Open Doors, which monitors Christian persecution and supports victims all over the world, has released its 2018 World Watch List of where Christians are most in danger. It uses a careful system of points to grade each country, taking into account not just violence against Christians but low-level discrimination as well.
There are a few surprises this year – Afghanistan is only just behind North Korea, which remains at the head of the list, but Nepal, a new entrant, has jumped in at number 25.
But what drives this hostility to Christians, and what does it look like on the ground?
According to Lisa Pearce, chief executive of Open Doors UK and Ireland, one of the factors – alongside hostility from groups like Islamic State – has more to do with identity than ideology.
She tells Christian Today: 'In some countries, for example Afghanistan – where the situation is extremely serious – your first identity is with your tribe, alongside your religion. When you turn from your tribe, you're turning away from your communty and rejecting everyone who's invested in you to that point.
'There's a religious association that we can't really grasp in this country. It's aligned to your tribe or nationality, and when they turn away it's a fundamental rejection of those around them.'
She instances new entrant Nepal and India, where a right-wing nationalist party, the BJP, holds sway. 'To be Indian, or to be Nepalese, is to be Hindu. When the country's leaders are behaving like that, it gives local communities the opportunity to behave like that too.' Pearce recalls a man she met on a visit to India who became a Christian: he and his family had to leave his village and no one would employ him.
And while it's incidents of violence where Christians are injured or murdered that make the headlines, she says, the lower-level discrimination Christians face daily can have severe consequences. There can be verbal abuse, lack of access to employment, or a Christian might lose out on promotion to a senior role. In rural settings access to the village well might be prohibited – and even to a graveyard, resulting in Christians having to carry their dead for miles before they can find a place to be buried.
The psychological cost of this stigmatisation is severe. 'Part of our job is to help support people and help them see that their identity comes from who God says they are, not from who their communities or their leaders say they are.
'I've met families in Egypt who race a real struggle. At school, their children pretend to be Muslim, then they come home and they're Christian. In a lot of households, children's mental health is under pressure.'
She tells a heartbreaking story of a little boy in a south central Asian country on his first day at school. His parents were florists and he arrived with a bucket of flowers for the teacher. The head called him to the front of the class and he thought he was going to be thanked for the flowers; instead the head tipped them out and stamped on them, saying: 'This boy is a Christian; no one is to speak to him.'
'What must it be like to know as a parent that it's your faithfulness that is making your child go through that?'
Identifying the problem of Christian persecution is one thing. What can be done to stop it?
It's creeping up the agenda of international agencies and the UK government, Pearce says. 'They're taking it more seriously than they used to. We've worked hard to establish good relationships and there is an increasing awareness of the problem.'
However, there's a need for greater religious literacy. 'I sometimes feel that there is a sense of feeling overwhelmed – knowing there's a problem, but feeling they don't have a right to get involved in religion because they aren't religious themselves. Here, religion is private – the government has not fully grasped how fundamental it is in a geopolitical context, in other parts of the world. But there is a willingness to engage. It's a very difficult job and I appreciate their time and effort – I'd love to build on it.'
As well as Open Doors' advocacy role with government, however, Pearce's passion is to get the church involved in speaking up for and supporting those in need – and she's driven by what she has seen herself as she's travelled the world meeting Christians who've suffered.
She tells Christian Today: 'I feel like weeping, and sometimes I do. I feel so frustrated at the degradation people experience. I feel angry and I have to give that to God, because I get frustrated.'
She's adamant that care for persecuted Christians isn't an option for believers. 'It's not a special interest. We're part of the body of Christ. When a fellow believer is in prison, it's as though you are in prison yourself. I want to wake up the world and get everyone hearing about this and sharing it with the church.
'The scale is shocking and it's getting worse. There are 200 million Christians in the top 50 countries at risk. That should matter to us.'
Christians, she says, can pray, write to their MPs and connect with Open Doors or similar organisations to be equipped with stories of persecution – and give.
'We provide Bibles, safe houses, lawyers, shelter, support for woman whose husbands have been killed – the need is bigger than we can meet.'
And she concludes on a note of hope.
'What never ceases to encourage and amaze me is that in so many countries where Christians are under pressure, the church is also growing. In North Korea they have a saying that when you choose Jesus you choose to die – but the church in North Korea is growing, at some speed.
'That tells me something about what those Christians see about who Jesus is and what he is worth.'
And she's encouraged too by the way the church here is engaging more. 'I really believe connecting our persecuted family is a gift. I really believe our faith will grow if we do that.'
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