Global Persecution of Christians Continues, Worsened by the Pandemic

An annual report on the global persecution of Christians spotlights 50 countries where Christians are targeted for their faith, including more than a dozen nations where followers have been denied food rations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Women’s Fellowship at Christian church in Rikkos, Nigeria, 2009 in a burned out, roofless church where the pastor was killed and the church burned in 2008.
Women’s Fellowship at Christian church in Rikkos, Nigeria, 2009, in the church where their pastor was killed and the church burned the year before. Photo by Mike Blyth. (Creative Commons license)

The report, released at the start of every year by Open Doors USA, a Christian support group that supplies Bibles, trains church leaders, and offers support and emergency relief to Christians in more than 60 countries, is titled “World Watch List 2021: The Top 50 Countries Where it’s Most Difficult to Follow Jesus.” 

“More than 340 million of our Christian brothers and sisters live in places where they experience high levels of persecution and discrimination,” says David Curry, Chairman and CEO of Open Doors USA, in an introduction to the report. “That’s 1 in 8 Christians worldwide.”

The list is divided into two sections, each ranked by the severity of persecution, which is calculated by analyzing the level of sheer violence experienced by Christians, plus how their persecution is expressed in five specific areas of their lives: private life, family, community, national and church life.

The first section covers 10 countries where “extreme persecution” of Christians is rife. These include North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria and India. The rest of the 40 countries characterized by “very high persecution” run the gamut from Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, Kuwait and Kenya.

For the past three years, North Korea and Afghanistan have almost tied for the top spot on the Open Doors list, says the report. While communist oppression is the major source of persecution in North Korea, in Afghanistan, where Islam is the main religion, the major source of persecution is clan oppression.

“Christian converts face dire consequences if their new faith is discovered,” says the report, adding that converts essentially must flee the country or risk being killed. “If their family discovers their conversion, the family, clan or tribe must save its ‘honor’ by disowning the believer, or even killing them,” writes Open Doors USA. According to the report, “Christians from a Muslim background can also be sent to a psychiatric hospital, because leaving Islam is considered a sign of insanity.”

This past year was particularly difficult for billions of people as they struggled to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. But 2020 also “exposed the ugliness of Christian persecution in a new way,” says the report, highlighting the plight of Christians in India.

More than 100,000 Christians in primarily rural areas of the Hindu-majority country received pandemic relief aid from Open Doors partners. “Of these believers,” says the report, “80 percent reported to World Watch List researchers that they were dismissed from food distribution points.”

“Some walked miles and hid their Christian identity to get food elsewhere,” adds the report. “Another 15 percent received food aid but reported other discrimination, such as being passed over for employment.”

Christians were also denied food aid in a host of other countries, from Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, Bangladesh and Vietnam to Pakistan, Yemen and Sudan. “Sometimes this denial was at the hands of government officials, but more often it was from village heads, committees or other local leaders,” says the report. “Some Christians even reported that their food ration cards were torn up or waved away.”

While violence against Christians decreased in many parts of the world last year because of the pandemic, that was not the case across sub-Saharan Africa. “Christians there faced up to 30 percent higher levels of violence than the previous year,” according to the report.

The report quoted a United Nations official as saying that countries in the central Sahel, such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, are experiencing the world’s fastest-growing human displacement crisis.

The calamity is particularly striking in Burkina Faso, which entered the World Watch List for the first time last year. The African country was known until recently for its “interreligious harmony between Muslims and Christians,” according to the report.

As many as 1 million people in Burkina Faso—1 in 20 members of the population—are displaced and millions more face a food crisis because of drought and violence, says the report, adding that Islamic extremists continue to target churches in the country, where 14 people were killed in one attack and 24 in another. 


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