Today, 22 August, is the first UN International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The new day was designated by the UN General Assembly in May 2019.
The day is intended to provide a focus to address the ever-growing issue of violence based on religion or belief.
A spokesperson from Open Doors UK and Ireland said: “Today we will remember all those who have been attacked because they are deemed to be the 'wrong' religion or refused to deny their faith. Sadly, we know that many killings go unreported because victims’ relatives are too scared to speak up.”
The 2019 edition of the Open Doors’ World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, reported that more than 4,100 Christians in those 50 countries were killed for faith-related reasons - 3,700 in northern and central Nigeria alone.
Below are the stories of violent persecution from some of the top 10 World Watch List (WWL) countries.
Hea Woo is a Christian lady who was imprisoned in North Korea (ranked 1 on the WWL) and spent three years in a labour camp. When Hea Woo arrived at the camp, there was a sign saying: “Do not try to escape; you will be killed”.
Despite the severe conditions of the camp, Hea Woo found courage to pray and even to evangelise among other prisoners. She then started a secret underground church: a group of five, they met out of the view of the guards, often in the toilet. Hea Woo taught the group Bible verses and songs which they sang almost inaudibly. She was eventually released and managed to escape to South Korea, where she now lives.
In Afghanistan (ranked 2 on the WWL) persecution of Christians is so severe that we cannot report on it for fear of endangering the Christian community even further.
Muktar*, from Somalia (ranked 3 on the WWL), leads a group of secret believers. He had to flee to escape violence from his family after he became a Christian, and was eventually ordained as a pastor. His role makes him a target for Islamic extremists yet Mukhtar is undeterred and said: “Our vision is to reach the Somali people according to their language and culture and plant churches among them.”
Maizah*, from Libya (ranked 4 on the WWL), was forced to run for her life to escape her family after they found out she had secretly converted to Christianity.
When her faith was discovered she was subjected to interrogation, severe beating and humiliation by a group of men in her family home. The leader of the group offered her a deal: to marry him and be granted life in return. Maizah agreed to this simply to gain some time. Her future husband sent her abroad for some medical treatment where she managed to persuade her doctor to help her escape. She found a refuge in a safe house and eventually fled to a Western country, where she still lives. She has no contact with her family.
Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi's case (Pakistan is ranked 5 on the WWL) has attracted worldwide attention and led to much criticism of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws. Asia Bibi spent 10 years in prison, including eight facing the death penalty, after her arrest in 2009. Asia was accused of making derogatory comments about the Prophet Mohammad during an argument with a Muslim co-worker who had refused water from Asia, on the grounds that it was 'unclean' because it had been handled by a Christian.
Asia was finally released in May 2019, having been held in “protective custody” for five months after her acquittal in January 2019.
In Sudan (ranked 6 on the WWL), a church elder was stabbed to death in the capital Khartoum in 2017 over a dispute around the illegal takeover of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church premises.
Since 2013, a government committee that had been imposed upon the church had been selling church properties to businessmen aligned with the government. One of the properties was the Evangelical School in Omdurman. On 3 April 2017, Christians gathered at the school for a three-day peaceful protest against the illegal appropriation of the school by a businessman who is also a policeman. The police arrested all the men in the group, and the women were attacked by a group of about 20 people armed with knives and other weapons. Two people who rushed from a nearby church to protect the protesting women were stabbed to death.
Matthew*, from Eritrea (ranked 7 on the WWL), was caught by police and sentenced to a military prison camp while he was still a teenager simply because he is an evangelical Christian. Military training and indoctrination about the ruling party were provided in harsh prison conditions including very little food and water, hard physical work, beatings and torture.
After his release, Matthew eventually fled Eritrea through people smugglers. He reached a refugee camp where he worked odd jobs while serving his refugee church. “I have seen the hand of God encouraging us, answering our prayers,” said Matthew. “We see that God is still in control and that He’s working in us. That’s the only thing that has kept us going. God has never forsaken us.”
On 4 March 2016, six armed militants attacked the late Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity care home in the southern port city of Aden in Yemen (ranked 8 on the WWL). Four nuns were killed alongside 12 other staff members while serving breakfast to the care home's 80 residents. All the victims had been handcuffed and then shot in the head. Yemeni security officials blamed the attack on militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
In Iran (ranked 9 on the WWL), over 250 Christians were arrested in November and December 2018. Although most of those arrested were allowed to go home after a few hours or several days, they were told to expect a call from the Ministry of Intelligence. People who were suspected to be the leaders of the groups of Christians were held in detention.
The mobile phones of all of the arrested people were confiscated. Those detained had to report the history of their Christian activities and were told to have no contact with any Christian groups.
Pastor Kuldeep* was praying in the veranda of his house in rural India (ranked 10 on the WWL), when someone appeared in the dark and hit him with an axe six times. The pastor fell unconscious and lost a lot of blood. He was rushed to the hospital and barely survived, with the axe scars forever embedded in his hands. “You have converted! You are against our gods!”: he had heard accusations like this many times before but this violent attack on him was unprecedented.
“I will not be disappointed no matter how bad the situation is or wounded I am. As I have the call of God, I will lead the people walking in the path of hell and also bring light to the ones in darkness,” Pastor Kuldeep said.
*names changed for security reasons