To coincide with the launch of Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian, researchers at the charity have identified some of the good-news stories from 2017.
1. Iraqi Christians return home
When she was only three years old, Christina was snatched from the arms of her mother by an IS fighter. For three years, she lived with a Muslim family in IS territory. With the liberation of Mosul, also came the liberation of Christina. The Muslim family brought her back to her parents and she is now doing well. It is just one example of good news from Iraq. Families have begun to return to their home villages now that IS has been defeated on the battlefield (if not in the hearts of many in the population). There is still much uncertainty and fears for the future, but it is a start.
2. Less violence in Syria
Syria fell 10 points on the World Watch List scoring system (explained here) in the past year and is no longer in the Top 10. The drop is explained by looking at the violence category: there were less reports of violence in which Christians were targeted. This was mainly because the areas held by IS were recaptured, but another factor is the difficulty of receiving confirmed information from a country in the chaos of civil war. Anti-Christian violence has not disappeared: there were still Syrian Christians being abducted, physically and sexually abused, fleeing their homes and country in 2017.
3. Tanzania tumbles off list
Tanzania is the most eye-catching example of a country where the situation for Christians considerably improved. On the 2017 list it was ranked 33rd, with 59 points out of 100. For the 2018 list, it dropped six points and did not make the Top 50. (However, 53 points still means there is a high level of persecution in the country.)
The majority of people in Tanzania are Christian, but the percentage of Muslims is growing and especially younger Muslims are susceptible to radical influences from groups in neighbouring countries, such as Al-Shabaab (operating in Somalia and also Kenya).
There is a group called ‘Uamsho’ (‘The Awakening’) that wants autonomy and Islamic law for the island of Zanzibar. They started using violence against Christians to enforce their demands. But late 2015 saw the election of President John Magufuli, which meant a turning point. His administration made serious work of cracking down on radical Islamic groups. Many leaders were caught, others went into hiding. The violence against Christians decreased a lot.
4. Government turmoil improves scores for Ethiopia and Kenya
Kenya is 32nd and Ethiopia 29th on the 2018 World Watch List. On Open Doors’ scoring system, both countries fell from their totals of last year – Kenya by six points, Ethiopia by two – to end with the same scores of 62/100.
The reason for the ‘improvement’ in these two countries is remarkably similar: in both cases, Muslims and Christians found a common cause.
In Kenya the 2017 presidential elections brought a lot of unrest to the country. Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner, but his opponent Raila Odinga contested the results. Later, the opposition boycotted the new elections.
“What happens during the elections is that one’s tribe becomes more important than one’s religion,” an Open Doors researcher explained. “So Muslims and Christians from the same tribe actually get along better.” Kenyan political alliance depends on tribe.
Secondly, the government now exerts less pressure on Christians. This is especially true in Ethiopia, where for the last two years many people have been protesting against the government. They want change – an end to corruption, more respect for human rights, more democracy, a fairer distribution of wealth, etc. Here too, Christians and Muslims found a common cause. The protests and turmoil forced the government to declare a state of emergency in October 2016, which remained in place for most of 2017. That meant the government had less time to persecute Christians practising their faith outside church walls.
The bad news is that although the 2018 list shows there was less persecution in Ethiopia, the government cracked down violently on the protesters. Scores of people have been injured or killed, but those are not scored during the World Watch List survey, as these are human-rights violations, but not persecution for one’s Christian faith.
One alarming phenomenon that emerged in Kenya in 2017 was Al-Shabaab killing over 30 Christians, many by beheading. This seems to be a new tactic to instil fear in the Christian community and get them to flee en masse.
5. Vietnam turns back to ‘normal’
Vietnam scored 71 points on the 2018 list, an increase of five points compared to 2017. That increase had mainly to do with three killings and other violence. However, there was not as much violence in the past year, although pressure did rise and remains at a very-high level. While it is good that no Christians died for their faith in Vietnam, the authorities continue to crack down on ethnic-minority Christians and will start implementing a new law on religion in 2018, which will restrict religious freedom.
Countries that seem to have improved, but didn’t really
Pakistan’s score fell slightly from 88 to 86. There was slight improvement in some areas of Christian life, but violence is still at maximum level. It is hardly any improvement.
Nigeria also fell from 78 to 77. Boko Haram has less influence now, but the mainly Muslim Fulani herdsman have “compensated” for that by being very violent against Christians, chasing them away from their farms.
Qatar and Bangladesh both have lower scores, too. For Qatar it does not reflect an improvement of the situation but has to do more with a refinement on how Christians from a Muslim background and their communities were scored. Bangladesh saw less violence and more efforts by the government to crack down on radical Islamic groups, which to a certain extent relieved the pressure on Christians.