The global coronavirus pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated underlying systemic discrimination, un-equal treatment and even persecution experienced by at least 340 million Christians around the world. That’s the conclusion of the 2021 World Watch List, the latest annual survey of countries around the world to monitor how difficult it is to live as a Christian, produced by the global charity Open Doors International. This year, for the first time ever, all top 50 countries score levels of at least “very high” persecution*; the top 12 scoring “extreme” levels of persecution, up from 11 the year before.
Beyond the top 50, four more countries also score “very high,” showing the impact of COVID-19 restrictions. Overall, 74 countries — one more than the previous year — showed extreme, very high or high levels of persecution, affecting an average of at least 1 of every 8 Christians worldwide.
The List looks behind the global headlines of unremitting violence in Nigeria, as well as of the surveillance systems used in China and India to monitor citizens for their own “protection” and “security.” It also reveals the ways in which organised criminal networks, in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Latin America, consolidate their power in the absence of state systems’ capacity to meet local needs for health provision, food, work and other daily essentials. Lack of governance and even collusion of the authorities mean, too often, there’s impunity for religiously-based violence or discrimination.
COVID-19 has been a catalyst for repression of minority Christians, who in countries from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan to Yemen and Sudan were at times denied aid; some were told it was because “your Church or your God should feed you” or even “the virus was created and/or spread by the West.”
The violent Islamist group Al Shabaab in Somalia blamed Christians for the coronavirus, announcing it was spread “by the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them.”
Sometimes, such as in an incident in Sri Lanka, coronavirus was the pretext for police to visit Christians’ homes to investigate church members and activities.
In North Korea, which tops the list for the 20th year in a row, Kim Yong Un’s sister has made her presence felt a little more. In September, she ordered the daily lesson about the Leaders’ “Greatness” for all children from nursery age upwards to increase from 30 minutes a day to 90 minutes. In the face of such extensive indoctrination, parents are often too afraid to tell even their own children about their Christian faith.
The main changes in the top 10 countries from WWL 2020 are that Nigeria has entered it – for the first time since 2015 – at no. 9, up from no. 12 last year. Yemen and Iran have both risen one place. India stays at no. 10, where it entered the top 10 for the first time in 2020, due to rising Hindu nationalism where ‘to be Indian is to be Hindu’.
Nigeria again scores the maximum for violence (as in previous years), due mainly to armed Fulani herdsmen laying waste to several hundred Christian villages, as well as to Boko Haram and a range of criminal groups who continue to kill, kidnap and rape with impunity.
World Watch Monitor
Barney Zwartz is a member of the Presbyterian Church of Australia National Journal Committee and a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity