WASHINGTON — In 2013, there were some 2,100 Christians killed for faith-related reasons across the globe. But within two years, by 2015, that number rose to at least 7,100, according to a recent report from an advocacy group.
“The persecution of Christians is getting worse, in every region in which we work, and it’s getting worse fast,” Lisa Pearce, CEO of Open Doors UK and Ireland, said in the group’s 2016 report. “Many countries have dropped down the list, not because persecution there is decreasing, but simply because others are getting worse faster. And it wasn’t good three years ago.”
“We can and must be strenuous in protecting Christians and all others facing persecution for their faith,” Pearce added.
Open Doors has worked to help persecuted Christians for more than 60 years. It was founded by a Dutchman known as Brother Andrew. He smuggled Bibles into Eastern Europe at a time when communist regimes severely restricted Christianity and other religions.
The organization works in 60 countries. Each year, it compiles instances of anti-Christian persecution and evaluates the global situation.
The latest report found that anti-Christian persecution reached a new peak in 2015, with thousands more people killed for faith-related reasons. About 4,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria, over 1,200 in the Central African and over 700 in Chad throughout 2015.
In addition, over 2,400 churches were attacked or shut down for faith-related reasons, the Open Doors report said.
Open Doors’ World Watch List evaluates Christian persecution in the world’s countries and ranks the worst 50. The worst 10 countries on the 2016 list are North Korea, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Libya.
North Korea, a communist state, is still the country where it is most difficult to be a Christian, the group found. It has about 300,000 Christians in a population of 24.5 million. The country has headed Open Doors’ watch list for 14 years.
News from the isolated country is difficult to confirm. However, Open Doors said the country’s leadership sees Christianity as “deeply Western and despicable.”
“Christians try to hide their faith, as far as possible, to avoid arrest and being sent to a labor camp. Thus, being Christian has to be a well-protected secret, even within families, and most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith in order to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked,” the organization states in its "World Watch List" entry for North Korea.
In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled their homes for fear of violence, especially from ISIS.
“Iraq has suffered from years of structural uncertainty, conflict and instability under a government incapable of enforcing the rule of law and providing a minimum of security,” Open Doors said.
In Eritrea, there are about 2.5 million Christians out of a population of 6.7 million.
“The Eritrean regime is absolutely authoritarian and intolerant towards any form of association, dissent and free expression,” Open Doors added.
The government aims to control all religious institutions and has deposed the Eritrean Orthodox patriarch. It has consistently supported the rise of radical Islam in the region, including arming the Islamist extremist group Al-Shabaab.
The Open Doors watch list cited several trends worsening anti-Christian persecution.
These trends include the expansion of self-styled Islamic caliphates, who now operate across international borders. Governments who fear Islamic extremism respond by working to increase nationalist sentiment or they tighten rules and increase surveillance over religious expression. In addition, some Muslims are becoming stricter out of fear of extremist takeovers or ISIS sleeper groups.
According to the report, the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia were the fastest-growing areas of persecution. More states suffer lawlessness, which means minorities there suffer more violence. Religious extremism, including Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist extremism, is the greatest source of anti-Christian persecution. The report blamed tribal antagonism as well as churches that do not want to recognize Christians of other denominations.
Mexico ranks 40th on the list, while Colombia ranks 46th. They are the only countries in the Americas to appear on the list. Open Doors said that drug trafficking is largely at the root of anti-Christian persecution in Latin America. Local Church leaders are often the only ones who will oppose drug traffickers, but then become targets for violence and extortion.
“There is always hope, and yet we are in unmarked territory — the pace and scale of persecution of Christians is unprecedented and growing fast. We should not expect that to change, unless we are part of changing the situation,” Pearce said.
She found hope in areas where Christian churches grow despite persecution. In countries like Syria, Christian communities care for their Muslim neighbors. In places like Mandera, Kenya, Muslims opposed anti-Christian attackers, saying, “You kill all of us or none of us.”