The persecution of Christians is on the rise worldwide
In recent years, Christian persecution has been sharply on the rise, and its terrible impacts have only begun to be felt. In fact, according to Pope Francis, conditions for Christians are worse now than they were in the days of the early Church.
The merciless targeting of Christians—driven by hatred of Christians and the faith itself—emerges as a common denominator in hundreds of testimonies of persecution received by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) from countries around the world. As a Catholic charity providing emergency aid and pastoral support to the persecuted and suffering Church in 140 countries, ACN is committed to chronicling and assessing the evolving phenomenon of the persecution of Christians around the world today.
Christian Persecution Today
Today, according to ACN research, almost 300 million Christians around the world—or 1 out of every 7—live in a country where they suffer some form of persecution, such as arbitrary arrest, violence, a full range of human rights violations and even murder. ACN is documenting this violation of religious freedom in two biennial reports, “Religious Freedom in the World” and “Persecuted & Forgotten?”. The research examines conditions in 196 countries. Open Doors puts the number of Christians murdered for their faith in 2018 at more than 4,000 and reports that at least 11 Christians are killed every single day in the 50 worst-offending countries.
The most recent edition of “Persecuted & Forgotten?” covers the period 2017-2019 and finds a sharp rise in Christian persecution in South and East Asia.
It must be noted that some groups monitoring Christian persecution around the world put the number of Christians suffering various forms of persecution as high as 600 million; the Pew Research Center has reported that the number of countries where Christians are subject to a degree of government-enforced restrictions and communal hostility has grown from 108 in 2014 to 128 in 2015 and to 143 in 2017.
Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of ACN, said that “Pope Francis, as well as his immediate predecessors, have all stressed that religious freedom is a fundamental human right rooted in the dignity of man. It is the purpose of [these reports] to draw worldwide attention to this intrinsic link between religious freedom and human dignity.”
The precise number of Christians who are killed because of their faith remains unclear; reports showing a fall in the number of deaths during the period June 2015 to June 2017 to below 100,000 still show that the level of violence aimed at Christians remains severe. The most recent mass killing of Christians happened in Sri Lanka, when, on Easter morning 2019, some150 Christians died in strikes by suicide bombers at three churches.
ACN research is showing that Christian persecution is most sharply on the rise in South and East Asia, in countries like Myanmar, India, Pakistan, China and North Korea. That region is now the hot spot for persecution, taking over that dubious honor from the Middle East. Across Africa, jihadist violence against Christians remains at critical levels. For example, ISIS affiliate Boko Haram has perpetrated genocidal attacks targeting Christians in northern Nigeria. In the last few years, the group has suffered significant military defeats and the loss of territory it held, but remains a danger to Christians. The focus is now on the attacks by Muslim Fulani herdsmen on Christian farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, with many observers pointing at the herdsmen’s sophisticated weaponry as a sign the attackers have financial backing. Some speak of an effort to Islamicize the country.
Increastingly, the whole of sub-Saharan Africa has been targeted by Islamist extremists–some groups financed by Gulf States–with Christians most often singled out for wanton killings. The Central Sahel has suffered the greatest increase in militant Islamist group activity of any region in Africa. Extremist attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger increased from 180 incidents in 2017 to approximately 800 violent events in the first 10 months of 2019.
Patterns of Christian persecution in worst-offending countries
This same exodus is threatening the survival of Christianity in parts of Syria, including Aleppo, formerly home to one of the largest Christian communities in the whole of the Middle East.
Governments in the West and the UN failed to offer Christians in countries such as Iraq and Syria the emergency help they needed as genocide perpetrated by ISIS got underway. If Christian organizations like ACN and other institutions had not filled the gap, the Christian presence could already have disappeared Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. However, war and terror continue to drive Christians out of the Middle East; by 2025, Christians are estimated to account for just over 3 percent of the Mideast’s population, compared to 4.2 percent in 2010. Iraq’s Christian population stood at some 1.5 million in 2003, on the eve of the US invasion; today that number stands at an estimated less than 300,000.
Half of Syria’s pre-civil war Christian population of 2.5 million has fled the country. Today more Arab Christians, some 20 million, live outside the Middle East than remain in the region, whose number stands at 15 million.
Christians have suffered increased violence and oppression as a result of a rise in religious nationalism. In India, most notably, persecution has risen sharply since the 2014 rise to power of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the eyes of Hindu extremists and contrary to the country’s Constitution, India is a Hindu nation, with Christianity and Islam considered to be foreign imports detrimental to the country’s Hindu identity. Much of the anti-Christian rhetoric hinges on the suggestion that Christians are responsible for forced conversions. The number of attacks by Hindu extremists on Christians doubled in 2017, reaching 736, up from 358 in 2016. In 2017, 477 anti-Christians incidents were reported in India. By some accounts, there have been more thank 1,000 attacks on Christians in India, between the beginning of 2017 and the end of March 2019. In 2018, more than 100 churches closed, reportedly in response to extremist attacks or intervention by authorities.
In China, where President Xi Jinping has described Christianity as “a foreign infiltration,” increased hostility to Church communities, accused of resisting government control, has resulted in the widespread removal of crosses from churches and the destruction of church buildings. Recognizing the influence of religious practice on society, China’s leader has insisted on the need to “sinicize” religious life—i.e. make it authentically Chinese (for which one can read Communist)—and “automotize” it—i.e. free it from foreign control. Some regional authorities have banned Christmas trees and greetings cards. The accord reached in 2018 between Beijing and the Vatican with regard to the appointment of bishops—with bishops having been chosen by the regime accepted by Rome—has not fundamentally changed the situation for Christians in China.
In worst-offending North Korea—where the perception that religion provides a means of foreign infiltration is also reflected in the rhetoric used by the government—extreme cruelty in the treatment of Christians includes enforced starvation, forced abortion and reports of faithful being hung on crosses over a fire and others being crushed under a steamroller. A former North Korean security agent has been quoted as saying that Christianity is “persecuted because basically it is related to the United States … and is considered spying. Since Americans conveyed Christianity and since they are the ones who attempted to invade our country, those who are Christians are spies. Spies are executed.”
In Pakistan, discrimination of Christian minority is relentless, including denigrating references to the faith in government-sanctioned textbooks.Christians also suffer in the workplace, where they are largely relegated to menial jobs. The country’s anti-blasphemy law remains on the books and is often used as a tool to hurt Christians. The case of Asia Bibi—a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row, accused of allegedly insulting the Prophet of Islam—has brought the pernicious effect of the law to the fore. Fortunately, in the face of strong protests by radical Muslims who wanted to see her executed, the country’s Supreme Court has reversed Asia Bibi’s death sentence and set her free. In early May 2019, she was able to travel to Canada to be reunited with her family.
In Iran, there has been an escalation in anti-Christian sentiment in recent years, evident in negative media coverage and the proliferation of anti-Christian publications, visa refusal, targeted surveillance and intimidation tactics.
In Turkey, the state has seized numerous Church properties in recent times. There are indications of continuing intolerance of Christianity as evident in the Islamification of historic Christian sites, such as the Hagia Sophia.
In Saudi Arabia the public profession of Christianity is illegal, as are public Masses. There is tolerance of private worship by non-Muslims. Christian converts from Islam face the death penalty.
In Eritrea, there has been an increased government clampdown on Christians, with faithful who resist state control of their Churches ending up in prison under extremely harsh conditions. Many Christians are leaving the country.
In recent years, largely Muslim Fulani herdsmen have killed thousands of Christian farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region. Since the beginning of 2017 through May 2020, there have been more than 650 deadly attacks. Some Church leaders charge there is local government and military collusion in the murder of Christians, as well as the funding and supply of sophisticated weaponry to the herdsmen. Several hundred Christian farmers were killed in the first half of 2019. Boko Haram, though weakened militarily, continues to kill Christians in northeastern Nigeria. Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) is also increasingly making its presence felt, posing another threat to the Church. On December 24, 2019 Boko Haram killed seven people and abducted a teenage girl in a raid on a Christian village in Borno State. On December 26, 2019 ISWAP released a video of the execution of 10 Christians and one Muslim to avenge the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Following the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, attacks on both Christians and Muslims have risen. These are largely carried out by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists. In addition, in the period 2017-2019,there has also been an increase in attacks on churches in Eastern Province by extremist Hindu groups. The worst attack on Christians occurrred on Easter Sunday 2019, when Islamist suicide bombers attacked three churches.
The killing of 22 Sunday Massgoers and the maiming of more than 100 others in Jolo’s Catholic cathedral in January 2019 removed all doubt about the continuing threat of radical Islam in the Philippines. At the time of this bombing, fears were still high in the wake of the siege of Marawi by Islamist extremists, who were finally defeated in October 2017, following a five-month siege. Over that time more than 1,000 people died and 400,000 were displaced.
In May 2019, the ruling Transitional Military Council announced that Shari’a law would remain in force in Sudan. This provoked fear among Christians, who have been hoping for an end to persecution perpetrated by the now-deposed strongman Omar al-Bashir. Shari’a law was enshrined in the Sudan’s 2011 constitution. This came in the wake of South Sudan’s independence, with Christians facing poverty, war and genocide. Hardist hit have been the Nuba Mountains, where Christians have suffered ethnic cleansing as Arab-Sudanese try to eradicate black Sudanese with indiscriminate military attacks on Christian villages, churches, hospitals and schools.
The massacre of more than 110 people, mostly Christians – including two priests and a pastor – at a Church-run displacement camp1 highlighted the scale of the internal conflict afflicting the Central African Republic (CAR). The attack in late 2018 was one of many acts of violence by ex-Séléka militia, which carried out attacks along sectarian lines. Muslim communities had also suffered, with reports of a brutal wave of ethnic cleansing in the west of
the country. Anti-balaka militia groups, formed to fight the ex-Séléka, were themselves implicated in civilian attacks. Bishop Juan José Aguirre Muñoz of Bangassou told ACN that foreign mercenaries entering CAR to raid its natural resources had further destabilized the situation. Overall, Islam is a conquering force in CAR, with the intrusion of Muslims from the neighboring countries of Chad and Sudan, who now claim to control two thirds of the country.
“An invisible war” – this is how San Htoi of Kachin Women’s Association (Thailand) described the targeting of Christians in Burma (Myanmar). Despite a genocidal campaign being waged by the Burmese army against Kachin State’s 1.6 million inhabitants – of whom 90-95 percent are Christian (Roman Catholic or Baptist). International reports have been slow to acknowledge the Kachin people’s predominantly Christian identity. Kachin Christians have been killed, raped, tortured and used to clear landmine-peppered areas. Women and girls have been trafficked as brides to China. 3,000
villages have been burnt to the ground in the past decade and over 200 churches destroyed since 2011.
Informing and educating the public about the persecution of Christians
Every day, in many places, Christians are suffering persecution because of their faith and many victims of persecutions are left with no choice but to flee for their lives. Yet, despite the gravity of the situation, the extent of this persecution is largely ignored by mainstream media.
At a time in the West when there is increasing media focus on the rights of people regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexuality – to name but a few – it is ironic that in many sections of the mainstream media throughout the West, there should be such limited coverage of the massive persecution experienced by so many Christians. This lack of coverage combined with inaction on the part of Western governments in the face of widespread persecution of Christians points at a cultural divide; on the one hand, in the West, there is an ignorance and a lack of concern about religious freedom violations, and on the other, in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, questions of religion are central and paramount.
So marked is this divide that we can conclude that there is a barrier of indifference, a cultural curtain, behind which the suffering of entire communities of Christians and other religious minority groups goes largely unnoticed. And although Western governments have begun to pay more attention to violations of religious freedom around the world, the international community has yet to bring demonstrable change for many of the Christians suffering persecution.
ACN annually funds hundreds of humanitarian and pastoral projects to support the suffering and persecuted Church. Worldwide, the organizations donors pledge upwards of $100M each year.