ISLAMIC extremism was by far the most common driver of the persecution of the world’s Christians in 2015 — a “year of fear” for millions of adherents, a new report suggests.
It was the “primary engine of persecution” in 35 out of the top 50 countries in the annual World Watch List produced by the charity Open Doors, which ranks in order the countries in which it is most dangerous to be a Christian.
Launched at the House of Commons on Wednesday, the report warns that global persecution of Christians was “more extreme than ever before” in 2015. The chief executive of Open Doors, Lisa Pearce, told an audience of MPs that the religious identity of victims of persecution was going unreported in the UK, out of nervousness, or blindness to its relevance, and called on them to ensure that freedom of religion was included in diplomacy and aid efforts.
The charity estimates that, worldwide, more than 7000 Christians were “killed for faith-related reasons” between November 2014 and October 2015 — a rise of almost 3000 on the previous year. Given the difficulty of access to data, the real figure is expected to be much higher. The number of churches attacked or damaged doubled to 2300. Open Doors estimates that, every year, more than 100 million Christians are persecuted because of their beliefs, resulting in an exodus from many countries: “Never before have so many Christians been on the move.”
The list is headed by North Korea, Iraq, and Eritrea. A country had to score 50 per cent more points than in 2013 just to make it on to the list. The rest of the top ten are, in descending order, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, and Libya.
“The persecution of Christians is getting worse in every region in which we work — and it’s getting worse fast,” Ms Pearce 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.”
The methodology behind the rankings is designed to measure persecution in two forms: “squeeze” (oppression) and “smash” (violence). The former includes “cultural marginalisation, government discrimination, hindrances on conversion, interferences on participation in public affairs, and restrictions on church life”. Ms Pearce emphasised that the charity’s researchers had access to “grass-roots data down to village level. . . It’s solid, it’s externally audited, and it’s important.”
The report concludes that the greatest source of persecution of Christians is “religious extremism”. Hindu and Buddhist extremism are included, but the Islamic form is the primary driver in 35 out of the top 50 countries. In addition to the Middle East, it has a “powerfully destructive hub in sub-Saharan Africa”. There were more recorded killings of Christians, because of their faith, in northern Nigeria than in the rest of the world put together: 4028, out of a worldwide total of 7100.
The report describes a “structural pattern of kidnapping and, or, murdering Christian migrants” in Libya, including the murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in February (News, 20 February). Also cited is the killing of 147 students at Garissa College, in Kenya (News, 10 April), which reopened this week. Attacks in Paris, California, and Tunisia had “added up to a global feeling that no one, nowhere, is safe from the reach of this new breed of jihadists”, the authors write.
“All over the Middle East especially, Muslims are, outwardly at least, becoming more fundamentalist,” the report says. “Daesh is radicalising the population, even in countries where it has no presence.”
Other drivers of persecution are listed as “religious nationalism, tribal antagonism, denominational protectionism, Communist oppression, aggressive secularism, organised corruption, and totalitarian paranoia”.
North Korea is ranked as the worst place in the world to be a Christian. It is estimated that about 70,000 Christians are imprisoned in labour camps. India was ranked 17, compared with 31 in 2013; this was attributed in part to anti-conversion laws after the electoral success of Hindu nationalists. On average, a church is burned down, or a pastor is beaten, three times every week.
The reception on Wednesday was hosted by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, who said that the persecution of Christians had “shot up the parliamentary agenda”, and that Open Doors had “played a big part in making that happen”. Her own involvement was the result of lobbying by her constituents in Chipping Barnet, who had “opened my eyes to the scale of suffering”.
“We who live here, in a predominantly Christian country, with a very long Christian heritage, should feel a special sense of responsibility,” she said.
MPs in attendance included the Minister of State at the Department for International Development, Desmond Swayne, and the Shadow Secretary for International Development, Hilary Benn.
In her remarks at the reception, Ms Pearce sought to pre-empt criticism of the report. She acknowledged that it would be “unchristian” to ask for “special treatment”, and called instead for “equal treatment” and an acknowledgement of the particularity of attacks on Christians.
“We are talking about the freedom for all people to live out their faith,” she said. “Freedom of religion and belief is the canary in the coalmine of human rights. Once that is eroded, other rights very quickly follow.”
It was necessary, she argued, to identify whether there was “anything particular happening to a particular faith group”. There were challenges to doing so in the UK, she said, in a culture that was “very secular, and faith very private and personal”. She described how some media reports stripped out reference to the religion of victims of violence. The result of shying away from identifying these details would be that “we are not going to be looking in the right places for the solution.” Another consequence would be the polarisation of the conversation to the exclusion of moderate voices, which were crucial to finding a solution to religious violence.
The building of multi-faith societies should be factored into the plans of the Foreign Office and the DFID, she argued. A total of 42 out of the 50 countries on the list are recipients of aid. She argued that this relief should be distributed by local and faith-based groups, besides NGOs, to ensure that minority groups were not excluded. She noted that Christians in Syria had been reluctant to register as refugees, or enter official camps.
Despite the “unprecedented” scale of persection, there were reasons to be hopeful, she said. In many parts of the world, “despite the pressure and the often terrible cost”, the Church continues to grow. There were also stories of mutual support: Christians in countries such as Syria were reaching out to support Muslim neighbours, and Muslims in Kenya were refusing to give up Christians to Islamist attackers (News, 1 January).
“Do everything possible within your spheres of influence to affect what happens next,” she wrote in her foreword to the report. “We will not get these days back.”