11 January 2017

WORLD WATCH LIST LAUNCH 2017

Biggest rise in persecution of Christians is in India, Bangladesh and surrounding countries according to 2017 Open Doors World Watch List.

Religious nationalism is sweeping the globe according to figures released today as part of the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List, the annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. "Persecution levels have been rising rapidly across Asia and the Indian subcontinent, driven by extreme religious nationalism which is often tacitly condoned, and sometimes actively encouraged, by local and national governments," said Lisa Pearce, CEO of Open Doors UK & Ireland.

India and Bangladesh - an emerging trend

North Korea, which has topped the list for over 15 years, remains the most dangerous place to be a Christian with an estimated 70,000 Christians imprisoned inside North Korean labour camps. However, persecution of Christians has seen the biggest rises in Laos, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam. Lisa Pearce commented: "This year there is a clear pattern of rising religious intolerance across the Indian sub-continent which affects many millions of Christians. Religious nationalists attempt to forcibly convert people to the dominant faith of their nation, often turning to violence when community discrimination and non-violent oppression do not succeed in imposing their religious beliefs on minority Christians. These Christians are often from the lower castes, such as the Dalits in India who face huge socio-economic problems - they are an easy target for extreme nationalists."

Emerging superpower India, the second most populous country in the world, has seen persecution levels rise dramatically for the fourth year running, rising to number 15 this year from a ranking of 31 in 2013. Open Doors researchers have recorded over 15 violent attacks on Christians every week - this is a conservative figure as many victims are too scared to report attacks. Persecution affects millions of Indian Christians, people like Jitendra and his father. A Hindu convert, Jitendra's neighbours tried to force him and his family to return to Hinduism by harassing his mother at the market and building an open drain in front of their house, filling it with rotten waste and faeces. When those non-violent attempts failed, they assaulted his mother and father before turning on him and beating him so severely that his leg was broken. Forced to flee from the village, the family was helped by emergency relief teams funded by Open Doors who provided them with medical assistance, accommodation in emergency safe houses and trauma support. These volunteer teams are in place all over India.

With the exception of China, all the countries surrounding India have seen rises in persecution this year - rankings have changed as follows:

Pakistan is now number 4 (88 points), was 6 in 2016 (87 points)

India is now number 15 (73 points), was 17 in 2016 (68 points)

Bangladesh is now number 26 (63 points), was 35 in 2016 (57 points)

Bhutan is now number 30 (61 points), was 38 in 2016 (56 points)

Sri Lanka is now number 45 (55 points), was not on list in 2016

Afghanistan has risen to number 3 (up from 4 in 2016)

China has seen a fall from 33 to 39, a drop in one point in a country that has a diverse approach to religious practices. Some areas have seen liberalisation, others a crackdown such as the demolition of crosses on top of churches.

Nepal narrowly missed being in the top 50 but the situation has become worse for Christians.

The 2017 World Watch List top ten is as follows. Countries in red have seen a rise in persecution levels.

WWL position 2017CountryPoints 2017WWL position 2016Points 2016
1North Korea92192
2Somalia91787
3Afghanistan89488
4Pakistan88687
5Sudan87884
6Syria86 5 87
7Iraq86 2 90
8Iran85 9 83
9Yemen85 11 78
10Eritrea82 3 89

These figures show that persecution levels in Somalia are nearly as high as in North Korea, where to be a Christian is almost impossible. Yet thousands of Christians continue to worship, keeping their faith secret. Islam is Somalia's state religion and all Christians come from a Muslim background - despite conversion being illegal and punishable by death. They face persecution from Islamic extremists as well as from family and friends. Lisa Pearce commented: "If a Christian is discovered in Somalia, they are unlikely to live to see another day. Just the suspicion that someone is a Christian can lead to a rushed beheading."

Islamic fundamentalism coupled with war and unrest

Islamic fundamentalism is rising most sharply in sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, more people are killed for their Christian faith than anywhere else in the world. As extremist Islam spreads across Africa westwards from Somalia, almost every country from Kenya upwards is affected.

Mali has seen a dramatic rise in persecution, rising twelve places in the ranking to 32 in 2017, up from 44 in 2016. Neighbouring Mauritania, an Islamic Republic where Christianity is forbidden, has also joined the ranking at 47 in 2017 from outside the top 50 in 2016 (it would have ranked 55 if the World Watch List extended this far).

Somalia (up 5 places and 4 points to number 2) and Sudan (up 3 places and 4 points to number 5) also saw sharp rises in levels of persecution last year with large numbers of refugees in countries torn apart by war and unrest. These unstable areas allow intolerance and persecution to flourish, resulting in large areas where people do not dare to profess their Christian faith.

Persecuted and unable to return home

An increasingly common form of religious persecution is the deliberate sabotage of homes, churches and villages by extremists aiming to eradicate Christianity from a particular area. This is widely seen in northern Nigeria, Syria and Iraq where, after people have been driven out, homes have been ransacked, churches destroyed and village water sources poisoned. In Nigeria, cattle are deliberately stolen and crops burned to make returning all but impossible unless significant aid and investment is pumped into the area of need. In addition, frequent so called 'lone-wolf' attacks by extremists make those equipped to effect change and rebuild fearful for their safety and the safety of their families.

Syria (5 in 2016 to 6 in 2017) and Iraq (2 in 2016 to 7 in 2017) have seen a drop in the rankings. This is because many Christians have already fled the main source of violence - Islamic State. However, the high points score reflects that the situation is still dire for Christians. Aleppo was home to 400,000 Christians at the start of the civil war - now Open Doors estimates that less than 60,000 Christians remain with families still leaving every day.

The few Christians who stay are largely in Christian enclaves; outside these areas they are targets for radical extremists. In Iraq, Christians are preparing to return to villages that have been liberated if and when it becomes safe for them to do so. Working parties are planning to rebuild once the damage and danger is assessed in areas like the Nineveh plains. Lisa Pearce adds: "It's a complex situation - Christians from Mosul and the surrounding villages are very fearful of returning home as many have memories of their neighbours betraying them to so called Islamic State."

The Open Doors 2017 World Watch List detailing the 50 countries with the worst persecution record will be discussed at the House of Commons this afternoon (11 January 2017) at a cross-party launch hosted by Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP.

In comments to the House of Commons made in November 2016, the Prime Minister Theresa May said: "We have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech, and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of."

Persecution in each country is recorded by Open Doors using a point system.

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Note to editors:

For more information contact Open Doors press office on 01993 777377 or 07484000441

Press and Parliamentary Launch 4-5 pm 11 January 2017 at the Terrace Pavilion, House of Commons, RSVP Taniac@opendoorsuk.org

AVAILABLE INTERVIEWEES:

Lisa Pearce, CEO - Open Doors UK and Ireland visited Sudan in 2016, has just returned from Indonesia, visited Garissa, Kenya in 2015 and has travelled frequently to Iraq and Lebanon to meet with victims of persecution.

Dr. Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, Chief Strategy Officer - Open Doors International - regular visitor to Pakistan

Pastor Aminu is a Nigerian church leader from Yobe, Borno State, who has experienced the violent persecution of his congregation by Boko Haram extremists. Many of his congregation have been killed and others have fled the area.

VIDEO FOOTAGE IS AVAILABLE - PLEASE CONTACT THE PRESS OFFICE.

The Open Doors World Watch Map is attached as well as a map showing Christian persecution hotspots. PDFs are available of Freedom of Religion and the Persecution of Christians: The Open Doors Report 2017 . PDFs are also available with information on each country in the 2017 World Watch List

ABOUT THE OPEN DOORS WORLD WATCH LIST

The Open Doors World Watch List is compiled annually by Open Doors World Watch Unit. It is a list of the 50 countries in the world where persecution is most severe for Christians. Open Doors’ research methods and results have been independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom. The 2017 World Watch List accounts for the 12 months ending 31 October 2016.

The Open Doors World Watch List is the only instrument that measures the persecution of Christians annually. Its methodology is designed to track how the exercise of the Christian faith gets squeezed in five distinct areas - private life, family life, community life, national life and church life - as well as covering violence such as rapes, killings and church burnings. Dr. Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, Director of Research at Open Doors International, explains why: "It is possible for persecution to be so intense in all areas of life that Christians fear to witness at all. You may find very low levels of violence as a result, because incidents of violent persecution are often a response to acts of witness."

Violent incidents - World Watch Research for Open Doors records the following as violent incidents: killings, physical aggression, threats, destruction of churches or other Christian buildings (burnings), attempts to destroy churches or Christian buildings, closed or hindered churches or Christian buildings, house expulsion or destruction (displacements), kidnap for ransom or intimidation (abduction), sexual assault (rape, forced marriages, etc.), arrests, forced to leave the country or displaced.

Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for 60 years. Last year it raised approximately $70 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources, in over 60 countries. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised over £11 million. Useful information on apostasy and blasphemy can be found here http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/29/which-countries-still-outlaw-apostasy-and-blasphemy/