Persecution of Christians rises in Africa amid Covid-19 pandemic

Jihadis in the town of Quissanga in Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique on March 25 last year

There has been an alarming increase in persecution of Christians in Africa over the past year and the coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated discrimination against Christians, according to the 2021 World Watch List (WWL) released by Open Doors International today.

Even South Africa’s neighbour country, Mozambique, at position 45, appears on the latest annual list of the top 50 countries where Christians experience the worst persecution for their faith.

And Nigeria, at position 9, has once again topped the list as the most violent country for Christians in the world.

A total of 19 of the 50 countries on the list are on the African continent and four African countries are in the top 10. One in every six Christians in Africa now faces severe persecution for their faith. Over the past two years, violence against the Church across sub-Saharan Africa has escalated by 30%.

Globally persecution of Christians has risen notably, with more than 309 million believers – that is one in every eight Christians – around the world facing severe persecution for their faith.

Overall, Christians in 74 countries experience a level of persecution measured as extreme, very high or high. 

North Korea tops the list for the 20th year in a row. Since 2002, this country has continuously ranked as the country with the worst persecution of Christians. It is followed by Afghanistan as a close second and Somalia in the third place.

The World Watch List 2021

Drastic rise in violent persecution in Africa
Four of the five countries ranked highest for the violent persecution of Christians are in African continent. The top five countries for the most violent persecution of Christians are Nigeria (1), Pakistan (2), the Democratic Republic of Congo (3), Mozambique (4) and Cameroon (5).

The Democratic Republic of Congo enters the top 50 for the first time at position 40 due to violence by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). A 2020 United Nations report estimates that this Islamic State-linked group (which has killed more than 1 000 civilians since the start of last year), might have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Due to an increase in attacks by Islamic extremists in the last year, Mozambique enters the top 50 for the second time since 1993. Since 2017, the province of Cabo Delgado has suffered more than 1 150 deaths in 600 attacks by a branch of al-Shabaab, who wants to impose Sharia law in the province. More than 300 000 people have been displaced by these attacks. 

The one positive move on the list in Africa has been Sudan, which has dropped from position 7 to position 13. Sudan has abolished the death penalty for apostasy (i.e. renouncing Islam) and last week it officially signed a peace deal with Israel.

Sudanese demonstrate in support of their people in Sudan, in south Tel Aviv, on April 13, 2019. (PHOTO: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90/Times of Israel)

Influence of the Covid-19 pandemic
A prominent trend of the 2021 WWL is how the global coronavirus pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated underlying systemic discrimination, unequal treatment and the persecution of Christians, who are refused emergency aid in many countries. The lockdowns meant that many Christians couldn’t work and were confined in spaces with those who are hostile to their faith.

The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated existing social, economic and ethnic vulnerabilities of millions of Christians worldwide. Covid-19 has been a catalyst for the repression of Christians in regions and countries from West Africa to Somalia (3), Nigeria (9), the Democratic Republic of Congo (40), India (10), Bangladesh (31), Pakistan (5), Yemen (7), Sudan (13), Myanmar (18), Vietnam (19), Nepal (34) and Malaysia (46).

This photo taken on Saturday June 13,2020 shows the aftermath of an attack by Islamic extremists in Monguno, northeastern Nigeria. (PHOTO: UNDSS via OCHA, via AP.)

The research also shows that the Covid-19 restrictions are used to spread Islamic extremism in sub-Saharan Africa. In the Sahel region, south of the Sahara Desert, Islamist extremism is fuelled by injustice and poverty. The violent Islamic group al-Shabaab in Somalia and other groups pledged to wage jihad (a holy war) against the “infidels” because they blame Christians for the pandemic. 

Human Rights Watch reports that, despite Covid-19 closures, there were more than 85 attacks on education outlets in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger between January and July 2020. Christians reported that lockdowns made them “sitting targets”, as security forces appeared to collude with the marauders. Other African countries notably affected are Nigeria (9), Democratic Republic of Congo (40) and Mozambique (45).

Covid-19 has also legitimised increased surveillance and restrictions by authoritarian governments in countries such as China (17) and India (10), using the need to contain the pandemic to increase their control. Other countries notably affected are Iran (8), Saudi Arabia (14), Laos (22) and Myanmar (18).

In Mexico (37) and other Latin-American countries the fight to contain the coronavirus made it hard to deal with organised crime, with narco-trafficking groups imposing their own Covid-19 curfews in four Mexican regions. In Colombia (30), organised crime groups grew their control during the pandemic by using government curfews and restrictions for their own ends.

Worldwide trend
“Open Doors does extensive surveys and research to compile the annual World Watch List. Even with the challenges of collecting data amidst the pandemic, it remains the most reliable source to score and analyse the persecution of Christians in countries all over the world. This year’s World Watch List once again shows that persecution continues to rise worldwide,” says Jan Gouws, executive director of Open Doors Southern Africa.

“The sharp rise of persecution in African countries due to the spread of Islamic militancy, radical ideologies and extremist attacks is especially alarming. It is also very distressing to hear how the global Covid-19 pandemic is used to intensify the persecution of Christians and to refuse them emergency aid. For Open Doors as an organisation, it once again emphasises the importance of our work in standing alongside Christians all over the world, supporting them, advocating for their rights and religious freedom, and reminding them that they are never alone.” 

Most important changes on the list

The main changes on the list since WWL 2020 are:

  • Nigeria has entered the top 10 – for the first time since 2015 – at no. 9, up from no. 12 last year.
  • Yemen and Iran have both risen one place.
  • India stays at no. 10, where it entered the top 10 for the first time in 2020, due to rising Hindu nationalism. 
  • Nigeria again scores the maximum for violence (as in previous years), due mainly to armed Fulani herdsmen laying waste to several hundred Christian villages, as well as to Boko Haram and a range of criminal groups who continue to kill, kidnap and rape with impunity. 
  • Sudan, however, has abolished the death penalty for apostasy (i.e., renouncing Islam). Its 2019 interim constitution guarantees freedom of religion, omits Sharia as its primary source of law and no longer specifies Islam as its state religion – although there is still a lot of resistance to such sweeping changes after 30 years. It has dropped from no. 7 to no. 13.
  • Iraq has risen from no. 15 to no. 11, partly due to the ongoing insecurity of Christians returning to their homes. Christians continue to be killed, kidnapped and subjected to physical, psychological, sexual and emotional abuse. Also, many who fled inside the country came under Turkish attacks on the Dohuk area in the summer of 2020.
  • Syria has dropped one place from no. 11 to no. 12. Despite better conditions, especially in Kurdish-controlled areas, there are still violent Islamist attacks – one in November 2019 killed seven Christians and wounded 70.
  • China is in the top 20 for the first time in a decade, rising to no. 17 from no. 23 in 2020. The Communist Party extended its regulation of all religions in 2020, and even government-approved churches, both Catholic and Protestant, are under ever-more surveillance, both online and offline.  
  • Vietnam has risen to no. 19 from no. 21. Many ethnic minority Christians reported exclusion from Covid-19 aid.
  • Turkey has risen to no. 25 from no. 36, due mainly to an increase of its score for violence. Christians say that, since the 2016 attempted coup against President Erdogan, there’s a much more open Islamist and nationalist agenda.
  • Colombia has risen to no. 30 from no. 41. After the breakdown of the 2016 peace deal, organised crime groups continue to control parts of the country, especially rural areas. During quarantines, their control grew as they appropriated government curfews and other restrictions for their own ends.
  • Bangladesh has risen to no. 31 from no. 38. After a mob attack in January 2020, apparently by violent Islamists, two men are still missing, while a 14-year-old girl, also abducted, was reportedly forcibly married to a militant.
  • Mexico rose to no. 37 (from no. 52 in 2020, although it was at no. 39 in 2019). 
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo rose to no. 40 (from no. 57 in 2020) mainly due to the Islamist group ADF, which the United Nations says has killed 1 000 civilians since 2019.
  • Mozambique entered the top 50 at no. 45 (last year at no. 66) due to its own Islamist violence in Cabo Delgado.
  • Cameroon, battling conflict and violent expansion from Boko Haram and other Islamist groups, rose to no. 42 from no. 48.
  • The Comoros Islands, east of Mozambique, re-entered the top 50 in position no. 50 (from no. 54 last year) after many years’ absence. The government has openly denied freedom of religion for its citizens.

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