Christian persecution at highest level since Open Doors launched World Watch List 30 years ago

Nigerian Christian refugees near Yola, eastern Nigeria (PHOTO: Open Doors)

Violence against Christians soars in sub-Saharan Africa, N Korea regains spot as most dangerous place to be a Christian

Persecution of Christians is at the highest level in the 30 years since Open Doors International published its first annual World Watch List (WWL) of countries where Christians face the worst persecution for their faith, according to the 2023 WWL which was released today.

The survey which lists the 50 countries where Christians experience the worst persecution for their faith, shows that persecution of Christians has risen at an alarming rate all over the world, especially in Africa.

During the past week, several shocking incidents of persecution in Africa reached news headlines: A bomb killed at least 17 people and injured about 20 others at a church in the North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, about 50 women were abducted in two incidents in Burkina Faso and another church leader was brutally killed in Niger State, Nigeria, while several worshippers were kidnapped in Katsina State.

The WWL, which covers the period from October 1 2021 to September 30 2022, found that more than 360 million Christians suffer extreme or very high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith – a rise of 20 million since two years ago. In the top 50 countries alone, 312 million Christians now face very high or extreme levels of persecution. This number represents one in seven Christians worldwide, up from one in eight two years ago – with one in five in Africa, two in five in Asia and one in 15 in Latin America.

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Over the 30 years of Open Doors’ World Watch List reporting, the number of countries where Christians face high to extreme levels of persecution nearly doubled from 40 countries in 1993 to 76 countries in 2023.

Some of the biggest concerns on this year’s list are the violence against Christians in sub-Saharan Africa that has reached new heights, the increased persecution and digital control in China threatening the Church, worsening conditions for the Church in Latin America and the continued pressure on the Church in the Middle East.

Beyond the top 50, five more countries also scored very high. Overall, 76 countries showed extreme, very high or high levels of persecution and discrimination.

Top 5 countries

North Korea (1) is back in the top position after it was dethroned by Afghanistan last year, following the Taliban takeover of this country in 2021. However, before that, North Korea was in the top spot for the previous 20 years (from 2002 until 2021).

Two boys in city in the north of North Korea (PHOTO: Open Doors)

This year sees the highest ever persecution score in North Korea. This reflects an increase in arrests of Christians and more underground house churches discovered and closed. Arrest means execution, or life in one of the nation’s horrifically inhumane camps for political prisoners, where prisoners face near-starvation, torture and sexual violence. The new rise comes with the enforcement of the new “anti-reactionary thought law”, which criminalised any published materials of foreign origin in North Korea, along with the Bible.

Despite Afghanistan (9) moving down from the top position in 2022 to the ninth position this year, the sharp drop offers little cheer and persecution in this country remains at an extreme level. The large drop in its ranking is because convert life has gone deeper underground – which created a bigger challenge to obtain verified violence data.

After the brutal Taliban takeover in 2021, many Christians were executed, as the Taliban went door-to-door to root out believers. Many Christians went deep into hiding or fled overseas. In 2022, the Taliban’s focus to root out those with links to the old regime has intensified, more than uprooting the very small number of Christians remaining.

Somalia, which was third in 2022, moved up to the second position this year. It is followed by Yemen in third place, Eritrea in fourth place and Libya in fifth place.

Violence in sub-Saharan Africa

Violence against Christians in sub-Saharan Africa has reached alarming new levels, as violent Islamic militants destabilise the region using extreme violence. It is most extreme in Nigeria (6), where militants from the Fulani, Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and others conduct raids on Christian communities, killing, maiming, raping and kidnapping for ransom or sexual slavery. 

Christians in Burkina Faso (PHOTO: Open Doors)

Sub-Saharan Africa faces a vast humanitarian catastrophe, as a wave of religiously motivated violence nurtured in Nigeria has swept across the region, targeting Christian populations at an alarming rate in countries such as Mali (17), Burkina Faso (23), Niger (28) and Cameroon (45). Signs of jihadist expansion are also clearly visible in Mozambique (32), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (37) and other countries. 

Religiously-motivated killings in Nigeria have risen from 4 650 last year to 5 014 – a staggering 89% of the international total. Hundreds of thousands more have been forced into internal displacement or have become refugees. This year has also seen this violence spill over into the Christian majority south of the nation.

Violence is only part of the equation, with ever increasing Islamisation putting extreme pressure on many Christians in their everyday lives. Nigeria’s government continues to deny this is religious persecution, so violations of Christians’ rights are carried out with impunity.

Jihadist violence is becoming commonplace across sub-Saharan Africa, with 26 countries in the region scoring very significant levels of persecution. The Islamist campaign of terror in the region is fuelled by a lethal mix of trafficking, changes to the political climate and an influx of mercenary soldiers from the shadowy Kremlin-backed Wagner Group.

The combined total score for violence for all 26 sub-Saharan Africa countries that scored at least 41 total points on the Open Doors WWL, increased by 8%. Half of those countries have violence scores in the “extremely high” range.

World Watch List 2023 — Click on image to enlarge

China and beyond: The death of universal human rights 

  • China (16) is driving an international campaign to redefine human rights away from traditional universally recognised notions to more subjective “rights” such as subsistence, development and security.
  • China is forging a network of nations seeking to redefine human rights – away from universal standards and religious freedoms. Dissenting voices such as Christians’ face persecution as “troublemakers” or even “terrorists”.
  • China has clamped down further on Christians, introducing sweeping new rules on churches’ use of the Internet. 
  • Countries such as Russia (61) and India (11) are following suit, along with the likes of Sri Lanka (62), Myanmar (14), Malaysia (43) and several Central Asian states.
  • Christian minorities who are seen to oppose these new “rights”, by refusing to support the ruling party, can be branded as “disturbers of the peace” or even “terrorists”. They face arrest, demolition of their church buildings and the de-registering of their churches. 
  • In China, the sweeping new rules on churches’ use of the Internet have further stifled the freedom of the nation’s almost 100 million Christians. Meanwhile Beijing has employed further censorship, disinformation and extreme surveillance to ratchet up its control of Christians and other religious groups.
  • Tracking apps introduced and data collected for Covid-19 have been re-utilised. China and Russia have shown themselves more than willing to export the necessary technology, as are a number of Western companies, who are prepared to turn a blind eye to the impact of their trade.

Other important trends:

  • The Christian Church continues to dwindle in the Middle East. It has been unable to recover after the upsurge of the Islamic State, despite a reduction in the number of Christians killed in recent years. One exception is Syria (12), which has seen a wave of violent incidents in the WWL 2023 reporting period.
  • Yet another Latin American country enters the list (Nicaragua at 50). Direct government oppression against Christians seen as voices of opposition is rife in Nicaragua, Venezuela (64) and Cuba (27), where Christian leaders were imprisoned without trial for their part in last year’s demonstrations. In many countries in Latin America, organised crime has taken hold with criminal groups becoming drivers of persecution as Christians speak out against the cartels’ activities, especially in rural areas.
  • The total number of Christians killed for their faith decreased slightly from 5 898 recorded cases (WWL 2022) to 5 621 (WWL 2023) – the clear exception being sub-Saharan Africa, as outlined above. In sub-Saharan Africa, the total number of Christians abducted for faith-related reasons increased from 3 829 recorded cases (WWL 2022) to 5 259 (WWL 2023). 
  • There has been promotion of greater tolerance in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Bahrain (66) and the United Arab Emirates (54), and also in Egypt (35). Unfortunately, the state persecution of converts from Islam to Christianity continued unabated in Egypt. Qatar (34) also has a lower persecution score this year. This was caused by the fact that no additional churches were forced to close in the WWL 2023 reporting period. However, many churches closed in the previous reporting period remained shut.

Findings that demand action

Lynette Leibach, executive director of Open Doors Southern Africa, says: “It is humbling that this 30 years’ anniversary represents millions of families, women, men, youth and children specifically targeted to pay a high to extreme cost for their faith in Jesus and Christian identity.

“It is a dark picture – still it highlights the urgency and opportunity of finding, connecting with and standing alongside the local Church in these countries to ensure that our brothers and sisters can courageously remain as lightbearers in the dark. The findings demand action.”

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