The Year of Fear: Persecution Trends in 2016

The stark fact is this: globally, persecution of Christians is increasing. For millions of Christians around the world, 2015 has been a 'year of fear', so they need our support now more than ever.

But where there is great fear, there is also great faith. What this List also shows is that the church may be persecuted, it may be suppressed, attacked, vilified, lied about. But it has not been, and will never be, defeated.

The Big Picture

North Korea is number 1 again, as it has been for the past 14 years. Eritrea – the 'North Korea of Africa' – has entered the top five for the first time. In these 'pariah states' life as a Christian is frightening and dangerous.

Islamic extremism remains by far the most common driver of persecution: in eight out of the top 10, and 35 out of the top 50 countries, it is the primary cause. A rise in Islamic extremism sees Pakistan at its highest position ever, and Libya entering the top ten for the first time.

But it's not just about Islam. A rise in hardline Hindu nationalism in India has seen churches and pastors attacked with impunity. It enters the top 20 for the first time.

Open Doors records show that worldwide there were over 7,000 Christians killed for faith-related reasons in the year – almost 3,000 more than the previous year. (These are conservative estimates and exclude North Korea, Syria and Iraq, where accurate records do not exist.) Around 2,400 churches were attacked or damaged – over double the number for last year. In terms of violence against Christians and Christian property, Nigeria and Central African Republic top the list.

And the world has watched aghast as millions of refugees risk the hazardous route to Europe from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Their number includes tens of thousands of Christians fleeing war and persecution.

And all the time, beneath these 'headline' events, there is constant, low-level, localised persecution. Christians are driven out of their communities, refused burial, denied jobs or education. Churches are torn down because of local opposition or mob rule. For millions of Christians, the everyday persecution happens in their village, or even among their family.

All of which is to say that around the world, persecution of Christians is increasing. In 2015 the number of points needed for a country to enter the top 50 was 48.5; in 2016 it is 53.4 points. Find out more about our methodology.

But on the frontline of suffering there is also great faith. Christianity is about victory, more than victimhood. So, a year of fear, but also courage and hope as Christians around the world stand beside their persecuted brothers and sisters, providing practical aid, speaking up on their behalf, and demonstrating mercy, compassion and forgiveness, rather than hatred, exclusion and revenge.


Islamic extremism has been crossing borders

Islamic State (IS) has moved beyond Syria and Iraq and into Libya. Boko Haram has spread to Cameroon and Chad, and al-Shabaab into Kenya. Meanwhile, many smaller extremist movements have declared themselves part of the IS group of caliphates. Even the West has felt the tremors. Bombs in Paris, gunfights in California, holidaymakers killed on a Tunisian beach: in a globalised world, there is no such place as abroad anymore.

Governments are boosting nationalism and tightening control

Central Asian governments used the excuse of combatting Islamic extremism to increase their intrusive surveillance of the church. All have risen on the list. Buddhist Myanmar passed discriminatory laws, including a religious conversion law giving the state powers to penalise Christians who convert from Buddhism.

Many parts of the Muslim world are becoming more Islamic

All over the Middle East especially, Muslims are becoming more fundamentalist, partly out of fear that extremists may take over. However, there is a counter-trend as many Muslims search for a new identity as they turn away in disgust from extremism. Many are choosing Christianity as a faith instead.

African countries continue to move into the top 50

Islamic extremism in the world today has two hubs, one in the Middle East, the other in sub-Saharan Africa. Sixteen countries in the top 50 are from Africa, seven in the top 20. In numerical terms, if not in degree, the persecution of Christians in this region dwarfs what is happening in the Middle East.

More states are lawless, and minorities suffer violence

Much of Syria and Iraq has become effectively lawless, with Christian communities especially targeted. In lawless Libya, migrant Christians from Sudan, Egypt and Eritrea were brutally executed, and the tiny Muslim-background believer church has been driven even further into hiding. In Yemen, Saudi-led forces make it even harder for the few Christians remaining.

Never have so many Christians been on the move

The 'migrant crisis' is not limited to the Mediterranean. Tens of thousands of Christians fled the 12 Islamic Sharia states of northern Nigeria. In Kenya, Christians are fleeing the Muslim majority areas. Every month, thousands leave Eritrea, braving desert and trafficking gangs. Even Pakistani Christians are fleeing to countries in South East Asia.

Ethnic cleansing is back as an anti-Christian tactic

In the Middle East and Africa, persecution increasingly takes the form of ethnic cleansing. In middle belt Nigeria, Christians have been forcefully removed from their homes and indigenous land by the Hausa-Fulani settlers. In Sudan, Nuba Christians have been indiscriminately targeted and killed. The intent is to remove or even exterminate Christians.


There is an Indian saying that 'Children only throw stones at a ripe mango tree'. Christians are persecuted because they are bearing fruit for Christ.

As an Albanian church leader put it at a gathering of persecuted Christian leaders: "The church is always a suffering church, or it is not a church."

Kurdish Iraq still remains a beacon of freedom

Most of the 120,000 Christians who fled Islamic State in 2014 landed in Iraqi Kurdistan. On the whole they are safe and can receive foreign aid to wait for their return to their homeland in some comfort.

Syrian refugees continue to find Christ

Many Muslims are finding Christ in the refugee camps of Jordan and especially Lebanon. In Syria there remains an unprecedented level of openness and co-operation between Christians and Muslims on the ground. One Syrian pastor from Aleppo said, "We will distribute aid to anyone, and Muslims respect that and come to us, which is a big shift because they used to be taught that Christians would try to kill or poison them."

Prayer can push even narco-traffickers back

In Mexico (#40) and Colombia (#46), narco-trafficking gangs see the churches as an obstacle to their trade. In Monterrey, Mexico, a group of pastors got together and prayed against the drug lords. The city is now safer with these groups significantly removed.

The wider church is speaking out

In November 2015, for the first time in the modern history of Christianity, high level representatives of various church traditions gathered together to listen to, learn from, and stand with, persecuted churches and Christians. Leaders of the world's great Christian traditions pledged to 'listen more, pray more, speak up more, and do more' for the world's persecuted believers.

That response – 'Listen more, pray more, speak up more, and do more' – is a command for all of us. The persecuted church certainly needs our prayers and our actions. They need voices raised on their behalf, and financial support to help them survive.

But they also need us to listen to them. In listening to them we will not only hear their anxieties, needs and concerns, we also encounter powerful, moving stories of transformation and trust. We learn how deep persecution and suffering can build an even deeper trust and faith.