Afghanistan is the most dangerous place to be a Christian after Taliban takeover
Open Doors International released its 2022 World Watch List (WWL) on 19 January. This list, compiled annually, announces the top 50 countries where Christians experience the worst persecution for their faith. In this worldwide survey that monitors how difficult it is to live as a Christian, the overall trend shows that the persecution of Christians rises at an alarming rate all over the world and especially in Africa.
The WWL, which records levels of persecution and discrimination across the globe, found that over 360 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith – a rise of 20 million from last year. The number represents one in seven Christians worldwide, up from one in eight on the 2021 WWL. This year records the highest levels of persecution since the first list was published 29 years ago, and in recent years has plotted a steady increase.
Beyond the top 50, five more countries also scored very high. Overall, 76 countries showed extreme, very high or high levels of persecution and discrimination.
Afghanistan is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian after the Taliban takeover, which also emboldens Islamist extremists worldwide – according to figures released today in the 2022 World Watch List (WWL). Afghanistan replaces North Korea at the top of the list after 20 years – this despite persecution also rising there this year. Since 2002, this country continuously ranked as the country with the worst persecution of Christians. It is followed by Somalia in third place.
Afghanistan – the brutal reality
The report paints a shocking picture of life for Afghanistan’s small, deeply hidden, Christian population, suggesting that:
- Christian men are facing almost certain death if their faith is discovered.
- Women and girls may escape death but maybe married to young Taliban fighters who want “spoils of war”. When women and girls are raped, they will be trafficked.
- The incoming Taliban government gained access to recordings and reports that helped to identify Christians who were often detained, to identify networks of Christians, before being killed.
- Taliban fighters are actively tracking down Christians from existing intelligence, even going door to door to find them.
- Much of the Christian population has fled to rural regions or refugee camps in neighbouring nations – all of which feature in the WWL as countries hostile to Christians.
Despite dropping to second place, persecution levels in North Korea have reached record highs this year. With a new anti-reactionary thought law, it has seen a rise in Christians being arrested. Arrest inevitably means imprisonment in one of the nation’s brutal “re-education camps”, from which few people emerge alive.
Rising violence, unrelenting pressure
Recorded killings of Christians for their faith rose from 4 761 registered cases (WWL 2021) to 5 898 (WWL 2022). Sub-Saharan Africa, and Nigeria especially, accounts for the bulk of these. The total number of churches attacked rose from 4 488 registered cases (WWL 2021) to 5 110 (WWL 2022) and detentions and arrests rose from 44% (from WWL 2021) to 6 175, with 1 315 of these in India.
However, while overt violence may be more attention-grabbing, the everyday unrelenting pressure upon Christian communities is just as important and continues to rise. These express themselves in a myriad of subtle and overt forms: Discrimination at work, pressure from family members to renounce your faith, being placed at the back of the queue for aid and medicine (particularly during Covid-19), bureaucracy preventing the licensing of churches, and much more.
When only looking at the violent persecution of Christians, in the rankings of the top 5 countries for violence alone, three of the five countries are on the African continent. Nigeria, which is ranked seventh on the overall WWL, has once again topped the list as the most violent country for Christians in the world.
According to Lynette Leibach, executive director of Open Doors Southern Africa, this year’s World Watch List makes for sobering reading. “The rise of Afghanistan to the top of the World Watch List is deeply troubling. Apart from the incalculable suffering it represents, it sends out a very clear message to Islamic extremists everywhere that they can continue their brutal fight for influence, unchecked.
“With emboldened Islamists, resurgent nationalism and many countries developing more sophisticated forms of persecution, we are entering a new era of diminishing human rights. With religious freedom providing a foundation for so many other freedoms, we desperately need to see a renewal of commitment to shoring up human rights in 2022. When even paying lip service to human rights is shrinking, the promotion and protection of religious freedom is more urgent than ever,” she says.
Most important trends on the list
The main trends on the list since WWL 2021 are:
- Qatar (#18 from #29), the host for this year’s World Cup, where converts from Islam especially face physical, psychological and (for women) sexual violence.
- Indonesia (#28 from #47), where Christians faced two attacks in Central Sulawesi, as well as a bomb attack against the cathedral in Makassar.
- Myanmar (#12 from #18), where the army has attacked Christian villages and churches, driving more than 200 000 into internal displacement camps.
- Bhutan (#34 from #43), where converts especially face community pressure and violence – in the case of women, sexual violence.
- Open Doors’ recent report on India (#10) describes a nation being drawn further into nationalist Hindutva ideology, where to be Indian is to be Hindu. A wave of vigilante violence against Christians and other religious minorities has been overlooked or even encouraged by political leaders across the nation; and accompanied by a surge in misinformation and propaganda from mainstream and social media.
- A similar model of loyalty and homogeneity is seen in nations as diverse as Myanmar (#12), Malaysia (#50), Sri Lanka (#52) and the central Asian states. All these face increased restrictions for those who deviate from the creed of “one country, one people, one creed”.
- Under communist ideology in the Americas, the Covid-19 pandemic has been used as a pretext to monitor churches and impose further restrictions. In Cuba (entering the list at #37), after July’s protests, church leaders who spoke out were detained and tortured
- Some good news: Iraq (#14 from #11), Syria (#15 from #12), Egypt (#20 from #16), and Turkey (#42 from #25) have seen reductions in violence. Although it may just be that there were fewer opportunities for active persecution during the Covid pandemic, it is still welcome.
The situation in Africa
Meanwhile, the fall of Kabul has fuelled a new mood of invulnerability among other jihadist groups worldwide. The groups believe that they won’t face serious opposition from the West for their expansionist agendas and are exploiting nations with weak or corrupt governments.
Its effects are not yet fully felt in the WWL 2022 reporting period (1 October 2020 until 30 September 2021), but there are strong signs that it is set to further boost violence in countries such as Nigeria (#7), Mali (#24), the Central African Republic (#31), Burkina Faso (#32), Niger (#33) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (#40) – countries with already high levels of violence.
In Nigeria a total of 4 650 Christians has been recorded as killed – 79% of the worldwide total. A similar strategy by jihadist groups and their supporters elsewhere in the region can be seen:
- Sub-Saharan Africa, already the place where violence against Christians is the highest, has faced further steep rises in jihadist violence, with fears that a significant part of the region faces destabilisation.
- Social order in Mali, (#24 on the WWL) is deteriorating fast, with fears it could become the “next Afghanistan” with insurgency spilling into neighbouring countries Niger and Burkina Faso.
- Both the Democratic Republic of the Congo, plagued by the Alliance of Democratic Forces, and the Central African Republic have joined Nigeria in the top ten list for levels of violence.
The “refugee church”
The continuing violence and destabilisation in these areas look set to have serious consequences as thousands more around the world flee their homes for safety. An estimated 84 million people have been forced to leave their homes, either internally displaced, or, for an estimated 26,6 million, as refugees in other nations.
A significant number are Christians, fleeing religious persecution:
- In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Christian population has simply emptied out and left. In the past few years, hundreds of churches have been closed in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and 470 in Nigeria for this reporting period alone.
- Hundreds of thousands have fled Islamist violence (e.g., in the Sahel region) or are fleeing forced conscription (Eritrea #6), civil conflict (Sudan #13), state repression (Iran #9) and/or family oppression due to their faith.
- Christian internally displaced people and refugees continue to live in Iraq (#14), Syria (#15), Lebanon and Jordan (#39), amongst others. As Christians they can be denied humanitarian and other practical assistance by authorities.
- In Myanmar (#12), at least 200 000 Christians have been internally displaced and 20 000 fled the country as Christian regions have been targeted in the ongoing conflict.
Often, when people have fled their homes, they are even more vulnerable. Christian women fleeing their homes and seeking safety report sexual assault to be the leading source of persecution, with multiple reports of women and children subjected to rape, sexual slavery and more, both in camps and while they journey in search of safety. As jihadism spreads and destabilises nations, we can expect this Christian exodus to multiply further.
Visit www.opendoors.org.za to view the full 2022 World Watch List, the top 50 country profiles and persecution statistics.
For any questions about the 2022 World Watch List, the research methodology or to arrange an interview, please contact Elizabeth Botha, Media and Advocacy Officer, at [email protected], 083 227 8164 or 011 888 9341.
Open Doors Southern Africa (ODSA) forms part of the Open Doors International ministry, which serves persecuted Christians in over 60 countries across the world by delivering Bibles and Christian literature, visiting persecuted Christians, discipleship and training, offering emergency aid to victims of persecution and natural disasters, and speaking out and raising awareness through advocacy.
Media release issued by Elizabeth Botha
Media and Advocacy Officer: Open Doors Southern Africa
Tel: 083 227 8164 / (011) 888 9341
Email: [email protected]