Every year, the charity Open Doors publishes their “World Watch List”; the definitive list of the places where Christians face the most severe persecution. The 2019 list contains some familiar names, but also some surprises.
The fact that the rollcall of shameful governments is headed by North Korea is a surprise to no-one; it has occupied this position of notoriety for 18 years. For the Christian minority, persecution is severe, but precise statistics about the numbers involved remain hard to establish. Best estimates suggest that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians in North Korea, of whom between 50,000 and 70,000 are currently toiling in the brutal labour camps.
Steven Pinker points to global trends in healthcare, education, and violence and argues that the world is getting substantially better. While there are many reasons to celebrate progress, this should be matched by concern that for many of the world’s Christians, persecution is getting substantially worse. Henrietta Blyth of Open Doors said: “Our research uncovers a shocking increase in the persecution of Christians globally. In China our figures indicate persecution is perhaps the worst it’s been since the Cultural Revolution. Worldwide, our data reveals that 13.9 per cent more Christians are experiencing high levels of persecution than last year. That’s 30 million more people.” That includes one in three Asian Christians facing a violation of their human rights. No wonder that British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt estimated that 80 per cent of religious persecution in the world is targeted at Christians.
It is shocking to see India appearing in the top ten on World Watch List for the first time ever. The Indian Constitution protects freedom of religion, yet research demonstrates that Hindu extremists frequently act with impunity and that violent attacks on Christians are on the rise. This is driven by growing ultra-nationalism, which has brought waves of violence against India’s non-Hindu minorities. Rising nationalism is leading to similar persecution in other countries such as Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal where national identity is tied to religion.
North Korea was once the only country whose persecution index was ranked in the “severe” category. In recent years it has been joined by others including Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, and Iran. Nigeria, infamous for the kidnappings of Christian girls, saw 3,700 Christians martyred in 2018, but doesn’t even reach the top ten on this year’s index.
Gender-specific persecution is receiving new attention. Persecution of men tends to be “focused, severe and visible” and that of women is “complex, violent and hidden”. Men are more likely to face detention without trial, or summary execution; whereas the persecution of women more typically involves sexual violence, rape or forced marriage.
Syria bucks the trend for worsening persecution as the widespread collapse of the Islamic State regime has stemmed the tide of abuses coming from that context.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his [her] religion or belief.” The ultimate test of whether we believe in these rights is whether we defend them for groups other than our own. Although there is currently a unique crisis facing vulnerable Christians, Christians are the forefront of defending the freedom of belief not just of fellow believers but for people of all religions (and indeed none) .
There is something profoundly human about our deepest beliefs, those which define us, shaping our lives and our communities. Denial of a person’s human rights on account of their belief (or lack thereof) cuts deeply into their humanity. Intriguingly however, many of the victims of the current worldwide epidemic of persecution targeted at Christians see this in slightly different terms. When asked why they don’t just deny their faith, learn to fit in, and enjoy a quiet life, they rarely reply in terms of displaying a desire to hold onto the dignity of their own humanity, or to assert their human rights. Baraz M. who suffered terribly for his Christian faith in Central Asia, speaks for countless others, when he says: “Tell them if I had to go through it all again, I would, because Jesus is worth it.”
What’s more, I believe he is right. His resilience comes from valuing Christ more than himself. Of course, the fact that I can write openly about the glory of Christ in a national newspaper makes me one of a privileged minority in world Christianity.
Gavin Matthew for SOLAS