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260 million Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution 

Open Doors International released its 2020 World Watch List (WWL) on 15 January this year. This list is compiled annually to announce the top 50 countries in numeric order where Christians experience the worst persecution for their faith. Since 2002, North Korea has continuously ranked as the country with the worst persecution of Christians. Once again it tops the WWL, followed by Afghanistan in a close second and Somalia in the third place. 

 In this latest worldwide survey that monitors how difficult it is to live as a Christian, the overall trend shows that 73 countries showed extreme, very high or high levels of persecution.  

Among the list’s top 50 countries alone, a total of 260 million Christians faces a level of persecution measured as extreme, very high or high. To score extreme, a country scores 81 or more points out of 100, very high is 61 points or more, and high is 41 points or more.  

 Global trends 

Open Doors International estimates that there are at least a further 50 million Christians facing high levels of persecution among the 23 countries that did not rank high enough to qualify for the top 50. Altogether, one in every eight Christians worldwide face persecution measured as extreme, very high or high. 

 The list peers behind the global headlines of cases such as Pakistani Asia Bibi, who was finally freed from death row to start a new life in Canada in May 2019.    

 In some countries, such as China and Eritrea, Christians are pressurised by governments, sometimes with violence. In the Middle East, Southeast Asia, East Africa and the Sahel, other forces make life for Christians insecure. 

Specific cases of persecution 

Specific cases of persecution against Christians in the WWL reporting period include: 

  • In Sri Lanka more than 250 people, of whom 45 are children, were killed on Easter Sunday in attacks on three churches and hotels. More than 500 people were injured.  
  • Bombs killed 20 people at a Catholic church in Jolo in the Southern Philippines.  
  • In China, state-sanctioned and underground churches have been harassed or shut down in at least 23 provinces. In Xinjiang, at least one state-sanctioned church is known to require congregants to queue for facial recognition checks. 
  • In the West African state of Burkina Faso, violent Islamic militants have killed church leaders, kidnapped families for ransom and burned down churches and schools.  
  • In Egypt, seven Coptic Christians were killed when terrorists attacked their bus as they visited a monastery. The attack was in the same place where 28 Copts were killed less than 18 months earlier, when masked gunmen opened fire on their vehicles.   
  • In Iran, 194 Christians were arrested, 114 in one week just before Christmas 2018. Several house churches were raided across nine cities.  

 Increase in persecution 

Open Doors has been monitoring Christian persecution since the 1970s. This year’s World Watch List once again shows that persecution continues to rise worldwide,” says Jan Gouws, executive director of Open Doors South Africa. “What is especially alarming, is the sharp rise of persecution in African countries with Burkina Faso and Cameroon entering the top 50. The reason behind this is mostly due to the spread of radical ideologies, Islamic militancy and extremist attacks.  

The only change in the top 10 countries from the 2019 WWL is that Sudan and Eritrea have swapped their no. 6 and 7 places. In Sudan, little has changed so far for the nation’s Christians, despite the ousting of President al-Bashir after more than 30 years.  

As for Eritrea, in May 2019 the United Nations heard that hundreds of Christians face detention as religious freedom continues to be denied. In June, the government suddenly seized and closed all 22 Catholic-run health clinics and arrested five Orthodox priests. In August, Eritrea’s Orthodox patriarch, who was placed under house arrest by the government in 2007, was expelled from his own church on accusations of heresy by pro-government bishops.  

Top 11 countries: Extreme level 

The top 11 countries on the 2020 list have an extreme level of persecution. 

India, which entered the top 10 for the first time in the 2019 WWL, stays at no. 10 this year. Hindu nationalist extremism has grown after the BJP-led government under Narendra Modi won a second term in May 2019. Analysts of the WWL registered a minimum of 447 incidents this year. However, fewer Christians were killed than last year 

Two of the world’s most numerous Christian populations, one in a secular democracy and the other in a Communist state, face extreme (India) and very high (China) levels of persecution – albeit expressed through very different ways. China has risen four places this year, from no. 27 in the 2019 WWL to no. 23.   

 The average score for pressure on Chinese Christians has risen. It increased in all spheres of life, as new regulations on religion rolled out countrywide. These restrict not just the so-called underground house churches, but also state-sanctioned churches in the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. 

 Religion is banned from the public sphere in China; some teachers and medical staff have been pressured to sign documents saying they have no religious faith. In some areas, elderly people have been told their pensions will be cut if they do not renounce their Christian faith. All this comes against a backdrop of increasingly all-pervasive surveillance via facial recognition and other technology. 

 Rising pressure 

Across the top 50 countries, pressure is rising. In 2020, a total of 34 countries registered a very high level of persecution. Last year, the number was 29.  

 Nigeria, staying at no. 12, scores the maximum for violence as it did in the 2019 WWL, due mainly to violent Fulani militants attacking Christian communities and churches, as well as to Boko Haram and a range of armed criminal groups who kill, kidnap and rape with impunity. 

 Notable changes  

Mostly there have been few changes since the 2019 WWL in the list numbers 13 to 25. Here are the main exceptions: 

  • Algeria has risen to no. 17 (from no. 22 in WWL 2019)Of the estimated 129 000 Christians, just under one in three relate to 46 churches of the Eglise Protestante d’Algerie (EPA). In the twelve-month period covered by this list (from 1 November 2018 to 31 October 2019)eleven EPA churches were closed. 
  • Morocco has risen to no. 26 (from no. 35 in WWL 2019) and Qatar has risen to no. 27 (from no. 38 in WWL 2019). Pressure in all spheres of life remains very high to extreme (for Church life). Overall, these two scored only three or four points more than last year. 
  • Burkina Faso has risen to no. 28 (from no. 61 in WWL 2019). This WestAfrican country has risen faster and farther on the list than any other; in WWL 2019 it was not even among the top 50. At least 50 Christians are known to have been targeted and killed for their faith. In the north, violent Islamic militants have singled out villagers wearing crosses to kill them. Churches, schools and Christian non-government organisations have been attacked or have closed out of fear; militants attack with impunity. Burkina Faso’s score for violence has doubled from WWL 2019 – in a country previously known in the region for its religious tolerance and lack of conflict. 
  • Sri Lanka has risen to no. 30 (from no. 46 in WWL 2019)This is due to the Easter bomb attacks in April 2019. 
  • Bangladesh has risen to no. 38 (from no. 48 in WWL 2019)The threat of violence from Islamic militancy is a danger for the Church. 
  • Colombia has risen to no. 41 (from no. 47 in WWL 2019). Conflict continues as the government’s 2016 peace agreement with rebels has effectively broken down. Church leaders have been killed, while others receive death threats for refusing to pay protection money to armed groups. 

 Finally, beyond the 50 countries on the WWL, 23 more countries (ranked no. 51 to 73) also score the same high level of persecution scored as those at the bottom of the top 50 – the Russian Federation, United Arab Emirates, Cameroon, Indonesia and Niger. While Indonesia has dropped from no. 30 to no. 49 this year, Cameroon (48) has entered the top 50 for the first time and Niger (50) has re-entered it, mainly due to the rise in radical Islamic influence across Sub-Saharan Africa. 

 

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