One in seven of the world’s Christians – some 360 million people – face a “high or extreme” daily risk of persecution, according to the newly released 2023 World Watch Monitor by advocacy group Open Doors.
That figure is the highest number so far, plus there is a record level of risk. The world is increasingly dangerous for believers.
This dismaying truth often surprises believers and non-believers alike in the West, who tend to think of Christianity as a Western religion practised mostly by white Europeans. In fact, Europe is home to about a quarter of the globe’s 2.3 billion Christians, with Africa now having the most, followed by the Americas.
The 30th edition of the authoritative World Watch Monitor restores North Korea as worst persecutor (with a worst-ever score of 98), where it had been from 2002 until 2022, when Afghanistan temporarily replaced it. It is followed by Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan in the top 10.
Of course, not only Christians face persecution for their faith. In various parts of the world people of almost any faith – Muslims, Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, tribal religions – and atheists are in peril as well. But Christians are by far the greatest number at risk.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the monitor says, entire countries are at risk of collapse into extremist violence, while the “China effect” – the use of surveillance technology to boost intimidation and persecution – is spreading to many other nations.
Persecution does not often dissuade people; to the contrary, it deepens their faith.
The monitor defines persecution as violence and imprisonment plus a range of hostile pressures, measured in six categories. This is of an entirely different order from the “persecution” some Christians in the West believe they face. As such, Western Christians risk trivialising the sufferings of their fellow believers globally.
It is true that Christians in the West face more pressure and hostility than a decade ago, but they are not led in orange jumpsuits to a beach where their throats are cut; they are not dragged into the street and beaten while their houses are burnt to the ground; they are not held down while any religious tattoo is burned off with acid; they are not jailed or forcibly “re-educated” because they met to worship; and they do not face systematic inequality at law.
But here is the unexpected fact that oppressors overlook. Persecution does not often dissuade people; to the contrary, it deepens their faith. It forces their religion to be utterly central in their life, deepens its importance to them spiritually and psychologically, and, paradoxically, often brings joy.
Further, even if faith is driven underground, examples of courage inspire. The second-century church father Tertullian rightly observed that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.