The most oppressive regime in contemporary times, North Korea, tops this year’s Open Doors World Watch List (WWL) for the 14th consecutive year. Eritrea and Pakistan rise to their highest levels yet, namely, number three and number six respectively, and lawless Libya also enters the Top 10 for the first time in WWL history.
Islamic Extremism continues to constitute the main driving force of persecution in 35 of the Top 50 countries with Religious Nationalism and Dictatorial Paranoia also rising sharply as driving forces of persecution. Open Doors’ researchers note an average persecution increase of 2.8 points in this year’s Top 50, showing an increasing degree of persecution, compared to the previous year.
The Open Doors WWL lists the 50 countries worldwide where Christians experience the most persecution. Persecution is understood as any hostility experienced as a result of one’s identification with Christ. This can include hostile attitudes, words and actions towards Christians. Research methods and results have been independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF).
In the reporting period (November 1, 2014 – October 31, 2015) the Top 10 countries where Christians find it hardest to practice their faith, in order, are: North Korea (with 92 points), Iraq (90), Eritrea (89), Afghanistan (88), Syria (87), Pakistan (87), Somalia (87), Sudan (84), Iran (83) and Libya (79).
Eritrea and Pakistan – Two major risers in the Top 10
Dubbed as the “North Korea of Africa”, Eritrea ranks among the very worst countries in terms of freedom of religion, freedom of press, rule of law and other human rights records. Driving the persecution of Christians is first and foremost president Afewerki’s Dictatorial Paranoia. Any Christian who dares to protest the treatment of Christians, regardless of their status or position, is arrested or imprisoned. The former Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abune Antonius, has been under house arrest since 2007 for speaking out against Afewerki’s regime.
According to a United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report from November 2014, 22 per cent of all refugees reaching Italy by boat are Eritrean. “Eritrean Christians, even though they know that there is a very high probability of falling into the hands of traffickers and ruthless radical groups like the Islamic State (IS), are still desperate to escape from Eritrea,” an Open Doors researcher commented.
The world’s second largest Muslim country, Pakistan has risen to the number six position and receives the maximum score in the violence category in the World Watch List and it is the only country along with Nigeria to receive this score. The level of pressure is high in all spheres of life and persecution is spearheaded more by radical Islamic groups than the state. The beginning of the reporting period saw the killing of a Christian couple, working in a brick kiln on November 4, 2014 by a furious mob, and climaxed in a twin bomb attack on two churches in Lahore on March 15, 2015, leaving 25 dead and dozens wounded. This overt violence conceals the everyday abuse of Christian girls who are frequently abducted, raped, forced into marriage and conversion, and the fact that the country’s 3.8 million Christians feel increasingly under threat in their daily lives.
Newcomers to the Top 50 – Niger and Bahrain
In a very worrying turn of events, the entry score for the Top 50 has risen by almost 5 points. This proves that the World Watch List only reports on the tip of a larger iceberg. The 2016 WWL has two newcomers: Niger and Bahrain enter at number 49 and number 48 respectively. For Niger, the spread of Boko Haram into its territory has caused violence against and fear among Christians to rise sharply. In Bahrain, the sultan’s gradual introduction of sharia law has already begun to seriously restrict the public witness of Christian faith in this country.
These two new entries have ousted Sri Lanka and Mauritania from the Top 50, which were outflanked this year by rises in persecution worldwide. Despite leaving the official listing, the situation for these countries have not improved. In Sri Lanka, churches are still being attacked by local Buddhist communities, despite new hopes of protection for religious minorities with the newly elected government in power. Mauritania is one of only four official “Islamic Republics” in the world, and the influence of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mauritania is growing. The monitoring of all Christian activity has continued but thankfully violence has been very low throughout the reporting period.
The smash and squeeze
The Open Doors World Watch List is unique not only as an instrument that measures the persecution of Christians annually, but also because its methodology is designed to track the way in which the exercise of Christianity is squeezed in five distinct areas – private life, family life, community life, national life and church life. It also measures acts of violence against Christians by focussing on rapes, killings and church burnings. Dr Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, Director of Research at Open Doors International, explains why, “It is possible for persecution to be so intense in all areas of life that Christians fear to witness at all, and so you may find very low levels of violence as a result since incidents of persecution often result from acts of witness.”
The countries where this squeeze was most intensive were: Somalia, North Korea, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Maldives, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria. The highest levels of violence against Christians were in Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, Central African Republic, Egypt, Mexico, Sudan and India. Open Doors’ records show that worldwide there were well over 7 100 Christians killed for faith-related reasons in the reporting period. A rise of almost 3 000 in comparison to conservative figures from the 2015 WWL period. This is excluding North Korea, Syria and Iraq, where accurate records do not exist. Statistics also show that around 2 406 churches were attacked or damaged, which doubled in comparison with the 2015 WWL reporting period.
In Nigeria news of violence were dominated by the brutality of the radical Islamic militants, Boko Haram. But as Frans Veerman, the Director of the WWL Unit explains, even without Boko Haram, “that would still leave the Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen regularly committing atrocities against indigenous Christian farmers in the Middle Belt states. Out of the more than 4 000 Christians who lost their lives in attacks in Nigeria in the reporting period, 2 500 deaths are attributed to Boko Haram and no less than 1 500 to the Hausa-Fulani herdsmen. At least 30 000 Christians have been displaced through the violence in Taraba State alone. Researchers estimate that only 50% of the atrocities committed were uncovered by our field research.”
Christians in conflict hotspots – Iraq, Yemen, Kenya
The conflict zones of the world are very often regions where Christians are especially vulnerable. Whilst the world media fixes its attention on the battles and bombings, in the background the IS (or ISIS) is radicalizing populations even in countries where it has no apparent presence. The Kurdish region of north Iraq (which has risen four points into the number two position) is currently acting as a safe haven for thousands of Christian refugees from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. But even there, the government is ordering land to be sold to Muslim families in several predominantly Christian areas and towns. This “demographic reversal process” in many majority Christian areas is forcing Christians to live precariously in a minority situation – or leave. In Yemen (#11), which missed entering the Top 10 by just one point, Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war. Virtually all Western expatriates have fled the civil war, leaving just a few thousand brave believers from a Muslim Background in the country. The Church in Yemen is struggling to survive.
Other regions that show an increase in the Muslim population, are the northern and coastal areas of Kenya that rose 5 points to #16. Attacks from Al-Shabaab adherents killed 28 Christians on a bus from Mandera on November 22, 2014. 36 Christian quarry workers were killed on December 2, 2014, again in Mandera; 147 Christian university students in Garissa were killed on April 2, 2015, and 14 Christian quarry workers were killed in Mandera on July 7, 2015. Most of these were “execution-style” killings and Christians were targeted specifically by separating them from Muslims. It is to be feared that the situation for Christians will continue to deteriorate, especially as pressure in all spheres of life is high.
Central Asia – Rising persecution through surveillance of terror networks
Christians living in Central Asian states have seen a sharp deterioration in their religious freedom especially as these governments increase their surveillance and control on all groups in society, often cynically citing a need to crack down on Islamist inspired terror. Uzbekistan is a perennial occupant of the Top 20 (at #15) with Turkmenistan joining it at #19, and Tajikistan at #31 moving up from #45 as well as Azerbaijan (at #34 from #46) constituting some of this year’s significant risers.
The goal – To support the people behind the figures
The Open Doors World Watch List is the only annual survey of religious freedom conditions for Christians around the world. It is published firstly as a tool for the media to raise awareness. Secondly for politicians to make informed decisions and thirdly for churches around the world to support and pray for their brothers and sisters on the frontline.