The Prince of Wales has described threats to Christians in the Middle East as “an indescribable tragedy”.
According to David Alton, a crossbench peer who campaigns on religious freedom, “some assessments claim that as many as 200 million Christians in over 60 countries around the world face some degree of restriction, discrimination or outright persecution”. That is about one in 10 of the 2.2 billion Christians in the world. Christianity remains the faith with the most adherents.
“Whatever the real figures the scale is enormous. From Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt to North Korea, China, Vietnam and Laos, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, from Cuba, Colombia and Mexico to Eritrea, Nigeria and Sudan, Christians face serious violations of religious freedom,” Alton said. Persecution ranged from murder, rape and torture to repressive laws, discrimination and social exclusion.
One consequence was “a form of religio-ethnic cleansing of Christian communities”, said John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a Catholic campaign group that monitors persecution. “The persecution of Christians is at a level we’ve not seen for many, many years and the main impact is the migration of Christian people. There are huge swaths of the world which are now experiencing a very sharp decline in the number of Christians.”
In the past 15 months, a number of egregious attacks have highlighted the targeting of Christians by Islamic extremists in the Middle East and Africa. They include:
• the abduction of more than 270 Nigerian schoolgirls;
• the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya, and other attacks by Isis militants in Iraq and Syria;
• the killing of 147 people on a university campus in Garissa, northern Kenya.
In addition, a heavily pregnant woman, Meriam Ibrahim, was sentenced to death in Sudan for alleged apostasy, triggering worldwide protests. She was later allowed to leave the country.
But monitoring groups say the persecution of Christians goes far beyond high-profile cases. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians face harassment in 102 countries – more than any other religion. The US government advisory body the Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), recommended this year that eight countries – the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam – be added to the State Department’s existing list of nine “countries of particular concern”.
The 2014 report on religious freedom in the world by ACNsaid conditions had deteriorated in 55 countries, and significantly so in six countries: Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria. Although Muslims “also face terrible and systematic persecution … and Jewish communities have also suffered increased threats and violence”, Christians were by far the most persecuted faith group, the report said.
Open Doors, a global organisation monitoring Christian persecution, conservatively estimates that 4,344 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons in 12 months up to November 2014, and 1,062 churches were attacked. It says persecution increased in 24 countries last year, with Kenya, Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria entering the top 10 of its country-by-country league table. North Korea has headed the list for the past 13 years; up to 70,000 Christians are held in gulags, with “tens of thousands of people banished, arrested, tortured and/or killed”, it says.
In general, persecution of Christians is increasing, “and the rate of increase is accelerating”, said Lisa Pearce, chief executive of Open Doors UK and Ireland. The nature of persecution was also changing, she added. “It used to mean several years in a forced labour camp. Now it means watching your loved ones being beheaded.”