Religious nationalism in Asia is accelerating
Religious nationalism has been gathering pace since the mid-1990s, but there is no doubt that it moved into a higher gear with the landslide election of Nahrendra Modi in May 2014. Eight Christians have been killed for their faith this year alone. As the World Watch persecution analyst for India says: “It’s not only violence. There is a deterioration in freedom in all aspects of Indian society, and Hindu radicals have virtual impunity from the government.” The Indian Church is massive, 64 million, with perhaps 39 million of them caught up in the vortex of direct persecution. Buddhist nationalism should not be forgotten either. In Bhutan the government does not regard Christians as Bhutanese at all. A new electronic identity card system ignores parts of the Christian minority, leading to a multitude of discriminations.
Asian governments are more insecure, and play the nationalist card
Nationalism is always a card that an insecure government will play. Vietnam has a new government, Malaysia’s leader has been under pressure with corruption allegations and in China President Xi Jinping has been stoking Chinese nationalism even in the realm of religion, claiming that if you must belong to a religion, try a Chinese one like Confucianism – which is clever because it is not actually a religion but a series of moral obligations. Not a single country in East Asia lost points over the reporting period. In most of these countries, governments do say that to be, for example, Sri Lankan is to be Buddhist; to be a Malay is to be Muslim. Christians are always in vulnerable minorities in Asia with the exception of Christian majority Philippines, but even here converts to Christianity in Muslim majority Mindanao are persecuted. It is an easy and common ploy for tottering governments to gain cheap support by scapegoating Christians.
Islamic radicalisation in sub-Saharan Africa is going mainstream
Of course sub-Saharan Africa has been hitting the headlines for years for the vicious antics of its Islamic militant insurgencies such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, the latter accused by the UN in November 2016 of causing Africa’s most urgent emergency with 8 million in danger from starvation as a result of their fight. This still continues. At least a dozen Christians were killed in Somalia this year by Al-Shabaab militants.
But what is not so well known is that Islamic militancy is gaining ground in many more sectors of society. In most of these countries it is not only violence driving the persecution, but all WWL “squeeze categories” (measuring the pressure on Christians in the five realms of private, family, community, church and national life) are showing rising levels of persecution.
It is astonishing that Kenya, a Christian majority country, still remains firmly entrenched in the top 20. Said the persecution analyst for the region: “Extremist violent movements seem to leave behind them a more radicalised people.” Hausa-Fulani herdsmen in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria have driven thousands of Christians off their lands. Somalia is #2 on the WWL because, as a local believer said: “Everything works against the Christian.”
All over the Sahel region the situation is worsening for Christians. According to an August 2016 World Watch Research report: “This is a critical time for the future of Christianity in the region … If the instability gets out of control and the militant groups have their way, Christians will be killed and exiled out of the entire region."
The Middle East is polarised between more radical and more autocratic regimes
It is no surprise that with the military pull-back of the USA in the Middle East, two regional powers have moved into the vacuum and both are extremist regimes – Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis are flexing their muscles in Yemen, as they seek to remove the Shia Houthi. The country has become a waste zone, with many Christians caught in the crossfire. Iran, now that its deal is done with the USA, has arrested record numbers of house church Christians, and many are losing their livelihoods after having to pay huge fines.
Always there is a dual effect of these trends, however. Some Muslims see an ugly face of Islam and convert away from it, leading to a remarkable growth in the so-called BMB (Believer from a Muslim Background) movement; but others become more fundamentalist either out of conviction or merely to blend in.
Sectarian divisions are increasing in many areas. Distinct from these more radical regimes are a group of more autocratic regimes, such as in Syria, Egypt and Algeria, that fight the extremists. Syria received the military backing of Russia this year. Syrian Christians in government run areas have in many cases as much freedom as before, and most Christians now have fled rebel held territory. But even in more peaceful Jordan (#27), where the King seeks to control the extremists, the backlash from his attempts has resulted in higher levels of pressure on Christians.
Christians are being killed in more countries than before for their faith
The sad toll of Christians killed has continued in countries where it is sickeningly common, in sub-Saharan Africa in particular – a killing zone for the last decade. But in the WWL 2017 reporting period, the most all-pervasive violence recorded was in Pakistan.
Not only Believers from a Muslim Background (who are routinely targeted) but also other Christians found themselves the victims of violence. In Latin America, where large territories are controlled by mafia or guerrillas, standing up against corruption can be fatal. It is rare to have a reporting period where the killings of Christians have been more geographically dispersed. Ironically, fewer reports came in of Christians having been killed in Syria and Iraq, as most have already left the territory which Islamic State established as a caliphate in 2014.
The Good News
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.
The Chinese House Church has a new opportunity to become more indigenous
Over 97 million people are Christians in China; 60 million plus worship outside state organised churches, but their leaders are conscious that they often look, sound, and worship too much like their Western counterparts. “We are not Chinese enough,” said a pastor from Beijing. The years since 2012 has seen state control increase, though unevenly, in President Xi’s new China. One pastor in Shanghai sees this is a gift from God. He was forced to close his growing church two years ago by officials who became alarmed at its size. The congregation met in a park for a while in defiance of their orders to disband. But now he views the situation differently. “We have been blindly copying the Western Church. But God has brought this persecution to stop us building mega churches and imitating others. Now that we have had to disperse back into smaller groups, I believe we have the chance to become a truly indigenous Church.”
Christians are looking forward to going back to their historic homes in northern Iraq
The days of an Islamic State-run caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria are numbered. Since an August 2016 offensive, the Islamic militants have been pushed back by a coalition of Iraqi and foreign-backed forces. Some of the towns and villages such as Qaraqosh – which were once completely Christian – have been liberated. Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul – will soon be in the hands of Iraqi forces. Over 80 000 Christians fled their homes in 2014, and have been refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan since. “We can’t wait to go back,” said one, in Erbil, and then added: “But we will go back with a greater determination to keep freedom defended.” While Christians are keen to return to Christian majority areas, it seems that some who lived in cities like Mosul are not so keen: “I was betrayed by my Muslim neighbours. ... How can I go back to live side by side with them now?”
Believers from a Muslim Background (BMBs) in Indonesia have no fear in their new faith
There are fewer categories of Christians in the world who have it harder than Believers from a Muslim Background (BMBs). Many have to keep their faith secret. Most face, on a daily basis, the hostility of family, tribe and society. But it is not always the case. In the country with the world’s largest population of Muslims – Indonesia – a new kind of Believer from a Muslim Background is emerging: Independent, strong and fearless. Their numbers may be a clue, as they are numerous. But as a long-time observer of this country said: “These new BMBs live a lifestyle that is not fearful, nor do they think they have to be like the Christians that told them about the Gospel – they will form a new strand of the Church, that will be more biblical and vibrant, and they will bless the world.”
The “exodus” of Christians in the Middle East is significantly slowing… for now
Most Christians in the Middle East may have crossed a border within the region, but for the moment they did not leave the region as a whole. However, a good number did and fleeing to a neighbouring country is often the first step to leaving the region for the West. As a person in Jordan who worked in the refugee camps has said: “Look, if you were a Christian and you had resources, you’ve already gone.” Thus, numbers exiting the region slowed, though many Christians still fear their existence in the region will come to an end. Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in the Middle East and Turkey at currently 16.5 million, including migrant and expatriate Christians in the Gulf States.
Some migrants are bringing new life to Western churches
The numbers of Christians among the migrant population entering Europe seems to be relatively small, but churches in countries like Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, who welcome the migrants, are also finding that they are not only givers but receivers. Christians in many towns have volunteered their time and skills to teach the local language, and connections have been made that extend all the way to the Church. Some Muslim migrants have converted to Christianity, and although there are ethical concerns that many are doing so to improve asylum claims, some churches are enjoying the benefit of a new influx of young believers. Said a pastor in a Cambridge (UK) church recently: “We feel revived by the new Christians. They have different questions, and remarkable experiences, and we have grown as their new curiosity has taught us new insights about our faith.” Said another pastor from central Germany: “They are reminding us what real faith looks like.”