Afghanistan replaces North Korea as most dangerous place to be a Christian

Two boys walk down the road in Afghanistan.(Photo: IMB)

Afghanistan has topped the Open Doors 2022 World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians face the worst persecution.

North Korea was number one on the list for 20 years but the devastating fallout from the Taliban takeover has pushed Afghanistan to the top spot.

Open Doors warned of Christian men "facing almost certain death" if their faith is discovered. For women and girls, the price of their faith is being married to young Taliban fighters as the "spoils of war", or being trafficked. 

The Taliban are using existing intelligence to actively track down Christians, going door-to-door to find them. Once discovered, they are often detained in order to identify more Christians. Then they are killed, Open Doors said. 

Much of the tiny, hidden Christian population of Afghanistan has now fled to rural regions or refugee camps in neighbouring countries, according to the human rights group, but many of these countries are also hostile to Christians. 

Hana Nasri, an Open Doors senior partner based in the Gulf region whose real name has been changed for security reasons said, "The withdrawal of the US troops in August represented the withdrawal of freedom. It was only 2,500 troops, it wasn't a large number, but they represented a very strong message of freedom.

"The withdrawal of these troops said to the people that the symbol of freedom was gone and it made them despair and feel hopeless."

The fall of Kabul has also emboldened Islamist extremists "worldwide", Open Doors warns.

"The rise of Afghanistan to the top of the World Watch List is deeply troubling," said Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK and Ireland.

"Apart from the incalculable suffering it represents, it sends out a very clear message to Islamic extremists everywhere: 'You can continue your brutal fight for influence, unchecked.'" 

This can be seen in the the "Talibanisation" of West Africa - especially Nigeria - and other places, where the fall of Afghanistan has given rise to "a new mood of invulnerability" among other jihadist groups who now believe that they will not face serious opposition from the West. 

"Factions like Islamic State and Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF) now see their goal of an Islamic caliphate - once thwarted in Iraq and Syria – as, once again, achievable," Blyth continued.

"The cost in human lives and misery this new-found sense of invincibility is causing, and will continue to cause, is hard to overstate."

Nigeria has moved up two places in the WWL to number 7, with 4,650 Christians killed - 79 per cent of the worldwide total.

There are fears that Mali, number 24 on the WWL, could become the "next Afghanistan" as social order continues to deteriorate. 

Open Doors said it expects to see an increase in violence in these countries as well as the Central African Republic (number 31), Burkina Faso (number 32), Niger (number 33) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (number 40). 

Open Doors has been publishing its annual World Watch List since 1993, recording levels of persecution and discrimination across the globe.

This year's list covers the period 1 Oct 2020 to 30 Sept 2021 and found that the number of Christians suffering high levels of persecution and discrimination reached 360 million during this period - an increase of 20 million on the previous year and the highest recorded since the first list was published 29 years ago. 

Recorded killings of Christians for their faith rose from 4,761 registered cases in the last WWL to 5,898 this year, with most of these occurring within Sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria especially.

The total number of churches attacked also rose from 4,488 registered cases in the 2021 WWL to 5,110 this year, while detentions and arrests increased 44 per cent from the previous report to 6,175, with 1,315 of these being in India.

Open Doors said that of the 84 million people forced to leave their homes last year, a "significant number" were Christians - what it dubbed "the refugee church". 

In Myanmar (number 12), Christians have been targeted in the latest conflict, leaving at least 200,000 internally displaced and forcing another 20,000 to flee the country. 

Many Christian internally displaced persons can be found in Iraq (number 14), Syria (number 15), Lebanon and Jordan (number 39). 

In Burkina Faso, the northern regions have been "emptied" of their Christian population and churches forced to close, says Illia Djadi, Open Doors' senior analyst on freedom of religion and belief in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Islamic extremists are taking advantage of the fragility of these states - the absence of the state and good governance, poverty, their porous borders, a lack of education and so on - and they are using these to divide the countries along ethnic and religious lines," he said.

Those forced to flee face poverty and insecurity, but for Christian women and children there is the double threat of sexual assault, rape and sexual slavery both while on their journey to safety and inside the camps. 

Open Doors also expressed continued concern about the plight of Christians in North Korea, where it said persecution reached record levels this year despite the country falling from the top of the WWL.

It blames the increase in persecution inside North Korea on a new 'anti-reactionary thought law' that has led to a rise in Christians being arrested and house churches closed.

"Arrest inevitably means imprisonment in one of the nation's brutal 're-education camps', from which few people emerge alive," Open Doors said. 

In China, which is number 17 on the list, it reports an increase in surveillance and the "authoritarian imposition of conformity" on citizens, as evidenced by legislation last May requiring that religious leaders not "undermine national unity", and that they "love the motherland, support the leadership of the Communist Party and the socialist system".

"This is enforced by the ruling party's use of pioneering technology to surveil and control its citizens. In two provinces, all official Christian churches have surveillance cameras installed," Open Doors said. 

"And this technologically fuelled authoritarianism is rapidly spreading far beyond China. Numerous other nations have seen the way this imposition of 'unity' over diversity has been rolled out by the ruling Communist Party." 

Commenting on the findings, Dr David Landrum, Director of Advocacy at Open Doors UK and Ireland, said this year's World Watch List "makes for sobering reading". 

"With emboldened Islamists, resurgent nationalism, and China developing more sophisticated forms of digital persecution, we are entering a new era of diminishing human rights," he said.

"With religious freedom providing a foundation for so many other freedoms, we desperately need to see a renewal of commitment to shoring up human rights in 2022.

"When even paying lip-service to human rights is shrinking, the promotion and protection of religious freedom is more urgent than ever."

Open Doors' 2022 World Watch List (2021 rankings in brackets)

1 Afghanistan (2)

2 North Korea (1)

3 Somalia (3)

4 Libya (4)

5 Yemen (7)

6 Eritrea (6)

7 Nigeria (9)

8 Pakistan (5)

9 Iran (8)

10 India (10)

11 Saudi Arabia (14)

12 Myanmar (18)

13 Sudan (13)

14 Iraq (11)

15 Syria (12)

16 Maldives (15)

17 China (17)

18 Qatar (29)

19 Vietnam (19)

20 Egypt (16)

21 Uzbekistan (21)

22 Algeria (24)

23 Mauritania (20)

24 Mali (28)

25 Turkmenistan (23)

26 Laos (22)

27 Morocco (27)

28 Indonesia (47)

29 Bangladesh (31)

30 Colombia (30)

31 Central African Republic (35)

32 Burkina Faso (32)

33 Niger (54)

34 Bhutan (43)

35 Tunisia (26)

36 Oman (44)

37 Cuba (51)

38 Ethiopia (36)

39 Jordan (38)

40 Congo DR (DRC) (40)

41 Mozambique (45)

42 Turkey (25)

43 Mexico (37)

44 Cameroon (42)

45 Tajikistan (33)

46 Brunei (39)

47 Kazakhstan (41)

48 Nepal (34)

49 Kuwait (48)

50 Malaysia (46)