Hard pressed on every side
Eight kinds of pressure facing persecuted Christians today
The Church today is under intense pressure – pressure which has only increased since the Covid-19 crisis that swept across the globe in 2020. There are many forms of persecution against Christians in today’s world. These are not isolated from one another, but overlap and interact to intensify the hardship faced by our brothers and sisters.
Top-down oppression from authorities and government policies is mounting, and bottom-up pressures from communities and rapid social change are rising. Added to these, natural disasters, regional conflict and terrorist activity overlay day-to-day ongoing discrimination and marginalisation.
War and conflict are causing Christians to flee their homes, and with displacement comes greater deprivation and often discrimination for refugees forced to leave their homelands. Natural disaster, such as flood, disease and locust plagues, can arrive on top of this to place Christians at the very margins of survival. The global Church is hemmed in on every side.
1. Government policy
An increasing source of top-down pressure on Christians is coming from government policies. Sometimes this is as a result of explicit legislation but it can also be due to the “unofficial” actions of national governments or regional/local administrations. Often it is the result of an authoritarian state’s commitment to its official ideology, whether communism, Islam, or something else.
Extreme anti-Christian policies in China and North Korea
North Korea is probably the world’s most totalitarian state. It is a place of terrible persecution under the despotic rule of President Kim Jong-un – the son of Kim Jong-il – and of strict communist control. Tens of thousands of Christians have been starved, tortured and worked to death in political labour camps, or “re-education” camps, because of their faith. The harshest and most inhumane punishments in such camps are often reserved for Christians.
China, another communist state, has grown ever more authoritarian under the rule of President Xi Jinping. In China persecution is often instigated at the level of a province or city rather than nationally, but in the knowledge that the national Communist Party authorities will approve. The governments of China and North Korea have colluded together in the persecution of Christians, with believers who have escaped over the border tortured and abused in China before being sent back to the death camps of North Korea.
A disturbing trend in recent times has been the emergence of digital technologies, such as facial-recognition software, as a tool for authoritarian persecution. Surveillance cameras were forcibly installed in churches in Jiangxi and Henan Provinces last year to monitor who attends and what is being preached. The cameras are linked to “Sharp Eyes”, a country-wide surveillance system providing total coverage “across all regions”.
Pastors must now follow strict government guidelines on sermon content and all pastors and other religious leaders are added to “a database of religious personnel” listing all those authorised by the state to perform religious ministry. Church leaders not registered in the database will not be permitted to undertake ministry.
State-sponsored military oppression in Myanmar (Burma)
Thousands of Christian villagers fled military bombardment in Karen State, Myanmar (Burma) on 1 February 2021, the same day as Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government was ousted from power in a military coup. A chilling Myanmar Army document, discovered a few weeks later, instructed soldiers to “punish and break down” any dissenting civilians, which would be deemed to include ethnic-minority Christians.
The deadly artillery assault on the Christian civilians in Karen came suddenly, leaving villagers only moments to escape. A week later, 212 more were displaced from another Christian village during two days of relentless shelling. By mid-March, more than 8,000 Karen people, including many Christians, had been displaced by advancing military forces in northern Karen State.
For many decades the military – also known as the Tatmadaw – committed to a Buddhist nationalist ideology have attacked Chin, Kachin and Karen Christians, as well as other religious and ethnic minorities. At the time of writing, thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain deep inside the jungle.
Regional legislation adding to pressures on Indian Christians
While the national government has said it has no plans to institute a nationwide law, anti-Christian legislation crafted by state (regional) governments is steadily increasing in India. Nine state governments now have anti-conversion laws, which can be – and often are – used to hinder Christian worship and ministry on a variety of pretexts.
Soon after a new anti-conversion law was passed in Uttar Pradesh in November 2020, police in the state’s Shahjahanpur district were instructed to keep a watch on Christian prayer meetings to see if there are any unlawful efforts to convert people to Christianity at such gatherings.
In March 2021, a hard-line Hindu group, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), pledged to identify missionaries carrying out allegedly “illegal” conversions in Madhya Pradesh. The VHP general secretary Milind Parande said, “Such laws for the benefit of Hindus are very important … Religious conversion is a type of violence that needs to be stopped.”
In June 2021 an amendment to the anti-conversion law of Gujarat made it illegal to persuade somebody to convert by promising them “divine blessings”. If applied rigorously this may make it illegal to tell a non-Christian that repenting and believing in Christ will bring forgiveness for sins and everlasting life. The bill also places the burden of proof on the accused, making conviction more likely.
Armenian Christians face uncertain future in aftermath of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Thousands of Armenian Christians were killed and around 90,000 displaced when the government of Muslim-majority Azerbaijan waged a brief but fierce war in Nagorno-Karabakh that began in September 2020.
Azerbaijani forces, supported by Turkey, overran the ethnic-Armenian enclave using advanced weaponry supplied by other governments and mercenary fighters from militant Islamist groups in the Middle East to support its own troops. Some Armenians were killed by having their throats cut, just like a century ago during the Armenian Genocide. Others, both soldiers and civilians, were captured, tortured, abused and killed; at time of writing Azerbaijan is refusing to release many Armenian prisoners. Azerbaijani forces have also desecrated church buildings and other Christian sites in Nagorno-Karabakh, even after the fighting had ceased.
Repression of religious minorities is also increasing in Turkey, which is at least 99% Muslim. Although Turkey remains technically a secular state the Christian population, which includes a small number of converts from Islam, has continued to be treated as inferior to the Muslim majority.
State-sanctioned persecution across the world
State-sanctioned persecution of the Church is evident throughout our world. In Saudi Arabia it is a capital offence for Muslims to leave Islam and an unknown number of indigenous believers must follow Christ in total secrecy. Promoting any religion apart from Islam is illegal in Somalia. Conversion from Islam is forbidden in Afghanistan, the Maldives, Somaliland and Mauritania.
In Morocco conversion from Islam is not forbidden, but “enticing” conversion or proselytising – so called “shaking the faith of a Muslim” – is punishable by up to three years in prison. Similarly, in Algeria conversion is not criminalised, but those who evangelise Muslims risk a five-year jail sentence. Christians from a Muslim background are treated as a security threat in Iran, and are often tried and imprisoned.
Harsh restrictions on Christian worship and practice have also been enacted in Muslim-majority countries including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over the last 10-15 years. Severe restrictions remain in Turkmenistan, and in Uzbekistan religious activity is still under state control despite a softening of official attitudes.
In Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka concerns are growing that a new law against “unethical conversions” being drafted by the re-elected government in March 2021 will bring similar pressures to those experienced in parts of India. In Hindu-majority Nepal, where Christianity is growing, a bill criminalising “hurting religious sentiment” that came into force in 2018 means that any Christian who shares their faith with a Hindu or Buddhist risks a prison sentence.
The Marxist government of Eritrea continues to target Christians for arbitrary arrest and long-term detention in overcrowded and brutal prison conditions, often without charge. Tens of thousands of Christians have fled Eritrea. In 2002, the government outlawed all places of worship except those of only three officially recognised Christian denominations – Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran – as well as Sunni Islam. As a result many churches of other denominations were closed overnight.
In Russia legislative amendments in recent years have tended to erode religious freedom. Since 2016 more than 1,300 cases have been brought against Christians practising their faith. The 2016 “Yarovaya Law” gives harsh penalties for vague offences and allows the authorities sweeping surveillance powers.
2. Community pressures
In many countries where Christians are a minority population, pressure and persecution are close at hand, coming from the majority communities around them. Everyday discrimination, marginalisation and harassment are commonplace for Christians in India, Pakistan, Central Asia and many other places. For Christian converts from Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism this hostility often comes from relatives and neighbours in their former communities who reject them for following the Lord Jesus.
False accusations in Pakistan
Christians in Pakistan are vulnerable to false accusation by disgruntled Muslim neighbours under the country’s notorious “blasphemy” laws which, since a constitutional court decision in 1991, have stipulated a mandatory death sentence for “derogatory remarks” against Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
In May 2021 three Christian nurses in Lahore were accused of blasphemy, leading to Muslim members of staff occupying the hospital chapel. In April two nurses in Faisalabad were attacked by their colleagues after being accused of blasphemy; the same happened to a nurse at a Karachi hospital in January.
False accusations are often made in order to settle personal grudges. Christians are especially vulnerable, as simply stating their beliefs can be construed as “blasphemy” and the lower courts usually accept the testimony of Muslims over non-Muslims (in similar manner to courts formally based on sharia). At the time of writing, approximately 20 Christians are held on death row on “blasphemy” charges. Since 1990, at least 15 Christians have been murdered because of “blasphemy” allegations, often before their trial could be conducted in accordance with the law.
Violence against Christians in India
As with “blasphemy” laws in Pakistan, anti-conversion laws in India are frequently misused against Christians, so that they are charged with making conversions by force, fraud or allurement, when they are, in realty, engaging in genuine, lawful evangelism or even just public worship. Research has suggested that states with anti-conversion laws are more likely to see violent persecution of the Christian minority.
An Indian Christian leader explained that accusations are often “created to threaten and stop regular worship activity by intimidation”. Commenting on the troubling trend, he continued, “Christian prayer meetings that have gone on for many years without much disturbance are being targeted … There is a pattern here and it must be exposed.”
On 31 January 2021, a mob of 30 Hindu extremists surrounded Pastor Subhash Hanok’s church in Karnataka state, India, and viciously beat him and his congregation, including women and children. When eight of the extremists burst into the Sunday service in Harohalli village they demanded the worshippers repeat the Hindu chant “Jai Shri Ram” (victory to Lord Ram, a Hindu god also called Rama). When the Christians refused, the assailants began their brutal assault.
The police did not take the Christians’ complaint against the attackers seriously and made no charges. But instead, they brought charges, including for “conversion”, against Pastor Subhash and other church members, and even pressurised the landlord of the house where the church meets to evict the congregation. Sadly this account is typical of the community pressures frequently faced by Indian believers.
Grassroots anti-Christian hostility remains in Egypt
In Egypt President al-Sisi and his government are very supportive of the Christian minority. They have passed laws to facilitate the registration of church buildings, they publicly affirm the Christians, and express outrage and sympathy after incidents of anti-Christian violence. This stance has also manifested as practical assistance for the Christian victims of violence and tangible steps to speed up the church registration process. Many Muslim extremists, however, remain embedded at the grassroots of society and continue to attack church buildings, Christian businesses and Christian individuals.
Christian shopkeepers Ramsis Boulos Hermina, Adel Hermina (Ramsis’ brother), and Tareq Fawzy Shenouda were stabbed and beaten when attackers armed with clubs, knives and a sword entered their shop in Alexandria in December 2020. All three men received hospital treatment, but Ramsis died from his injuries. Two brothers, both Muslim, were charged with his murder in February this year.
Christians face hostility and violence from their neighbours
The tiny Christian community in Somalia, which is made up mainly of Muslim-background believers, faces extreme hostility and many have been murdered for apostasy by family, community members or Al Shabaab jihadists. The Christian presence in Libya is composed mostly of foreign migrant workers and refugees, but there are also a small number of indigenous converts from Islam. Islamists target Christians for killing, kidnap, forceful conversion and sale in “modern-day slave markets”. Violence against Christian refugees, who are mainly West African or Eritrean, is commonplace.
Throughout the world, those who leave Islam to follow Christ tend to be ostracised by their family and community. Converts from Islam face great hostility in Bangladesh and sometimes violence, especially in rural areas. Those who bring the Gospel to them are also at risk. Some Christians involved in outreach to Muslims have been murdered. In the Comoro Islands Muslim-background believers face government disapproval and potential arrest, but the greatest pressure comes from within the society. In more moderate Tunisia, the main pressure for converts also comes from being stigmatised by the majority Muslim community and rejected by relatives.
In Muslim-majority Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Christians, particularly converts, are often subjected to discrimination and violence from their relatives or community and sometimes threatened with death. Muslim-background believers will often lose their jobs when they decide to follow Christ.
There is a similar situation in Buddhist-majority Laos, in south-east Asia. In 2019 the communist government passed a law to ensure the freedom of worship and other rights of evangelical Christians, and even organised seminars across the country to make the new law known. Despite this, in remote rural areas Christians continue to be persecuted on the orders of village chiefs or local officials. In April 2021 a pastor was convicted of causing disruption by holding Christian services. Thankfully the pastor, who refused to renounce his faith, was released three days later.
3. Terrorist violence
Terrorist violence from militant groups rages on in many regions of the world. In northern Nigeria, and with violence spilling out into neighbouring countries in recent years, thousands of Christian lives have been lost in a rising tide of murderous attacks, kidnappings and brutality by extremist Islamist terror groups armed with weapons smuggled from countries such as Algeria and Libya.
“Christian genocide” in Nigeria
Violence from Islamic extremists has grown worse in Nigeria, with Christians often the target. In April 2021 the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) warned of a “Christian genocide” if the government of Nigeria cannot protect Christians from Islamist terrorism.
The Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which originated in north-east Nigeria in 2002, has killed countless thousands. One of its main targets are Christians, as it seeks to “cleanse” the territory it controls of all Christians as part of its stated aim to establish a caliphate. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, died in May 2021, but Islamism remains rife in Nigeria.
On Christmas Eve 2020 in Borno and Adamawa states, Nigeria, at least 24 people were killed, over 20 abducted, a church burned and a pastor kidnapped by Islamist militants during two attacks. The armed militants, thought to belong to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), an offshoot of Boko Haram, first raided the predominantly Christian village of Pemi, near Chibok in Borno State, killing eleven people and setting fire to buildings.
The jihadists went on to abduct at least 20 Christians and singled out five to be lined up and shot in a second attack near Garkida, Adamawa State. In an online video released by the terrorists showing the killings, a voice said, “Celebrate your Christmas with the present of the heads of these Christians.”
Terror across the Sahel
The Sahel region of Africa – the area around the south of the Sahara desert – has also experienced a dramatic increase in Islamic terrorist activity. Among the areas most badly affected is the tri-border area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. All three countries suffer from the activity of Islamist groups linked to either Al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh), most notably Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
A senior Christian leader in Mali reported in April 2021 that more than 50 Malian Christians – men, women and children – had been shot, beheaded or burned to death by Islamists. In the ethnically Dogon areas of central Mali around 95% of church buildings have been destroyed. In May 2020 heavily armed jihadists on motorcycles killed 27 people in three attacks on mainly Christian Dogon villages. In central Mali seven Christians were abducted by Islamists between November 2020 and 2021. They reported being forced to speak in Arabic and recite Islamic prayers in an effort by their captors to force them to deny Christ.
Niger has experienced attacks not only from ISGS but also from Boko Haram. In May 2021 a church in Tillabéri was vandalised during an attack by what one eyewitness described as “a horde of terrorists who came on motorcycles”. The terrorists left five dead and two seriously injured.
In Burkina Faso the rise of extremist Islam has caused devastation, destroyed agriculture and displaced more than one million people. This, together with recurring drought and famine and the Covid pandemic that began in 2020, plunged the already poor landlocked country into a humanitarian crisis. In June 2021 four Christians were killed in a savage attack which left as many as 160 dead overall. In May 2021 terrorists struck a baptism ceremony in northern Burkina Faso, killing 15.
Africa the “centre of gravity” for IS terrorism
According to a Global Terrorism Index report published in November 2020, the “centre of gravity” for IS activity has moved from the Middle East to Africa, leading to a “surge in terrorism in many countries in the region”.
Christians in the Christian-majority Central African Republic (CAR) continue to be vulnerable to violence from Islamist armed groups such as the Séléka, despite a ceasefire agreement between the government and several rival rebel groups signed in 2017. Christians also face regular threats of violence and kidnapping from militant Muslim Fulani herdsmen; the Fulani also pose a threat to Christians in Nigeria.
In June 2021 Islamists from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) bombed a church in Beni, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), during a Sunday service injuring two women. Earlier that month a church minister was among at least 55 people killed in an ADF attack on IDP camps. In April Christian leaders in DRC warned of ADF’s strategy to “kidnap and force victims to join the Islamic faith”.
Islamists terrorise Christians in the Middle East and around the world
In the Middle East IS and other Islamists have been responsible for terrorising Christians and radicalising local Muslim communities, most notably in Iraq and Syria. Terrorist attacks by IS and linked groups also remain a threat to Christians in Libya. In 2019, Islamist militants attacked the Qasr bin Ghashir detention centre and opened fire on Christian refugees gathered for prayer, killing two and injuring up to 20.
Terrorists based in Libya have also launched attacks on Christians in neighbouring Egypt. Al-Qaeda and IS-linked Mohammad Mohammad al-Sayyid, the suspected mastermind of the bombing of several Egyptian churches, was captured by the Libyan army in April 2020. Amongst other atrocities, he is believed to have been responsible for the notorious 2017 twin suicide bombings of churches in the northern city of Tanta and Alexandria carried out by IS on Palm Sunday that claimed 46 lives.
Recent years have seen sporadic violent extremist attacks on Christians in Ethiopia. In June 2020 hundreds of Christians of many ethnicities were brutally slaughtered by members of Qeerroo (meaning “bachelors”), a male youth movement of the Oromo ethnic group. Terrorists have also launched attacks in Kenya, Somalia, and northern Mozambique, the latter now known as “the land of fear” after as many as 831 Islamist attacks since 2017 which have killed at least 2,658 and displaced around 750,000.
The IS-linked militant group, Abu Sayyaf, had been active for decades in the south of the Philippines, where Islam predominates in an archipelago that is otherwise more than 80% Christian.
Islamist attacks also occur in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population. While hostility from the Muslim community varies greatly in intensity across the country, in recent years there has been a rise in hardline Islamic ideology. Nineteen people were injured when two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside a church in Makassar, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, on Sunday 28 March 2021 during a Palm Sunday service. The two bombers, a married couple, who arrived at a side entrance of the church on a motorcycle, had been prevented from entering by a security guard.
On Easter Sunday 2019, Islamists attacked three churches along with other Christian targets in Sri Lanka, killing 267 and injuring at least 500.
4. Natural disasters
Natural disasters are not themselves an example of persecution, but they add greatly to the problems of our suffering family already living with daily discrimination and harassment or the risk of violence. Christians, already at the margins of society, are often among the most acutely affected by natural disasters of all kinds. The current pandemic, earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, floods, plagues of locusts – all have taken a terrible toll on minorities who are weak, powerless, and desperately poor due to discrimination which restricts their access to jobs and education. Sometimes they are specifically discriminated against when aid and relief are distributed.
Christians in Madagascar struck by famine
In the far south of Madagascar an elderly Christian, “Catherine”, wondered why her younger relatives had stopped appearing for their regular monthly visits. Catherine decided to investigate, making the 75km from her remote village by ox-cart to the even remoter village where her relatives lived. She found that the whole family – parents and three children – had died of starvation, just a few days before she arrived.
Southern Madagascar had not had a rainy season for the last two years when famine took hold in December 2020. The rains finally came in early 2021, but an infestation of fall armyworms – a kind of caterpillar – destroyed the maize crop. At the time of writing, people were dying every day.
Locust plagues ravage East Africa and Pakistan
At the end of January 2021 locusts invaded northern Kenya again. Arriving at harvest time, insects devoured field crops, vegetables, cattle fodder and grazing land in the affected parts of the country. This blow followed the 2020 plague of locusts, which was the worst seen in East Africa for many decades.
Thousands of Christian farming families faced food insecurity and famine in 2020 after millions of locusts caused catastrophic loss to spring crops in Sindh Province, one of the poorest rural regions of Pakistan in November 2019. On a scale almost unheard of in Pakistan, an immense swarm of the insects ravaged around 30,000 acres of land destroying both cash and subsistence crops.
The four types of pressures discussed above also interact with each other and overlap in complex ways to create four further types of pressure on Christians. An example of this is Chad, where multiple natural disasters – floods in one region along with droughts in others, as well as Covid-19 and five other deadly diseases – combined with terrorist violence from Boko Haram and growing hostility from the Muslim community to create a perfect storm of pressure and hardship for Christians who were already marginalised and poor.
The situation in Chad is replicated in many other contexts where Christians today are overwhelmed by a whole spectrum of difficulties and challenges.
5. Government sanctions
Often on top of war and conflict comes the added pressure of international government sanctions limiting trade or other restrictions. Usually it is the poorest and most vulnerable, often Christian and other minorities, in such
war-torn countries who will suffer most.
Sanctions imposed by governments can worsen the circumstances of Christians struggling under oppressive regimes or caught up in regional conflicts. Sanctions can result in severe deprivation for ordinary people at levels similar to natural disasters. At the time of writing the US government has placed sanctions on Iran that prevent humanitarian aid reaching this desperately afflicted country, including the Christian minority.
In war-ravaged Syria it is estimated that at least eleven million people, about 60% of the population, are in need of humanitarian aid. US sanctions (known as the Caesar Act) have been criticised for causing further decline and harming those already in desperate need, including Christians.
6. Social exclusion
Community pressure can mean that Christians are excluded from aid distribution after a natural disaster. Sometimes life-saving humanitarian aid is offered to Christians only on condition that they convert to the majority religion.
This type of social exclusion is rarely, if ever, due to a government decision, but is usually the decision of a local person at the end of the aid distribution chain – who is actually handing out the food. He or she may decide to omit a Christian village or to reject someone waiting in line who has a Christian name. Examples of this form of exclusion have occurred in India during the second wave of Covid-19, and to Christians among the Muslim-majority Rohingya having fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
Anti-Christian violence and regional conflict, especially when combined, create huge numbers of displaced Christians, as survivors flee to safer areas, leaving behind their homes, jobs, fields or other livelihoods, which are often burnt or destroyed by terrorists anyway. Some displaced Christians cross borders into other countries and become refugees. Many Christians have uprooted themselves and fled several times.
In Myanmar a displaced Karen Christian schoolteacher, “John” (aged 42), explained that because military violence in Karen State has raged on for at least seven decades neither he, his parents nor his grandparents have experienced peace in their lifetimes. “Everything is very uncertain, it’s very hard for me and the other teachers to plan lessons for our students. We also need to stay alert and think of the safety of our students,” said John.
Similar problems affect Christians in many parts of the world. In Iraq, the ethnic cleansing and conquest of Mosul and the Plains of Nineveh (the historic centre of Iraqi Christianity) by IS militants who occupied the region from 2014 to 2017 caused huge numbers of Christians to flee to Iraqi Kurdistan.
8. War and conflict
Government policies, international conflicts, and terrorist violence can often interact, creating situations in which Christian minorities may endure even greater pressures. Government attempts to tackle terrorist violence can also lead to internal conflict, leaving Christians caught in the middle or even as the target of terrorist retribution.
In the DRC a surge of anti-Christian violence came in the troubled north-east after the Congolese army launched a large-scale offensive against the Islamist militants in October 2019. Every time the government forces mount an operation against the Islamist group ADF, which has inflicted immense suffering on the predominantly Christian communities, civilians (Christians) are attacked by the ADF afterwards as retribution. A similar situation occurred in Kenya, where Al-Shabaab militants launched reprisals against Christians after the Kenyan government sought to tackle Al-Shabaab activity in Somalia.