Nigerien soldiers on patrol near the town of Arlit, north-central Niger, in 2010.

The newly-released annual World Watch List (WWL) of the top 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian shows that, especially in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, the rise of Islamist militancy has become a challenge not only to Christians, but also to the existence of states and governments in the region, and thus to the rest of the world. 

The List, compiled by Open doors International, shows how – after the overthrow of Libya’s President Gaddafi and the resulting power vacuum in Libya – a wave of Islamist influence backed by money, weapons, drugs and organized crime is spreading across Sub-Saharan Africa. In weak or ‘fragile’ states, where rule of law and governance are ineffective, targeted Christian populations are left unprotected by their governments.

The President of Mali (no. 29 in 2020’s WWL, 24 in WWL 2019), for instance, said in November 2018 that the very existence of his country is at risk from jihadists.

Islamic militants exploit ethnic, tribal and socio-economic groups to create the conditions that bring them recruits and increase their influence — in turn widening the risk they pose to global security.

Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, backed by France, have a task-force to combat jihadist insurgents but in October 2019, for instance, 37 died when a Canadian mining company convoy was ambushed in Burkina Faso. Indeed, this week, France’s president and his counterparts from the Sahel region have met to discuss ongoing military operations against Islamist militants.

Away from the international news headlines, churches — while not the only victims — are heavily targeted. Burkina Faso (no. 28, up from 61 in WWL 2019), long-known for its religious tolerance, has leapt (for the first time ever) into the Top 50, as has Cameroon (no. 48, up from 56 in WWL 2019).

In Burkina Faso, Christians say they are in a fight for survival. Dozens of Catholic priests have been killed; Protestant pastors and their families have been killed or kidnapped by violent Islamic militants. Villagers wearing Christian symbols are singled out and killed on the spot. Jihadists replace schools with what locals call ‘Arab’ schools; churches, shops and health centers are burned down.

“Inhabitants were given an ultimatum by the Islamist terrorists, who ordered them to convert to Islam or abandon their homes” said one source. Another, who requested anonymity, said: “[Christians]…are just part of a program by the jihadists who deliberately sow terror, assassinating members of the Christian communities and forcing [those] remaining to flee after warning they will return in three days — and that they do not wish to find any Christians still there.”

Typical is an incident in April 2019. Militants on motorcycles arrived at a church service in a village in Burkina Faso. They confiscated all phones and ID cards, collected up Bibles and burnt them before taking the pastor and six others outside to shoot them; one survived.

In the north, more than 200 churches have closed; thousands of church members have moved into camps for the displaced, or take refuge with friends in the capital, Ouagadougou, or central and southern areas. Here, too, groups linked with Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb continue to hold foreign missionary aid workers hostage – some for several years.

The potent mix of radical Islam layered on top of deep-rooted regional and local conflicts moved Human Rights Watch’s Sahel director in December 2018 to say of Mali (no. 29): “Militia killings of civilians in central and northern Mali are spiraling out of control.” Church life is dangerous there; various radical Islamic groups control day-to-day activities.

In Cameroon (no. 48), governance and security are major problems. The country faces violence in the far north – still a stronghold of Boko Haram – in the north-west and in the south-west, where an Anglophone insurgency against Francophone majority rule is growing. It is also one of the most corrupt nations in the world. In the far north, Islamic radicalization threatens the lives of displaced Christians and church activities are disrupted. Female converts from Islam are coerced into marriage with Muslims and also face the danger of abduction by Boko Haram. Christian children are forced by Muslim relatives to attend Islamic classes.

As it stands, even if Boko Haram is defeated, a return to social harmony will have to overcome the Islamist ideology that has already made deep inroads among youth in the region. There are at least 27 named Islamist groups operating in different parts of Sub-Saharan Africa; that’s not including the Seleka, ex-Seleka and other militias which are still at war in the Central African Republic (no. 25, down from 21 in WWL 2019).

The situation here is increasingly complex with several criminal groups emerging from all sides. Killings and the destruction of property and churches are common: in November 2018, militiamen set fire to the Cathedral in Alindao and destroyed the displacement camp it ran. Two priests and a pastor were killed along with more than 112 others, predominantly Christians. In May, ex-Seleka militants were blamed for dragging a 77-year-old European nun from her home near the Chad border before slitting her throat.

In Nigeria (no. 12, same as WWL 2019), the International Crisis Group has said that the violence from Muslim Fulani herdsmen is six times as deadly as that carried out by Boko Haram. The situation continues much as last year with ongoing attacks in the north and central region against farmers, churches and whole villages.

The UN High Commission for Refugees reports that violence spreading from the north-east to north-west and the Middle Belt is due to a range of armed and criminal groups that continue to rampage through communities – killing, raping, plundering, burning and kidnapping for ransom (including of girls as young as 10).

Victims say that they are frequently told “Convert or be killed”.
This violence against Christian-majority ethnic communities across Nigeria’s mid-section is expanding into communities that had been thought to be safe, such as in Plateau State and even further south.

Leah Sharibu, 14, was abducted by Boko Haram on 19 February. (Photo from family)
Leah Sharibu, 14, was abducted by Boko Haram on 19 February 2018. (Photo from family)

Radical Islamic ideology has inspired, or infiltrated, numerous splinter groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which broke away from Nigeria’s Boko Haram to operate across four countries. It gets local support by filling gaps in governance and service delivery.

But ISWAP fighters have beheaded Christian aid-workers and sent out videos saying they will kill every Christian they capture in revenge for Muslims killed in past religious conflicts in Nigeria. They continue to hold women and girls, including at least one, Leah Sharibu, who, because – as a 14 year old – she would not renounce her Christian faith, was not freed with all 104 of her schoolmates after they were kidnapped almost two years ago. The fate of the 112 mostly-Christian Chibok girls remains unclear. Other girls kidnapped in 2019 were tortured while on the phone to their parents, so as to extort higher ransom sums.

However, the kidnapping of Christian women and girls is not confined to militant groups. Reports show that Christian teenage students are sometimes kidnapped by people within their own societies, abused physically, sexually and psychologically, forcibly converted to Islam, and frequently quickly married to older Muslim men – all with apparent impunity.

The accounts of the treatment of Nigerian and other West African girls parallel those of Coptic Christian girls in Egypt (no. 16, same as WWL 2019) where an ex-kidnapper has previously admitted to World Watch Monitor ‘[they] get paid for every Coptic Christian girl they bring in’.