Afghanistan has moved to the top of the list of countries where Christians suffer the most persecution for their faith, overtaking North Korea for the first time in more than two decades.
The 2022 World Watch List, compiled by Open Doors USA, a missions organization that works in the world’s most oppressive regions to empower and equip persecuted Christians, was released today (Jan. 19).
The shift in the top spot doesn’t mean the situation for Christians in North Korea has gotten better, said David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors, only that Afghanistan has gotten worse.
“You’re going to be killed in North Korea for being a Christian. You’re going to be killed in Afghanistan for being a Christian,” Curry said.
Paul, an Afghan believer and one of the last refugees to leave Afghanistan, described the situation in his country as “very dangerous” for believers.
“If you share [your faith,] maybe 5% of people they accept it, 95% maybe they will turn you to Taliban,” he said. “That’s the fact in Afghanistan now.”
Long known for violence against anyone outside the Islamic faith, the Taliban took over the Afghan government Aug. 15, 2021. Christian converts are seen as traitors for leaving Islam, enemies of their religion, their state and their communities who deserve death. The Taliban now has the means to target Afghan Christians, almost all of whom are converts from Islam.
Most expatriate Christians have left the country, though Open Doors estimates there are a few thousand Christian converts who remain. Many Afghan Christians are thought to be in hiding.
As the Taliban consolidates its power throughout the country, the situation for these believers will grow increasingly challenging, Open Doors reports. An already deadly situation is only growing worse, Curry said.
The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan has galvanized Islamic extremism around the globe, Curry said.
“Today, religious extremists and the governments they control or influence lead the World Watch List,” he said. “Extremism and tribalism are skyrocketing and so are the related incidents of harassment against Christians.
“Nine of the top 10 countries on the World Watch List are run or influenced by radical Islamists or Hindu extremists. Only North Korea, No. 2, is the exception and it is run by a murderous dictator with a communist ideology. We must examine the causes and conditions highlighted on the World Watch List so that we can understand how intolerance is growing and spreading and also how we can stand and advocate for religious freedom.”
The increase in Islamic extremism is especially dangerous for women, Curry noted.
Christian women are “the most vulnerable group in the world,” he said.
In Afghanistan, the rights and protections for women have dramatically decreased since the Taliban took over. In North Korea, Christians who aren’t killed upon discovery of their faith are usually deported, along with their families, to labor camps as political criminals, Open Doors reports.
In the camps, female prisoners are especially vulnerable to sexual violence and rape. An estimated 80% of all defectors from North Korea are women, and many who defect to bordering China are subject to human trafficking, the report states.
Opposition to the Bible is strong in many of the countries on the World Watch List. In North Korea, the new “anti-reactionary thought law” bans the Bible and has led to an increase in the number of Christians arrested and the number of house churches closed. In China, No. 17 on this year’s list, new laws are being passed to restrict the teachings of Jesus and ban Christian Bibles and literature online. Chinese officials have even edited Bibles to match communist teachings — an “aggression most grave,” Curry said.
“What that means in a practical way is that soon a hundred million followers of Jesus in China will be subjected to Bibles that have key elements removed or changed because they conflict with communist dogma,” he said.
China’s continued suppression of the free expression of Christian faith, as well as the oppression of Uyghur Muslims, should be a concern to U.S. believers, Curry said.
He urges American consumers to consider how their purchases and even their support of the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Beijing in February might express implicit support of China and its government.
Curry also urged U.S. officials to put Nigeria back on the list of Countries of Particular Concern, a designation from the State Department that highlights severe violators of religious freedom.
The growing violence there is crossing borders throughout the Sahel region of the African continent, now the “epicenter of jihadi violence against Christians,” Curry said.
Violence in the middle band of the African continent “has crossed every border and become a larger regional issue,” he said. “Burkina Faso was not even on the world watch list a few years ago. Now it’s No. 32 and rising; Mali is No. 24; Niger, No. 33; Cameroon, No. 44 — all countries, affected in that Sahel region of Africa.
Release International, another Christian ministry working through local church partners in several countries where persecution is high, noted that in Burkina Faso, jihadists have targeted Christians in the north of the country, forcing churches to close and meet in secret.
“Attacks ranged from bombings, killings, kidnappings and school burnings to assault on religious leaders and places of worship,” the organization said in a statement earlier this month. “Pressure in the region is likely to continue in the coming year, particularly following the drawdown of French troops in the area.”
Similarly, Qatar rose 11 spots on Open Doors 2022 list because its government has forced churches to remain shut even after other faith communities were allowed to reopen following the lifting of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
By revealing threats to the global Christian community, including surveillance technology, violence, harassment and oppression, the 2022 World Watch List offers believers ways to pray for and support their persecuted brothers and sisters, Curry said.
“We need people of faith and nations who honor freedom of expression, freedom of religion and free speech to share and discuss this World Watch List. Share it on social media, in your churches. Discuss it in your parliaments and your places of Congress.”
There is hope, despite the bad news, Curry said. He quoted Paul, the Afghan refugee, who said he wants Americans to know the “love of Jesus [is] working in Afghanistan.”
In many places, Curry said, “the church is still growing, despite persecution.”
“Although the church is getting pressured in China, for example, it’s maturing. People are taking more active leadership over the discipleship of their families. People are treasuring Scripture more, even when it’s illegal. People are loving and caring for each other even without the government approval to do.
“So in pandemics, in economic deprivation … there’s hope — even in great darkness.
To see the full 2022 World Watch List and download a free 52-week prayer guide based on the list, click here.