WASHINGTON — Leading Christian persecution watchdog nongovernmental organization Open Doors USA released it’s 2020 World Watch List Wednesday, an influential annual data report that this year highlights a drastic increase in attacks against Christian buildings and the imprisonment of Christians.
The report, first launched in 1992, ranks the worst 50 countries in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians and is based on data compiled by Open Doors’ operations in 60 countries.
This year’s list names a number of repeat offenders such as North Korea, China, Iran, Somalia, and Eritrea as well as newly added countries where radical Islamic extremism wreaked havoc on Christian communities in 2019.
Open Doors rolled out the 2020 report at a briefing attended by representatives of the Trump administration, Congress, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and prominent human rights activists.
“The 2020 World Watch List will provide you with the most credible grassroots data on Christian persecution. But it is much more than that,” Open Doors USA CEO David Curry explained. “It’s going to sound the alarm.”
The report finds that about 260 million Christians experience “high levels of persecution” in the top 50 countries on the list, an increase of about 6 percent from the 2019 report.
The report also states that 9,488 “churches or Christian buildings” — or an average of 25 per day — were attacked during the 2019 reporting period (Nov. 1, 2018, to Oct. 31, 2019). By comparison, Open Doors noted in last year’s report that 1,266 churches or Christian buildings were attacked.
Also, the number of Christians detained without trial, arrested and imprisoned increased from 2,625 in the 2019 report to 3,711 in the 2020 report.
The 2020 report, however, indicates a decrease in the number of Christians killed for their faith. At least 2,983 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons during the last reporting period. That is an average of eight Christians killed per day. By comparison, an average of 11 Christians was killed per day (4,136) during Open Doors’ 2018 reporting period.
Curry told The Christian Post the drop in killings Open Doors was able to document for this year’s report was due to the Islamic terror group Boko Haram killing fewer Christians in Nigeria (No. 12).
Curry said during the news conference that Nigeria still represents the most violent country in the world for Christians as far as the organization’s data can track.
“The difference this year is primarily because, in Nigeria, Boko Haram has changed its tactic,” Curry said. “They have gone from assassination and these kinds of things to roadside assaults on Christians and kidnappings. So we have seen a jump in those kinds of things. But Boko Haram is also spreading its wings into Cameroon and into Chad but also into Burkina Faso.”
Rise of violence on sub-Saharan Africa
The report’s findings come as violent Islamic extremism spiked in sub-Saharan Africa in 2019, particularly in areas where government control is weak.
The increase has led to the closure of churches and caused hundreds of thousands to flee from their homes and villages.
One of the countries listed on the World Watch List this year that wasn’t in 2019 is Burkina Faso.
The West African country that was once considered to be relatively peaceful rose 33 spots in Open Doors’ rankings from last year and is now ranked No. 28. The northeast part of the country has been dealing with the rise of extremist violence since 2016. But attacks spread and escalated exponentially in 2019.
Estimates have suggested that over 250 people were killed by Islamic extremist groups in Burkina Faso in 2019. There were reports of several attacks on Christian churches and worshipers, including a December attack on a church service that killed at least 14.
The United Nations reported that Burkina Faso is “one of the fastest-growing displacement crises in Africa” as hundreds of thousands have fled in the face of spiraling insecurity. Nearly one-third of the Burkina Faso population is affected by the crisis.
“The government has a responsibility to protect soft targets. We know that they are going to try to attack churches,” Curry said. “They need to protect those churches and allow Christians to worship freely. Christians are afraid to go to church in the northeastern part of Burkina Faso right now. We really need the civic government to protect Christians in their communities.”
Similar countries included in the report are the Central African Republic (No. 25), which is dealing with the fighting of rebel Islamic militants who target Christians, and Mali (No. 29). Niger was also added to the World Watch List this year, ranking No. 50.
Civil war-ridden Cameroon (No. 48) was added to the World Watch List this year amid reports of attacks by radical Islamic extremists against Christians communities. Cameroon is also dealing with the spread of Boko Haram.
Locals in rebel-supporting, English-speaking regions have accused nomadic Fulani herdsmen radicals of carrying out deadly attacks against civilians after encouragement from government actors.
“As difficult as the issue has been to cover, from a religious freedom aspect, it is great to see this because most of the events [in Cameroon] have been considered to be other issues like an insurgency,” Scott Morgan, a human rights activist who has broadly covered issues in Africa, told CP in reaction to Cameroon making the World Watch List.
“The crisis started as an education issue, so it is not easy to view the Cameroon conflict as specifically a religious freedom issue,” he added. “But as we are seeing with some of the countries in the Sahel, we are starting to see that issue making people nervous here in Washington. We are reaching out to the embassies and other concerned groups and we are looking forward to doing something on that in the near future.”
Fulani violence against Christian farming communities in Nigeria continued in 2019. One human rights group estimates that at least 1,000 Nigerian Christians were killed by Fulani radicals or Boko Haram militants in 2019 while over 6,000 have been killed since 2015.
“I think it is wrong to look at [Fulani] as simply having territorial issues,” Curry said. “They have an ideology that is historically been radicalized and they have an agenda to push Christians out of these communities. The cover story that somehow these are their ancient lands and so forth doesn’t justify unlawful behavior against Christians who live there.”
The Nigerian government has long faced criticism for its inability to control the violence.
“The great tragedy of Nigeria’s ineffectual response to Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen is now parts of Cameroon and those other areas like Burkina Faso are greatly affected,” Curry said.
Who are the top 10?
The top 10 countries on the 2020 World Watch list are the same ones included in the top 10 last year.
North Korea held the top-sport on the list for the 18th consecutive year as the Kim regime continues to imprison thousands of Christians in labor camps while the underground church community continues to grow.
North Korea is followed by Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran and India, where Hindu persecution against Christians has greatly increased since the Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power in 2014.
Open Doors notes that in the Islamic Republic of Iran, at least 69 Christians were arrested during the 2019 reporting period. According to Curry, 114 Christians in Iran were arrested in the days before Christmas 2018. Curry said the arrests are a continuation of the Iranian government’s attempt to “crush” the growing house church movement.
“These are courageous people standing up against the power that exists there in that country,” Curry said. “Iran has put its full faith into persecuting Christians.”
In Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka moved from No. 46 to No. 30 on the 2020 World Watch List after suicide bombings last Easter carried out by Islamic extremists killed over 250 and injured 500 others at three churches and three hotels.
“[They were] dressed up in their Sunday best and taking their kids [to church], but they didn’t come home,” Curry said. “There are repercussions for things like that: 176 children, in that case, lost one or both parents.”
China, which has been criticized heavily for its mistreatment of various religious groups and detention of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, ranked No. 23 on the list in 2020. In 2019, China ranked No. 27.
China has imprisoned countless pastors and Christians for worshiping in unregistered house churches. According to Curry, 5,596 churches in China have been shut down, many of which are because they refuse to put up surveillance cameras in their churches.
Curry stressed in the briefing that China represents the “greatest threat” to human rights as it seeks to control the Chinese people and churches through surveillance.
“Churches must be sacred places,” he said. “If the government was monitoring you, your every move, scoring your citizenship based on how often you went to church or didn’t go to church, how would you feel? That’s what’s happening in China.”