enforce their demands. But late 2015 saw the election of President John Magufuli, which meant a turning point. His administration made serious work of cracking down on radical Islamic groups. Many leaders were caught, others went into hiding. The violence against Christians decreased a lot.
Government turmoil improves scores for Ethiopia and Kenya
The reason for the ‘improvement’ in these two countries is remarkably similar. In both cases, Muslims and Christians found a common cause.
In Kenya, the 2017 presidential elections brought a lot of unrest to the country. Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner, but his opponent Raila Odinga contested the results. Later, the opposition boycotted the new elections.
“What happens during the elections is that one’s tribe becomes more important than one’s religion,” explains an Open Doors researcher. “So Muslims and Christians from the same tribe actually get along better.” Kenyan political alliance depends on tribe.
Secondly, the government exerts less pressure on Christians. This is especially true in Ethiopia, where for the last two years many people have been protesting against the government. They want change – an end to corruption, more respect for human rights, more democracy, a fairer distribution of wealth etc. Here too, Christians and Muslims found each other in a common cause. The protests and turmoil forced the government to declare a state of emergency in October 2016 and it has been in place for most of the year 2017. That meant the government had less time to persecute Christians practising their faith outside church walls.
The bad news is that although the 2018 WWL shows there was less persecution in Ethiopia, the government cracked down violently on the protesters. Scores of people have been injured or killed, but those are not scored during the WWL survey as these are human rights violations, but not persecution for one’s Christian faith.
In Kenya, we see a new, alarming phenomenon. Radical Islamic Al-Shabaab killed over thirty Christians, many by beheadings. This seems to be a new tactic to instil fear in the Christian community and get them to flee en masse.
Vietnam turns back to ‘normal’
On 2017 WWL, Vietnam scored 71 points, an increase of 5 points compared to 2016 WWL. That increase had mainly to do with three killings and other violence. However, the 2018 WWL reporting period did not see as much violence, although pressure did rise and remains at a very high level. While it is good that no Christians died for their faith in Vietnam, the authorities continue to crack down on ethnic minority Christians and will start implementing a new law on religion in 2018 for all Christians.
Less violence in Syria
Syria is a country that makes a big drop too in 2018 WWL. It loses ten points and is no longer found in the Top 10. The drop is explained by looking at the violence category. There were fewer reports of violence in which Christians were targeted. This was mainly because the areas held by IS (Islamic State) were recaptured, but another factor is the difficulty of receiving confirmed information from a country in the chaos of civil war. Anti-Christian violence has not disappeared: There were still Syrian Christians being abducted, physically and sexually abused, fleeing their homes and country in the 2018 WWL reporting period.
Countries that seem to have improved, but did not really
Pakistan from 88 to 86: Slight improvement in some areas of Christian life, but violence still at maximum level. It is hardly any improvement.
Nigeria from 78 to 77. Boko Haram has less influence, but unfortunately the Fulani Muslim herdsman ‘compensate’ for that fact by being very violent against Christians, chasing them away from their farms.
Qatar and Bangladesh both have lower scores. For Qatar, it does not reflect an improvement of the situation but has to do more with a refinement on how Christians from a Muslim background and their communities were scored. Bangladesh saw less violence and more efforts by the government to crack down on radical Islamic groups, what to a certain extent relieved the pressure on Christians.
That response – 'Listen more, pray more, speak up more, and do more' – is a command for all of us. The persecuted church certainly needs our prayers and our actions. They need voices raised on their behalf, and financial support to help them survive.
But they also need us to listen to them. In listening to them we will not only hear their anxieties, needs and concerns, we also encounter powerful, moving stories of transformation and trust. We learn how deep persecution and suffering can build an even deeper trust and faith.