By Rosie Dawson
The global pandemic has exacerbated the persecution faced by millions of Christians worldwide according to the global charity Open Doors International in its annual report today.
Its “World Watch List” ranks the 50 countries where Christians face the worst persecution, with North Korea topping the list, followed by Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria and India.
The report says Covid-19 has been used as a pretext by both government and non-state actors to deny aid to Christians and to increase surveillance on them.
In some cases, Christians find that they have been blamed for the virus, with al-Shabaab, the Islamist group in Somalia, claiming that the virus was spread “by the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them”.
“The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated existing social, economic and ethnic vulnerabilities of millions of Christians,” the report says. “It appears to be a catalyst for often-hidden attitudes of oppression and repression to surface in discriminatory acts or expression, such as online hate speech.”
The report indicates that good news stories are thin on the ground, though in Sudan the death penalty has been abolished for apostasy and Sharia is no longer the basis of law.
However, Ron Boyd-MacMillan, the global analyst for Open Doors International, told the Religion Media Centre that the situation facing Christians has become worse almost everywhere over the past 10 years, pointing to five main drivers of persecution.
“One is obviously the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the chaos and civil war that you had in the Middle East. You have Islamic extremism, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. You’ve got Chinese leaders becoming more fearful of Christian growth.
“Then there’s religious nationalism with Hindu extremists gaining power in India. And we would also say that narco-traffickers are increasingly out of control in Latin America.”
More Christians are murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country, the report says.
Julia Bicknell, executive director of World Watch Monitor, told the RMC that Christians were vulnerable to attack from the Fulani tribesmen, Boko Haram, and Iswap (Islamic State West Africa Province, a Boko Haram splinter group).
Boys may be forcibly recruited as soldiers, girls raped or forced into sexual slavery or marriage and church leaders held to ransom. The government is often powerless to protect people, and corruption, economic poverty and environmental degradation play into the hands of the insurgents.
“Islamic extremists exploit all of that and they come into a village on motorbikes and just rampage through. They also destroy crops and when they depart they leave the village hungry,” she said.
The report draws attention to the severity of persecution facing Muslims and Buddhists in China, but the government regards Christians as a potential threat to their rule, Dr Boyd-MacMillan said.
More churches were attacked here than in any other country in 2020, some were forcibly closed because of the Covid pandemic and crosses have been removed, he said. The “Chinafication” of the church continues, with clergy placed under pressure to deliver pro-government messages in their sermons. Bibles are redacted and the online sale of them is banned.
Dr Boyd-MacMillan says Christians in China had been enjoying greater freedom until Xi Jinping became president in 2013 when their fortunes changed. “I think the Chinese government is spooked by the size of the Chinese church and its growth. It’s increased by pretty much eight per cent year on year since 1980, and if it continues to grow at that rate, you’re looking at maybe 600 million by 2040.”
Rising religious nationalism in countries including Sri Lanka and Turkey means that the persecution of Christians is directly carried out by the state and indirectly sanctioned by them, the report says.
But India is the bigger story, with Christians and Muslims harassed by mobs who support the message of prime minister Narendra Modi that being Indian means being Hindu.
Although some regimes are impervious to any pressure put on them by the international community, advocacy and economic levers have proved effective with others. Julia Bicknell pointed to the example of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian convicted on blasphemy charges in 2010 and sentenced to death. Although she was acquitted in 2018 she was placed under house arrest and permitted to leave the country in 2019 only after sustained pressure on the government.
“My understanding is one of the critical factors was the threat of trade sanctions by the European Union. That threat was delivered by the then EU special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, Jan Figel, and I understand that it was his meeting and his threat of these sanctions that was one of the key points that led to Asia Bibi being allowed to leave for Canada,” she added.
When asked which country they would least like to live in as a Christian, Julia Bicknell cited Afghanistan and Somalia. Dr Boyd-Macmillan opted for the country that tops the World Watch List every year. “I do not want to live in the most religious state in the world, North Korea, where I would have to worship Kim Jong-un every day and his dynastic successors.”
Open Doors International, has 20 offices around the world, funded largely by donations. It began in 1955 with the work of a Dutchman, Brother Andrew, who smuggled Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said that it is one of the most credible, powerful, authentic and determined advocates of the protection of Christians but also generally of religious liberty.
A spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office said: “The UK remains deeply concerned about the severity and scale of violations and abuses on freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world. We regularly raise our concerns with other governments, and are clear in our commitment to defending this freedom for all, including persecuted Christians.”