‘Unprecedented’ persecution of Egypt’s Christians heads 2018 World Watch List

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After years in prison and exposure to torture, 'freedom' can taste bitter. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Mourners carry the coffin of a victim of the blast at the Coptic Christian Saint Mark’s church in Alexandria, April 2017

More Christians abused in India than in all other countries combined; Nepal enters list

Islamic extremists driven out of Iraq and Syria are behind a new intensity of Christian persecution in surrounding countries, says global charity Open Doors in its latest annual survey of countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.

The Open Doors 2018 World Watch List shines a light on the suffering of Coptic Christians in Egypt, ranked 17th on this year’s list. Last year 128 Egyptian Christians were killed in religiously  motivated attacks; many others had to flee their homes for other parts of the country.

Perhaps Egypt’s most clear-cut case of anti-Christian violence was when an assassin asked a Coptic woman to help him cross off from his hit-list the names of her husband and son, whom he had just murdered. A spate of killings over the summer led a Cairo priest to describe the murder of Copts as “the most aggressive campaign against them in the history of modern Egypt”. In February the Islamic State group vowed in a propaganda video to “wipe out” Egypt’s Copts and “liberate Cairo”.

Egypt, which is home to about half the Christians in the Middle East, witnessed several incidents of mass murder during celebrated dates in the Christian calendar. At Easter, 49 people were killed in two church bombings, while in May Islamic extremists attacked people travelling to an Ascension Day service at a monastery in Upper Egypt, killing 28.

“Last year, 128 people were killed in Egypt simply for being Christian. For many more it is an act of quiet resistance to continue attending their churches – not to be scared into staying at home. The violent deaths hit the headlines, but the slow, suffocating discrimination and abuse Christians face every day goes unreported,” said Lisa Pearce, CEO of Open Doors UK and Ireland.

The situation across the Middle East has deteriorated for Christians, as hard-line Islamic views have become more widely held, says the report, which also singles out Turkey for special mention. It was not on Open Doors’ list in 2014, but growing Islamisation and Turkish nationalism have contributed to its rise from a ranking of 41st when it entered the list in 2015 to 31st in 2018.

These are the countries where Christian persecution is most severe. Video shows the top 5, in reverse order:

Nepal enters World Watch List; in India extreme persecution by Hindu nationalists continues

Nepal is a new addition to the list – ranked 25th. It has seen a sharp increase in persecution due to the growing influence of Hindu extremists, who are behind a surge of religious nationalism mirroring the situation in neighbouring India. In 2017 Nepal criminalised religious conversions by passing a law that the country’s minority Christians fear will be used against them to settle personal scores.

Last year 23,793 Christians in India were physically or mentally abused – more than the numbers abused in all the other countries of the World Watch List put together, according to Open Doors. Indian Christians faced almost as many attacks in the first half of 2017 as in all of 2016.

Extreme religious nationalism in India has made life a daily struggle for Christians in many areas. Ranked this year at 11th, the situation for Indian Christians has been deteriorating sharply since 2014 when it ranked 28th. In August last year church leaders protested against the government’s “Hindu nationalist agenda”, after the hurrying through of “anti-conversion laws” in Jharkhand, which became the latest Indian state to pass a so-called Religious Freedom Bill.

North Korea most dangerous place for Christians for 17th year in a row

North Korea remains the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. An estimated 70,000 Christians are believed to be imprisoned in labour camps. Last year’s closer monitoring of the country’s border with China is thought to be behind a reported a 13 per cent fall in North Koreans fleeing to South Korea. In August, World Watch Monitor told the dramatic story of how Hannah Cho fled her country but was imprisoned and tortured before finally settling in South Korea.

Emerging persecution in Southeast Asia

Persecution, fuelled by Islamic extremism, has risen across Southeast Asia. Both Malaysia and Indonesia climbed the list. An allegiance to the Islamic State group on the Philippines island of Mindanao led to major fighting there in 2017. World Watch Monitor reported in October that the killing of two Islamist ringleaders, which brought an end to the five-month-long siege of Marawi, may have liberated the city but did not wipe out “the root cause of extremism” on the island.

The Maldives, where conversion away from Islam is forbidden and punishable by death, remains consistently high on the list at 13th.

Central Asia – the crackdown continues

Evangelical Christians in the countries known as the ‘stans’ continue to face intimidation and harsh penalties from the authorities, which are suspicious of non-state groups gaining popularity. Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are ranked 22th and 28th respectively. Kazakhstan is about to pass a new set of religious-freedom restrictions that “flagrantly” violate human-rights obligations.

‘North Korea of Africa’

Two of the top-five countries on the list are in Africa, where Islamic extremists continue to persecute Christians. Somalia ranks 3rd, and Sudan, where a programme of church demolitions continued after the US lifted its sanctions, is one place lower, at 4th. Dubbed the ‘North Korea of Africa’, Eritrea has risen four places in the rankings to 6th. Last year the government stepped up its campaign against Christians, who are considered to be agents of the West and a threat to the state; 375 were arrested, sentenced or imprisoned and 385 were physically or mentally abused.

Extreme levels of violence towards Christians continued in Nigeria. More than 2,000 Christians were killed there last year, and more than 500 Christian women were raped or sexually abused. Rape is used as a weapon of war by Islamic extremists in northern Nigeria. A 2017 report concluded that the thousands of Christians who had lost their lives in non-Boko Haram related violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt – predominantly at the hands of Fulani herdsmen – amounted to “evidence of ethnic cleansing”.

Interactive map: The 2018 World Watch List

Select a country to see its rank on the list

Note: This map does not display World Watch List data for the Maldives, a tiny island chain in the Indian Ocean, southwest of India, which is ranked 13th on the 2018 World Watch List. Its persecution level is “very high”.

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