One in three Christians in Asia faced persecution last year, with threat levels rising in the world’s two most populous countries, a new study has found.
Global monitoring body Open Doors said its annual World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution, showed an increase of hostility in Asia over the past five years, with nearly 140 million people targeted there because of their faith in 2018.
It described the continent as the “new hotbed of persecution”, which it defines as “any hostility experienced as a result of one’s Christian faith”. This can include hostile attitudes, words and actions towards Christians, said the organisation.
While North Korea tops this year’s list for the 18th time in a row, Open Doors estimates around half of the 100 million Chinese Christians will experience some form of repression this year. It comes amid a growing crackdown on religious worship from Beijing, which has led to 100s of unofficial churches shuttered, increased surveillance of congregations and the banning of Christmas in some cities.
Henrietta Blyth, the chief executive of Open Doors UK and Ireland, told The Guardian the levels of persecution in China are “the worst it’s been in more than a decade”, adding that “alarmingly, some church leaders are saying it’s the worst since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976”.
China is expected to have the world’s largest Christian population by 2030.
The Vatican has come under intense pressure, after appearing to ignore reports of growing Christian persecution in China, to sign a provisional deal with Beijing last year aimed at softening long-standing diplomatic tensions between the nominally communist state and the Catholic Church.
India, the world’s largest democracy, entered the World Watch List top ten for the first time, driven by the rise of Hindu ultra-nationalism that has led to a spike in anti-Christian sentiment.
The South China Morning Post reports that Myanmar, home to more than four million Christians, “went up six places due to Buddhist-led sectarian repression, and Laos rose one spot but increased on the persecution scale by four points out of 100”.
Indonesia, which suffered a triple bombing of churches in May, jumped eight places, with the report citing intolerance linked to the upcoming election.
Outside the continent, in Nigeria, at least 3,700 Christians were killed for their faith, almost double the number of a year ago, “with villages completely abandoned by Christians forced to flee, as their armed attackers then moved in to settle with impunity”, reports Christian news site Premier.
Other African countries where Christians face extreme persecution at the hands of radical Islamic militias include Libya, Somalia and Egypt, where the Coptic Church has been repeatedly targeted by terrorist attacks.
Militant atheism, radical Islamism and nationalism are three basic motives for Christian persecution, says Nina Shea, the director of US think tank the Centre for Religious Freedom.
Asia, in her words, is exhibiting all three.
“There are different reasons for it in each country. It’s baffling that they have all come at once,” she said.
Last month UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt ordered an independent, global review of the persecution of Christians of all nationalities.
The Foreign Office said the review, led by the Bishop of Truro Reverend Philip Mounstephen, would “consider some tough questions and offer ambitious policy recommendations”.
The BBC says the intervention came “after an outcry over the treatment of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who faced death threats after being acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan”.
Bibi spent eight years on death row until her conviction was reversed by Pakistan’s Supreme Court last year.