Christian persecution

It may be surprising, but Christian persecution around the world is one of the biggest human rights issues of this era.

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 Russia, 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 340 million Christians living in places where they experience high levels of persecution and discrimination
  • 4,761 Christians killed for their faith
  • 4,488 churches and other Christian buildings attacked
  • 4,277 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.

* 2021 World Watch List reporting period

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.

340 million Christians live in places where they may experience high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. That’s 1 in 8 Christians.

  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:

  • 309 Million: In the top 50 World Watch List countries alone, 309 million Christians in the world experience high levels of persecution and discrimination for their choice to follow Christ.
  • 1 in 8: Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution
A brief look at the 2021 World Watch
A brief look at the 2021 World Watch
  • 4,761: Christians killed for faith-related reasons in the top 50 WWL countries.
  • 4,488: Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned in the top 50 WWL countries.
  • 4,277: churches or Christian buildings attacked in the top 50 WWL countries.
  • 2.7 times: the amount the number of Christians killed has risen in sub-Saharan Africa, year over year.
  • 20:Consecutive years North Korea has ranked No. 1 as the world’s most dangerous place for Christians.

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. The devastating persecution no one saw coming

The coronavirus pandemic was the event of a generation. And in addition to the pain felt by people all over the world, it also exposed the ugliness of Christian persecution in a new way. In India (No. 10 on the World Watch List), more than 100,000 Christians received relief aid from Open Doors partners to help them through the pandemic. Of these believers, 80 percent reported to World Watch List researchers that they were dismissed from food distribution points. Some walked miles and hid their Christian identity to get food elsewhere. Another 15 percent received food aid, but reported other discrimination, such as being passed over for employment.

And it wasn’t just India: The global pandemic made persecution more obvious than ever—simply because so many people needed help. The clear discrimination and oppression suffered by Christians in 2020 must not be forgotten, even after the COVID-19 crisis fades into our collective memory.

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the most vulnerable Christians

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the persecution of Christians. But it’s also shown how vulnerable so many of our sisters and brothers are in the places where they live. Christians who abandon a majority faith to follow Christ know they risk losing all support from spouses, families, tribes and communities, as well as local and national authorities. If they lose income due to COVID-19, they can’t fall back on customary networks for survival.

For church leaders, COVID-19 also exposed how difficult daily life is. Many are not paid salaries, but depend on financial support from community donations. When church services stop, donations drop—by about 40 percent, said leaders ranging from Egypt to Latin America. This also affects humanitarian assistance to their own communities, both inside and outside churches.

  1. Lockdowns didn’t matter: The violence is astounding

In much of the world, violence against Christians actually decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic. But across sub-Saharan Africa, that wasn’t the case. Christians there faced up to 30 percent higher levels of violence than the previous year. Several hundred mostly Christian villages in Nigeria were either occupied or ransacked by armed Hausa-Fulani Muslim militant herdsmen; sometimes, fields and crops were destroyed as well. Boko Haram—and splinter group Islamic State of West Africa Province—continue to plague Nigeria and northern Cameroon.

  1. The terrifying technological reality of persecution 

As China’s global influence spreads, it exports its all-pervasive systems for “protection” and “security”—which can be seen now to brutally oppress the Uighur population in Xinjiang. Chinese companies are supported by the government to supply AI surveillance technology to 63 countries, including countries on the 2021 World Watch List like Myanmar, LaosIran and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, in India, religious minorities fear contact-tracing apps will have “function creep” and will be used to keep an eye on them and their movements. Another app, already in use, can predict age, gender and race. India’s data protection bill does not cover surveillance. Indeed, it has provisions to allow the government to bypass protection standards and even consent in circumstances such as national security or crime investigation.

  1. When citizenship is tied to a faith

In countries like India and Turkey, religious identity is increasingly tied to national identity—meaning, to be a “real” Indian or a good Turk, you must be a Hindu or a Muslim, respectively. This is often implicitly—if not explicitly—encouraged by the ruling government. In other countries on the World Watch List, religious identity is closely tied to national identity, and anyone who follows Jesus risks being seen—and persecuted—as a bad citizen.

The 2021 World Watch List

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

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