In 2022, 5,621 Christian around the world were "killed for faith related reasons." Another 4,542 Christians were illegally detained or arrested, and 2,110 churches were attacked, many destroyed. Overall, the global persecution of Christians remains higher than ever, with 360 million believers suffering high levels of discrimination and violence.
These are among some of the findings of the World Watch List 2023, recently published by the international humanitarian organization, Open Doors. Each year, the World Watch List ranks the top 50 nations where Christians are most persecuted for their faith by using data from approximately 4,000 field workers and external experts to analyze the persecution worldwide.
The report finds that around the world, on average, one in seven Christians (14%) are persecuted. In Africa, that number grows to one in five (20%), while in Asia it is as much as two in five -- meaning 40% of all Christians are persecuted there.
Christians suffer "extreme levels of persecution" in the top 11 of the 50 nations. This persecution ranges from being assaulted, raped, imprisoned or murdered on being identified as a Christian or attending (usually underground) churches.
The worst nations and their rankings are: 1) North Korea, 2) Somalia, 3) Yemen, 4) Eritrea, 5) Libya, 6) Nigeria, 7) Pakistan, 8) Iran, 9) Afghanistan, 10) Sudan, 11) India.
Coming in at #1, North Korea has "the highest levels of persecution ever seen," says the report:
"If discovered by the authorities, believers are either sent to labour camps as political prisoners where the conditions are atrocious, or killed on the spot—and their families will share their fate as well. Christians have absolutely no freedom.... A new 'anti-reactionary thought law' makes it amply clear that being a Christian or possessing a Bible is a serious crime and will be severely punished."
Most of the "extreme persecution" meted out to Christians in nine of the top 11 worst nations continues to come either from Islamic oppression, or takes place in Muslim-majority nations. This means that approximately 80% of the worst persecution around the globe takes place in the name of Islam.
This trend affects the entire list, not just the top 11: the persecution that Christians experience in 39 of the 50 nations also comes either from Islamic oppression or occurs in Muslim-majority nations. The overwhelming majority of these nations are governed by some form of shari'a (Islamic law). It can either be directly enforced by government or society or, more frequently, both, although societies -- family members outraged in particular by relatives who have converted -- tend to be more zealous in its application.
Although the persecution in North Korea is worse, there is at least hope for the Christians there: their ill treatment is entirely connected to the regime of Kim Jong-un. Once he is gone, North Korea may well become like South Korea, where Christianity is flourishing. Conversely, the Muslim persecution of Christians is perennial, existential, and far transcends this or that regime or ruler. It is part of the history, doctrines and socio-political makeup of Islam -- hence its tenacity and ubiquity.
In the worst of the Muslim nations, Christianity has been so stamped out over the years that there are no indigenous Christians to persecute, only converts -- apostates, who, according to most interpretations of Islamic law, deserve death. The wildly popular late Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi noted on television that if not for the apostasy law, Islam would have died out long ago.
In Somalia (#2), the report says:
"Imams in mosques and madrassas state publicly that there is no room for Christianity, Christians or churches. The violent insurgent group al-Shabaab has repeatedly expressed its desire to eradicate Christians from the country. Christians from Muslim backgrounds are regarded as high-value targets and may be killed on the spot if discovered."
Similarly, in Yemen (#3), "The population is overwhelmingly Muslim and it is illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity."
"Yemeni Christian converts are at great risk of being killed, not just ostracised or expelled, by their families, clans and tribes. Islamic extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State threaten so-called 'apostates' with death if they do not return to Islam. In other areas, including those controlled by Houthis, converts risk imprisonment. In detention centres, Christian detainees have reportedly suffered physical and mental torture."
In most Muslim nations on the list, all three sectors of society -- Muslim authorities, Muslim mobs and Muslim terrorists -- persecute Christians to varying degrees.
In Libya (#5), jihadists are chiefly responsible.
"Libya is effectively a lawless land where both native Christians and those passing through from other countries face extreme violence. With no central government to maintain law and order, militant Islamic extremist groups and organised crime groups both wield power. They target and kidnap Christians, and some believers have been killed."
On the other hand, in Iran (#8), which is "ruled by an increasingly strict Islamic regime," the authorities are chiefly responsible.
"Iranian house church leaders and members have received long prison sentences involving physical and mental abuse. Iranian Christians may be banned from education, lose their jobs and find it very difficult to get back into employment. For women, the situation is even more precarious because Iranian law grants women few rights. For trusting in Jesus, they are likely to be violently punished or divorced by their husbands and have their children taken away from them, if their faith is discovered."
In Afghanistan (#9), Islamic terrorists -- who also happen to be the authorities -- are chiefly responsible.
"The Taliban's takeover of power in August 2021 has forced most Christians either further underground or away from the country entirely. Many (if not all) house groups closed, with believers forced to leave behind everything they own. More than a year after the Taliban's takeover, any promises they made about recognising freedoms have proved to be false. Following Jesus remains a death sentence, if discovered."
In Pakistan (#7), every rung of society is responsible for the persecution.
"Christians in Pakistan are considered second-class citizens and face discrimination in every aspect of life. Jobs that are seen as low, dirty and degrading are reserved for Christians by the authorities, who continue to push them to the margins of society. They lack proper representation in politics ... [and] there are almost constant attacks against individuals. Many do not feel safe to worship freely.... [R]oughly a quarter of all blasphemy accusations target Christians, who only make up 1.8% of the population. The number of blasphemy cases is increasing, as is the number of Christian (and other minority religion) girls being abducted, abused and forcibly converted to Islam."
Similarly, in Egypt (#35), which is "very high" in persecution, Christians "report that freedom of religion violations are mostly experienced in the community."
"Incidents vary from Christian women being harassed while walking in the street, to a mob of angry Muslims forcing a whole community of Christians to move out, leaving their houses and belongings to be confiscated.... President al-Sisi regularly speaks positively about Egypt's Christian community. However, the lack of serious law enforcement and the unwillingness of local authorities to protect Christians leave them vulnerable to all kinds of attacks, especially in Upper Egypt. Communal hostility and mob violence, in particular, continue to cause difficulties."
Among some of the notable trends, the report asserts that Christians in the Middle East have experienced little if any improvement since the disempowerment of the Islamic State (ISIS).
"The church [in the Middle East] has not been able to recover after the upsurge of Islamic State and the attempts of extremists to wipe out Christianity entirely. Discrimination and oppression coupled with crippling economic decline means the church is losing hope, particularly for young people. In the Levant region of the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel/Palestinian Territories and Jordan), the Christian community is shrinking due to deprivation, discrimination and persecution. Ever since the Islamic State group (IS) arrived on the scene, Christians in those areas of Iraq and Syria have been struggling to earn a living; young Christians in particular face high unemployment and continual hostility..."
In Sub-Saharan Africa, "Violence against Christians ... has reached new heights."
"Jihadists are destabilizing countries in West and Central Africa. Entire countries are at risk of collapse into extremist violence. 26 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa face high levels of persecution.... The jihadist movement, which seeks to expand Sharia across the continent, has forced Christians into constant motion, from their homes to displacement camps, or to other countries. The insecurity stemming from this experience of forced displacement makes Christians even more vulnerable to further violence. Christian women, in particular, can be easily targeted for sexual attack, while men are more likely to lose their lives."
"The violence is most pervasive in the north, where [Muslim] militant groups such as Boko Haram, ISWAP and Fulani militants inflict murder, physical injury, abduction and sexual violence on their victims. Christians are dispossessed of their land and their means of livelihood. Many live as internally displaced people or refugees. In the Sharia states of northern Nigeria, Christians face discrimination and exclusion as second-class citizens. Christians from a Muslim background also face rejection from their own families, pressure to give up Christianity, and often physical violence."
Although Islam continues to have the lions' share of persecution, the rise of religious nationalism in non-Muslim nations—such as Myanmar (#14) -- has also caused a number of nations normally unassociated with persecution to rise in the ranks. Most notable among these is the second most populous nation in the world, India (#11).
"In recent years there has been a big increase in Hindutva, an ideology that believes only Hindus are true Indians.... Increasing numbers of [Indian] states are implementing anti-conversion laws, supposedly to stop Hindus being forcibly converted to other religions, but in reality they are often used as an excuse to harass and intimidate Christians who are just doing things like distributing aid or having a private church meeting. These laws do not seem to protect Christians from being coerced back into Hinduism. Christians increasingly experience social exclusion in their communities, discrimination in the workplace, and have false accusations and rumours spread about them."
As for the world's most populous nation, China (#16), Open Doors reports:
"In China, the use of digital surveillance technology is spreading, adding to persecution and intimidation. Armed with sweeping new rules on church use of the internet, implemented in March 2022, authorities employed censorship, disinformation, and unblinking surveillance to tighten their control of religious groups."
Rather ominously, Open Doors also notes that:
"China's model of oppression is spreading throughout authoritarian states. The apparent success of China, especially in economic terms, is appealing to many leaders around the world. The promise of growth and prosperity, while being able to control all groups and individuals perceived as deviant, has triggered the interest of leaders from all over the world, no matter their ideological background.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend is that, since 1993, the persecution of Christians has nearly doubled:
"Since 1993, the World Watch List has revealed the scale and severity of the persecution of Christians. In the last 30 years, the number of countries where Christians suffer high and extreme levels of persecution has almost doubled to 76 countries. Today, more than 360m Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. In Open Doors' World Watch List top 50 alone, 312m Christians face very high or extreme levels."
Last year, 360 million Christians around the world also experienced "high levels of persecution and discrimination." That number represented a 6% increase from 2021, when 340 million Christians experienced the same degree of persecution; and that number represented a 31 % increase from 2020, when 260 million Christians experienced the same level of persecution; and that number represented a 6% increase from 2019, when 245 million experienced the same level of persecution; and that number represented a 14% increase from 2018, when 215 million was the number.
Worst of all, the persecution of Christians, which was already horrific, has already increased by nearly 70% over the last six years, with no signs of abating. For the first time since the inception of the World Watch List 30 years ago, Nicaragua (#50) has now made the list.
How long before this seemingly irreversible trend metastasizes into even those nations currently celebrated for their religious freedom?
Raymond Ibrahim, author of Defenders of the West, Sword and Scimitar, Crucified Again, and The Al Qaeda Reader, is the Distinguished Senior Shillman Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and the Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.