Across the globe, extremists have used COVID-19 to expand their atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities, according to Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List highlighting the top 50 countries where Christians are being persecuted.
“This past year – 2020 ‑ has been a year of uncertainty and fear,” said David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, who released the 2021 list on Jan. 13. “We have all been fighting a virus we cannot see with the naked eye. Less known, but equally as viral, is the discrimination, isolation and violence against Christians using COVID-19 as a leverage and as justification.”
The top 10 countries where it’s most difficult to follow Jesus are: 1) North Korea; 2) Afghanistan; 3) Somalia; 4) Libya; 5) Pakistan; 6) Eritrea; 7) Yemen; 8) Iran; 9) Nigeria; and 10) India.
North Korea topped the list for the 20th year in a row. The top 12 countries — adding No. 11 Iraq and No. 12 Syria—are considered to be the most extreme reports of persecution, with No. 13-50 listed as “very high persecution.”
“The World Watch List helps us to see the viral spread of persecution and those most in danger,” Curry said. “A shocking number this year is that 340 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination. That’s one in eight Christians worldwide.”
Curry shared about a man from North Korea who was born in a broken home.
“Inside he was hurt, lonely and heartbroken,” he said, but a Christian befriended him and soon he began to follow Jesus. One day as this new believer was closing a prayer with Amen, a gun was placed to his head, and he was taken to a concentration camp.
“Over 60,000 Christians are in labor camp for no more than having a Bible or being suspected of being a Christian,” Curry said. “He’s living proof [of] the cruelty of North Korea toward Christians and religious minorities.”
Danger of nationalism
India may be considered the largest democracy but target attacks on Christians have been perpetrated in the name of spreading Hinduism.
“This pandemic has made our life miserable,” one Indian believer said.
Within India, Curry said the message seems to be, “You’re not really an Indian citizen unless you are Hindu.”
“COVID has clearly affected all of us around the world, yet for some, their faith has made them more vulnerable, less able to get food, less able to get the assistance they need to support their families,” Curry said. “Government and extremists are using COVID-19 as a way to justify an increase in the persecution of Christians.”
Burkina Faso entered the WWL three years ago. It ranks No. 32.
“Boko Haram extremists are taking advantage of weak central government, taking advantage of the COVID crisis, to make it difficult or impossible for aid to get to Christian communities,” Curry said. “Militants are waging war against those that they consider to be infidels in exploiting these fragile governments.”
Likewise, drug cartels in Colombia (No. 30) and Mexico (No. 37) have made it difficult for believers who stand against the cartels.
Curry said those who are standing up against the stronghold the drug cartels have been extorted, ambushed, robbed, shot and even killed.
The increase in hate speech and attacks on Christians in Turkey brought the country from No. 36 in the 2020 list to No. 25 this year.
Danger of surveillance
One of the concerning trends Open Doors is finding is the rise of surveillance, what Curry called the “greatest threat to human rights today.”
China has re-entered the top 20 (No. 17 this year). Curry gave a Dec. 30 example of an arrest in a private home where people were arrested for attending a Bible study.
Last Easter Sunday, armed Chinese guards raided the homes of Christians and detained believers for watching church via an online streaming service.
The WWL report indicated that China has installed 415 million facial recognition surveillance cameras that track people’s whereabouts.
Only 6.8% of China’s more than 1.4 billion people are considered Christian. The main religion is listed as agnosticism.
Curry mentioned that ethnic Muslims are being targeted as well. A 2019 report on international religious freedom listed at least two million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other Muslim groups—mostly Chinese citizens—were being held in detention facilities in Xinjiang.
“None of them are charged with any kind of crimes,” said Rushan Abbas, an Uyghur activist, but instead, they were detained for greeting one another in a peaceful Arabic greeting. “This is about humanity.”
‘Share their stories’
Curry encouraged Americans, and especially believers to share these stories of freedom violations.
“As free people, we must stand with those who seek freedom of conscious, the ability to decide for yourself what you believe,” he said. “Churches, places of worship, even worship itself it must remain sacred, free from discrimination, so that everyone has the freedom to think, to study and to practice the faith of their choosing—even if they choose not to have any faith at all.”
Chris Meserole, director of research and policy at the Brookings Institution, expressed his concern over the spread of this surveillance technology to foreign governments beyond China.
“It’s not a problem that’s going to stay in China,” Meserole said. The technology “enables a regime to ban private forms of religion.”
Writing texts or even searches on cell phones are being tracked, as well as locations of individuals suspected of having Christian ties.
A Chinese pastor interviewed said church members register their cell phones. Those who receive government assistance are required to sign away their faith; claiming to be a Christian hinders the ability to work too; and anyone under the age 18 is not allowed to go to church.
Curry mentioned an incident in Iran where believers were targeted through cell phone technology recording private meetings among believers.
Persecutors ‘days are numbered,’ Brownback says
Ambassador Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, told these top offenders: “Your days are numbered as persecutors.”
He said there are economic and security consequences for denying people their religious freedom and mentioned there are 32 nations who have formed an alliance to protect religious freedoms.
Curry encouraged Americans “to let our voices be heard,” to speak out for the Uyghurs in China.
“They are trying to extinguish this culture,” he said. “They are using any number of excuses to detain them and sterilize them. We need to stand up and we need to speak out.”
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