by Gavin Matthews
Every year Open Doors publishes their “World Watch List”; the definitive list of the places where Christians face the most severe persecution. The 2019 list contains some familiar names, but also some surprises.
The fact that the roll-call of shameful governments is once again headed by North Korea is a surprise to no-one. It has occupied this position of notoriety for 18 years. Little of what goes on in the world’s most systematically totalitarian regime is known in the outside world, other than the infamous repression of Kim Jong Un’s regime. For the Christian minority, persecution is notoriously severe, but precise statistics about the numbers involved remain hard to establish. Open Doors’ best estimates suggest that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians, of whom between 50,000 and 70,000 are currently toiling in the brutal labour camps. 1
The Global trend
Steven Pinker points to global trends of healthcare, education, life-expectance and violence and argues that the world is getting substantially better. While there are many reasons to celebrate widespread progress in many fields, this should be matched by concern that for many of the worlds Christians, persecution is getting substantially worse. Henrietta Blyth of Open Doors said: “Our research uncovers a shocking increase in the persecution of Christians globally. In China our figures indicate persecution is the worst it’s been in more than a decade – alarmingly, some church leaders are saying it’s the worst since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. Worldwide, our data reveals that 13.9 per cent more Christians are experiencing high levels of persecution than last year. That’s 30 million more people.” That includes one-in-three Asian Christians facing a violation of the human rights, simply on account of their faith. No wonder that British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt estimated that 80% of religious persecution in the world is targeted at Christians.2
China, which was once thought to be liberalising in its approach to human rights, including the freedom of religion, has moved up 16 places to become 27th worst country for Christians. It is shocking to see India appearing in the top-ten on World Watch List in 2019 for the first time ever.
The Indian Constitution protects freedom of religion and belief 3, yet research demonstrates that Hindu extremists can act with impunity and that violent attacks on Christians and churches are on the rise. This is driven by growing ultra-nationalism, which has brought waves of violence against India’s significant non-Hindu religious minorities. Rising nationalism is leading to similar persecution in other countries such as Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal where national identity is tied to religion. Formal commitments to freedom of religion are being sidelined, as religious conformity is seen as national loyalty and minority belief a form of treachery.
The Worst Offenders
North Korea once held the unenviable record of bring the only country whose persecution index was ranked in the “severe” category. In recent years it has been joined by Afghanistan (2nd), Somalia (3rd), Libya (4th), Pakistan (5th), Sudan (6th), Eritrea (7th), Yemen (8th), Iran (9th), India (10th) and Syria (11th). The global situation has deteriorated so much that Open Doors have had to recalibrate their ‘points’ system for offending regimes. Nigeria, infamous for the kidnappings of Christian girls, saw 3,700 Christians martyred in 2018, but doesn’t even reach the top ten on this year’s persecution index.
Gender-specific persecution is receiving new attention in Open Doors research which shows that that the persecution of men tends to be “focused, severe and visible” and that of women is “complex, violent and hidden”. Men are more likely to face detention without trial, or summary execution; whereas the persecution of women more typically involves sexual violence, rape or forced marriage.
Syria bucks the trend for worsening persecution, as the widespread collapse of the Islamic State regime has stemmed the tide of abuses coming from that context. 4
Read the World Watch List from Open Doors in more detail here:
Persecution, is rated as “Extreme” in North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, India, and Syria. It is rated as “Very High” in Nigeria, Iraq, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Central African Republic, Algeria, Turkmenistan, Mali, Mauritania, Turkey, China, Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Indonesia, Jordan, Nepal, Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Brunei, Tunisia, Qatar, Mexico and Kenya. While the following countries have “High” levels of persecution: The Russian Federation, Malaysia, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Bangladesh, Palestinian Territories and Azerbaijan.