Open Doors USA released on Wednesday its annual list of top 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted. Two countries were taken off the list and two were put on this year.
Bahrain, a tiny Muslim-majority nation in the Persian Gulf, earned its way off the 2019 World Watch List after being ranked in previous editions because of religious freedom and human rights concerns.
In previous editions, the leading international Christian persecution watchdog called out the “relatively religiously tolerant” kingdom of Bahrain for placing inhibitions on the freedom to assembly, prohibitions against Christians proselytizing and restrictions to religious expression.
In a press conference Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Open Doors USA CEO David Curry had nothing but praise for Bahrain and stated that the country now represents the hope for change that drives the purpose of the World Watch List.
“There is action to be taken. There are things that governments can do — our government here in the United States and elsewhere — to defend the core beliefs of freedom of conscience and religious expression,” Curry told the crowd gathered at the Heritage Foundation Capitol Hill office. “There are signs of hope. Bahrain, you might notice, has dropped out of the top 50 of the World Watch List.”
“I want to commend them,” he added. “Thank you to the royal leaders and the royal family of Bahrain and the government there for what they have done in the last several years. I think it could be a model within that region for how it could be done.”
In Bahrain, Curry said, there are Christians, Jews and Hindus and people of various other faiths worshiping “more freely than ever before.”
“It is improving their entire society,” he explained.
Johnnie Moore, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom who has traveled to Bahrain in the last couple of years, told The Christian Post that the removal of Bahrain from the World Watch List is a sign that Bahrain is “getting the credit they are due.”
“In terms of Bahraini culture, they have led the way in this area for centuries,” Moore, a religious freedom advocate and an evangelical communications executive, explained. “There is a 200-year-old Hindu temple in Bahrain. As you walk up to that temple, they are selling Hindu gods on the streets in this Arab Muslim country. It is an extraordinary thing.”
Moore added that the country is home to the oldest synagogue in the region and is also home to thriving Coptic, Catholic and evangelical and Anglican churches as well as a thriving Buddhist community.
“When you look at the Bahraini culture, it has always been a culture that has welcomed the other throughout the centuries. It is part of their DNA,” Moore stressed.
He noted that the removal of Bahrain from the list “reflects that they are doing a better job of telling their story” of tolerance.
When asked by The Christian Post what steps the Bahraini government has taken to be removed from the World Watch List, Curry explained that the Bahrain royal family has done a better job of including all minority groups in discussions in the public square.
“All of the countries here on the list have minority religions within them but they are often pushed to the side and they are not included in these conversations. I think the first thing has been that they have been talking with these Christian leaders and others, Jewish leaders, and trying to protect the space for people to worship,” Curry said. “I think what Bahrain has done is they have created a safe place for people to worship and that is critically important.”
At the first-ever State Department Ministerial on Religious Freedom last July in Washington, a Bahraini official announced the creation of an ambassador-at-large position for peaceful coexistence and religious freedom within its ministry of foreign affairs.
In July 2017, Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa authored and signed “The Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration.” The declaration calls for an end to religious extremism and greater religious tolerance in the Middle East and other places around the globe.
In 2018, the king established the King Hamad World Centre for Peaceful Co-Existence. The center is housed in a large building in the center of the capital city, Manama.
In 2008, Bahrain became the first Arab nation to assign a Jew to serve as an ambassador to the United States.
“Bahrain is modeling for the region that you can have both,” Moore said. “You can be a distinctly majority-Muslim country in the gulf and be an entirely welcoming society that doesn’t see the freedom of worship or belief as a threat but rather an asset.”
Even on the gender equality front, progress is being made in Bahrain. In December, a woman for the first time became head of the Bahraini parliament.
Bahrain is, however, still listed as a “Tier 2” country of concern for religious freedom by USCIRF.
Another nation that was dropped from the World Watch List in 2019 is the East African nation of Djibouti, which was ranked last year as the 50th-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution while Bahrain ranked 48th.
Newly added to the World Watch List in 2019 are the Russian Federation (41) and Morocco (35). Though they were not on the 2018 list, they had made the list in previous years.
“Christians in parts of Russia dominated by Islam report the highest level of persecution,” an Open Doors fact sheet on Russia explains. “Additionally, an increase in state control has resulted in more tight controls for any Christian denomination seen as non-Russian, which means evangelical churches are often regarded with suspicion. The government continues to pass more restrictive legislation on religious freedom.”
Moore told CP that evangelicals and other non-Orthodox believers like Jehovah's Witnesses continue to face “incomprehensible marginalization and persecution from the government” in Russia as a law passed in 2016 has restricted evangelism and missionary activities.
“What does surprise me is that a country whose Christians were so horrifically persecuted for so long over the last century that their memories would fail them now when they have more freedom of worship now than they did in the Soviet Era,” Moore said. “It feels like certain leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church are ... in collusion with the government in suppressing certain other groups.”