RELIGIOUS nationalism is driving soaring levels of anti-Christian persecution across Asia and the Indian subcontinent, Open Doors warns this year, as it publishes its 25th World Watch List. The charity campaigns on behalf of persecuted Christians.
The rebirth of Hindu and Buddhist nationalism in the 1990s was “the trend the world refused to notice”, the charity says. Its report, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to practise Christianity, calculates that Christians are being killed for their faith in more countries than ever before: 38.
India was ranked higher than ever before, at 15, in the wake of the election of President Modi and rising religious nationalism. Open Doors researchers recorded more than 15 violent attacks on Christians every week in 2016. The persecution is partly, they write, “a reaction to the rapid growth of the Indian Church”. Pastors have been beaten, churches burned, and converts harassed. The second biggest increase in persecution is reported in Bangladesh, owing to attacks by terrorists linked to Islamic State.
“There is a clear pattern of rising religious intolerance across the Indian sub-continent which affects many millions of Christians,” the CEO of Open Doors, Lisa Pearce, said.
The estimate of the number of Christians killed for their faith during the year — 1207 — is significantly lower than the 7000 reported last year, which Open Doors attributes to many Christians’ having already been killed or displaced by violence, and Boko Haram’s being “forced more on to the defensive” in Nigeria.
Nevertheless, more than half of the deaths took place in Nigeria, where there is a reported death-rate of up to 3000 Christians a year. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the most violent for Christians today, and Islamic radicalisation is now affecting many Christian-majority countries, including Kenya, Open Doors warns. It is becoming “increasingly mainstream”.
Islamic extremism is listed as “the main engine of persecution” in 14 out of the most hostile 20 countries, and 35 of the top 50. The biggest increase in persecution took place in Yemen — caused, Open Door says, by the worsening security situation, which has emboldened extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State. This is followed by Asian countries: Bangladesh, Laos, India, Bhutan, and Vietnam.
North Korea, which has topped the list for more than 15 years, remains the most dangerous place to be a Christian: an estimated 70,000 Christians are imprisoned inside labour camps.
Only three countries have topped the list since it was first published in 1993: North Korea (16 times), Saudi Arabia (seven times), and Somalia (twice).
Among the trends of the past 25 years noted in the report is the falling rank of China: “The days of hundreds kept in detention, a ban on Bibles, and house-church gatherings brutally broken up by police thugs seem to have receded in favour of more sophisticated manipulation.”
Secular intolerance in the Western world will be reflected in the top 50, the authors predict, “sooner than we might think”.
In a series of recommendations, the British Government is urged to take more steps to champion freedom of religion and belief, including during post-Brexit trade negotiations. But it should cease making “casual references” to the UK as a Christian country, it says, given the rise of religious nationalism.
Open Doors notes that, despite persecution, the Church has grown “with amazing rapidity”.
Pastor in Nigeria describes persecution. A leader in the Christian Association of Nigeria, Pastor Aminu, has seen his congregation in Yobe State shrink in size from 400-500, before Boko Haram entered the state in 2011, to fewer than ten today. This week, he described how the militant Islamist group had gone from door to door in the night, killing Christians. Many had since fled to neighbouring states. A convert from Islam, he described the “terrible experience” of seeing churches destroyed, and the refusal of the state’s authorities to meet him. Many Christians were worshipping under trees. In addition to violence, he described marginalisation and discrimination in education and employment, and a lack of basic infrastructure in “Jerusalem”, the Christian community in which he lives, in the state capital Damaturu. He identified illiteracy, poverty, and political manipulation as roots of Islamic extremism. Christians must not retaliate, he said. “I will be the last person to close my church. I will never leave Damaturu, because I am the shepherd.”