Last Christmas, terrorist group ISWAP (Islamic State West African Province) murdered five Christian men in Nigeria, where more people have died for their faith than anywhere else in the world, according to the Open Doors 2021 World Watch List. Photo from Open Doors USA's Faceook page.

Last Christmas, terrorist group ISWAP murdered five Christian men in Nigeria, where more people have died for their faith than anywhere else in the world, according to the Open Doors 2021 World Watch List. Photo from Open Doors USA's Facebook page.

Persecution against Christians reached an all-time high in the past year, with more than 340 million Christians, up from 260 million the previous year, facing persecution and discrimination for their faith.

That is 1 in 8 Christians worldwide, according to the Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List, an investigative research and annual report on Christian persecution released last week.

More than 340 million Christians, up from 260 million last year, face persecution and discrimination for their faith.

The list, which is in its 29th year, ranks the top 50 countries where Christian persecution is at its worst. 

Countries are ranked by the severity of persecution, calculated by analysing the level of violent persecution and the pressure experienced in five spheres of life: Private life, family life, community life, national life and church life.

Put together by data from field workers in over 60 countries and external experts, the 2021 report tracks the period from November 1, 2019 to October 31, 2020.

In its report, Open Doors lists three trends, worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, that have driven the heightened persecution.

1. Exacerbated discrimination

Many Christians, already shunned in their countries, have reported being further denied aid and employment during the pandemic.

Of the 100,000 Christians in India who received aid from Open Doors, 80% reported to researchers that they were dismissed from food distribution points. India ranks 10th on the World Watch List.

“Sometimes, this denial was at the hands of government officials, but more often, it was from village heads, committees or other local leaders. Some Christians even reported that their food ration cards were torn up or waved away,” the report said.

2. Intensified vulnerability

Many Christians in countries hostile to the Gospel lose all family, tribe and community support when they convert. As such, those who have lost their jobs in the pandemic have no support system to fall back on, said Open Doors.

Many Christians, already shunned in their countries, have reported being further denied aid in the pandemic.

To make matters worse, most converts said that nationwide quarantines have locked them in with those most antagonistic to their faith.

“We have also received reports that the kidnapping, forcible conversion and forced marriage of women and girls increased during the pandemic because of increased vulnerability,” the report said.

3. Increased surveillance

In China, which ranks 17 on the World Watch List, the increased surveillance meant for contact tracing has greatly impacted Christians who want to practise their faith, the report said.

“China maintains it moved decisively to contain Covid-19 after the virus took flight in Wuhan, but for its 97 million Christians, the cost in heavy restrictions – as surveillance reached into their homes, online and offline interactions were tracked and their faces were scanned into the Public Security database – is high.”

In the city of Shandong, a woman who took her child into a registered church was captured on the CCTV network – there are 570 million such cameras in China, according to Open Doors. Officials immediately reprimanded the church as minors are forbidden from attending.

Miracles amidst oppression

Despite the bleak picture, however, the Church is anything but flagging in these countries, according to David Curry, Chairman and CEO of Open Doors USA.

“You might think the World Watch List is all about oppression,” he wrote. “But the World Watch List is really all about resilience. The numbers of God’s people who are suffering should mean the Church is dying – that Christians are keeping quiet, losing their faith and turning away from one another. But that’s not what’s happening.

“Pray through this year’s report and let it move your heart … Learn how, in Jesus, we really are one Church, one Family.”

“Instead, in living colour, we see the words of God recorded in the prophet Isaiah: ‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’ (Isaiah 43:19) When our sisters and brothers are persecuted for their faith and they still choose Jesus, the Living Water – this is a miracle in front of our eyes.”

The report urged Christians to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world, considering the words of 1 Corinthians 12:26, which says: “If one part (of the body of Christ) suffers, every part suffers with it.”

“Pray through this year’s report and let it move your heart. Learn how the Body of Christ is hurting, and how they are finding joy in Him even in the midst of pain. And learn how, in Jesus, we really are one Church, one Family.”

Here are the top 10 countries where Christians face extreme persecution, and how you can pray for them.

#1 North Korea

North Korea has topped the World Watch List for the past 20 years straight. Photo by Micha Brandli on Unsplash.

North Korea has topped the World Watch List for the past 20 years straight. Photo by Micha Brandli on Unsplash.

For the past 20 years, North Korea has consistently ranked No. 1 in the World Watch List’s most dangerous countries for Christians, with other reports suggesting that at least 200,000 Christians have gone missing since 1953.

Over the past 60 years, the Kim dynasty has waged a war on Christianity because of its association with America. The ruling party also perceives Christians as a threat to the idolisation of the Kim family.

Despite persecution, an underground church of an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 believers is growing in North Korea.

Believers, when discovered, are either killed or sent to inhumane labour camps. President Kim Jong-un is reported to have expanded the system of prison camps, in which about 50,000 to 70,000 Christians are currently imprisoned.

Despite this, a massive underground church of an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 believers – about 1.5% of the country’s 26 million population – is growing in North Korea, according to Open Doors.

“It is a miracle that this underground church in North Korea is able to exist. But more than that, we continue to hear reports that Christians long to share the Gospel in the midst of difficult conditions.”

How you can pray for North Korea:

  • Pray that God will continue to strengthen North Korea’s secret believers, provide for their needs and keep them safe.
  • Pray for the believers who are imprisoned.
  • Despite the risks, Open Doors has heard stories of believers sharing the Gospel with others, even in North Korean prison camps. Pray that North Korean believers will shine as a light in the darkest places on earth.

#2 Afghanistan

Afghans who dare to convert to Christianity risk being killed by their own families. Photo by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash.

In Afghanistan, it is impossible to live openly as a Christian. 

Conversion to Christianity is a legal offence punishable by life imprisonment or death.

For the last three years, the country has almost tied with North Korea for the No. 1 spot on the World Watch List.

Conversion to Christianity is a legal offence punishable by life imprisonment or death. There are also no established Christian communities after the last public church was destroyed by the Taliban in 2010.

Though there are no official statistics on the number of Afghan Christians, Open Doors estimates that there are only “a small number” of them in the nation of more than 38 million people.

Those who dare to convert are seen to have betrayed their family, tribe and country. They must flee or risk being killed – often by their own family members, who kill to preserve the family’s “honour”.

How you can pray for Afghanistan:

  • Pray for protection for the small percentage of Afghani believers. Pray that anyone who might be hunting down secret Afghan Christians would not discover them.
  • Pray that despite their isolation, Afghan believers would be strengthened in their faith and that they would find safe ways to access God’s Word and communicate with other believers.
  • Pray that God would be at work in the hearts of extremists, such as the Taliban and ISIS.

#3 Somalia

In Somalia, there are only a few hundred Christians in the nation of more than 16 million people. Ismail Salad Hajji dirir on Unsplash.

In Somalia, there are only a few hundred Christians in the nation of more than 16 million people. Photo by Ismail Salad Hajji dirir on Unsplash.

In the East African country of Somalia, Christians are a “high-value target” for the terrorist group al-Shabab, which has often executed believers on the spot when discovered, according to Open Doors.

Female believers face a high risk of forced marriage by their families, to coerce them into renouncing their Christian faith.

It estimates there are only “hundreds” of believers in the nation of more than 16 million people.

Female believers, in particular, face a high risk of forced marriage by their families, to coerce them into renouncing their Christian faith and returning to the dominant religion.

In 2018, Open Doors told the story of 19-year-old Ayan, whose family forced her to marry an elderly Somali sheikh (a patriarch in a tribe) after discovering that she had become a Christian.

“For Ayan, the marriage to a man three to four times her age goes beyond marrying someone she doesn’t love. She knows that it will most likely mean a lifetime of abuse and most definitely will severely stifle any attempt to secretly gather with other believers.”

How you can pray for Somalia:

  • Pray for the families of believers who have been murdered for their faith – pray for God’s comfort and that they would be healed from any bitterness.
  • Pray for a strong church to grow among Somali people, relying on Jesus and with a hunger and thirst for the Word of God.
  • Pray that those who have killed Christians will see the Truth and be convicted.

#4 Libya

Coptic Christians have been abducted and executed by Islam extremists in Libya on several occasions. Photo by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid on Flickr.

Coptic Christians have been abducted and executed by extremists in Libya on several occasions. Photo by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid on Flickr.

Open Doors estimates that, though there are about 34,500 Christians in this North African country of 6.6 million, only about 150 are Libyan, while the rest are largely expatriate and migrant workers.

Those who share their faith publicly are violently opposed, arrested or murdered.

While Libyan Christians face violent and intense pressure to renounce their faith, Christians in general are persecuted all over the country, especially in areas where extremist groups hold power.

There is no freedom of religion here and it is a crime to share your faith publicly. Those who do are violently opposed, arrested or murdered by their families, militants or organised crime groups.

In February 2014, in the east of Benghazi, seven Egyptian Christians were dragged out of their houses at night and shot dead by ISIL militants.

A year later in February 2015, 21 Coptic Christians, who were expatriate workers in Libya, were abducted by ISIL extremists and beheaded at a beach while clad in orange jumpsuits. The execution was broadcast in a chilling five-minute video titled A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.

How you can pray for Libya:

  • Pray for Libyan believers under immense pressure, particularly those in jail because of their faith. Pray for protection and release.
  • Pray for peace and stability. Years of anarchy and power struggles have taken many lives and eroded hope. Christians and other minorities have become very vulnerable in such a situation of lawlessness.
  • Pray for new converts who have been baptised. Rejoice that they have found Jesus, and pray they will find a group of believers.

#5 Pakistan

Pakistani Christians are suffering under the country's stringent and unfair blasphemy laws. Photo by DVIDSHUB on Flickr

Pakistani Christians are suffering under the country’s stringent and unfair blasphemy laws. Photo by DVIDSHUB on Flickr.

Christians in Pakistan are considered second-class citizens and given certain jobs that are reserved for the lowest castes.

While Christians make up only about 1.9% of the population, rights groups believe they fill about 80% of these sewer jobs.

In May 2020, The New York Times reported that the Pakistani military placed newspaper advertisements for manual sewer cleaners with the caveat that only Christians need apply. After activists protested, however, the requirement was removed.

Still, while Christians make up only about 1.9% of the 208 million population, rights groups believe they fill about 80% of these sewer jobs, according to the article. Exposed to human waste and toxic fumes, many of these workers develop skin and respiratory ailments. Others have even died.

Pakistani Christians also suffer under the country’s stringent blasphemy laws. Critics complain that these laws are “overwhelmingly being used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas”, according to an article by The Guardian.

But extremist groups vehemently defend these laws, including attacking or killing those who oppose them.

How you can pray for Pakistan:

  • Pray for courage for Christians in Pakistan to speak about their faith, despite fears that their words will be used against them.
  • Pray for protection over Pakistan’s churches, especially around holidays such as Christmas and Easter, when terrorist attacks have happened in the past.
  • Pray for protection for young Christian women and girls. Pray for those who have been abducted and forced to convert and marry, that God will comfort them and give them strength.

#6 Eritrea

In Eritrea, known as "the North Korea of North Africa, Christians from non-traditional denominations are harshly persecuted. Photo by David Stanley on Flickr.

In Eritrea, known as “the North Korea of Africa”, Christians from non-traditional denominations are harshly persecuted. Photo by David Stanley on Flickr.

Christians in Eritrea, which is known as “the North Korea of Africa”, make up almost half of the country’s 5.4 million population.

Many Christians are held in the country’s inhumane prisons.

However, Christians from non-traditional denominations are harshly persecuted by the government and the Eritrean Orthodox Church, which is the only Christian denomination recognised by the government and also tightly controlled by those in power, said Open Doors.

Many Christians are held in the country’s inhumane prisons, with their loved ones unsure of their whereabouts or whether they are still alive.

Open Doors reported the story of Shiden (not his real name) who was caught at a secret worship service and arrested. He spent more than a decade in three different prisons.

“Shiden faced exposure to severe temperatures and a lack of basic sanitation. He was regularly taunted by others, told he could end his suffering by renouncing his faith in Jesus. Shiden refused – and for that, he endured regular, extended solitary confinement in a space like a coffin.”

Despite enduring persecution, however, the church in Eritrea is persisting, with reports of Christian sharing the Gospel even in prison and seeing many come to Christ.

How you can pray for Eritrea:

  • Pray that believers’ faith would grow, that their love would increase, and that their faith would be steadfast in affliction.
  • Pray for wisdom and opportunities for Eritrean Christians and church leaders to engage their government on religious freedom.
  • Pray for those suffering terrible conditions in prison, held because of their faith. Ask the Lord to show His grace to these families and provide for their spiritual and physical needs. 

#7 Yemen

Christians in Yemen have been denied aid for not being a devout Muslim. Photo by Open Doors USA.

Christians in Yemen have been denied aid. Photo by Open Doors USA.

Those who leave the dominant faith face the death penalty. Extremists have also killed those who have converted to Christianity.

Open Doors reported that though the ongoing civil war, humanitarian crisis and Covid-19 pandemic in Yemen have affected all citizens, Christians remain especially vulnerable.

Emergency relief is mostly distributed through organisations that use local leaders to give aid, said Open Doors. These local organisations are believed to discriminate against anybody who is not considered to be of the dominant faith. “Yemeni Christians have shared they were refused treatment at under-resourced hospitals.”

How you can pray for Yemen:

  • Pray for wisdom and safety for secret house churches as they support believers.
  • The past year brought floods, locusts and Covid-19 – in the midst of ongoing war. Pray that peace will come and that people can start rebuilding their lives.
  • Pray for those taking great risks to provide seekers and new believers with discipleship support. Pray for their travel safety through conflict areas, and that God would use them to raise up new and gifted leaders.

#8 Iran

In Iran, secret house churches are often raided, leading to arrests and long prison sentences. Photo by RNW.org on Flickr.

In Iran, secret house churches are often raided, leading to arrests and long prison sentences. Photo by RNW.org on Flickr.

The Iranian government sees the conversion to Christianity as a threat to the rule of the government. Therefore, persecution of believers in 2020 has remain extreme, said Open Doors.

Secret house churches are often raided, leading to arrests and long prison sentences for “crimes against national security”. Several were forced to flee the country just hours before they were to report to prison .

Restrictive measures to combat Covid-19 have also made communication between Christians difficult, and they are increasingly exploring online fellowship and discipleship.

Nevertheless, the church in Iran is growing exponentially, with an independent study last year estimating that there are now about a million Christians in the nation, said Open Doors.

How you can pray for Iran:

  • Pray for isolated believers. Many Christians don’t know any other believers. They depend on online resources to learn more about God.
  • Pray for Christians who are currently locked up in prison for their faith. The pandemic has only made prison conditions worse.
  • Pray for those who advocate for the rights of Christians in Iran, both within and outside the country, that they would be listened to and that God would protect them.

#9 Nigeria

In 2020, more Christians were murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Photo by TerrAfrica on Flickr

In 2020, more Christians were murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Photo by TerrAfrica on Flickr.

In 2020, more Christians were murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Three out of 4 martyrs are from Nigeria, according to Open Doors.

“Militants often murder Christians or destroy their property and means of livelihood. Men and boys are particularly vulnerable to being killed,” it said.

Three out of 4 martyrs in 2020 are from Nigeria, according to Open Doors.

Just last Christmas, five Christian men in northeast Nigeria were slaughtered for their faith. Militants filmed the execution, reportedly meant as a warning to believers, mentioning each man by name and identifying them as Christians.

The report by Open Doors continued: “The women and children (that these men) leave behind are often displaced to informal camps, face sexual violence, and are even at risk of abduction and forced marriage … In extreme and heinous circumstances, young girls are forcibly recruited and used as suicide bombers.”

How you can pray for Nigeria:

  • Pray for the Lord’s grace and comfort for believers who are displaced, have lost loved ones and their homes, and are struggling with trauma.
  • Ask the Lord to be near to abducted believers. Pray for their release or rescue.
  • Pray for President Muhammadu Buhari and his government – pray they will take decisive actions to protect all citizens.
  • Pray that Open Doors partners will strengthen the church to testify and share the Gospel in very difficult circumstances.

#10 India

This year, Indian nationalists led a violent door-to-door Ghar Wapsi campaign aimed at re-converting Christians to Hinduism. Photo by Opendoors USA

This year, Indian nationalists led a violent door-to-door campaign aimed at re-converting Christians back to the dominant faith. Photo by Open Doors USA.

For the third consecutive year, India has been ranked the 10th most dangerous place for Christians, which make up 5% of the country’s whopping 1.3 billion population.

The ruling nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party gained more political power in 2019, “emboldening ultra-nationalist radicals to spread their message that to be Indian is to be Hindu and that the country should be rid of Christianity and Islam”, said Open Doors.

Christians in certain parts of India, especially house church leaders, face horrific levels of violence from these extremists.

“Christians in certain parts of India, especially house church leaders, face horrific levels of violence from these extremists –thousands of attacks take place every year.

“And in rural India, tribes use water and food as weapons against Christians, cutting them off from access to the village’s water supply and government-subsidised groceries.

“Converts to Christianity … are especially vulnerable to persecution and are constantly under pressure through campaigns known as Ghar Wapsi (“homecoming”). This year, Indian nationalists led a violent door-to-door Ghar Wapsi campaign.”

How you can pray for India:

  • Praise God that many are coming to faith in India through miraculous healings and the witness of India’s Christians. Pray many more will come to know Jesus.
  • Pray for protection for our brothers and sisters, especially new Christians and those in rural areas living in isolation.
  • Ask God to continue to work through Open Doors’ partners to bring practical support. Pray for their wisdom and energy, particularly during the pandemic.

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About the author

Gracia Lee

Gracia is a journalism graduate who thoroughly enjoys people and words. Thankfully, she gets a satisfying dose of both as a writer at Salt&Light. When she's not working, you will probably find her admiring nature or playing Monopoly Deal with her little brother.

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