Religious persecution is playing a “central role” in the global displacement crisis, the charity Open Doors UK and Ireland has said.

In its latest annual survey of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, the charity noted that more than half of the world’s 65.3m refugee population come from Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria, all countries in which identifying with the Christian faith was, or had become, extremely dangerous. The 2017 World Watch List was launched yesterday at a reception for MPs and peers in the UK Houses of Parliament.

While stating it was impossible to estimate how many of the world’s refugees are Christian, its supplementary report, The Persecution of Christians and Global Displacement, said that religious persecution was a “dangerously underestimated” factor behind some people’s decision to flee their homes.

The charity estimated that around half of Syria’s 1.7m Christians have left their country due to conflict and religious persecution, and said around 2.1m Nigerians have fled their homes because of various factors, including the attacks on Christians by Boko Haram jihadists. In Asia and Mexico, it added that a less visible “village-level displacement” could be observed as Christians were driven from their villages for practising a faith that differed from that practised by the majority.

At yesterday’s UK launch, Pastor Aminu Sule from Yobe State in northern Nigeria said his congregation had shrunk from 400 to 20 as Christians fled from violent attacks by Boko Haram. He said: “I can’t count the number of people I have buried.” Once displaced, he said that Christians are often denied access to aid distributed by the local government. “They are dying of hunger and I cannot help them,” he said.

Daniel, a church leader in Erbil, Iraq, spoke via video, describing how he fled from Baghdad after receiving a death threat from Al-Qaeda on his sixteenth birthday. His church has helped look after some of the 120,000 Christians who were chased out of the Nineveh Plains by Islamic State in 2014, but he added that many had since chosen to be resettled in “countries that would respect their human rights”.

The 28-page supplementary report found that some migrants were attacked after they had left their countries, and cited a Nigerian Christian in Libya who said he decided to board a boat to Europe after being abducted and repeatedly assaulted in the coastal city of Zuwara by a gang who had seen a Bible in his pocket.

The charity urged the British government to support the right to freedom of religion and belief and to “target” nations where there is violent persecution or the persistent refusal to protect religious minorities.

It noted that, last year, UK Home Office country guidance (used to assess asylum seekers’ claims) stated that Pakistani Christians were not at “real risk of persecution”, and urged officials to “continue revising” its guidelines to more accurately reflect the vulnerabilities of Pakistan’s non-Muslims.

The report also called on the UK Home Office to “increase the religious literacy of its staff” so that employees who processed asylum applications could recognise instances of religious persecution. “We would urge the Home Office not to restrict visas for clergy and other religious leaders invited to the UK to share about the suffering in their own countries,” it added.

The UK Home Office faced criticism last month after it emerged that it had denied three archbishops from Iraq and Syria visas to attend the consecration of a Syriac Orthodox cathedral in west London, on the grounds that they lacked sufficient funds to support themselves and they might not leave the UK.

Open Doors UK & Ireland urged the British Foreign Office to prioritise freedom of religion or belief in diplomatic interactions and recognise championing that right as a way to combat terrorism and poverty, arguing that unchecked political oppression of a minority community “creates a breeding ground for violent and radical groups”.  In India, it said, since the landslide election of Hindu nationalist President Narendra Modi in May 2014, there has been “a deterioration in freedom in all aspects of Indian society, and Hindu radicals have virtual impunity from the Government”.