Sister Maria, of the Chilil community and displaced since 2009, participates in a protest march in Mexico in October 2014. After three years' absence, Mexico is back on the World Watch List, at No. 38.
Sister Maria, of the Chilil community and displaced since 2009, participates in a protest march in Mexico in October 2014. After three years’ absence, Mexico is back on the World Watch List, at No. 38. (Courtesy Open Doors International)

While the world’s eyes were riveted to Syria and Iraq in 2014, life for Christians worsened even more profoundly in Africa, according to an annual report on religious freedom.

The situation deteriorated most rapidly in Sub-Saharan Africa, in countries where Islamic extremism is the main source of pressure upon Christians, according to the 2015 World Watch List, released Jan. 7 by Open Doors International, a charity that supports Christians who face hostilities because of their faith.

The list, published annually since 1993, ranks the 50 countries considered to be most hostile to Christians during the 12 months ending Oct. 31, 2014. It surveys religious freedom for Christians in five areas of life: private; family; community; national; and the church. It also measures violence against Christians, and 2014 was a very violent year.

The 4,344 Christians reported to have been killed during the 12-month period are more than double the 2,123 killed in 2013, and more than triple the 1,201 killed the year before that. The majority of the deaths in the most recent period occurred in Nigeria, where 2,484 people were killed, and in Central African Republic, where 1,088 people were killed, according to Open Doors.

Overall, the survey scores assigned to the 50 countries rose by nearly 10 percent compared to the 2014 scores, indicating a generally rising tide of antagonism toward Christians in the 50 countries most hostile to believers.

The report also noted a resurgence of anti-Christian hostility in parts of Asia and Latin America, two regions where conditions had been comparatively favorable in previous years.

And for the first time in three years, Mexico is back on the list, at No. 38.

Interactive map of 2015 World Watch List countries. Bright red equals more severe persecution. Zoom out to see all 50 countries. Click on individual countries for details.

 Note: This interactive map does not include the Maldives, ranked No. 11, an archepelago about 400 kilometres southwest of India, in the Indian Ocean

The main engine:  Islamic extremism

In 40 of the 50 countries on the World Watch List, WWL, Open Doors said “Islamic extremism” was a primary source of pressure on Christian life.

“It is fair to say that Islamic extremism has two global centres of gravity. One in the Arab Middle East, but the other is in Sub-Saharan Africa, and even Christian majority states are experiencing unprecedented levels of exclusion, discrimination and even violence,” wrote Ron Boyd-MacMillan, director of strategic trends and research for Open Doors International, in a report supplementing the World Watch List.

Though violence against Christians made headlines throughout 2014, it was largely the same in most countries, with the exception of Iraq, Syria and Nigeria, according to the report.  Instead, pressure on Christians increased mostly in less obvious ways: being shunned by family; losing a job and rejection within the community for faith related reasons. Such “squeeze” tactics, the report said, are especially hard on former Muslims who have embraced Christianity.

“It’s important to understand this extremism is not only from the violent jihadists like the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, but Islamists who seek to take over cultures by stealth,” Boyd-McMillan wrote.

Influence of ‘Islamic State’

Daily life for Christians in most of the top 50 countries became more difficult during the past year, but the situation especially deteriorated in the northern provinces of Nigeria, where the Boko Haram insurgency has followed the lead of the so-called “Islamic State” and proclaimed a caliphate of its own.

Ranking No. 10 on the World Watch List, Nigeria’s levels of pressure and violence against Christians are at a record high.

In April, the abduction of the 276 school girls in the Borno State village of Chibok commanded worldwide attention, but the mass abduction was only part of a wider anti-Christian front, one which killed nearly 2,500 Christians across the country. Open Doors said the links between al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and Boko Haram, as well as with other Islamic terrorist groups in the region, make it likely the church will suffer more violent persecution in the near future. The charity said violence from Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen in the country’s Middle Belt region is expected to add to the threat, as is pre-election violence later this year.

Tiffany Lynch, a policy analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory body to Congress, drew a distinction between the apparent expansionist ambitions of Islamic State and the six-year-old Boko Haram uprising in Nigeria.

“ISIL fits in with greater national security concerns in the Middle East, whereas Boko Haram is a domestic Islamic insurgency with regional concerns,” said Lynch, using a common name for Islamic State, in an email to World Watch Monitor. “More importantly, ISIL attacks on Christians and other non-Muslims are part of a broader question about the future of these small religious communities in the region and their homeland. ”

According to Open Doors, Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based militant Islamist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and other extremist movements in East Africa also are drawing inspiration from the tactics of Islamic State.

Asia increasingly difficult

With the exception of North Korea, which has been No. 1 on the World Watch List since its inception, Open Doors had been reporting improving conditions for Christians in the Far East in recent years.

The trend reversed course in 2014, when every country on the list but Laos and Sri Lanka received a higher persecution score. China, India and Malaysia registered the largest increases. Twelve countries from East Asia and the Far East are among the top 50.

Open Doors said some fundamentalist Hindu and Buddhist leaders feel threatened by the growth of Christianity.

The score assigned to No. 21 India is the highest ever. “The season of impunity for anti-Christian action in India has started since the world’s largest democracy elected a Hindu extremist Prime Minister who has declared open season on Christians,” Open Doors said.

In China, which rose to No. 29, scores of churches were attacked, with some being destroyed and about 300 crosses being removed. Open Doors said the fact that the communist government is still undecided about how to deal with the church is good news because it suggests a debate about church liberties is happening within the Chinese government.

Latin America

Mexico is the highest entrant on the WWL this year at No. 38. The report said the growth of organised crime in the country, as well as better reporting of anti-Christian violence, helps to explain the country’s return to the list. The sources of persecution are complex in the predominantly Christian country. Open Doors said weak states allow local forces, such as drug traffickers, to hold sway. When Christians stand against the trade, they are targeted.

The World Watch List, the only annual global survey of Christian religious freedom, ranks countries using eight primary “persecution engines” to explain why the Christian community becomes especially targeted in certain circumstances.

The “engines” are not always specifically anti-Christian as they include forces such as “dictatorial paranoia” and “organised corruption,” which sweeps up people of all faiths.

Dictatorial paranoia is the second-most prevalent force making life difficult for Christians, and is a primary source of persecution in 13 countries, including North Korea, according to the list. North Korean citizens who are discovered to be Christian face long prison terms or execution.

Against the backdrop of media coverage of violence and beheadings in the Middle East, Open Doors said new co-operative relationships being forged between Muslims and Christians could have long term benefits. The charity said the crisis is forging a new level of inter-faith respect as pressured minorities have been forced to live and work together.