by Andrew Harrod, PhD – Exclusive to the Religious Freedom Coalition
An “unprecedented escalation of violence against Christians…the most violent and sustained attack on Christian faith in modern history” occurred in 2015, stated Open Doors USA President David Curry on January 13 in Washington, DC. His National Press Club (NPC) presentation before about 30 of his organization’s annual World Watch List (WWL) only confirmed depressing global trends in Christian persecution noted by his 2015 NPC WWL presentation.
“Last year,” states online the World Watch List report on the 50 worst countries for Christian persecution, “it was noted that 2014 had been an unprecedented year in Christian persecution, and Open Doors predicted that it would only get worse.” Curry noted that the report’s timespan (November 1, 2014, to October 31, 2015, as described in a distributed fact sheet) had witnessed “persecution continuing to increase, intensify, and spread across the globe.” The 2016 World Watch List map indicated so much, as more ominously uniform tones of blood red, orange, and brown had replaced the 2015 World Watch List map’s more varied colors of red, orange, green, and blue.
Curry stated that 2016 was the hardest year ever for a country to make the World Watch List and the fact sheet noted that the “threshold to enter the list rose by nearly five points” on Open Doors’ 100-point scale. “Sri Lanka and Mauritania dropped off the list despite situations not improving in either country,” stated the fact sheet. A press release noted that an “average persecution increase in the top 50 nations of 2.6 points compared to last year.”
Even excluding North Korea and parts of Iraq and Syria due to deficient records, grim figures substantiated the press release’s claim that “Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world.” “More than 7,000 Christians were killed worldwide for faith-related reasons in the reporting period, an increase of nearly 3,000 compared to the 2015” World Watch List, stated the press release. “More than 2,400 churches were attacked or damaged, which is more than double the number from last year’s list.” United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein similarly noted in his remarks Pew statistics showing three quarters of the world’s population living under religious restrictions.
Curry described a variety of threats worldwide to Christians documented in the World Watch List, the “most accurate, thorough, and intensive research on the persecution of Christians. It is research like none other.” Drug cartels in Columbia and Mexico targeted churches because of their opposition to crime and corruption. Marxist-legacy regimes like China used zoning laws to restrict church growth while the 2016 World Watch List observes that militantly atheist “North Korea heads the World Watch List for the 14th consecutive year.”
Nonetheless, the press release specifically stated that “Islamic extremism continued to be the primary driving force behind the expansion of persecution.” This “lead generator of persecution for 35 out of the 50 nations on the list” had “two hubs…in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, regions where persecution has risen to a level akin to ethnic cleansing.” Curry elaborated that nine of the ten top, and 18 of the top 20 countries, suffer Christian persecution because of Islamic extremism. Some audience members noted the irony that the top ten included Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, three countries where American-led military regime changes ultimately failed to liberate Christians.
Saperstein stated that the “single greatest emerging challenge to religious freedom…is the abhorrent acts of terror committed by non-state actors who claim the mantle of religion.” He mentioned ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State or IS) and Nigeria’s Boko Haram as groups that use “terrorist sexual violence,” among other tactics. Curry stated that “Islamic extremist caliphates are solidifying and expanding” as jihadist groups in 43 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have pledged allegiance to IS, a group funded partly by Gulf State individuals.
While IS has perpetrated genocide against Christians and Yazidis, Boko Haram is especially violent and has killed more Christians than any other group this year, Curry stated. Thus the fact sheet noted that in 2015 the “most intense violence against Christians took place in Nigeria and Pakistan” where the government, Curry stated, supports the Taliban. Application of sharia by 12 northern Nigerian states has additionally made 27 million Christians into second-class citizens, he noted, creating masses of Internally Displaced Persons not as well-known as the refugees fleeing IS. The World Watch List report noted that “Muslims throughout the world are becoming more Islamic out of fear that extremists may take over their areas and that IS sleeper cells may wake.”
Kenyan widow Gladys Juma gave insight into the personal suffering underlying the World Watch List. On May 7, 2012, her husband, a Baptist church deacon, undertook evangelism with the church minister in a Muslim-majority neighborhood of their home city, Mombasa, Kenya. Just as Juma had feared might happen, an angry Muslims lynched the evangelists, leaving burnt bodies that she could not at first identify in the hospital.
Parallel to a Nigerian widow at last year’s World Watch List presentation, Juma emphasized forgiveness for her husband’s killers still at large, something she considered necessary for her emotional stability and corresponding ability to care for her four children. As she elaborated in an interview, upon learning of her husband’s murder she went into her house, fell down upon her coffee table, and thought of emulating Christ on the cross forgiving his crucifiers in her prayers. “By forgiving these people, I am getting them out of my system,” she said, and spoke of a vision with the equation “love plus forgiveness equals life, hate plus unforgiveness equals death.”
Police guard Mombasa Sunday church services, Juma stated, an indication that Islam all too often lives up to a reputation as a religion of the sword, as documented by the World Watch List. Christians should pray that good comes of the stark contrast of her Christian witness and her husband’s modern martyrdom. Yet history offers no certainty to Tertullian’s famous aphorism that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
(Editor’s note: Numerous organizations including the Religious Freedom Coalition work diligently to relieve the suffering of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. The Christmas for Refugee program operated by the Religious Freedom Coalition brings aid to Christian families and a Christmas celebration and meal for Christian refugee children each year. The program operates in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.)
[su_box title=”About Andrew Harrod”]Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.[/su_box]