Global persecution of Christians more extreme than ever

 

This week many in the church and a few in the media have their eyes on Justin Welby and the Primates meeting in Canterbury, waiting to see if the Anglican communion will tear itself apart over the matter of homosexuality. But there is also another item of news which will gain much less attention despite being of far greater significance. It is the latest picture displaying the extent of persecution of Christians around the world. This comes via the much respected 2016 World Watch List published by Open Doors today.

This report which highlights the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians to live in does not make for easy reading. News of Islamic extremism and terrorism frequently makes it onto our television screens with the plight of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East continuing to get a mention. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Christian population has fallen from 1.2 million to around 300,000 and over the last four years, 700,000 Christians have fled Syria. This is a humanitarian, religious, and cultural disaster that tells just a small part of the story of the oppression, violence and killings that Christians are facing globally. Iraq and Syria are second and sixth respectively on this year’s List with North Korea topping it for the 14th year in a row. Under the continued paranoid dictatorship of Kim Jong-Un, anyone discovered engaging in unauthorized religious activity is subject to arrest, arbitrary detention, disappearance, torture and/or execution. Of the estimated 300,000 Christians in the country 70,000 Christians are believed to be imprisoned in labour camps.

Jesus warned his followers that they should expect persecution because of their beliefs and he wasn’t wrong; it is known that Christians face being persecuted in more countries than any other religious group. What is most alarming about the Open Doors report though is the rate at which these hostilities are increasing. Excluding Iraq, Syria and North Korea, where figures are impossible to gauge accurately, the number of Christians killed globally back in 2012 according to the World Watch List’s conservative estimates was 1,201. This increased to 4,344 in 2014 and last year rose significantly to well over 7,000. In Nigeria alone, 2,500 have been killed by Boko Haram. Less reported violence against Christian farmers by Hausa Fulani tribesmen has also been extreme with conservative estimates putting it at more than 1,500 killings. Both factions are carrying out religious cleansing, aiming to eradicate Christianity.

In Africa and the Middle East well over 100 million Christians are persecuted because of their beliefs. But India too is seeing persecution levels rise dramatically with the religious freedom of over 200 million people severely threatened by a new wave of Hindu nationalist electoral successes that have seen the introduction of drastic anti-conversion laws. Pastors have been beaten and killed, and members of their congregations forced to convert to Hinduism in an increasing number of attacks across the country. On average a church is burned down or a pastor beaten three times a week.

On last year’s List the persecution levels of those countries ranked between 26 and 39 were measured as ‘moderate’, with numbers 40 to 50 given the level of ‘sparse’. Now for this year using the same criteria even Oman placed at 50 is graded at ‘high levels of persecution’. The rapidly growing assault on the Christian faith around the world is nothing short of an epidemic.

Open Doors 2016 World Watch List Map 2016

All of this matters for the Church because when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. When you see your family being tortured or raped or beheaded, do you just turn your back and ignore it? This is more than just a religious issue though. For anyone who values decency, dignity and the right to freedom of belief and expression, this multitude of violations offends our very humanity at the most basic of levels. Nor are we immune here in the UK from the effects and attitudes that cause such abuse, despite the supposed protection provided by our laws.

At least we can be proud of this country’s heritage of defending these rights. Prince Charles has repeatedly raised the persecution of Christians in the Middle East including during a trip to Saudi Arabia. David Cameron and other parliamentarians have publicly addressed this issue over the last 12 months. When today’s launch of the World Watch List is held in parliament, over 100 MPs will be there – a significant increase from the 74 who attended last year’s event.

Words and goodwill from our leaders are undoubtedly a start, but without action they will have minimal impact. As Lisa Pearce, CEO of Open Doors has said: ‘The trend is stark, as are the consequences for real people – we should not expect that to change unless we are part of changing the situation.  As a key voice within the international community and a generous provider of aid to a number of the countries on the 2016 World Watch List, I urge our government to do everything possible within their spheres of influence to affect what happens next’.

To prove that point, here is a breakdown of the latest Government bilateral aid figures  – i.e. aid given directly to the country in question – released last month for 2014 for the 50 countries featured on the list (figures in brackets are £million):

  1. North Korea (<1)
  2. Iraq (38)
  3. Eritrea (6)
  4. Afghanistan (198)
  5. Syria (130)
  6. Pakistan (267)
  7. Somalia (124)
  8. Sudan (50)
  9. Iran (<1)
  10. Libya (29)
  11. Yemen (82)
  12. Nigeria (237)
  13. Maldives (0)
  14. Saudi Arabia (0)
  15. Uzbekistan (1)
  16. Kenya (134)
  17. India (279)
  18. Ethiopia (322)
  19. Turkmenistan (<1)
  20. Vietnam (15)
  21. Qatar (0)
  22. Egypt (0)
  23. Myanmar (Burma) (73)
  24. Palestinian Territories (83)
  25. Brunei (0)
  26. Central African Republic (16)
  27. Jordan (20)
  28. Djibouti (0)
  29. Laos (1)
  30. Malaysia (0)
  31. Tajikistan (14)
  32. Tunisia (2)
  33. China (0)
  34. Azerbaijan (2)
  35. Bangladesh (208)
  36. Tanzania (149)
  37. Algeria (10)
  38. Bhutan (0)
  39. Comoros (<1)
  40. Mexico (0)
  41. Kuwait (0)
  42. Kazakhstan (2)
  43. Indonesia (16)
  44. Mali (2)
  45. Turkey (9)
  46. Colombia (7)
  47. United Arab Emirates (0)
  48. Bahrain (0)
  49. Niger (<1)
  50. Oman (0)

This all comes to £2.53 billion, which equates to 57 per cent of the total bilateral aid given for 2014. This is a sizeable chunk of money which when used in the right way should have the potential to act as a lever for some countries to address their human rights records. It is of course a complex matter with few easy solutions. Some countries have corrupt dictators or broken or dysfunctional governments, in others the governments are fighting the extremists and need support more than criticism. But this cannot be an excuse for us. There are a range of ways to apply pressure when we see Christians and other minorities being victimised. If we see ourselves as a Christian country or even just as defenders and promoters of justice on the world’s stage, then inaction is nothing but a miserable failure on our part.

It doesn’t take a theologian to see the need to defend the Christian faith. If an atheist of Richard Dawkins’ stature can see the importance of it, then despite his rejection of any form of god, such an appreciation adds validity to these words of Jesus to his friends:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19)

For those who are being persecuted it is a price worth paying for the sake of a relationship with the God who offers love and salvation through his son who himself was willing to be falsely accused, beaten and murdered. Amongst all of these numbers and statistics, we must never lose sight of the lives and courageous faith that lies behind them.