Christian persecution

A woman in India watches as her sister is dragged off by Hindu nationalists. She doesn’t know if her sister is alive or dead.

A man in a North Korean prison camp is shaken awake after being beaten unconscious; the beatings begin again.

A woman in Nigeria runs for her life. She has escaped from Boko Haram, who kidnapped her. She is pregnant, and when she returns home, her community will reject her and her baby.

A group of children are laughing and talking as they come down to their church’s sanctuary after eating together. Instantly, many of them are killed by a bomb blast. It’s Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.

These people don’t live in the same region, or even on the same continent. But they share an important characteristic: They are all Christians, and they suffer because of their faith. While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Jesus Christ. From Sudan to Afghanistan, from Nigeria to North Korea, from Colombia to India, followers of Christianity are targeted for their faith. They are attacked; they are discriminated against at work and at school; they risk sexual violence, torture, arrest and much more.

In just the last year*, there have been:

  • Over 360 million Christians living in places where they experience high levels of persecution and discrimination
  • 5,898 Christians killed for their faith
  • 5,110 churches and other Christian buildings attacked
  • 4,765 believers detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned

These numbers are heart-breaking. And yet, they do not tell the whole story. James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” That joy is what we see when we hear and work with Christians all over the world who suffer because they serve Jesus. God cares for His people, and He will never leave or forsake them.

* 2022 World Watch List reporting period

The top 5 World Watch List countries
Afghanistan North Korea Somalia Libya Yemen

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 to their control. 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 Christians are targeted for following Jesus:

  1. Authoritarian governments who view Christianity as a threat to power

In some countries, Christian persecution takes place under authoritarian governments. In places like North Korea or Eritrea, 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 as enemies of the state because they hold religious beliefs that may challenge loyalty to the rulers.

  1. Suspicion of anything outside the majority cultural faith

In some places, 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, and that is often powerfully opposed.

360 million Christians live in places where they may experience high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. That’s 1 in 7 Christians, worldwide.

360 million Christians live in places where they may experience high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. That’s 1 in 7 Christians, worldwide.

  1. Extremist groups who want to destroy Christians

In some areas of the world, 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 on Muslims in Nigeria—but they always target Christians out of hatred for other faiths.

  1. Official and cultural domination of a single religion

Around the world, there are many places that have official laws instilled to tightly control or even 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. In places like Pakistan, the laws are guided by Islamic law, which means if a Christian is accused of “blasphemy,” they can be sentenced to death. Christians in Iran are only allowed to worship in churches that don’t speak the language of everyday Iranians. And in places like Malaysia, there are restrictive rules about conversion from Islam for certain ethnic groups.

Religious freedom is a disrespected human right

Freedom of religion, like all freedoms of thought and expression, is inherent. Our beliefs help define who we are and serve as a foundation for what we contribute to our societies. However, today, many people live under governments that abuse or restrict freedom of religion. Christians in such areas face persecution, suffer deeply, and are denied basic freedoms that humans should be entitled to.

For instance, 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.

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration came as a result of the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany. The document states that every person is entitled to basic human rights. This reaffirmed the dignity and worth of all human beings regardless of a person’s race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth, or another status. In 1966, the United Nations developed the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of the ICCPR focuses on four elements of religious freedom:

  • Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  • No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  • Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  • The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

When countries restrict religious freedom—including the free expression of Christianity and free worship of Jesus—they are rejecting this vital human right, which is built into the conscience of every human being and has been validated time-and-time again throughout history.

Christian Persecution at a glance:

Open Doors has tracked—and continues to track—the rise of Christian persecution for years. Our annual World Watch List, which examines the 50 countries worldwide where it’s most difficult to be a Christian, is the only annual in-depth survey of its kind. Here is the latest data we have available; it indicates Christian persecution is higher today than at any other time in modern history:

  • 312 Million: In the top 50 World Watch List countries alone, 312 million Christians in the world experience high levels of persecution and discrimination for their choice to follow Christ.
  • 1 in 7: Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution
A brief look at the 2022 World Watch
A brief look at the 2022 World Watch
  • 5,898: Christians killed for faith-related reasons.
  • 5,110: churches and other Christian buildings attacked.
  • 4,765: believers detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned .
  • 3,829: the number of Christians abducted for faith-related reasons.

All statistics gathered during the 2022 World Watch List reporting period, October 2020-September 2021.

Trends in Christian persecution

Open Doors’ annual World Watch List examines the 50 countries worldwide where it’s most difficult to be a Christian. It is the only annual in-depth survey of its kind, and reveals several trends in how Christians are being targeted around the world:

  1. A new No. 1

North Korea has been at (or near) the top of the World Watch List for the past 20 years, but this year the country lost its top spot to Afghanistan. To be clear, this doesn’t mean things are improving for Christians in North Korea; it means things have gotten worse in Afghanistan.

With the Taliban takeover in August, Afghanistan has become a hunting ground for Christians. Christians dare not go out in public to meet, shop or get medical treatment. They’ve been driven underground simply to survive. The Taliban has acquired lists of Christians in the nation and are going town to town, trying to flush them out.

  1. The deadliest place in the world for Christians gets deadlier

Last year, to our best estimate, 4,761 Christians were killed for their faith. This year, that number increased by nearly 24% to 5,898 (in actuality, this number is probably much higher). 4,650 of those killings took place in Nigeria—that’s 13 Christians martyred, every day.

Nigeria accounts for nearly 80 percent of Christian deaths worldwide, but violence against Christians continues to spread rapidly throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Out of the top ten most violent countries against Christians, this part of Africa retains seven of those: Nigeria, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

  1. Are extremists … winning?

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in September, it was a victory for Islamic extremists. The country had been in tumult for 20 years, and the violent radicals were overjoyed to retake the capital city of Kabul, flying their flag above government buildings and erasing the rights of women and religious minorities.

But the Taliban weren’t the only extremist group to make strides in 2021: in Nigeria and Cameroon, Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc, the Islamic State group is active in West Africa and Mozambique and al Shabab controls large portions of Somalia. Islamic extremism continues to spill from one country to the next.

  1. The terrifying technological reality of persecution 

For a long time, China’s surveillance system has encroached on the religious freedoms of Christians and other religious minorities. But it’s only gotten worse.

There are reports from two provinces that cameras are present in all state-sanctioned religious venues. In 2021, some Bible apps were taken down from online stores, Christian content was taken off social media and the restrictions of online life have grown tighter. China has also implemented a program where average citizens can access security cameras and report anything “suspicious” to police.

  1. Driven from your home for your faith

In many countries around the world, Christians have literally been displaced and become refugees, driven from their homes by persecution. In many African countries, like Nigeria and Mozambique, where extremist military groups are heavily active, it is safer for believers to flee than to stay, knowing one slip up or call from a neighbor could mean their family’s lives. In Eritrea, Christian women flee to avoid obligatory military service, where they could be beaten, assaulted or worse.

After last year’s military coup, Christians in Myanmar face increased danger—and more and more Christians are forced to run for their lives. With the fighting taking place in many Christian provinces, believers and their families have no choice but find safety in camps for displaced people; in these camps, Christians are often deprived food and healthcare because of their faith.

In countries where tradition and culture are highly valued, like parts of Colombia, Mexico and Vietnam, some Christians are targeted for going against customary practices. They’re seen as cultural and family traitors. If these Christians don’t flee, their houses could be burned and their families kidnapped or worse.

The 2022 World Watch List

Download the latest edition of the World Watch, the only annual report that measures persecution against Christians around the world.

Get it now