From China to sub-Saharan Africa, Christians experience high levels of persecution in 73 countries

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A woman reads the Bible at the Christian Glory church in Wuhan, China, in September 2018.

In its latest annual survey of 150 countries monitoring how difficult it is to live as a Christian, out today, the overall trend in the 2019 World Watch List is that almost half (73) showed extreme, very high or high levels of persecution. A year earlier, it was 58 countries.

The List, produced by global charity Open Doors International and based on extensive surveys from internal and external experts, peers behind the global headlines of cases such as Pakistani Asia Bibi and Protestant pastor Andrew Brunson, now freed from a Turkish prison, to find out how difficult it is to live as an active Christian in daily life.

It reports that new laws in China and Vietnam seek to control all expression of religion.

It says that in China, it’s the worst religious repression there’s been in more than a decade; some even say since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

In the north and Middle Belt of Nigeria, meanwhile, at least 3,700 Christians were killed for their faith – almost double the number of a year ago (an estimated 2,000) – with villages completely abandoned by Christians forced to flee, as their armed attackers then move in to settle, with impunity.

Nationalistic governments such as India and Myanmar continue to deny freedom of religion for their sizeable Christian minorities, sending the very clear message that to be Indian, one must be Hindu, or to be Burmese one must embrace Buddhism.

Extreme persecution also comes at the hands of radical Islamic militias, such as in Egypt – where the Islamic State in Sinai vowed in 2017 to ‘wipe out’ the Coptic Church – as well as in Libya, Somalia and many other sub-Saharan countries. South-east Asia has seen suicide bombers in Indonesia attack three churches in one day.

In Mexico and Colombia, persecution mainly comes when church leaders challenge corruption and cartels.

But, globally, it also comes from family and friends, from fellow-villagers and work colleagues, from community councils and local government officials and from police and legal systems. Christian women and girls face more persecution pressure in family and social spheres; men and boys are more likely to experience the brunt of pressure from the authorities or militias.

In summary, Open Doors estimates that at least 245 million Christians experience ‘high’ levels of persecution in 73 countries – up from 215 million in 58 countries in the previous year.

Interactive map: The 2019 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 14th on the 2019 World Watch List. Its persecution level is “very high”.

Facts and figures

The top 11 countries on the 2019 List have an ‘extreme’ level of persecution (scoring 81+ points out of 100); the same number of countries as 2018, though Iraq has dropped out, mainly due to the territorial defeat of Islamic State and decrease in armed conflict there. India moves up from 11 last year, its highest place ever, to the Top Ten this year.

With India at ‘extreme’ and China at ‘very high’, two of the world’s most numerous Christian populations, one in a secular democracy, the other in a Communist state, face large-scale persecution – albeit expressed through very different ways.

Of the 4,136 deaths for Christian faith that the List reports, Nigeria alone accounts for about 90% (3,731).

29 countries (ranked 12-40) have a ‘very high’ level of persecution (scoring 61+ points out of 100).

33 countries (ranked 41-73) scored a ‘high’ level of persecution (41+ points).

While the organization publishes the Top 50, that means that this year, an extra 23 countries scored enough to be listed as ‘Persecution Watch’ countries (also a ‘high’ level of persecution, but outside the Top 50).

Including these 23 countries, Open Doors says its figures equate to 1 in every 9 Christians globally experiencing ‘high’ levels of persecution: last year it was the equivalent of 1 in 12. However, across Asia (according to the UN definition, this includes the Middle East), it drops to 1 in 3, while across Africa, it’s 1 in 6, and in Latin America, 1 in 21.

“We have statistical evidence to back up our experience that persecution is growing both in intensity and in the number of countries and [Christians] affected”, said Wybo Nicolai, who created the World Watch List in the 1990s and is now Open Doors International’s chief of external services. “This List does not break the trends of the past few years; it’s even worse than last year.”

The rankings are based on surveys of five spheres (or categories) of life: private, family, community, national and church life. A sixth block, ‘violence’, cuts across all five, and measures serious ‘violence’ (including deprivation of freedom) to people or property.

Setting aside the ‘violence’ category, the median score for the top 50 in 2014 was 52.9. In 2019 it is 61.4 – an increase of 16 percent in the scores of the first five categories. This shows that persecution is not only related to outright violence but also to increasing pressure in one’s daily life.

Highlights of the 2019 Open Doors World Watch List

North Korea remains no 1, as it has done every year since 2002

Despite the thawing of relations with North Korea after the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit in June 2018, experts say there is no sign of any improvement in the lives of the country’s estimated 200,000-400,000 Christians; 50,000–70,000 of them are thought to be in labor camps.

There’s no change from 2018 to the next two highest countries: Afghanistan (2) and Somalia (3).

Libya rises to no. 4 (7 in 2018): 

Continues as a ‘fragile state’. In July, the National Army regained control of the last Islamist stronghold in the east, but in September, the UN-backed government had to declare a state of emergency in the capital, Tripoli, after rival militias clashed. There have been no high-profile ‘foreigner’ deaths this year, but since the European Union made it harder for migrants to arrive via the Mediterranean, an estimated 20,000 Christians from sub-Saharan Africa are stranded in Libya, making them extra-vulnerable to pressure or violence. Trusted sources report at least 10 killed for their faith. There are also credible reports of rape, slavery and abuse. A tiny number of Libyan nationals identify as Christians; it is incredibly dangerous to convert from Islam.

Pakistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen and Iran (nos. 5-9): all at ‘extreme’ and have not moved much since 2018.

India rises to no. 10 (11 in 2018)

The Hindu nationalist BJP government, ahead of national elections in 2019, has introduced an ‘anti-conversion’ law in Uttarakhand this year, bringing the total with this law to 8 states out of 29 (two states have the law on their books but do not implement it). Militant Hindu nationalists’ stance is that Christianity is a foreign, alien religion and that to be Indian, one must be Hindu. Mobs act with impunity to destroy churches and attack church leaders, killing and injuring them and even sometimes raping their wives and children. If Christians dare to report incidents to the police, they instead find themselves falsely accused of carrying out ‘forced’ conversions of Hindus, which India’s mass media frequently misreport.

Most significant rises outside the Top Ten:

Myanmar (Burma) rises to 18 (24 in 2018)

More than 4 million Christians comprise 8% of the total population. Most live in Kachin, where 85% are estimated to be Christians, and northern Shan State; both border China. While world attention has focused in 2018 on the persecution of the Rohingyas, ethnic and tribal conflicts involving Christian majorities — the Karen, Chin, Kachin — continue. At least 150,000 have been displaced since 2011 due to fighting, but international aid shipments are blocked by the Myanmar army, and even UN agencies are constantly denied access. Visitors who did get in report that the Army has bombed churches, which are replaced by Buddhist pagodas, since “to be Burmese is to be Buddhist”. A campaign by China-backed rebels, the United Wa State Army in northern Shan State, closed dozens of churches and detained and expelled dozens of Christians in September 2018.

Central African Republic rises to 21 (35 in 2018) 

The situation in CAR is still precarious. 80% is occupied by 9 or 10 armed militia groups, responsible for myriad human-rights abuses; it borders other fragile and volatile countries, which makes its conflict more challenging. Three million are in need of assistance and protection and it’s one of the most dangerous places to be an aid worker. Despite the joint award-winning efforts of CAR’s Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders, who consistently deny that the conflict is rooted in religious differences, numerous acts of violence are committed in which individuals and communities are targeted in ways linked to their faith. In August, Russia was the broker of the latest of a number of peace agreements which so far have not worked.

Algeria rises to 22 (42 in 2018) 

No country had a greater increase in overall score from 2018 to 2019 than Algeria – where the Church is growing, especially in the Berber region in the country’s north. It mostly consists of first-generation Christians who face many pressures from the state and family members; it’s thought that increased boldness has brought a backlash from friends and society. At least 6 Protestant churches have been forcibly closed; dozens of others have been told to close. The Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), although recognized since 1974, still lacks official status despite meeting all legal requirements. The EPA seeks de-regulation of places of worship, an end to anti-proselytism laws, and freedom to import Christian materials: “Some Algerians continue to be victims of bullying and prosecution for the mere fact of being in possession of a Bible,” it says.

Mali rises to 24 (37 in 2018), Mauritania to 25 (47 in 2018); the organization says both these rises are “mainly due to more data and/or better processing”

China rises to 27 (43 in 2018)

With about 100 million Christians, the Church is the largest social force not controlled by the Communist Party (89 million members). Official data show Christians as comprising 10% of the population in some areas. Around half of them experience some form of persecution: last year it was around 20%. New Regulations for Religious Affairs came into force on 1 February 2018 as President Xi Jinping tightened control of religious affairs. These define the administration around religious activities with the stated aim of “protect[ing] citizens’ freedom of religious belief”. However, the rules are the most restrictive in 13 years – some say since the Cultural Revolution which ended in 1976 – with new restrictions on online religious expression and proselytism. Since the Party, not the government, controls implementation of the new law, restrictions are much harsher, especially for youths and children.

Indonesia rises to 30 (38 in 2018)

212 million people form the world’s largest Muslim population. Ahead of Presidential/national elections in 2019, Christians (32 million of total Indonesian population) saw the high-profile trial of former Jakarta Governor ‘Ahok’ and his two year prison sentence for a faked-up, false charge of blasphemy (he’s due to be freed in Jan 2019) as evidence of rising religious intolerance. The triple-suicide attack against churches in Surabaya in May 2018, committed by one Islamist family, including girls as young as nine, shocked the country, till recently known for its ‘moderate’ Islam.

Into the top 50:

Morocco rises to 35 (55 in 2018), mainly due to more data and better processing

Russian Federation rises to 41 (54 in 2018)

The state regards non-traditional Christian communities – about 2% of the total population – as un-Russian, Western spies who rob the ‘state’ Orthodox Church of members. As a result, the activities of these communities are constantly monitored by state agents like the state intelligence service, the FSB, or police. During the past few years, the state developed tighter laws regulating religious activity, partly in response to the threat of radical Islamic violence. During the WWL 2019 reporting period, five Christians were killed, five injured in a church attack in Dagestan in February; one killed and a church destroyed in Chechnya in May. In such Muslim-majority areas, non-Orthodox Christians are also often targeted on suspicion of evangelism.

A minor factor is the difficulties that, especially, non-Orthodox churches face in the Crimea regarding their obligatory re-registration after Russia annexed this peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Most significant falls:

Iraq fell to 13 (8 in 2018)

With the territorial defeat of Islamic State, thousands of Christians, amongst others, returned to rebuild and resettle, especially in the Nineveh region. But that does not mean their persecution is at an end. As a minority, they continue to face harassment, discrimination, and often physical and mental harm.

Malaysia fell to 42 (23 in 2018) but scored only 5 fewer points than 2018

A general election in May ended the 62-year rule by a coalition led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Ex-Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, now 93, left retirement, switched allegiance, and won. Conversion to Christianity in Muslim-majority Malaysia is against the law in almost all states, as is evangelism among Malay Muslims. A pastor who received death threats for allegedly doing the latter, abducted in February 2017, is still missing. The new government, however, resumed an enquiry into his fate and that of others who’ve disappeared. (However, events immediately after the reporting period for the List, 1 November 2017 – 31 October 2018, point to increasing pressure on ethnic and religious minorities).

For the 2nd year, gender-specific persecution was researched:

Gender-specific persecution is found to be a key means of undermining the Christian community, so the differing areas of vulnerability for men and women are systematically exploited. In the top 5 most difficult countries to live as a Christian, the female experience of persecution is characterized by sexual violence, rape and forced marriage. On the other hand, Christian men are more likely to be detained without trial or summarily killed by the authorities or militias.

The 2019 trends reinforce the findings of 2018: that the persecution of men is, by and large, “focused, severe and visible” and that of women is “complex, violent and hidden”. The hidden nature of women’s experiences makes it challenging to report; however, the global NGO says that the past two years have “begun to unearth a growing understanding as more women are surveyed and new questions asked”.

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