As teams from 32 countries compete for the World Cup in Russia, the Open Doors ministry pointed out that seven of those countries are on its 2018 World Watch List of where it's most difficult to be a Christian.
Of the 50 countries where Christians are not free to live out their faith without the threat of persecution, according to the 2018 World Watch List, Iran is ranked number 10, Saudi Arabia at number 12, Nigeria at number 14, Egypt at number 17, Tunisia at number 30,
Mexico at number 39, and Colombia at number 49.
While the world is watching the most-watched sporting event in which these seven countries are playing football matches, only few may realise that these nations represent millions who are being persecuted due to their faith.
"In the Middle East in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Muslim converts to Christianity face extreme pressure from their communities and families," says Open Doors. "In places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, Muslims that have chosen to follow Jesus must keep their faith secret, often isolating them from believers and Christian community. Christians in the Middle East are also the targets of Islamic extremist groups, such as ISIS (Islamic State, also known as IS, ISIL or Daesh). Over the last year, more than 200 believers in Egypt have been killed for their faith by extremists."
In Egypt, the ministry adds, discrimination against Christians extends even as far as sports. "While football brings together Egyptians regardless of status, class, social background and profession, recent reports indicate that religion is still a barrier, keeping young Coptic athletes from pursuing and competing in the sport. Coptic athletes say they face religious discrimination from Muslim coaches, trainers and in football clubs spread across the country."
Even as Iran remains one of the most restrictive countries in the world for Christians and other religious minorities, with house churches not permitted and facing regular crackdowns, a court last month upheld the sentencing of four Christians who were given 10 years in prison on the charges of promoting "Zionist Christianity" and acting against national security. It included a pastor who was formerly sentenced to death.
In Nigeria, more than 400 Christians have been massacred by Fulani Islamic radical herdsmen this year, including a recent attack on Christian worshipers that killed 19, Open Doors says, adding that the Boko Haram terror group also continues its violence spree.
Earlier this month, two Christians in central Nigeria were ambushed and hacked to death by Fulani herdsmen.
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Last year, 3,066 Christians were killed, 1,252 were abducted, 1,020 were raped or sexually harassed, and 793 churches were attacked, according to the ministry.