// World Watch List

World Watch List - Global Trends in 2019

In brief

  • North Korea (1) tops the World Watch List for the 18th year in a row. Despite its ranking in the top slot it did free three Korean-American Christians from a North Korean prison.
  • Persecution of Christians is getting worse. Five years ago only one country – North Korea – was ranked in the ‘extreme’ category for its level of persecution of Christians. This year, 11 countries score enough to fit that category.
  • China (27) has risen 16 places in the list after new Regulations for Religious Affairs came into force in February 2018.
  • In Myanmar (18) tens of thousands of members of the Karen tribe – a majority-Christian ethnic tribe – have been killed and least 120,000 displaced.
  • India (10) has entered the top ten for the first time. The BJP-led government continues to promote an extremist militant Hindu agenda.
  • In Turkey (26) President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been stirring up ultra-nationalistic sentiment for some time and this has caused added difficulties for Christians in Turkey, especially Evangelicals.
  • As radical Islam has been forced out of the Middle East, it has spread into sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 30 violent Islamic extremist groups are known to be active in the region.
  • Islamic militants also have also gained strength in failed states like Somalia (3), Libya (4) and Yemen (8), where they continue to recruit, and capture pockets of territory.
  • The two places where Christians suffer the most violence are Nigeria (12) and Pakistan (5).

The World Watch List: Three main trends

Three major trends have shaped persecution against Christians this year:

  • Authoritarian states are clamping down and using legal regulations to control religion.
  • Ultra-nationalists are depicting Christians as ‘alien’ or ‘western’ and trying to drive them out.
  • Radical Islam has moved from the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa.

Authoritarian states: using the law to control religion

North Korea (1) tops the World Watch List for the 18th year in a row. In this land – the most stiflingly authoritarian regime in the world – any faith not placed in the Supreme Leader is a political crime. But North Korea is just the pack leader: state authoritarianism is increasing in many parts of the world.

Persecution is more than violence and destruction. This year many countries rose on the World Watch List, not because they turned more violent, but because of increased social, legal and structural oppression. And governments are increasingly aided in this task by personal digital technology. They are enthusiastic about technology like facial recognition and electronic chips – what better way to keep track of your ‘loyal’ citizens?

Authoritarianism is on the rise in China (27), where new Regulations for Religious Affairs came into force on 1 February 2018. There has been increased surveillance and scrutiny of churches. Chinese churches have been pressured to fly the national flag higher than the cross and sing the national anthem before services. A focus on prohibiting children and youth from hearing religious teaching has seen nursery and Sunday schools closed down, summer camps banned, and churches forced to place signs at the entrance forbidding anyone under 18 to enter. In several provinces, church meetings have been disrupted.

A government document promises to provide ‘Active guidance’ to help religion ‘adapt to socialist society’; in other words, it must serve the Communist Party.

A new ‘Law on Belief and Religion’ also came into force in Vietnam (20), where the government views religion as a social problem and potential threat to national security. And in Myanmar (18) the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the largest ethnic militia in the country, declared almost all churches built after the Communist Party’s 1989 collapse must be destroyed. No new churches will be allowed. All churches, missionaries, schoolteachers, and clergy are to be investigated, with foreign workers banned and those found to support missionary activities set to be punished. Its worth noting that the UWSA is supported by neighbouring China.

Ultra-nationalism: where minority Christians are seen as ‘alien’

In a growing number of countries, nationalism is intensifying into ultra-nationalism that not only considers law-abiding minority groups to be a threat, but also employs aggression to force minorities to forsake their identity or even to leave the country. Where Christians are in a minority they are increasingly under attack both by government and society as ‘Western’ and ‘alien’.

The poster boy of ultra-nationalism is India (10), which this year appears for the first time in the top ten of the World Watch List. The BJP-led government promotes an ultra-nationalist Hindu message which believes that to be Indian, one must be Hindu. Eight states out of 29 have passed ‘anti-conversion’ laws, and laws and regulations have been used to attack or close ‘foreign’ institutions such as Christian-led schools, hospitals, orphanages and charities.

Since Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, the level of persecution of Christians has dramatically increased. Hindu militants target church leaders, beat them up, and try to force them out of their villages. In the most recent year, solely from documented incidents, at least 12,500 Christians and about 100 churches have been attacked. At least 200 people have been arrested solely for their faith, and at least 10 have been killed. However, many incidents go un-documented, so true figures could be much higher.

The governments of neighbouring countries, majority-Hindu Nepal (32) and majority-Buddhist Bhutan (33), also have found that appealing to national religious identity is a great way to boost their own power, especially in their rural regions.

In Myanmar thousands of members of the Karen tribe – a majority-Christian ethnic tribe – have been killed and least 120,000 displaced. More than 100,000 members of the tribe remain in refugee camps just across the border in Thailand.

In Turkey (26) President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been stirring up ultra-nationalistic sentiment for some time, which has caused added difficulties for Christians in Turkey, especially Evangelicals. Christianity is seen as a Western religion and Evangelicals in particular are considered by many to have links with the USA.

Radical Islam: moving from the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa

The third major trend in global persecution is the continued rise of Islamic extremism.

Islamic extremism is nothing new, but what has changed is its geographical spread. Islamic State and other Islamic militants have been forced out of the Middle East but a lot of these fighters have simply moved elsewhere, taking their violent excesses with them. Increasingly, they have moved into sub-Saharan Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa poses a global security challenge, as weak governance, poverty and radical Islam collide. Instability, corruption, poverty, unemployment, and lack of governance feed into Christian persecution, while increasingly sophisticated organised crime and drug cartels stretch across the region. Almost 30 violent Islamic extremist groups are known to be active in the region: most perpetrate violence in more than one country. Some of them continue to hold expatriate Christian aid workers as hostages in Mali, Burkina Faso and other countries.

Nigeria is a nation split by a Christian-Muslim fault-line which runs across the middle of the country. In the 12 northern states ruled by Sharia (Islamic law), Christians simply do not receive the opportunities, provisions and protections afforded to Muslims.

The main source of violence comes in the Middle Belt of Nigeria, where decades of climate change and creeping desertification, combined with rapid population growth, has lead to conflict between nomadic, predominantly Muslim Fulani cattle herders and indigenous, predominantly Christian farmers. An increase in the use of high powered weapons, and the murder of entire families in their homes has led many Christians to claim such attacks amount to a campaign of ethno-religious cleansing. Nigeria is joint top (tied with Pakistan) for the place where Christians experience the highest levels of violent persecution.

Although Boko Haram continues its deadly attacks in the north, it is not as active as in the past few years. But it is mobile. Boko Haram was active, not only in Nigeria, but across the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin, instigating attacks in four countries. There are also numerous splinter groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a deadly group which broke away from Boko Haram, and which also enslaves Christian women and girls as an integral part of their strategy.

Islamic extremists have also found a fertile climate in failed and failing states, where chaotic, lawless conditions and the absence of any effective central authority gives them the ideal conditions to regroup and re-establish themselves. In Somalia (3), Libya (4) and Yemen (8) they continue to recruit, and capture pockets of territory.

One Islamic State-affiliated group chose to establish themselves in Somalia (3) where they recruited fighters who fled Iraq and Syria, as well as ex-fighters of the Somali Islamic extremist al-Shabaab.

Collapsed, chaotic Libya (4) continues to be a deadly environment for Christians, particularly for those caught up in the lucrative criminal trade of human trafficking. Christians migrating from sub-Saharan Africa face many dangers. Trusted sources (who must remain anonymous) report that at least 10 Christians have been killed solely for their faith, even though they received no media attention - unlike the 21 Copts beheaded on a Libyan beach in 2015.

Yemen (8) is the Arab world’s poorest nation. Fighting between Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, and government forces, backed by a Saudi-led coalition has allowed groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda to gain influence.

Islamic extremists are also active in Egypt (16) which has the Middle East’s largest population of Christians: the Copts, estimated at about 10% of the close to 100 million population. Islamic State in Sinai continued their threat to ‘wipe out’ the Copts by terrorising the community with targeted murders of respected local leaders such as doctors and vets. Other Islamist groups bombed churches and killed a bus-load of pilgrims on the same road twice within 18 months. Copts’ pleas for government protection have largely fallen on deaf ears, though some killers and attackers have been convicted.

Good news

It’s not all bad news! There is light in the darkness, and the courageous faith of Christians is evident, even in the harshest conditions.

North Korea: Despite its ranking in the top slot as in every year since the 2002 World Watch List, there are some slight signs of change. Diplomatic meetings ahead of the Donald Trump - Kim Jong Un summit did free three Korean-American Christians from a North Korean prison. Two were lecturers at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), arrested in 2017, accused of ‘behavior against the regime’. The third was a pastor, convicted as a ‘spy’. And the church remains alive. Your faithful prayers and gifts are enabling Open Doors underground workers to keep 60,000 secret believers alive in North Korea by smuggling in food and other aid.

Pakistan: The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar risked his life by keeping his promise to hear the appeal of Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi before he retires early in 2019. He and his fellow two Supreme Court judges acquitted her, saying her accuser had been lying, and the blasphemy charge, for which she had spent 8 years on death row, was a fabrication. Their landmark ruling was challenged by days of mass protest and disruption across Pakistan by radical Islamic groups who called for the judges and Asia Bibi to be killed. While Asia Bibi is technically ‘free’, she is still in fear of her life, and unable to leave Pakistan for asylum in a country where she can live safely with her family.

Yemen: Most expatriate and migrant Christians have left, leaving a small but growing Church of indigenous Christians of a Muslim background. Experts say the war did not scatter this church as might have been expected, and in the near-famine conditions the church is serving society – but at extreme risk.

Iraq: As Islamic State was driven out of the Nineveh plain, Christians have begun to return and rebuild their lives. Your support and prayers have enabled Open Doors local church partners to repair houses that were damaged and over 1000 families have been able to return. Open Doors local partners are now focusing less on providing food aid, and more on helping believers to start small businesses to give them the dignity of supporting themselves.

Worldwide: Above all, the World Watch List shows that the church is active and alive. Persecution is rising – but that only happens where the church is actively sharing the gospel and living it out.