In some ways the 2017 World Watch List has a depressingly familiar feel. For the fourth year in a row, the level of overall persecution has risen. North Korea is still number one. Islamic extremism continues to strangle the expression of the Christian faith. Millions of Christians around the world now live their lives against varying levels of discrimination, discovery, violence and arrest.
THE KEY FACTS
- North Korea is number one again, as it has been since 2002.
- Worldwide, persecution of Christians has risen for the fourth year in a row, with Asia, particularly, showing a rapid rise.
- Pakistan rises to fourth in the list with levels of violence even greater than northern Nigeria.
- As Hindu nationalists batter the churches, India climbs to its highest ever ranking of 15.
- In Laos, Bangladesh, Vietnam and tiny Bhutan, things are getting more difficult for Christians.
- Buddhist nationalism returns Sri Lanka to the top 50.
- Islamic extremism fuels persecution in 14 out of the top 20 countries, and 35 of the top 50.
- Sudan rises to five as President Omar al-Bashir seeks to fulfil his 2011 boast, ‘Now we can impose Sharia here.’
- Turkey rises to 37 as President Erdogan uses 2016’s failed coup to purge opponents and push the country towards increasing Islamisation.
- Wars in the Middle East continue to catch Christians in the crossfire: war-torn Yemen returns to the top ten, while in Syria and Iraq Christians continue to be targeted by Islamic militants.
- And still, the church is growing.
“Nothing can stop the growth of the church.” Member of China’s Ministry of National Security, overheard June 2016
Yet, there is some good news – above all, the fact that the church is growing. There has been a remarkable growth in believers from a Muslim background (BMBs), not least from those who, having encountered extreme Islam, choose Christianity instead. And all around the world, persecuted Christians are continuing to discover a depth, a strength, a brightness to their faith that can only be found in the darkest times.
Christians are being killed for their faith in more countries than before
Pakistan – which has risen to number 4 – was where Christians faced most violence, even more than northern Nigeria. Among the numerous atrocities which raised it to fourth place on the list was the detonation of a bomb in a public park on Easter Sunday in Lahore, which killed at least 69 Christians. Believers were killed for their faith in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, even in tiny Laos. At least 23 Christian leaders were killed in Mexico, and four in Colombia. Ironically, fewer reports came in of Christians having been killed in Syria and Iraq – but only because most believers have already fled.
In Asia, political and religious nationalism is rising
The election of the ultra-nationalist BJP party in India led to a widespread rise in attacks. Local Christian organisations report that at least ten Christians were abducted, ten Christian women were raped, and more than 800 Christians were physically attacked. But India is just part of a wider problem in Asia. With the exception of war-torn Yemen, the countries adding most points on the list all came from Asia, from countries like Laos, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Bhutan. In most of these countries, governments equate the dominant religion with their nationality: to be Sri Lankan, for example, is to be Buddhist; to be a Malay is to be Muslim. But even the Chinese President Xi Jinping has claimed that if you must belong to a religion, you should choose a Chinese one like Confucianism.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Islamic radicalisation is entering the mainstream
In Somalia – number 2 on the World Watch List – at least a dozen Christians were killed this year by al-Shabaab militants. Militants were also active in neighbouring Kenya, leaving this Christian majority country firmly in the top 20. Mali rose 12 places in the list: three people were killed when a gunman opened fire outside a Christian radio station. In Nigeria, Christians face not only the violence of Boko Haram, but also Muslim Hausa-Fulani herdsmen who have driven thousands of Christians off their lands. But persecution is also ‘official’ policy in some places. The Islamic governments of Sudan and Somalia are actively anti-Christian. As a Somalian believer said, “Everything works against the Christian.” And, in Somalia, Kenya, Niger and Burkina Faso, Saudi Arabian money is building schools and mosques, and funding local politicians, leading to an increasing presence of radical Islam in mainstream society.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are filling the power vacuum in the Middle East
The withdrawal of the USA from the Middle East left a power vacuum which has been filled by Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudi-backed civil war in Yemen has reduced the country to a waste land, with many Christians caught in the crossfire, such as the 16 people killed in an attack on a Christian care home for the elderly and disabled. Iran, having secured its deal with the USA, has arrested record numbers of house church Christians, and many are losing their livelihoods after having to pay huge fines.
Persecution is creating a more indigenous Chinese church
Some 60 million of China’s 97 million Christians worship outside state-organised churches. One pastor in Shanghai was forced to close his growing church by officials who became alarmed at its size. “We have been blindly copying the Western church,” he says. “But God has brought this persecution to stop us building mega churches and imitating others. Now that we have had to disperse back into smaller groups, I believe we have the chance to become a truly indigenous church.”
Christians are hoping to return to their historic homes in northern Iraq
When Islamic militants overran the Nineveh plains in 2014, over 80,000 Christians fled their homes. Now some of their towns and villages have been liberated, they are determined to return. “We will go back with a greater determination to keep freedom defended,” said a church leader in Iraq. But the scale of destruction is great, and while Christians are keen to return to Christian majority areas, those who lived in cities like Mosul are fearful: “I was betrayed by my Muslim neighbours… How can I go back to live side by side with them now?”
Believers from Muslim Backgrounds in Indonesia have no fear in their new faith
Many BMBs have to keep their faith secret. But in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest population of Muslims, a great many new BMBs are emerging – and they are independent, strong and fearless. As a long-time observer said: “These new BMBs live a lifestyle that is not fearful, nor do they think they have to be like the Christians that told them about the gospel – they will form a new strand of the church, that will be more biblical and vibrant, and they will bless the world.”
The ‘exodus’ of Christians in the Middle East is significantly slowing… for now
The number of Christians leaving the Middle East has slowed, not least because, in the words of a refugee worker in Jordan, “If you were a Christian and you had resources, you’ve already gone.” Yet a great many Christians remain in the region. Their continued presence is by no means secure, but they remain committed to staying. Meanwhile, many of those who became refugees in Europe are bringing new life to Western churches. In the words of a pastor from Germany: “They are reminding us what real faith looks like.”