The Catholic foundation of pontifical right, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), has just published its annual report on the persecution of Christians in the world for the year 2021, entitled “Persecuted and forgotten? – Report on Christians Persecuted for Their Faith, 2020-2022.”
The first finding of the report is clear: in 75% of the countries studied, the oppression or persecution of Christians has increased since the previous year.
In Africa, the situation for Christians has worsened in all the countries studied, and evidence of a sharp increase in genocidal violence by non-state actors, including jihadists, is mounting.
The Great Threat: The Islamists
Christians on the continent face the threat of rising Islamism. Groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) are still trying to establish caliphates in the Sahel region, with their own wali (governor) and structure governmental.
The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has heavily regulated social events like weddings. In June 2021, ISGS fighters executed five Christian civilians seized at a roadblock between Mali and Niger. In Mozambique, Al-Shabab intensified its campaign of terror, killing Christians, attacking Christian villages and burning churches.
Jihadism is shaking the rule of law in Nigeria: kidnappings, priests killed, and increasingly regular attacks on churches. Between January 2021 and June 2022, more than 7,600 Christians have been killed. The president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, claimed that there exists a planned program to “wipe out Christianity.”
Two major incidents made international headlines. The first is the stoning and cremation of 25-year-old Deborah Samuel in May 2022 for sharing “blasphemous” messages on WhatsApp. But also the deadly attack on the St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, Ondo State, during Pentecost Sunday Mass, which left at least 40 dead.
Persecutions by Governments
In Sudan, after the military coup that ousted Omar Al-Bashir who favored Islamism, the new government showed no sign of improvement. It has imprisoned priests, accused a couple of adultery because the husband had converted to Christianity, and made arrests for apostasy.
Eritrean and Ethiopian troops have attacked clergy and churches in the Tigray region. Eritrean troops are accused of having carried out a campaign of “cultural cleansing” of an ethnic nature, and have participated in massacres of Ethiopian Christians, such as that of Aksum, and the destruction of ancient monasteries and religious buildings.
In the Middle East, continued migration has deepened the crisis that threatens the survival of three of the oldest and largest Christian communities in the world, located in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine.
In parts of the Middle East, there are signs that the situation for Christians is worse than under Daesh (ISIS). The decline is most marked in Syria where, in a decade, Christians have gone from 1.5 million (10% of the population) in 2011, to perhaps 300,000. After the explosions of August 4, 2020 in Beirut, which hit the Christian quarter hard, the long-term survival of the Christian community in Lebanon is in question.
In Iraq, the community has gone from 300,000 in 2014 to just 150,000 in the spring of 2022. In some areas, the community is no more than a shadow of its former self. However, Iraq is the only one to have seen an improvement: a program involving the reconstruction of Christian towns and villages, homes, schools, churches, and other public facilities has been undertaken.
Christians Seen as Inferior Citizens
But the extremist threat persists throughout the region. A revival of jihadism could deal a fatal blow to Christianity, because the number of faithful has become very low, but also because their confidence is very fragile: for many of them, the attraction of migration is almost irresistible.
This desire to leave is amplified in a cultural context that remains antipathetic to Christians. Treated as second-class citizens, discriminated against at school and in the workplace, poor wages or unemployment push many of them to seek a life outside the country.
This threat is real. Nearly 75 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, Christians in the West Bank have fallen from 18% to less than 1%. Continued attacks by fringe groups have led Church officials to speak of a “systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”
In Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, there is a lack of political will to respect constitutional commitments to religious freedom. Sharia adherence overrides legal requirements regarding everyone's rights. In these countries, Christians are a silent and invisible minority. These countries still prohibit the construction of churches, the public display of crosses and other Christian symbols, as well as the import of Bibles and other Christian texts.
In Asia, state authoritarianism has been the determining factor in deepening oppression against Christians in Burma (Myanmar), China, Vietnam, and elsewhere. In the worst case, freedom of religion and conscience is strangled, as in North Korea.
Elsewhere in Asia, religious nationalism has led to increasing persecution of Christians in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan in particular.
To varying degrees, from a tightening of constraints in Vietnam to an almost total ban in North Korea, state authoritarianism restricts – even strangles – the ability of believers to worship freely. Government attempts to regulate the practice of faith is characteristic of a number of Asian countries.
China continues to harass and attempt to control Christians and other religious groups who do not accept the official Communist Party line: it is the country that most restricts the practice of religions.
In Burma, the army has resumed its attacks on Christians, after a lull during the administration of Aung San Suu Kyi. Although the junta previously promoted Buddhism as the country's social norm, it is now going after pagodas and churches, as well as anyone perceived to oppose the 2021 coup.
Religious nationalism also played an important role in the repression. Afghanistan is the biggest offender, with the Taliban imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia on society. The Maldives also rigidly enforces Islam, even denying citizenship to non-Muslims. In these two countries, it is practically impossible to estimate the Christian population.
In Sri Lanka, nationalist Hindutva and Buddhist groups have targeted Christians and their places of worship, and even the police have been involved, arresting believers or disrupting religious services. The political victories of religious-nationalist parties – Podujana Peramuna in Sri Lanka and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India – reinforce and encourage these attitudes.
In Pakistan, Christians and members of other non-Muslim confessions are vulnerable in society and are at heightened risk of harassment, arrest and violence – including abduction and rape. Majority religious beliefs are considered the norm, and Pakistan must be a Muslim state.
The Instrumentalization of the Pandemic
During the pandemic restrictions, the local branch of the Saylani Welfare International Trust did not distribute food to poor Christian families in the Korangi district of Karachi, Pakistan, the Islamic NGOs did not help non-Muslims when help came as donations from Zakat, the religious alms of the followers of Islam.
State violations of religious freedom during the coronavirus pandemic ranged from the intentional but draconian to the calculated and downright repressive.
Sri Lanka is in the first category: Christians and Muslims have protested against the obligation of cremation for anyone who has died, or is suspected of having died because of COVID-19, a measure that goes well beyond WHO recommendations and opposes the traditional burial norm of the two communities.
Meanwhile, Vietnam has used the Coronavirus as a pretext for crackdowns on believers, and scapegoated at least one Christian community for the spread of the virus in Ho Chi Minh City.
During the period under review, the persecution of Christians continued to worsen in the main countries concerned. Religious nationalism and authoritarianism have intensified problems for worshipers — including the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, which has prompted Christians and other minorities to attempt a desperate flight.
Systematic violence and a climate of control have meant that in countries as diverse as North Korea, China, India, and Burma, the oppression of Christians has grown.
Elsewhere, escalating violence – often aimed at driving out Christians – has resulted in campaigns of intimidation, orchestrated by militant non-state actors. Africa is of particular concern in this regard, as extremism threatens previously strong Christian communities there. In Nigeria and other countries, this violence clearly exceeds the threshold of genocide.