Persecution against Christians worsened again in 2016, with an estimated 215,000 experiencing “high, very high, or extreme persecution” in 50 nations around the world, according to the 2017 World Watch List.
Open Doors, an international organization that monitors and supports persecuted Christians, compiled the list and released it on Jan. 11 in Washington, D.C., calling it a “wake up call for Christians” to advocate on behalf of their persecuted brothers and sisters and “a call to world leaders to take action.”
In light of the deteriorating situation for religious minorities, Open Doors USA President and CEO David Curry urged the incoming Trump administration to make religious freedom a top priority in foreign policy and take action in its first 100 days.
Based on meetings with transition team members, Curry said, “we are hopeful that they will take it seriously. If they don’t, I think we will see this administration fail because this is the major challenge.”
Although reliable figures were not available for all nations, Open Doors estimated at least 1,207 Christians were killed because of their faith, and roughly 1,329 churches were attacked or damaged in 2016.
Just weeks ago, Egypt mourned 24 Coptic Christians killed by a suicide bombing during Mass. Egypt ranks 21st on the new list.
Authoritarian North Korea retained the top ranking as the worst country for Christians. Curry said North Korea considers Christians traitors and can execute them just for owning a Bible.
Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Eritrea filled out the top 10 nations where Christians endure extreme persecution.
Open Doors found several trends contributing to rising persecution.
Dr. Ron Boyd-MacMillan, director for strategic research at Open Doors, called religious nationalism in Asia a long-term trend that came into its own in 2016. He said the problem is “most visible in India” where Hindu extremists are powerful. India rose to No. 15 on the list.
Another trend was nationalist crackdowns by insecure governments in places like China, where even state-sanctioned, high profile church pastors aren’t safe from arrest.
Islamic extremism also continued to spread, especially in Africa, driving persecution in 35 of the 50 ranked nations, including Pakistan. Pakistan ranked fourth overall but had the highest level of violence.
A personal account
Christian Missionary Alliance Pastor Edward Awabdeh of Damascus shared his experience with radical Muslims invading a peaceful village and immediately destroying the cross and all symbols of Christianity. He described the fear and feeling of shells landing and exploding on the roof of a building he was in, but also the beauty of Christian churches sheltering Muslims in need.
He said they see “thick, dark evil all around” as Syria is being torn apart, but also encouraging and hopeful signs. “The Lord has opened new doors for ministry,” and Syrian Christians have been encouraged to see people find “real hope and peace only in Jesus” amid the tumult, he said.
When asked how people should pray for Syrian Christians, Edward said for “power and courage. This divine sense of peace. This way the church can be effective and instill this life of hope and peace in others. And for wisdom and vision for church leadership.”