2020 continued a trend of rising persecution around the world, with governments often using COVID-19 restrictions as tools of repression, Christian persecution watchdog Open Doors USA announced in its annual report.
Open Doors' 2021 report revealed two important persecution trends in 2020. The number of Christians killed has increased by 60% this year, mostly because of Islamic violence against Nigerian Christians. Secondly, anti-Christian governments around the world use COVID-19 restrictions to persecute Christians.
“This past year 2020 has been a year of uncertainty and fear. We’ve been all fighting a virus that we cannot see with the naked eye. Less known but equally as viral has been the discrimination, isolation and violence against Christians by using COVID-19 as a leverage and as justification,” Open Doors President and CEO David Curry told the conference.
In Nigeria, over 2,200 Christians were murdered by radical Islamists. This number makes up slightly less than half of the 4,761 Christians killed for their faith worldwide, according to Open Doors statistics. Most of the Christians killed in 2020 gave up their lives to extremist groups, not governments, Curry said.
“Extremists […] are emboldened by government weakened by COVID-19 restrictions, knowing that they can steal food and medical supplies from already embattled Christian communities around the world,” he said.
Violence by Islamists in Nigeria amounts to genocide, Curry said. Attacks have spilled over into neighboring countries. Across Africa, even countries with sizeable Christian majorities like Mozambique and Burkina Faso have suffered from Islamic persecution. It only takes a few extremists to commit violence against Christians.
Other persecution hotspots around the globe include China and India, Open Doors announced. In China, the Communist Party has cracked down on Christians by using surveillance technology. In the last year, it has integrated its social credit and video security system, enabling it to track its people and punish them for attending church.
In India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has encouraged persecution of Christians by sanctioning Hindu extremism, Open Doors research found. The party has told its nation that only Hindus are truly Indian, Curry told The Christian Post. Political leaders have discouraged police from responding to attacks on Christians.
“I put the responsibility at the feet of the ruling party, the BJP, which is very nationalistic.
Their message to the population has been, ‘we want India to be a Hindu nation,’” said Curry. “I have a strong belief that if most Indian citizens knew what was happening in these Christian communities they would vote for different people.”
COVID-19 restrictions have covered up persecution in many places, Curry said. In many countries, Christians lose their jobs because of COVID-19. Then, governments refuse to provide aid to believers and employers don’t hire them back. It looks like more suffering caused by COVID-19, but it’s a quiet persecution.
“In the northeast of Nigeria, Christians have been reporting only 15% of the emergency rations that others have gotten. COVID has clearly affected all of us around the world, yet for some their faith has made them more vulnerable,” he said.
Similar events have happened in India, he said.
For the first time, every country in Open Doors’ list of the top 50 persecutors has very high or extreme levels of persecution, the report said. This trend will likely continue, Curry added.
“The embedded forces that are driving these scores up, religious extremists, Hindu extremism in Nepal, Hindu extremism in India, the Islamic extremist groups which we most recognize as ISIS or al Qaeda, that’s an ideology that does not need a territory. When ISIS was conquered, that cancer has metastasized around the world. That trend is growing in strength. You also have governments now who have the ability to use surveillance to watch private behavior,” said Curry.
Christians face the most persecution worldwide because they are the largest minority faith in many countries, he said.
“The sheer number of [Christians persecuted] is significant,” he said. “You do have other faiths and we want to speak up that everybody should have the right to choose their own faith. This is about freedom of conscience.”