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The persecution of Christians can be historically traced from the first century of the Christian era to the present day.

More than 300 people are murdered monthly throughout the world because of their Christian faith (image, Christian Freedom International)
More than 300 people are murdered monthly throughout the world because of their Christian faith (image, Christian Freedom International)

According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Christians are the most persecuted group in the contemporary world. Christian missionaries as well as converts to Christianity have been the target of persecution ever since the emergence of Christianity, sometimes to the point of being martyred for their faith. The Holy See has reported that over 100,000 Christians are violently killed annually because of some relation to their faith. According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. Of the 100 to 200 million Christians alleged to be under assault, the majority are persecuted in Muslim-dominated nations. Paul Vallely has said that Christians suffer numerically more than any other faith group or any group without faith in the world. Of the world’s three largest religions Christians are allegedly the most persecuted with 80% of all acts of religious discrimination being directed at Christians who only make up 33% of the world’s population.

Why does Christian persecution happen?
There are many reasons why Christians are persecuted. Sometimes, religion may be tied to ethnic or cultural identity. In other places, governments who thrive on power view Jesus as competition and those who follow Him as threats. Still other areas put such a high value on their majority religion that any other faith is seen as something to be rooted out and violently oppressed.

Here are some of the main reasons why Christians are targeted for following Jesus Christ:

  1. Authoritarian governments
    Places like North Korea or Eritrea with authoritarian governments seek to control all religious thought and expression as part of a comprehensive plan to tightly oversee all aspects of political and everyday life. These governments regard some religious groups like Christianity as enemies of the state because they hold religious beliefs that may differ from theirs or challenge loyalty to the rulers.
  2. Anything outside the majority cultural faith
    There is great hostility towards nontraditional and minority religious groups viewed as foreign or non-native to the culture. For example, in Niger, more than 98 percent of the population is Muslim, and hostility comes more from society than from the government. In India, Hindu nationalists claim that to be Indian is to be Hindu, so non-Hindus—religious minorities like Christians and Muslims—are targeted for abuse. In these places, to be a Christian is to claim an identity other than the one claimed by the dominant culture, which often lead to powerful opposition.
  3. Extremists groups
    There are radicalized extremist groups who wage war against anyone who doesn’t adhere to their specific interpretation of religion. For instance, in places like the Middle East and Nigeria, Islamic extremist groups terrorize communities and churches, killing those they consider to be “infidels” (often in coordinated bombings), raping and kidnapping women and burning down homes and churches. Their victims can be fellow adherents of a religion—for instance, Boko Haram attacks Muslims in Nigeria—but they always target Christians out of hatred for other faiths.
  4. Domination of a single religion
    Around the world, there are many places that have official laws instilled to totally discourage Christians from openly practicing their faith, all in the name of service to a dominant religion. In places like the Maldives or Saudi Arabia, Islam is such a dominant religion that to try to worship Jesus openly can be unheard of—especially outside of the prescribed and restrictive settings.
  5. Lack of religious freedom
    Many people today in places like North Korea, Afghanistan, and Somalia live under governments that abuse or restrict freedom of religion. Christians in those places face persecution, suffer deeply, and are denied basic freedoms that humans should be entitled to. In Eritrea, there are violations of the freedom of expression, assembly, and religious belief and movement, in addition to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, extended detention, torture, and indefinite national service, which cause many Eritreans to flee the country.

Open Doors List of Christian persecution around the world
Every year, the Christian non-profit organization Open Doors publishes the World Watch List – a list of the top 50 countries which it designates as the most dangerous for Christians. According to Open Doors, Christian persecution around the world is one of the biggest human rights issues of this era. The 2020 World Watch List has the following countries as its top twelve: North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, India, Syria, Nigeria.

12. Nigeria
In the 11 Northern states of Nigeria that have introduced the Islamic system of law, the Sharia, sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians have resulted in many deaths, and some churches have been burned. HART estimated that 6,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria and more than 30,000 Christians were displaced from their homes in Kano alone, the largest city in northern Nigeria. The Boko Haram Islamist group has bombed churches and killed numerous Christians who they regard as kafirs (infidels).

11. Syria
While religious persecution has been relatively low in Syria compared to other Middle Eastern nations, many of the Christians there have been pressured into identifying as Arab Christians, with the Assyrian and Armenian groups retaining their native languages.

10. India
Since the current ruling party took power in 2014, incidents against Christians have increased, and Hindu radicals often attack Christians with little to no consequences. The view of the Hindu nationalists is that to be Indian is to be Hindu, so any other faith—including Christianity—is viewed as non-Indian. Also, converts to Christianity from Hindu backgrounds or tribal religions are often extremely persecuted by their family members and communities.

Muslims in India who convert to Christianity have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and attacks by Muslims. In Jammu and Kashmir, a Christian convert and missionary, Bashir Tantray, was killed, allegedly by Islamic militants in 2006. A Christian priest, K.K. Alavi, a 1970 convert from Islam, thereby raised the ire of his former Muslim community and received many death threats. An Islamic terrorist group named “The National Development Front” actively campaigned against him. In the southern state of India, Kerala which has an ancient pre-Islamic community of Eastern Rite Christians, Islamic Terrorists chopped off the hand of Professor T.J. Joseph due to allegation of blasphemy of Muhammad.

09. Iran
Though Iran recognizes Assyrian and Armenian Christians as ethnic and religious minorities (along with Jews and Zoroastrians) and they have representatives in the Parliament, they are nonetheless forced to adhere to Iran’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. After the 1979 Revolution, Muslim converts to Christianity (typically to Protestant Christianity) have been arrested and sometimes executed. Youcef Nadarkhani is an Iranian Christian pastor who was arrested on charges of apostasy in October 2009 and was subsequently sentenced to death. In June 2011 the Iranian Supreme Court overruled his death sentence on condition that he recant, which he refused to do. In a reversal on 8 September 2012 he was acquitted of the charges of apostasy and extortion, and sentenced to time served for the charge of “propaganda against the regime,” and immediately released.

08. Yemen
The Christian presence in Yemen dates back to the fourth century AD when a number of Himyarites embrace Christianity due to the efforts of Theophilos the Indian. Freedom of worship, conversion from Islam to Christianity and establishing a place of worship are not recognized as rights in the Yemens Constitution and laws. At the same time, Wahabbi activities linked to Al-Islah was being facilitated, financed and encouraged from multiple fronts including the Ministry of Endowments and Guidance, which says that its tasks “to contribute to the development of Islamic awareness and circulation of the publication Education and Islamic morals and consolidation in the life of public and private citizens.

The Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa has worked in Aden since 1992, and it has three other centers in Sana’a, Taiz and Hodeidah. Three Catholic nuns were killed in Hodeidah in 1998, two of them were from India and the third was from the Philippines at the hands of a member of Al-Islah named Abdullah al-Nashiri, who argued that they were calling Muslims to convert to Christianity. In 2002, three Americans were killed in Baptists Hospital at the hands of another Al-Islah member named Abed Abdul Razak Kamel. In December 2015, an old Catholic church in Aden was destroyed. On March 4, 2016, an incident named Mother Teresa’s Massacre in Aden occurred, 16 were killed including 4 Indian Catholic nuns, 2 from Rwanda, and the rest were from India and Kenya, along with a Yemeni, 2 Guards, a cook, 5 Ethiopian women, and all of them were volunteers.

07. Sudan
Sudan’s current political chaos has left Christians in limbo. The secession of South Sudan in 2011 has also made Christians more vulnerable as Islamic conservatives in Sudan push for a Shariah state. Recently, the government has arrested or intimidated many Christian leaders, and numerous churches have been demolished. Extremists have attacked Christians, especially in the Nuba Mountain region, where thousands of Christians have been killed or displaced.

06. Eritrea
The authoritarian regime under President Afwerki is responsible for massive human rights violations, especially toward Christians. Christians who aren’t members of state-approved churches are considered agents of the West and a threat to the state. Hundreds of Christians who are members of unregistered churches are in prison; some have been held captive for over a decade. Many are forced to work long hours in commercial flower fields, and some are held in shipping containers in scorching temperatures.

05. Pakistan
In Pakistan, 1.5% of the population are Christian. Pakistani law mandates that “blasphemies” of the Qur’an are to be met with punishment. At least a dozen Christians have been given death sentences, and half a dozen murdered after being accused of violating blasphemy laws. In 2005, 80 Christians were behind bars due to these laws. The Pakistani-American author Farahnaz Ispahani has called treatment of Christians in Pakistan a “drip-drip genocide.

There has been numerous Christians killed in Pakistan and several others displaced from their land over the year that one paragraph will not do justice. In October 2001, gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on a Protestant congregation in the Punjab, killing 18 people. In March 2002, five people were killed in an attack in a church in Islamabad, including an American schoolgirl and her mother. In August 2002, masked gunmen stormed a Christian missionary school for foreigners in Islamabad; six people were killed and three injured. None of those killed were children of foreign missionaries. In August 2002, grenades were thrown at a church in the grounds of a Christian hospital in north-west Pakistan, near Islamabad, killing three nurses. In December 2002, three young girls were killed when a hand grenade was thrown into a church near Lahore on Christmas Day.

In November 2005, 3,000 Muslims attacked Christians in Sangla Hill in Pakistan and destroyed Roman Catholic, Salvation Army and United Presbyterian churches. On June 5, 2006, a Pakistani Christian, Nasir Ashraf, was assaulted for the “sin” of using public drinking water facilities near Lahore. One year later, in August 2007, a Christian missionary couple, Rev. Arif and Kathleen Khan, were gunned down by Muslim terrorists in Islamabad. In August 2009, six Christians, including four women and a child, were burnt alive by Muslim militants and a church set ablaze in Gojra, Pakistan. On 8 November 2010, a Christian woman from Punjab Province, Asia Noreen Bibi, was sentenced to death by hanging for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy law. On March 2, 2011, the only Christian minister in the Pakistan government was shot dead. Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Minorities, was in his car along with his niece. Around 50 bullets struck the car. On March 27, 2016, a suicide bomber from a Pakistani Taliban faction killed at least 60 people and injured 300 others in an attack at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore, Pakistan.

04. Libya
The absence of a single central government to uphold law and order contributes to the extreme levels of pressure in national and church life. Libyan Christians with a Muslim background face violent and intense pressure to renounce their faith from their family and the wider community. There is no freedom of speech, no equal treatment of Christians, no recognition of the church and no churches being built.

03. Somalia
Christians in Somalia face persecution associated with the ongoing civil war in that country. In September 2011 militants sworn to eradicate Christianity from Somalia beheaded two Christian converts. A third Christian convert was beheaded in Mogadishu in early 2012.

02. Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old citizen, was charged in 2006 with rejecting Islam, a crime punishable by death under Sharia law. He has since been released into exile in the West under intense pressure from Western governments. In 2008, the Taliban killed a British charity worker, Gayle Williams, “because she was working for an organization which was preaching Christianity in Afghanistan” even though she was extremely careful not to try to convert Afghans.

01. North Korea
North Korea is an atheist state where the public practice of religion is totally discouraged. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism states that “North Korea maintains a state-sanctioned and enforced atheism”.

North Korea leads the list of the 50 countries in which Christians are persecuted the most at the current time according to a watchlist by Open Doors. It is currently estimated that more than 50,000 Christians are locked inside concentration camps because of their faith, where they are systematically subjected to mistreatment such as unrestrained torture, mass-starvation and even imprisonment and death by asphyxiation in gas chambers. This means that 20% of North Korea’s Christian community lives in concentration camps. The number of Christians who are being murdered for their faith seems to be increasing as time goes on because in 2013 the death toll was 1,200 and in 2014, this figure doubled, rendering it close to 2,400 martyred Christians. North Korea has earned the top spot  for 12 years in a row.

Pray Today For

  • The families of Pastors, church leaders, and church members that were killed, that the Lord will comfort and provide for all their needs.
  • Christians that are left and who live in constant threat of attacks by Islamic extremists. Ask God to protect them and give them hope and peace.
  • Fulani militants and other extremist groups like Boko Haram. Pray that God will touch their hearts with the truth of the gospel.
  • Pray for Christians who convert from Islam, that they would be protected and be a light to their families.
  • Pastors and church leaders needs who are helping to rebuild the communities and restore their churches after violent attacks.

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ECWA Editorial Board: Our editorial board or advisory board consists of a group of well published, prominent professors, with academic credentials and a detailed knowledge of their subject area.

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