Tree and Arabic painting on the wall in Bashiqa, a town near Mosul in Iraq where Christians are slowly returning, saying: "Tomorrow will be more beautiful." (will be better) (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Christians are slowly returning to towns and cities in Iraq and Syria, such as Bashiqa, near Mosul. The graffiti on the wall says: “Tomorrow will be more beautiful”. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

The UN’s Secretary General has stressed the importance of Christians returning to the areas from which they fled in Iraq and Syria.

“I am fully convinced that after the stability of the situation in Iraq and Syria and the adoption of a certain political decision, it is very important to ensure the return of the Christians, in general, to the religious minorities, and the Yazidis themselves, to their homeland,” António Guterres told Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill yesterday.

“My concern is very personal,” he added.

The secretary general made his comments on World Refugee Day, as Refugee Week is marked around the world.

Pope Francis used the occasion to express his solidarity with those who had to leave their homes, in a number of tweets.

“We encounter Jesus in those who are poor, rejected, or refugees. Do not let fear get in the way of welcoming our neighbour in need,” he said in one tweet.

The 2017 Global Report of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) noted that the number of refugees and internally displaced people as a result of conflicts reached a new record last year.

By the end of 2017, 68.5 million people had been driven from their homes across the world as a result of persecution, conflict, or violence, leading to 40 million internally displaced people (IDPs), 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum-seekers.

Among them were 16.6 million newly displaced people, which amounts to 44,400 people forcibly displaced from their homes every day last year and is the highest annual number recorded by the UNHCR.

(Source: UNHCR Global Report 2017)
(Source: UNHCR Global Report 2017)

As for newly internally displaced people in 2017, the six most represented countries were Syria, the DRC, South Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, and the Philippines.

As for refugees, according to the UNHCR the came mostly from five nations: Syria (6.3 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.4 million), Myanmar (1.2 million) and Somalia (986,400).

(Source: UNHCR Global Report 2017)
(Source: UNHCR Global Report 2017)

Precise figures are hard to come by for the numbers of people who became refugees or were internally displaced because of persecution due to their Christian faith, but World Watch Monitor has reported on several cases when that has been the motivating factor.

Afghanistan – 2

Ranked second on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, Afghanistan narrowly missed being ranked joint top of the list, losing out finally to North Korea.

Afghanistan is the source of the second-largest refugee population globally, with 2.6 million people forcibly displaced outside of their country. Many moved to the neighbouring Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan, but hundreds of thousands more migrated elsewhere.

The country was the top source of asylum applications in 2017, with 124,900 claims submitted in 80 different countries, making Syria no longer the most common country of origin for new asylum-seekers.

And despite fleeing an ongoing conflict, Afghans aren’t always automatically given refugee status. Many have been sent home, in spite of warnings from groups such as Amnesty International, which said last year that “all returnees face a real risk of serious human rights violations” and that some, such as religious minorities and converts to Christianity, face additional risks.

Somalia – 3

In 2016, Somalia, third on the World Watch List, also produced the third-highest number of refugees, after Syria and Afghanistan. In 2017 it was fifth, with a total of almost one million refugees, while 3.2 million more were displaced, according to the UNHCR.

Although many factors lead Somali people to leave their homes, like the lack of political and civil liberties, and drought, religious persecution is a “dangerously underestimated” factor, according to a report in January 2017 by Open Doors.

Meanwhile the militant Islamist group Al-Shabaab, founded in Somalia, says it wants the country to be “free of all Christians”, and it is able to act with impunity in Somalia’s lawless and tribal society.

Syria – 15

Syria, 15th on the World Watch List, continues to be the number-one source of refugees: 12.6 million Syrians were displaced globally at the end of 2017. Among them were 6.3 million refugees, 6.2 million IDPs and 146,700 asylum-seekers.

In the midst of the civil war, churches and Christian-owned businesses have been targets of bombings by the Islamic State and other extremist groups, and there have been many reports of Christians being abducted, harmed and killed. Even so, many of Syria’s remaining Christians are committed to staying and rebuilding their country. Others are now returning home following IS’s military defeat.

Christians are seen as a vital factor in maintaining the balance in Syria’s pluralist society, Rev. Andrew Ashdown told an audience at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies earlier this month.

He quoted a Muslim writer in Damascus, who had told him: “I speak to you as a Muslim. Go back to your country and tell your country not to worry about us Muslims, but tell your country to worry about the Christians, because if your country gets rid of Assad and militants win this conflict, Christians will be destroyed in Syria. And Syria will be destroyed. And next will be Europe.”

Myanmar – 24

The third-largest group of new refugees last year originated from the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar (also known as Burma), which is 24th on the World Watch List.

More than 655,000 Rohingya Muslims refugees were displaced to Bangladesh in the second half of 2017.

And this year an ongoing conflict in northern Kachin state has flared up, causing more than 6,000 people belonging to the largely Christian minority group to flee their homes. They joined the 150,000 people who were already displaced following the collapse of a ceasefire between Myanmar’s army and Kachin rebels in 2011.

South Sudan

Shortly after gaining its independence in 2011, South Sudan descended into a civil war. According to the UNHCR, in 2017 South Sudan was the country that showed the biggest increase in people forced from their homes.

It is accountable for the third-largest refugee population globally: 2.4 million out of a total of 4.4 million displaced.

Christians and people of other faiths are caught up in the violence and forced to flee, but generally not because of their religion. South Sudan does not feature on the World Watch List.