Is Christian persecution on the rise?
The last 20 years have seen a dramatic increase in persecution of Christians, including discrimination, harassment and intimidation, but especially in terms of physical violence.
Some countries, where Christians lived relatively peaceably a generation ago, have disintegrated into an all-out religious cleansing of Christians. In others, the low-level violence that was already present has intensified. Christians have their property looted; their churches, houses, businesses or fields torched; are forced from their homes; suffer physical assault and injury. They may be arrested, imprisoned, tortured, even executed.
Sources of anti-Christian violence
A high number of governments continue to be sources of anti-Christian violence, just as they have during the last two decades. Authorities in Iran, for example, continue to imprison and torture believers, especially those from a Muslim background.
The authorities in North Korea – for many years cited as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian – have become even harsher. It is now thought that the number of Christians abused, tortured and worked to death in labour camps for their faith could be as high as 100,000.
The sources which are fuelling the increase are primarily community violence and terrorism. Terrorism, especially, has seen rapid acceleration in the last five years.
Why is this happening?
The upsurge in anti-Christian violence that is taking place today has its roots in long-term changes over decades.
One important trend is that religion is increasingly mixed up with national identity. People feel that their own cultural particularities are under threat and must be protected. They argue that only someone who belongs to the majority religion can be a proper citizen of the country. As a consequence, they consider Christians to be traitors and want to purify their country from Christianity.
This is happening widely across the Muslim-majority world, but also with some other religions.
In India, the Hindutva movement within Hinduism argues that every Indian must belong to a religion which has originated in India This view has become increasingly popular and is now a dominant force in Indian politics. Mob attacks on pastors and members of their congregations, with attempts to force them to convert to Hinduism, have increased greatly, so much so that there was an average of one incident of violence against India’s Christians for every day in 2015. This figure seems set to continue, if not worsen, in 2016.
There has been a similar move by Buddhist activists in Sri Lanka who strive for Buddhism to have the foremost place. They have carried out numerous attacks, especially on churches and church leaders. A human rights organisation, which recorded 52 attacks on Christians in 2012, saw that figure almost double in 2013 to 103.
Another significant trend that is driving the violence, especially in Islamic contexts, is that many people are moving away from a secular identity to a religious identity, sadly, one that is increasingly extreme.
After gaining independence from colonialism, many Muslim-majority countries tried out various forms of government, following socialist or Arab-nationalist ideologies. But by the 1970s a growing number of young Muslims and intellectuals felt that these borrowed ideologies had failed the Muslim world. They returned to a traditional and literal application of Islamic teaching looking for answers within their own historical and religious tradition, and especially searching for the lost key to political and military power.
Christian minorities in these countries quickly became more marginalised and attacks against them became more frequent. In places such as Egypt, Pakistan, Northern and Middle Belt Nigeria, and recently also Tanzania, communal riots stirred up against Christians became increasingly frequent.
Christian women in Egypt and Pakistan have long been vulnerable to kidnap by Muslims, followed by forcible marriage and conversion. But the number of such cases has increased. In Egypt it was reported that in little more than two years since January 2011 over 500 Christian women and girls had been abducted.
One of the most extreme expressions of this identification with religion is terrorism. This past generation has seen the birth and ascent of many Islamist groups such Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and Islamic State.
Groups like these are responsible for the addition of six of the eight newly marked countries on the world map, countries where Christians could still live in relative safety in 1996 but are now experiencing high levels of aggression. Social media have also allowed religious extremists to push their message beyond geographical boundaries, putting Christian minorities in almost every Muslim-majority context at risk.
The deadliest, Boko Haram, has been carrying out brutal attacks on churches, Christian villages, moderate Muslims, security forces and Western-style educational establishments in Western Africa since it started its military campaign in Nigeria in 2009. Their violence spilled over into once-peaceful Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Over the last two years it has attacked more churches and killed more Christians than any other Islamist terrorist group or government in the world.
In East Africa Al Shabaab wants to establish a radical Islamic state in the region. Since seizing control of central and southern Somalia, the group, which has said its intention is “to get rid of the barbaric and non-Islamic culture in the country”, has killed dozens of Christians there.
Al Shabaab violence has also spread to once-peaceful Kenya where it is estimated that in the two years up to the summer 2015 around 500 people, mainly Christians and Kenyans from the Christian-majority south of the country, have been killed in Islamist attacks.
In the Middle East, following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the “Arab Spring” in 2011, terrorist groups such as Islamic State have filled the power vacuum created by the collapse of authoritarian regimes which had previously protected Christians and other minority groups.
These groups now threaten to completely destroy the historical Christian presence in the Middle East which has survived for 2,000 years. In Iraq, the Christian population has dwindled from 1.5 million in 1990 and is now estimated to be as low as 250,000 to 300,000.
The Iraqi Defence Minister reported in August 2015 that Islamic State had killed 2,000 Iraqis in the largely Christian Nineveh Plains between January and August 2015. Up to 200,000 fled to save their lives. Many Christian women and girls were sold as slaves by Islamic State alongside Yazidi women and girls.
As Christians flee from violent situations such as the ones described above, they are again exposed and vulnerable to more violence.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is the world’s leading expert on the persecuted church and founder of Barnabas Fund.