2023 World Watch List: Radical violence sweeps across Sub-Saharan Africa destabilizing nations with no end in sight

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) faces a vast humanitarian catastrophe, as a wave of religiously motivated violence nurtured in Nigeria (7) has swept across the region, targeting Christian populations at an alarming rate in countries like Burkina Faso (23), Cameroon (45), Mali (17) and Niger (28). Signs of jihadist expansion are also clearly visible in Mozambique (32), Congo DR (37) and other countries.

This is the disturbing finding of Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List (WWL). The WWL ranks the nations where Christians face the most severe persecution and discrimination.

Other key findings (WWL position in brackets):

  • China (17)’s model of oppression is spreading throughout authoritarian states. Authoritarianism plus nationalism plus sophisticated technology is a powerful combination contributing to a rise in persecution across authoritarian governments.
  • China has clamped down further on Christians, introducing sweeping new rules on churches’ use of the internet.
  • North Korea (1) returns to No. 1, with its highest levels of persecution ever. The rise follows a new wave of violence under its new ‘Anti-reactionary thought law.’
  • Over the 30 years of the Open Doors World Watch List reporting, the global phenomenon of Christian persecution has grown alarmingly.

Nigeria and SSA: A continent-wide catastrophe is unfolding

World map of countries based on levels of persecution against Christians. Image credit: Open Doors

Seven out of the top 10 most violent places for Christians are in Sub-Saharan Africa. 89 percent of verified incidents where a Christian was killed for their faith occurred in Nigeria.  Violence against Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has reached alarming new levels, as violent Islamic militants destabilize the region using extreme violence.

It is most extreme in Nigeria where militants from the Fulani, Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and others conduct raids on Christian communities, killing, maiming, raping and kidnapping for ransom or sexual slavery.

  • Religiously motivated killings in Nigeria have risen from 4,650 last year to 5,014.
  • Hundreds of thousands more have been forced into internal displacement or have become refugees.
  • This year has also seen this violence spill over into the southern Christian-majority areas of the nation.
  • The jihadist movement seeks to expand Sharia/Islamic law across the continent – with
  • severe consequences for the church.
  • Nigeria’s government continues to deny this is religious persecution, so violations of Christians’ rights are carried out with impunity.

Jihadist violence is becoming commonplace across SSA, with 26 countries in the region scoring very significant levels of persecution. The Islamist campaign of terror is fueled by a lethal mix of trafficking, changes to the climate and an influx of mercenary soldiers from the shadowy Kremlin-backed Wagner Group.

“Certainly the underlying root causes for the violence across Africa is complex, but we must not ignore that these groups are intentionally targeting Christians,” says Lisa Pearce, Interim CEO of Open Doors US“The lack of attention to and recognition of this religiously motivated violence by the global community is destabilizing the entire region. Without recognizing the religious elements at play, governments will continue to fail to be able to provide targeted relief and support for Christians and other victims of this excruciating violence. The US Government needs to do more.

Given that 6 of the 9 terrorist entities that the US State Department recently identified as ‘Entities of Particular Concern’ operate in sub-Saharan Africa, this Administration must expand on its Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability to include those African countries in which these entities of particular concern operate.” 

China and beyond: The rise of authoritarianism and digital persecution crushes religious freedom

Through digital persecution, China is intensifying the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. The Chinese Communist Party is extending its repression of Christians via surveillance, censorship and disinformation, using technology to control and coerce behavior through its Social Credit System. Through economic and political influence, China is also becoming an incubator and legitimizer of persecution around the world, and as China exports its invasive technology, it is de facto exporting its authoritarian ideology.

  • Amid efforts by countries such as China, Russia (63) and India (10) to reinterpret and redefine human rights, the authoritarian trend can be seen in countries as diverse as Sri Lanka (52), Myanmar (14) and Malaysia (43), and in Central Asian states.
  • Christian minorities who are seen to oppose these new “rights,” by refusing to support can face arrest, demolition of their church buildings and the de-registering of their churches.
  • In China, sweeping new rules on church use of the internet have further stifled the freedom of the nation’s almost 100 million Christians. Meanwhile Beijing has employed further censorship, disinformation and extreme surveillance to ratchet up its control of Christians and other religious groups.
  • China and Russia have shown themselves more than willing to export the necessary technology, as are a number of Western companies, who are prepared to turn a blind eye to the impact of their trade.

North Korea: No. 1 again as it enforces new “Anti-reactionary thought law”

North Korea has returned to the top position, where – with the exception of the last reporting period – it has remained since WWL 2002. This year sees its highest-ever persecution score. This reflects an increase in arrests of Christians and more underground house churches discovered and closed. Arrest means execution, or life in one of the nation’s horrifically inhumane camps for political prisoners, where prisoners face near-starvation, torture and sexual violence.

The new rise comes with the enforcement of the new “Anti-Reactionary Thought Law” which criminalized any published materials of foreign origin in North Korea, along with the Bible. It has led to the imprisonment or execution of teenage boys watching South Korean shows such as Squid Game. However, it is also being used to track down Bibles or any other Christian materials, printed or electronic.

“Christians have always been in the front line of attack for the regime. Their aim is to wipe out every Christian in the country. There can only be one god in North Korea, and that is the Kim family.” – Timothy Cho, North Korean escapee

Afghanistan – One year on

Afghanistan (9) has fallen from No. 1 in 2022 to No. 9 in this year’s list. However, the sharp drop offers little cheer.

After the brutal takeover in 2021, many Christians were executed, as the Taliban went door-to-door to root out believers. Many Christians went deep into hiding or fled overseas.

Over 2022, the Taliban’s focus has intensified for rooting out those with links to the old regime, more than uprooting the very small number of Christians remaining.

Life for many Christians who have fled to neighboring nations is very insecure:

“Our situation is desperate. My mother and I managed to cross the border into another country. I am praying that I can leave this country and go somewhere safe. I may have to go into hiding or I’ll be deported to Afghanistan. If that happens, I may be killed.” – Zabi, Afghan Christian refugee

Meanwhile, the Taliban, desperate to keep the nation functioning are keen for expatriate workers such as doctors or engineers to operate in the country. Expatriate religious affiliation is not so strictly monitored – affecting the overall persecution score.

30 Years of the World Watch List – a shocking trend

Over the 30 years of the Open Doors World Watch List reporting, the global phenomenon of Christian persecution has grown alarmingly.

  • Globally, more than 360 million Christians suffer at least “high” levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith.
  • In 1993, Christians faced high to extreme levels of persecution in 40 countries. This number has nearly doubled to 76 countries in 2023.
  • In the top 50 alone, 312 million Christians now face very high or extreme levels of persecution.
  • Worldwide, 1 in 7 Christians now experience at least “high” levels of persecution or discrimination; with 1 in 5 in Africa, 2 out of 5 in Asia, and 1 in 15 in Latin America.

Other trends in brief:

  • The Christian church continues to dwindle in the Middle East. It has been unable to recover after the upsurge of Islamic State, despite a reduction in the number of Christians killed in recent years (one exception is Syria (12), which has seen a wave of violent incidents in the WWL 2023 reporting period). “This is the cradle of Christianity, and much of the church is losing hope – the diet of discrimination and poverty is too much to bear, especially for the young who see no future here as believers.” – Rami Abed Al-Masih, Advocacy Regional Manager for the Middle East and North Africa
  • Yet another Latin American country enters the list (Nicaragua at 50). Direct Government oppression against Christians seen as voices of opposition is rife in Nicaragua and Cuba (27), where Christian leaders were imprisoned without trial for their part in last year’s demonstrations. In many countries in Latin America, organized crime has taken hold, especially in rural areas for Christians who speak out against the cartels’ activities.

Glimmers of hope

The total number of Christians killed for their faith decreased slightly from 5,898 recorded cases (WWL 2022) to 5,621 (WWL 2023) – the clear exception being Sub-Saharan Africa, as outlined above.  The total number of Christians abducted for faith-related reasons increased from 3,829 recorded cases (WWL 2022) to 5,259 (WWL 2023).

There has been promotion of greater tolerance in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Bahrain (55 points) and the UAE (62 points), and also in Egypt (68 points). Unfortunately, state persecution of converts from Islam to Christianity continued unabated in Egypt. Qatar (68 points, down from 74) also has a lower persecution score this year. This was caused by the fact that no additional churches were forced to close in the WWL 2023 reporting period. However, many churches closed in the previous reporting period remained shut.

How many Christians are persecuted?

Persecution of Christians has continued to intensify globally, reaching the highest levels since the list began nearly 30 years ago.

  • More than 360 million Christians face high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith.
  • This number represents 1 in 7 Christians worldwide.

The 2023 rankings (last year’s ranking in brackets)

  1. North Korea (2)
  2. Somalia (3)
  3. Yemen (5)
  4. Eritrea (6)
  5. Libya (4)
  6. Nigeria (7)
  7. Pakistan (8)
  8. Iran (9)
  9. Afghanistan (1)
  10. Sudan (13)
  11. India (10)
  12. Syria (15)
  13. Saudi Arabia (11)
  14. Myanmar (12)
  15. Maldives (16)
  16. China (17)
  17. Mali (24)
  18. Iraq (14)
  19. Algeria (22)
  20. Mauritania (23)
  21. Uzbekistan (21)
  22. Colombia (30)
  23. Burkina Faso (32)
  24. Central African Republic (31)
  25. Vietnam (19)
  26. Turkmenistan (25)
  27. Cuba (37)
  28. Niger (33)
  29. Morocco (27)
  30. Bangladesh (29)
  31. Laos (26)
  32. Mozambique (41)
  33. Indonesia (28)
  34. Qatar (18)
  35. Egypt (20)
  36. Tunisia (35)
  37. Congo DR (DRC) (40)
  38. Mexico (43)
  39. Ethiopia (38)
  40. Bhutan (34)
  41. Turkey (42)
  42. Comoros (53)
  43. Malaysia (50)
  44. Tajikistan (45)
  45. Cameroon (44)
  46. Brunei (46)
  47. Oman (36)
  48. Kazakhstan (47)
  49. Jordan (39)
  50. Nicaragua (61)

About the WWL and how the figures are collected.

The first WWL was produced in January 1993. Countries’ overall persecution scores are an amalgamation of six different scores: pressure levels in private life, family life, community life and national life, and of church communities, along with violence levels. This year’s list covers the period Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30, 2022.

Released at the beginning of each year, the list uses extensive research, data from Open Doors field workers, their in-country networks, external experts and persecution analysts to quantify and analyze persecution worldwide. Each edition is certified by the International Institute for Religious Freedom.

Learn more about the WWL methodology https://www.opendoorsus.org/en-US/persecution/methodology/.

Open Doors US

Open Doors US is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for 68 years and works in more than 70 countries. Open Doors provides practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. For information, visit opendoorsus.org.

For more world news, visit https://www.goodnewsfl.org/topic/news/world/

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