Betrayed, watched and martyred: 5 major trends in persecution against Christians

January 14, 2021 by Ryan Hamm in World Watch List

With the release of the 2021 World Watch List, it’s impossible to deny the reality of global persecution against Christians. In the top 50 countries alone, more than 309 million Christians experience persecution and discrimination because they follow Jesus.


This should shock us!

Each year, the numbers and research from the World Watch List tell us a story. We hear the shocking statistics and see the reality of persecution for so many of our brothers and sisters, but there are always events and contexts that can help us better understand what Christians are experiencing around the world.

See the 2021 World Watch List here

As we looked at the research for this year’s World Watch List, we saw trends and patterns that jumped out at us.  Here are five of them that may define the world for believers for years to come:

1. The trend no one saw coming—and a devastating way to target Christians

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.

It wasn’t just in India. In Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Central Asia, Malaysia, North Africa, Yemen and Sudan, there are reports of Christians in rural areas being denied aid. Sometimes, this denial was at the hands of government officials, but more often, it was from village heads, committees or other local leaders. Some Christians even reported their food ration cards torn up or waved away.

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In southern Kaduna, Nigeria (No. 9 on the World Watch List), families from several villages said they received one-sixth of the rations allocated to Muslim families. In Guinea-Bissau, when a state of emergency was imposed, some Christians said Muslim neighbors “complained” to the government about them, while in Guinea, one leader said church closures prompted followers of local animist religions to mock pastors.

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.

2. Why Christians were betrayed by their government and community

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.

Some Christians—in regions across the globe—said the pandemic meant there was less pressure to participate in local rituals and festivals. However, most converts from majority faiths said confinement due to a COVID-19 quarantine locked them in with those most antagonistic to their faith in Jesus. This especially affected minority women and children. For millions of Christians, work, education and other outside interests provide a brief time of calm from regular persecution.. So when the lockdowns occurred, it meant this respite was no longer available.

We have also received reports that the kidnapping, forcible conversion and forced marriage of women and girls increased during the pandemic because of increased vulnerability. Additionally, places in Latin America that are vulnerable to drug gangs have become even more dangerous for Christians, since the pandemic has decreased the presence of official authorities who try to maintain order.

3. Lockdowns didn’t matter—the violence was shocking

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.

In the Sahel region just south of the Sahara Desert, Islamic extremism is fueled by injustice and poverty. These extremist groups exploit governmental failures, and armed jihadists spread propaganda, push recruitment and conduct regular attacks. This year, some groups pledged to wage war against “infidels” like Christians—they claim “Allah punishes us all” with the pandemic because of the infidels.

A United Nations official recently said countries in the central Sahel—Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger—are home to the world’s fastest-growing displacement and protection crisis. In Burkina Faso, until recently known for its inter-religious harmony between Muslims and Christians, 1 million people—1 in 20 of the population—are displaced (and millions more are hungry) as a result of drought and violence. Last year, Burkina Faso dramatically entered the World Watch List Top 50 for the first time. This year, Islamic extremists continue to target churches (14 killed in one attack, 24 in another). In Mali, Western Christian hostages are still held and killed.

In East Africa, Mozambique faces violence by a branch of ISIS that wants to impose Shariah law across the northern province bordering Tanzania. Another group has already attacked Christian villages across the border in Tanzania, where the autocratic President John Magufuli won a landslide election victory in October.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is plagued by its own Islamic State group-linked attackers, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). ADF has almost total control over vast rural areas, and for years it has attacked Christian-run schools and clinics, burned down churches and killed community leaders.

Even in the midst of a pandemic that caused lockdowns and stay-at-home orders around the world, violence still rose across sub-Saharan Africa. It is a troubling development for sisters and brothers trying to follow Jesus in this environment.

4. This terrifying technological reality threatens faith

Open Doors USA CEO David Curry sits in a church in China under the watchful eye of a surveillance camera.

Open Doors USA CEO David Curry sits in a church in China under the watchful eye of a surveillance camera.

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.

China maintains it moved decisively to contain COVID-19 after the virus took flight in Wuhan, but for its 97 million Christians, the cost in heavy restrictions—as surveillance reached into their homes, online and off-line interactions were tracked and their faces were scanned into the Public Security database—is high.

Reports from counties in Henan and Jiangxi provinces say cameras with facial recognition software are now in all state-approved religious venues. Many of these cameras are reported to be installed next to standard CCTV cameras, but they link to the Public Security Bureau, meaning artificial intelligence can instantly connect with other government databases. The facial recognition software will eventually be linked to the “Social Credit System” in China, which monitors the loyalty of citizens with regards to the tenets of communism.

Communist Party officials in Shanxi, Henan, Jiangxi, Shandong and other provinces have threatened to withdraw social welfare benefits, including pensions, if Christians refuse to replace Christian imagery, such as crosses, with pictures of President Xi Jinping. One Christian on welfare apparently reported that officials told him that since he believed in God, he should ask Him for food instead of living off the Communist Party.

Churches that resort to online services are vulnerable to monitoring; even officially registered churches were ordered to stop online services. “The government monitors people across the country,” said the director of a government-approved church in the eastern province of Shandong. In his same city, when a woman took her child into a registered church, she was captured on CCTV—officials immediately reprimanded the church since minors are forbidden from attending church. Many churches have experienced the confiscation of property and Christian materials including Bibles, as well as raids, fines and arrests of church leaders.

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, Laos, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

5. What do you do when your citizenship is tied to another religion?

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.

Amidst a surge of Hindu nationalism, Indian Christians are constantly pressured by strident propaganda. The message “to be Indian, you must be Hindu” means mobs continue to attack and harass Christians, as well as Muslims. The belief that Christians are not truly Indian means widespread discrimination and persecution is often conducted with impunity. India also continues to block the flow of foreign funds to many Christian-run hospitals, schools and church organizations, all under the guise of protecting the Indian national identity.

In Turkey, the Turkish government has also assumed the role of nationalist protector of Islam. The Hagia Sophia was originally a cathedral and then a mosque, until modern Turkey decided it should be a museum. But in July 2020, the Turkish president persuaded a court to make it a mosque again, strengthening Turkish nationalism.

Near Turkey’s southeast border in January 2020, a Chaldean Christian couple was abducted from their isolated village, whose centuries-long Christian history had been destroyed by Turkish army attacks and Kurdish discrimination. The couple returned to their home a decade ago. Having resisted the authorities’ repeated intimidation to leave, they were the last Christians left. The wife’s body was found in March; the husband is still missing.

Turkish influence and nationalist aims extend beyond its borders, most notably in its backing of Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. During the conflict, Armenians and Chaldean Christians in the Turkish capital, Ankara, were beaten, while others in Istanbul were threatened by right-wing mobs, showing how centuries-long, inter-religious animosity can be stirred up.

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.