More than 340 million Christians worldwide experienced high levels of persecution in 2020, with 4,761 killed for their faith, a new report has revealed.
The annual World Watch List produced by Christian charity Open Doors showed this is a huge increase on previous years; the 2019 figure was around 260 million.
For the first time, the charity categorised all of the 50 worst countries in the world as exhibiting “very high” or “extreme” levels of persecution towards Christians – affecting 309 million people.
The report found that the COVID-19 pandemic has “highlighted and exacerbated the existing social, economic and ethnic vulnerabilities of millions of Christians worldwide”.
It explained: “In India, of more than 100,000 Christians receiving aid from Open Doors partners, 80 per cent reported to World Watch List researchers that they were dismissed from food distribution points. Some walked miles and hid their Christian identity to get food elsewhere.”
This pattern of discrimination was echoed in many other countries, sometimes by government officials but “more often it was by village heads and committees or other local authorities”. The report added that in parts of Nigeria “families from several villages said they received just one-sixth of the rations allocated to Muslim families”.
Christian converts and women have been at particular risk with increased reports of “the kidnapping, forcible conversion and forced marriage of women and girls”.
North Korea remains the most difficult place to be a Christian, while persecution increased significantly in Iraq and China – which moves into the top 20 worst countries for the first time in a decade.
The report said: “The Communist Party extended its regulation of all religions in 2020, and even government-approved churches, both Catholic and Protestant, are under ever-more surveillance, both online and offline.”
However, it did include some positive news, such as the abolition of the death penalty for apostasy in Sudan. The country’s current interim constitution also now “guarantees freedom of religion, omits Sharia as its primary source of law and no longer specifies Islam as its state religion”.
“While there has been significant resistance to such sweeping changes after 30 years, it has dropped from (7) to (13) in the list.”
‘Tragic and unacceptable’
In her introduction to the report, Open Doors CEO Henrietta Blyth wrote: “Christians have been discriminated against in the distribution of food aid in so many countries I have lost count. Violent attacks against Christians by Islamic extremists have increased significantly across sub-Saharan Africa.
“The pandemic has legitimised increased surveillance by totalitarian governments, with China leading the way. And nationalism driven by religious identity is increasing in countries such as India and Turkey.”
She added: “It is tragic and unacceptable that they happen to anyone, whatever their faith or none. Christians will only be freed from persecution when freedom of religion and belief is guaranteed for all.”
Speaking to Premier Christian News, Blyth said: “It has been a tough year for billions of people. However, for many of the 340 million Christians worldwide who face persecution and discrimination, things have been worse still.
I have seen face-to-face the inspiring strength and bravery of Christians around the world who deal with this persecution
“My heart breaks when I hear of believers in India and Vietnam being refused food aid and told ‘let your God feed you’. Or when I hear of women like a Christian mother-of-three from Egypt who was kidnapped by the Muslim Brotherhood and forced to declare she had ‘converted’ in a video.
“However, I don’t despair; I have seen face-to-face the inspiring strength and bravery of Christians around the world who deal with this persecution”.
She added that Open Doors is working hard to “support, encourage and advocate for these remarkable men, women and children, who stand firm in their faith in spite of everything”.