Countries to watch for persecution of Christians: beyond the top 50

Published: Jan. 11, 2017 by World Watch Research

The ‘Persecution Watch’ countries are part of a group of countries beyond the Open Doors World Watch List Top 50, in which serious degrees of hostility against Christians and churches are prevalent.

The Top 7

Below are the seven countries that came closest to being part of the top 50.

 51. Uganda

The persecution of Christians in Uganda (85% Christian) continues to increase. The Tabliqs (a sect of puritanical Muslims whose members portray themselves as Muslim evangelists) have continued to advance the cause of Islam in areas like Mbale, Kasese, Arua/Yumbe.

Converts face pressure from family members and the local community, especially in Muslim-dominated areas. Bullying and harassment are very common in eastern parts of the country. Converts from Islam in particular find it difficult to live a normal life. For example, owning Christian materials or discussing Christianity with family members or community members often leads to expulsion, serious physical attacks or even death.

In the WWL 2017 reporting period, violence against Christians rose sharply. Sixteen Christians were killed, mostly in eastern Uganda. Some were killed for being active Christians, and others for leaving Islam and becoming Christians. There were also violent incidents that targeted churches. The Nalugongo Church of Uganda was attacked twice. The desecration of Christian graves and forced marriages were also reported. This cycle of violence is going on unabated partly because the victims are often afraid to report incidents to the police.

From its base in eastern DRC, ADF-NALU is another cause for concern. The group has recruited many youths from Uganda. For the moment, as the group is operating from inside DRC, Christians in Uganda are not affected. However, its main aim is to establish a Sharia state in Uganda, so it is naturally trying to set up networks and support groups in the country.

52. Nepal

Elections for a new parliament and government in November 2013 left Nepal (4% Christian) in a stalemate. In discussions about a new constitution, the restriction of religious beliefs played a prominent role. The country’s new constitution, adopted in September 2015, declares that Nepal is a secular state. In addition, it bans changing religion and proselytism. More changes to the constitution are still under discussion.

Despite many hardships over past decades, the Church in Nepal has one of the fastest growing Christian populations in the world, according to figures from the World Christian Database; this has given rise to increasing oppression.

Nepal is a small and poor country, bordering China and India – countries with a huge economic and political impact on Nepal.

China objects to the presence of the Dalai Lama in northern India, fearing influence on Tibet’s Buddhists. Since May 2014, India has been ruled by the radical Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi, leading to an outburst of Hindu radical violence all over India. India is now pressuring Nepal to follow in its footsteps – it even imposed an economic boycott in August 2015. Since then, radical Hindu elements in Nepal have stepped up their activities. Christians have come under pressure.

In July 2016, seven Christians who had Bibles with them were arrested and their Bibles were used as evidence by the police to later accuse them of attempting to forcefully convert children to Christianity. Later a pastor was also arrested in the same case. So it seems that the constitutional provision is being directly used by the authorities to target Christians. In December 2016, all eight Christians were acquitted.

53. Azerbaijan

In Azerbaijan (3% Christian), the regime is very clever in its persecution of Christians. Some pastors have been detained and held for about a week and then released. Everyone in their churches assumes that these pastors talked while in detention, so no-one will trust them anymore. Most churches are infiltrated and informers are everywhere. As a result, Christians do not know who to trust. This is also reflected in the reporting of persecution: no-one dares to talk for fear of being arrested – the main reason for the lower score of this country this year (it was No. 34 in WWL 2016). There are also repeated obligatory re-registrations for churches – every six to seven years all churches must apply for new registration. Each time, fewer churches re-register. During the latest cycle, all churches and religious groups were required to renew their registration by 1 January 2010 and no new churches have since registered. It would seem Azerbaijan has found a fool-proof method of getting rid of churches.

The state monitors all religious activity, and especially targets unregistered groups. While registered churches can meet inside their buildings, special permission is needed for organising events outside these buildings. Youth work is very much restricted and all Christian materials must be cleared by the Committee for Religious Affairs in advance. In practice this means that all importing, printing, and distribution is blocked. Training facilities for Christians do not exist. All media are state-controlled and are therefore not accessible for Christian input. Christians can do some social work – e.g. in prisons (where there is usually a chapel). It is a punishable offence to bring religious literature into the country. By law, foreigners are not allowed to preach in the country.

54. Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan (5% Christian) is the odd one out in Central Asia, as it has a democratically elected head of state and parliament. But in 2009 it introduced one of the most restrictive Religion Laws in the region, imposing a 200-member minimum necessary for church registration. (There is now talk that this could increase to 500.) There are very few congregations in the country with enough members for this. No religious activities beyond state-run and state-controlled institutions are allowed.

In December 2012, a new censorship law was introduced, which also affects Christian literature. In March 2015, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed the so-called “foreign agents” law, which marks all organisations that receive financial support from abroad as foreign agents.

In Kyrgyzstan, local authorities and councils usually have more power than in other Central Asian countries. This has a negative effect on converts, as these local bodies tend to have strong relationships with the local community, who are all Muslims. And it is in the local councils that decisions about burials of converts are taken. This has already resulted in quite a few cases of families having to travel all over the country to find a place to bury their dead.

55. Niger

In the last two decades, Islamic associations – including Wahhabi groups – have become more active and prominent in Niger (0.3% Christian). In the past few years, Boko Haram’s presence in Niger has also become more visible.

Persecution in Niger (No. 49 last year) is mainly shaped by Islamic oppression. Although the pressure on Christians is significant, it is still moderate in comparison with the rest of the region. However, small incidents can spark very high levels of violence, as was evidenced by the protests over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in January 2015. In the WWL 2017 reporting period, no such large-scale violent incidents took place and the level of violent persecution against Christians decreased compared to the WWL 2016 reporting period. Since the events of January 2015, the government and NGOs have made great efforts to promote peaceful coexistence amongst the various ethnic groups and religions in Niger.

56. Cuba

In 2006, Fidel Castro was replaced by his brother Raúl as leader of the government, but the regime stayed essentially the same, and any groups hoping for change were disappointed. (No change is anticipated following Fidel Castro’s death late last year.)
Cuba (61% Christian) continues to isolate itself from the rest of the world and functions under totalitarian control. The persecution of Christians, more severe decades ago, is slowly changing. While persecution in the past included beatings, imprisonment and sometimes murder, now it is generally more subtle. It continues in the form of harassment, strict surveillance and discrimination, including occasional imprisonment of leaders. All Christians are monitored and all church services are infiltrated by informers.

Christians are threatened and suffer discrimination in school and at work. The totalitarian regime allows no competitors of any kind. Pastors and Christians are sometimes pressured to stop evangelising and to limit their activities to their own church premises. Permission to print Christian literature locally is hard to obtain. Everything is restricted. Existing seminaries and church buildings may be used, but new churches and seminaries cannot be built. Foreigners who enter the country can bring Bibles with them, but only a maximum of three.

57. Russia

Officially, Russia (82% Christian) is a secular state, but the government is openly courting the Russian Orthodox Church to the disadvantage of other denominations (which are often regarded as foreign). In July 2015, changes were made to Russia’s Religion Law, requiring all religions without legal status to register with the authorities and to notify them of their activities, including the names and addresses of all members and meetings. Registered groups are also limited in their activities within the first 10 years of their existence, e.g. teaching and invitations to foreign preachers are very restricted. Unregistered groups experience discrimination all over Russia. In the North Caucasus, Christians cannot hold public office. On Russian TV channels and printed media, there is a permanent campaign against sects and evangelicals.

Converts from Islam are targets for violence and severe pressure from family and community, particularly in the Caucasus area.

Other ‘Watch’ countries

The 11 other countries that remain on the ‘Persecution Watch’ list – eight of which are in Africa – listed alphabetically.

Cameroon

Despite the fact that Christians comprise around 60% of the population and the government is pro-Christian, Cameroon’s historically moderate form of Islam (about 20% of the population, 5 million, are adherents) is being challenged due to the growing prominence of Salafist teaching and the activity of jihadist groups across the Sahel and the Sahara, and in particular through the activities of Boko Haram within the country. In recent years, Boko Haram has used the country as an operational base and refuge for regrouping, and has also conducted several kidnap operations and terrorist attacks in Cameroon’s north. Many Cameroonian Christians live in the north and are directly threatened by this, as evidenced by the numerous Christians who have been the victims of terror incidents over recent years, including 13 Christians who were reported killed during the WWL 2017 reporting period.

Chad

Though Chad has a large Christian population (35%), the influence and dominance of Islam is manifest and growing. Militant Islamic movements are also present in Chadian society. They want to see all citizens under the banner of Islam and to make the country an Islamic republic. All other religions – especially Christianity – are seen as an obstacle to be removed by any possible means.

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

In DRC, with a Christian population of over 95%, the Islamist group ADF-NALU (Allied Democratic Forces – National Army for Liberation of Uganda) is active in the east of the country – specifically in North Kivu and Ituri Provinces. Several villages and churches have been attacked and almost abandoned.

The religious dimension of the attacks is betrayed by the fact that people who wore Islamic dress were not attacked (according to observations by local sources).

The Gambia

The Gambia (4.5% Christian), a Muslim-majority country, is popularly known as religiously tolerant. Not only is the constitution secular, the present government (due to hand over power next week) has so far defended its position on religious tolerance with unwavering commitment. Yet, non-violent measures are being taken to Islamize the country – particularly through the educational system, public institutions, media and areas concerning marriage and family. Muslims who convert to Christianity face considerable problems. Every citizen is considered a member of the Islamic umma (community) from birth and is thus expected to practise the religion of his people. Christian families are rarely free to conduct their family life in a Christian way. The pressure caused by the communal lifestyle means that – particularly in remote areas – Christians, especially converts, are very restricted in expressing their faith. Islamist-inspired mobs are also present. During the reporting period, outgoing President Yahya Jammeh made The Gambia the second African Islamic Republic after Mauritania.

Guinea

The Church in Guinea (3.5% Christian) mainly comprises Christians from a Muslim background. Under President Alpha Condé, the state is showing a degree of acceptance to Christians. The Authority of Religious Affairs has started to show some level of sensitivity regarding the rights of Christians. For example, the Authority agreed to arrange for government sponsorship of Christians travelling to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage.

Radical Islamic groups are not particularly active and the government tries to reduce the risk they pose to Christians and the society at large. No large-scale violence against Christians was recorded in the WWL 2017 reporting period. In the foreseeable future, the major concern for Christians in Guinea is the growing influence of radical versions of Islam that promote persecution in the entire West African region. Under the influence of radical teachings, many families and communities are becoming less tolerant of Christians and this makes life very difficult, especially for converts.

Israel

In Israel (2.5% Christian) Christians enjoy a higher level of religious freedom than in most other countries in the Middle East. Most violations of religious freedom are caused by individuals or small groups of religious extremists.

Christians from a Muslim background experience a high level of pressure in the private and family spheres of life. Opposition from the family is less severe than in other Middle Eastern states due to legislation protecting religious freedom. An exception is the law prohibiting adults from evangelism of children. Some Christians have been refused entrance to Israel or were forced to leave the country because of their assumed involvement in missionary or political activities.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish organisations (e.g. Yad Le Achim) hold regular demonstrations in front of buildings where Messianic Jews (Jews who believe Jesus Christ to be the promised Messiah) gather for worship. Other forms of harassment include spreading libel, spitting at clergy, or painting anti-Christian slogans on churches and monasteries. Top Israeli political leaders have condemned these assaults and Israeli police established a special unit to crack down on the culprits. The number of attacks decreased in 2016. Opposition experienced by Messianic Jews from their (extended) family or community varies in seriousness, ranging from tolerating them (if he or she does not try to spread his/her Christian faith) to social exclusion. Several Messianic Jews have been refused residency permits, based on their faith. Many court cases have been fought (and won) to nullify these illegal measures. In some cases, their citizenship was revoked after immigration. After the Ministry of Education considerably cut financial support, church-owned schools reported experiencing pressure to change their status to become state schools.

A court case is currently underway concerning a Messianic Jewish couple who wanted to celebrate their wedding in a public party centre but were refused because the owner told them he’d lose his “kosher” certificate.

Generally, there is a relatively low level of specifically faith-related violence against Christians in Israel. Nevertheless, there have been acts of vandalism against Christian property since 2012 and these continued in 2016.

Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast (35% Christian) witnessed some of the worst violent incidents in Africa in the WWL 2017 reporting period. The most widely reported incident occurred in the resort town of Grand-Bassam, where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb killed 22 people, including a five-year-old boy.

This creates an atmosphere of terror, especially for Christians. Furthermore, there is an increasing pressure on Christians due to the growing presence of Islam in government, administration, business, media and education, and increasing pressure from radical groups.

Morocco

In Morocco (0.1% Christian), the Islamist party, PJD, remains in power after winning the October 2016 elections. Reverberations from the Arab Spring were also felt in Morocco, but the protests did not bring the monarchy to an end. Instead, King Mohammed VI adopted a number of reforms in order to restore social peace and satisfy the demands of the Islamists. Victims of persecution are mainly Christian converts from a Muslim background, though restrictions also apply to the small and historical Catholic and expatriate communities. Foreign workers must still provide justification for living in the country and for Christian mission workers it is difficult to get residence permits.

In the WWL 2017 reporting period, few violent incidents against Christians were recorded. Compared to previous years, the situation for Christians has not altered much, apart from one important change: the Islamist majority in government. This has had a negative effect on the position of the Church. Islamist influence is becoming more visible, causing many Christians to be pessimistic about the future. Despite being regularly monitored and dismantled by government forces, Islamic State cells represent an on-going threat for Christians in Morocco.

Philippines

In the Philippines (90% Christian), most of the persecution comes from Muslim religious leaders and affects converts from three tribes: the Tausug, Yakan and Sama. There have also been reports of incidents affecting Christians in the Maguindanao and Iranun ethnic groups.

The Philippines faces a long-standing violent independence movement on the southern island of Mindanao, which has a strong Muslim minority. On 24 December 2015, the insurgent group BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) killed nine Christian farmers in Mindanao.

Weapons used to kill four people in an attack in Jakarta on 14 January 2016 were reportedly brought into Indonesia from the southern Philippines; this shows the worrying connections of Islamic militants across borders in Southeast Asia. Islamic State announced plans to create a province of their caliphate in the southern Philippines, and BIFF and some other groups have already pledged allegiance to IS. 

Converts from Islam are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Several reports showed that they have to keep their Christian faith carefully hidden from their families and that meeting with other Christians is very difficult, dangerous and at times impossible.

Senegal

Although Senegal (5% Christian) is known for religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence of different religious groups, there continue to be reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Many of these target evangelical churches, which are rapidly growing in membership. For the most part, persecution occurs in the form of mobs targeting evangelicals, who are seen as encroaching on the identity of this almost entirely Islamic nation.

The BBC reported on 18 November 2015 that Senegal was making plans to ban women from wearing the full-face Islamic veil in public, in response to the increasing threat of jihadism. On 7 November 2015, seven people, including four imams, were arrested by the Senegalese authorities for their suspected ties with radical Islamic groups.

A small number of violent incidents were recorded during the WWL 2017 reporting period, but fewer than in the past.

Venezuela

In Venezuela (92% Christian), the persecution of “born-again” Christians is subtle. There is a political trend towards a socialist society, with the president crushing opposition. The Church has been affected by the complex political situation. Tensions between ex-President Chavez, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, and the leadership of the Catholic Church have been growing. For years, the former Chavez administration attempted to shut down private education of all kinds in favour of state schools. His goal, observers say, was to use the state school system for the political indoctrination of youth. The government gives economic incentives to students who attend state schools, while denying equal recognition to students of private schools. Hence, church-based schools find themselves working against policies and programmes designed to eventually drive them out of business.

The general security situation is rapidly deteriorating due to an alarming increase in violent crime, which puts Christians along with others at greater risk of violent death than before. 

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