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This discussion will focus on Open  Doors' World Watch List countries for 2019.  As with 2018, I'll post links to each country's WWL page, the Prayercast page for the country, the Operation World prayer page, and the Open Doors "country card" (pdf).

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Jan. 06: In Colombia, Outspoken Pastor Bravely Fights for Community

In Colombia, church leaders often play a dual role as de facto community leaders, especially in small rural communities. This recognition often makes these leaders and their families a target of paramilitary forces, guerrillas and criminal groups wanting to control the region. Open Doors recently met a family who knows this reality all too well.

It was a hot Sunday in the town of El Cedro* in northwestern Colombia, a small town inhabited by fishermen, farmers and the occasional merchant who carries goods for small gasoline boats popularly known as “Johnsons” (the brand of the engine used in most boats).

Like every Sunday afternoon, Pastor Hector Galarza* had boarded his small boat to make his way to the small church he had led for eight years, preparing to preach that weekend’s worship service. Reaching the area, he bent over to tie his boat on the pier when two men approached the dock. They demanded to be taken to the other side of the river.

The men were not completely unknown to the pastor. Weeks ago, they had been bothering the villagers with complaints and demands. They are known for the violence of their words and unkind behavior and are part of illegal armed groups that, for some time, have wanted to regain control of the area Pastor Galarza pastored.

“They were two men, one was known in the area,” said Hector’s wife, Mercedes*. “They were investigating the area for some time and finding out information about everyone.”

A KNOWN COMMUNITY AND CHURCH LEADER IN COLOMBIA

Pastor Galarza, like most of the region’s inhabitants, witnessed the violent and bloody actions of illegal armed groups against the civilian population. Fortunately for four or five years, the situation in the region had improved. The population lived in relative peace.

Through the church, Pastor Galarza began to influence the development of the town positively and peacefully. His leadership was so strong that the local community ruler invited him to help make important decisions. Little by little, Pastor Galarza became known as the social and religious leader of the region.

In the last two years, paramilitary groups, guerrillas and criminal gangs have taken on the task of “colonizing” new regions to make them a bastion of armed struggleto control the drug market, arms trafficking and other criminal acts.

Given this strong attack, the rural Christian church has been seriously affected because, in the absence of a public force (such as the police or army), church leaders defended the population peacefully, preventing illegal groups from regaining control of the place.

KILLED TO PREVENT THE SPREAD OF THE GOSPEL

Pastor Galarza was the only one on the front lines opposing the intrusion of armed groups into the community—a recognition that would become tragic that Sunday afternoon.

In broad daylight in front of onlookers, the men that Pastor Galarza refused to aid took his life with two gunshots. Reportedly, the gunmen slowly walked away, no doubt feeling untouchable. They had murdered a pastor and the outspoken social leader and community defender who stood in their way.

According to Pastor Galarza’s daughter, Angela, the murder of her father was premeditated, carried out to prevent the advancement of the gospel. Pastor Galarza’s influence helped decrease illegal activities in the area. Also, he was killed, Angela says, to counter the growing number of people going to church and their opposition to armed groups.

STRUGGLING TO REBUILD

That same afternoon, the pastor’s wife of 25 years, together with the children and grandchildren, removed her husband’s body. Then they fled to Rio Crecido*, a town near El Cedro, to take refuge.

The small house in a depressed neighborhood is now the new home of the Galarza family. There, hidden from those who murdered her husband, Mercedes struggles to rebuild her home. She cries often. She also has nervous attacks. So do her grandchildren who run to hide whenever they hear a loud noise.

“The children often cry when they remember their grandpa, they do not understand what happened,” Mercedes says.

Angela adds: “Unfortunately, they saw their grandpa dead on the floor. This memory sometimes does not let them sleep.”

TO SERVE THE PEOPLE GOD LOVES

Their faith in the God Hector dedicated his life to serving has been the only source of strength and healing for this grieving family who, despite the pain, feel a deep pride for the man the pastor was—a man who served Christ with all his heart and all his might; a pastor who gave his life for the defense of the message of peace he learned from Jesus; and a loving father and a faithful and loyal husband.

Pastor Galarza was a leader whose blood is now the inspiration for young Christians in the region who continue to learn about a man who loved God so deeply he gave his life to serve the people His God loves.

Jan. 16: Christian Persecution by the Numbers

The 2019 World Watch List report is based on comprehensive and investigative research of 150 countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. Each year, our research reveals telling numbers and statistics that give us a glimpse at the depth, prevalence and widespread reach of the persecution believers endure.

Below, we share a quick glance at the numbers during the 2019 reporting period (from Oct. 31, 2017, to November 1, 2018). But by no means do the numbers tell the full story. Each fact and figure represent real people with real lives, families, jobs, churches—fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters—who every day make the dangerous choice to believe in and trust Jesus.

IN A YEAR

(from October 31, 2017 to November 1, 2018)


People from different religions, various organizations gathered at the Indonesian Christian Church to pray for the nation in light of the 2018 church bombing in Surabaya. Every month, 105 churches are attacked, vandalized or burned in the top 50 countries on the World Watch List.

245 Million: In the top 50 World Watch List countries alone, 245 million Christians in the world experience high levels of persecution for their choice to follow Christ.

1 in 9: Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution

14%: The rise in the number of Christians in the top 50 countries on the 2019 World Watch List (WWL) who experience high levels of persecution. (from the 2018 reporting period to 2019’s)

4,136: Christians killed for faith-related reasons in the top 50 WWL countries.

2,625: Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned in the top 50 WWL countries.

1,266: churches or Christian buildings attacked in the top 50 WWL countries.

7 out of 9: In seven of the countries in the World Watch List’s top 10, the primary cause of persecution is Islamic oppression.

11: countries scoring in the “extreme” level for their persecution of Christians. Five years ago, North Korea was the only one.

18: Consecutive years North Korea has ranked No. 1 as the world’s most dangerous place for Christians.

Watch the 2019 World Watch List video below:

EVERY MONTH

105: churches attacked, burned or vandalized each month, in the top 50 WWL countries

EVERY DAY

11: Christians killed every day for their faith, in the top 50 WWL countries.

BY THE CONTINENT

1 out of 6: Christians in Africa that experience high levels of persecution.

1 out of 3: Christians in Asia that experience high levels of persecution.

1 out of 21: Christians in South America who experience high levels of persecution.

To read more about the World Watch List, click here to see the list and download the full report. To help you pray with these believers, Open Doors has a mobile prayer app that alerts you to prayer requests from believers. Learn more about it and sign up to get regular updates delivered to your phone. 

Jan. 16: 5 MAJOR TRENDS INFLUENCING GLOBAL CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION

Insight into the daily battle facing 1 in 9 believers worldwide today

In the reporting period for the 2019 World Watch List, five major Christian persecution trends surfaced in the top 50 countries on the list. By no means are they the only trends affecting believers globally. However, research and reports from our on-the-ground partners and field reps in more than 60 countries indicate these trends are the major forces influencing the persecution of Christians around the world. Below, we have identified and highlighted them to provide insight into the battle the global Church is facing today. 

THE SHOCKING REALITY OF PERSECUTION AGAINST WOMEN

Research for the 2019 World Watch List reporting period reveals devastating details about the persecu­tion experienced by Christian women. In many places, women experience a “double persecution”—one for being a Christian and one for being a woman. This kind of persecution is difficult to assess or quantify because it is complex, violent and hidden. In many cultures where women are specifically targeted, it is difficult, if not impossi­ble, to report accurate numbers.

Far from being gender-blind, persecution exploits all the available vulnerabilities women have in their cultural or social context. This means they are oppressed through factors like: a lack of access to education and healthcare, forced divorce, travel bans, trafficking, widowhood, incarceration in a psychiatric unit, forced abortions or contraception, being denied access to work and lack of choice to marry a person of similar faith. The pressures faced by Christian women are twice as numerous as those experienced by Christian men.

Even in the most restricted circum­stances, gender-specific persecution is a key means of destroying the minority Christian com­munity. For instance, the sexual assault of women in Nigeria by Boko Haram, and in Iraq by Islamic State, is typically acknowledged as rape, yet not perceived as a tool of religious persecution. While those assaults have not been confined to Christian populations, a study of both the demographics of victims and of their testimonies of the words used by their attackers leaves no doubt that at least one primary objective of Boko Haram and the Islamic State is to eradicate the Christian population by every means.

Watch the 2019 World Watch List video:

ISLAMIC OPPRESSION CONTINUES TO IMPACT MILLIONS OF CHRISTIANS

In seven out of the top 10 World Watch List coun­tries, the primary cause of persecution is Islamic oppression. This means, for millions of Chris­tians—particularly those who grew up Muslim or were born into Muslim families—openly follow­ing Jesus can have painful consequences. They can be treated as second-class citizens, discrimi­nated against for jobs or even violently attacked.

Often, Islamic oppression is most widely seen and covered by media during events of extreme violence. Despite a lack of a common ideology—and even amidst in-fighting between the various groups—Islamic militants continue to cast their bloody vision around the world. From al-Shabab to Boko Haram to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to ISIS, this kind of militancy continues to grow in Asia (the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia) and Africa (Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia). These militants and other violent radical movements continue to obliterate anyone opposing their extreme interpretation of Islam through acts of terrorism and insurrection. We call this the “smash” factor (violence).

But another force is at play called the “squeeze” factor. While violent terrorist acts receive the majority of media attention, Islamists around the world further their agenda through diplomatic and political action, as well as grassroots social efforts. In many countries, democracy is used to peaceably enact legal changes in accord with Sharia law and Islamic customs. For Christians in these countries, the persecution “squeeze” Christians who left Islam to follow Christ face often far outweighs the violence and is even more difficult to endure. The slow creep of Islamic control in every facet of life becomes unbearable, leading to many Christians practicing their faith underground, out of the public eye, for fear of repercussions should their faith be discovered. In areas where militant Islam is present, this fear is only heightened.

THE WORLD’S TWO MOST POPULOUS COUNTRIES RISE ON THE WORLD WATCH LIST


In December 2018, police raided Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China, arresting Pastor Wang Yi and 10 elders.

For the first time since the start of the World Watch List, India has entered the top 10 at No. 10. Additionally, China jumped 16 spots, from No. 43 on the 2018 list to No. 27 on the 2019 list. Each of these countries is home to more than a billion people, so these trends are distressing. Hindu nationalists in India continue to attack Christians and churches with what seems like no consequences.

Because the church is growing in India and is establishing a strong presence in the tribal regions, militant Hindus see Christians as a threat to the nation. Discrimination also is very common, based on the age-old caste system. It affects Christians all over India because most converts to Christianity come from the lower and “untouchable” (Dalit) castes.

Since Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, the level of persecution of Christians has gone up dramatically. Every year, more violent incidents are registered, mainly because government authorities such as police and local officials frequently allow a culture of impunity for violence against Christians, especially when a mob is involved. Hindu militants target church leaders, beat them up and try to force them out of their villages. The latest trend is not only to threaten the church leader, but also to threaten or rape his wife, and target even young children. This twisted brutality reflects global trends, which increasingly have identified the direct targeting of women and children as part of the dynamics of persecution.

In the most recent year, solely from documented incidents, at least 12,500 Christians and about 100 churches in India have been attacked. At least 200 people have been arrested solely for their faith, and at least 10 have been killed. However, many incidents go undocumented, so true figures could be much higher.

In China, the increased power of the government and the rule of Xi Jinping, chairman of the Communist Party, continue to make open worship difficult in some parts of the country. The situation continues to escalate for Chinese churches and Christians. Over the last four months, Chinese officials have shuttered three large, well-known churches. In early December, police raided Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, arresting the pastor and 10 elders. A week later, they closed down Ronguilli Church, and in September they shut down Beijing’s largest house church, Zion Church.

In March 2018, Xi Jinping was allowed to rule indefinitely, the first since Mao to hold such power. China also announced its “Principle for the Promotion of Chinese Christianity in China for th... (2018-2022). With these new regulations and the assurance of his place as permanent leader of China, Xi Jinping is quickly making it known that there is little to no room for any religion that challenges the absolute rule of the Chinese state.

THE SPREAD OF RADICAL ISLAM ACROSS SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA


Gyang Adamu lost his whole family in one day when Hausa-Fulani militants attacked the village where his father pastored a church. His father, mother and all three of his brothers were killed.

While the violent excesses of ISIS and other Islamic militants have mostly disappeared from headlines from the Middle East, their loss of territory there means that fighters have dispersed to a larger number of countries not only in the region but, increasingly, into sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa poses one of the world’s most potent security challenges, as weak governance, poverty and radical Islam increasingly collide. Of those countries that register “high” levels of persecution (scoring 41+ points), but fall outside the top 50, 18 out of the 23 are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost 30 violent Islamist groups are known to be active in the region: Most perpetrate violence in more than one country. The radical ideology of Islamic extremist groups like Boko Haram and al-Shabab has inspired, or infiltrated, numerous splinter groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a deadly group that broke away from Nigeria’s Boko Haram that also enslaves Christian women and girls as an integral part of their strategy. In February 2018, ISWAP stormed a girls’ secondary school in Dapchi and kidnapped more than 100 girls. A month later, the group released all but one of the girls, Leah Sharibu, because she refused to say Muslim prayers and renounce her belief and trust in Christ. To date, Leah remains in captivity with another Christian, Alice Ngaddah, an aid worker. The group abducted Alice and two other aid workers (the videos of the other two workers’ brutal murders were released in September and October 2018, respectively).

Across the Christian-Muslim fault line in middle Nigeria, decades of climate change and creeping desertification, combined with rapid population growth, has meant a fight for land and resources. The intensifying conflict between nomadic, predominantly Muslim Hau... and indigenous, predominantly Christian farmers in the Middle Belt means that Christians continue to experience the highest possible levels of violence to be measured by the World Watch research (a score of 16.7 in the ‘violence’ category). In 2018, more than 6,000 Christians were either killed or maimed in this escalating situation. Scored according to “violence” persecution alone, Nigeria would tie for top place with Pakistan at No. 5 this year.

MORE LAWS ADDED TO CONTROL RELIGION


The Law on Belief and Religion–Vietnam’s first-ever law on religions since the country was reunified under Communist rule in 1975–came into force on January 2018.

State authoritarianism is increasing in many parts of the world, supported by the ever-spreading availability of personal digital technology, which governments can increasingly track through facial recognition, electronic chips and so on. Places like Vietnam, Myanmar, China and North Korea all saw increases in stricter state control of religious rights.

The trend is most clearly seen in China, where new Regulations for Religious Affairs came into force on February 1, 2018. Since then, a focus on prohibiting children and youth from hearing religious teaching has seen nursery and Sunday schools closed down, summer camps banned, and churches forced to place signs at the entrance forbidding anyone under 18 to enter. This policy has been in place for years, but has rarely been enforced until now.

Churches registered in the state-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement now find themselves bearing the brunt of the regulations, such as having to install closed-circuit (CCTV) cameras. As noted above, in September, Beijing’s largest “house” church, Zion—with 1,500 members—was shut down for refusing to install CCTV cameras facing the congregation. The official reason was “illegal meetings held by an unauthorized church group in an unregistered building.”

The same state authoritarianism also pressures Christians in Vietnam (No. 20). The Law on Belief and Religion—the country’s first-ever law on religions since Vietnam was reunified under Communist rule in 1975—came into force in January 2018. And in Myanmar (No. 18), state authoritarianism combines with nationalism. More than 100,000 members of a majority-Christian ethnic tribe, the Karen, remain in refugee camps just across the border in Thailand. Meanwhile, thousands have been killed and at least 120,000 displaced in majority-Christian Kachin state. Recently, Myanmar’s largest ethnic militia, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), declared almost all churches built after the Communist Party’s 1989 collapse must be destroyed. No new churches will be allowed.

To read more about these countries and the remaining 40 countries on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List, click here to see the list and download the full report. To help you pray with these believers, Open Doors has a mobile prayer app that alerts you to prayer requests from believers. Learn more about it and sign up to get regular updates delivered to your phone. 

Jan. 16: The 10 Most Dangerous Places to Be a Christian

The Christian persecution we read about in Scripture and history books is not a thing of the past. It still exists. Today, in the 21st century, we are living in a time when persecution against Christian believers is the highest in modern history. According to Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List—an in-depth investigative report focusing on global Christian persecution—persecution is increasing at an alarming rate. Below, we look at the world’s 10 most dangerous places to be a Christian—countries where saying “yes” to following Jesus is truly a life-or-death decision.

1. NORTH KOREA RANKS NO. 1 FOR 18THCONSECUTIVE YEAR ON WORLD WATCH LIST

For three generations, everything in this isolated country has focused on idolizing the leading Kim family. Christians are seen as hostile elements in society that must be eradicated. There was hope that new diplomatic efforts in 2018—including the 2018 Winter Olympics—would mean a lessening of pressure and violence against Christians. But so far that has not been the case. In fact, reports indicate that local authorities are increasing incentives for anyone who exposes a Christian in their community. If Christians are discovered, not only are they deported to labor camps or even killed on the spot, their families to the fourth generation share their fate as well. Communal worship is non-existent. Daring to meet other Christians for worship is a risky feat that must be done in utmost secrecy. Yet Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in North Korea to be 300,000 strong—believers who are defying the unjust regime and following Jesus.

2. AFGHANISTAN—WHERE CHRISTIANITY IS NOT PERMITTED TO EXIST


Photo credit: IMB.ORG

Afghanistan is once again a close second behind North Korea on the 2019 World Watch List. An Islamic state by constitution, the country does not permit any faith other than Islam to exist. To convert to a faith outside Islam is tantamount to treason because it’s seen as a betrayal of family, tribe and country. Very often, there is only one possible outcome for exposed and caught Christians: death. In Afghanistan converts are considered literally insane to leave Islam. As a result, some may end up in a psychiatric hospital and have their homes destroyed. In addition to communal pressure, the security situation continues to deteriorate due to the influx of foreign militants who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. And the radical Islamic Taliban have also increased in strength; at least half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are either ruled or contested by the Taliban. Afghan Christians (mostly those with a Muslim background) are in hiding as much as possible.

Watch the 2019 World Watch List video

3.CHRISTIANS ARE HIGH-VALUE TARGETS IN SOMALIA

Estimates suggest that 99 percent of Somalis are Muslims, and any minority religions are heavily persecuted. The Christian community is small and under constant threat of attack. In fact, persecution of Christians almost always involves violence. Additionally, in many rural areas, Islamic militant groups like al-Shabab are de facto rulers who regard Christians with a Muslim background as high-value targets—often killed on the spot when discovered. In recent years, the situation appears to have worsened. Islamic militants have intensified their hunt for people who are Christian and in a position of leadership. An attempt to reopen a church in Hargeisa, Somaliland, failed; the government was forced to shut it down due to pressure from the local Islamic population. In the World Watch List 2019 reporting period, Christians in Somalia remained so vulnerable to attacks by Islamic militants that in the interests of security, Open Doors could publish no specific examples of persecution.

4.BELIEVERS IN LIBYA FACE DEADLY VIOLENCE

After the ouster of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya plunged into chaos and anarchy, which has enabled various Islamic militant groups to control parts of the country. Libyan converts to Christianity face abuse and violence for their decision to follow Christ. The country is also home to many migrant workers who have been attacked, sexually assaulted and detained, which can be even worse if your Christian faith is discovered. Libyan Christians with a Muslim background face extremely violent and intense pressure from their family and the wider community to renounce their faith. Believers from other parts of the continent are also targeted by various Islamic militant groups and organized criminal groups. Few will forget the horrifying video of Egyptian workers martyred by ISIS militants on the coast of Libya. The level of violence against Christians in Libya is very high, and Christians in Libya are subjected to violent, inhumane and degrading treatment.

5.CHRISTIANS IN PAKISTAN LIVE WITH OPEN DISCRIMINATION AND CONSTANT THREAT OF MOB ATTACKS

Under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, Christians continue to live in daily fear they will be accused of blasphemy—which can carry a death sentence. The most well-known example of these laws is the case of Asia Bibi. After sitting on death row for more than 10 years, the Christian wife and mother was acquitted of blasphemy charges in October however her life is still in grave danger from radical Islamists that have gained increasing political power in the world’s sixth-largest country. For that reason, the new ruling government must maintain good diplomatic relationships with some radical groups. Christians are largely regarded as second-class citizens, and conversion to Christianity from Islam carries a great deal of risk. An estimated 700 girls and women abducted each year are often raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men in the community, usually resulting in forced conversions. While traditional, historical churches have relative freedom for worship, they are heavily monitored and have regularly been targeted for bomb attacks (for example, the Quetta attack in December 2017 on Bethel Memorial Methodist Church). In Pakistan, all Christians suffer from institutionalized discrimination. Occupations seen as low, dirty and derogatory are officially reserved for Christians. Many Christians are very poor, and some are victims of bonded labor. On the other hand, many Christians belong to Pakistan’s middle class; however, this does not save them from being marginalized or persecuted.

6.CHRISTIAN CONVERTS IN SUDAN TARGETED FOR PERSECUTION

Sudan has been ruled as an Islamic state by the authoritarian government of President al-Bashir since 1989. Under his charge, the country offers limited rights for religious minorities and places heavy restrictions on freedom of speech or press. The last year has been difficult for Christians in many ways. There have been arrests; many churches have been demolished and others are on an official list awaiting demolition. And many Christians are attacked indiscriminately in areas like the Nuba Mountains where there is an ongoing conflict between government forces and rebel groups. Christian converts from Islam are especially targeted for persecution. So to keep from being discovered, converts will often refrain from raising their children as Christians because this might attract the attention of the government and community leaders (since children might inadvertently reveal their parents’ faith).

7.CHRISTIANS IMPRISONED IN SHIPPING CONTAINERS IN ERITREA

Since 1993, President Afwerki has overseen an authoritarian brutal regime that rests on massive human rights violations. During the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, government security forces conducted many house-to-house raids and imprisoned hundreds of Christians in inhumane conditions, including small shipping containers in scorching heat. Protestants, in particular, face serious problems in accessing community resources, especially social services provided by the State. Christians from non-traditional church groups, such as evangelicals, face the harshest persecution. In 2018, Eritrea embraced an end to hostility with both Ethiopia and Somalia. How that agreement will play out for the situation of Christians remains to be seen. This extreme pressure and state-sanctioned violence are forcing some Christians to flee Eritrea–often called “Africa’s North Korea”–and seek asylum.

8.BELIEVERS IN YEMEN ESPECIALLY VULNERABLE IN CIVIL WAR AND FAMINE

An ongoing civil war in Yemen has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory, making an already difficult nation for Christians to live in even harder. The chaos of war has enabled radical groups to take control over some regions of Yemen, and they have increased persecution of Christians. Even private worship is risky in some parts of the country. Christians are suffering from the general humanitarian crisis in the country, but Yemeni Christians are additionally vulnerable since emergency relief is mostly distributed through Islamic organizations and local mosques, which are allegedly discriminating against all who are not considered to be pious Muslims. Converts to Christianity from Islam face additional persecution from family and society. In Yemen, the small church is composed mostly of Yemeni Christians with a Muslim background who must live their faith in secret. They face persecution from the authorities (including detention and interrogation), their families, and radical Islamic groups who threaten converts with death if they don’t denounce Christ and re-convert.

9.ILLEGAL TO CONVERT, ILLEGAL TO PREACH IN IRAN


In this gateway to the Middle East, Christians are forbidden from sharing their faith with non-Christians. Therefore, church services in Persian, the national language, are not allowed. Converts from Islam undergo persecution from the government; if they attend an underground house church, they face the constant threat of arrest. Iranian society is governed by Islamic law, which means the rights and job possibilities for Christians are heavily restricted. The government sees them as an attempt by Western countries to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime of Iran. Leaders of groups of Christian converts have been arrested, prosecuted and have received long prison sentences for “crimes against the national security.” In December, to crack down on Christians sharing their faith, Iranian police arrested 100 Christians in one week, making a blatant statement to both Christians and Muslims. Iran is also infamous for its prisons and inhumane treatment of Christians in places like Evin Prison where well-known house church pastor Yousef Nardarkhani is serving a 10-year sentence.

10.UNPRECEDENTED CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION IN INDIA

In the world’s second most populous country, Christians saw unprecedented persecution on numerous fronts from both the State and general Hindu society. For the first time, India enters the top 10 on the World Watch List, jumping one spot from No. 11 in 2017. Home to more than a billion people, even an incremental rise in persecution yields an exponential impact. Since the current ruling party took power in 2014, Hindu extremists have fueled a crackdown on Christian house churches and have attacked believers with impunity—believing that to be Indian is to be Hindu. So any other faith is viewed as non-Indian. In rural areas, Christians were told that one church would be closed down every week because they have been “destroying” local tradition and culture by “luring” others to convert to Christianity. And it is common for Christians to be cut off from local water supplies and be denied access to government-subsidized groceries. In India, saying “yes” to Jesus has become a risky decision that costs you and your family greatly.

To read more about these countries and the remaining 40 countries on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List, click here to see the list and download the full report. To help you pray with these believers, Open Doors has a mobile prayer app that alerts you to prayer requests from believers. Learn more about it and sign up to get regular updates delivered to your phone. 

Jan. 17: Two Christian Persecution Hotbeds

THE ONGOING BATTLE OF TWO CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION HOTBEDS

Why the two countries again almost tied for the #1 spot on the 2019 World Watch List

For the second year, the countries in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the 2019 World Watch List almost tied. Last year, they were within one point. This year, only three-tenths of a point separates them; North Korea scored 10.9 in violence while Afghanistan registered 10.6. In the remaining five categories (private life, family life, community life, national life and church life), both countries have the exact same scores of 16.7. In this article, we examine the two most dangerous countries for Christians. Both have maximum scores in five spheres of life. Considering these countries are so different, how is that possible?

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN NORTH KOREA AND AFGHANISTAN?

North Korea: Understanding North Korea means understanding its leadership and personality cult. In its early years, from independence in 1945, the country followed the Communist path and faced an early war against UN troops in the Korean War (1950-1953). Soon after that, it became clear that North Korea would not be a Communist country led by a collective leadership, but rather by one person, Kim Il Sung.

After his death in 1994, he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong II, who was in turn succeeded after his death in 2011 by his son, Kim Jong Un. The country has two ideologies as its basis. One is called “Juche,” which basically says that man is self-reliant. The other is “Kimilsungism,” the worship of the leaders who are the all-powerful entities guiding North Korea. The 200,000 to 400,000 Christians in North Korea are seen as traitors and “enemies” of the state. There was hope that new diplomatic efforts in 2018—including the 2018 Winter Olympics—would mean a lessening of pressure and violence against Christians, but so far that has not been the case. Kim Jong Un has maintained his tight control over the populace, and dissent or worshiping anything else is not tolerated.

AfghanistanOfficially, there are no Christians in this 99 percent Muslim state, apart from international military staff, diplomats and NGO workers (who, if at all, are worshipping in highly secured military compounds and are not considered for the purposes of the WWL). Indigenous Christians (mostly those with a Muslim background) are in hiding as much as possible.

Some 90 percent of Muslims follow Sunni Islam, while a slim 9.7 percent adhere to Shiite Islam. Afghanistan faces a grim security situation due to the influx of radical Islamic militants. The radical Islamic Taliban also is increasing in strength and are present in more regions and provinces than in the last few years. The few thousands of secret Christians are seen as traitors to Islam and apostates.

The security situation continues to deteriorate due to the influx of foreign militants who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. The radical Islamic Taliban have also increased in strength and their fighting units are present in more regions than in the last few years. At least half of Afghanistan’s provinces are either ruled or contested by the Taliban.

WHO ARE THE PERSECUTORS?

In our World Watch Methodology, we make a distinction between persecution engines (what’s driving the persecution) and persecution drivers (who is driving the persecution).

Communism Mixed With Dictatorial Paranoia

In North Korea, persecution is driven by Communist and post-Communist oppression. The country is run according to Communist administrative customs. Christians continue to be seen as dangerous and their religion as “opium for the people”–as in classical Communist ideology–but they are also part of the hostile class in the country`s social stratification system.

However, this persecution engine is mixed with dictatorial paranoia. Everyone in North Korea must revere the leadership and because of this personality cult, Kim Jong Un is an irreplaceable figure in society–he rules the Worker’s Party, the army, the country’s administration and all strands of society. Even though his power may not be as absolute as his father’s or grandfather’s, no one can challenge Kim Jong Un’s authority. The godlike worship of the rulers leaves absolutely no room for any other religion. Consequently, anyone daring to revere anything or anybody besides the Kim dynasty is seen as dangerous and a threat to the state.

The obvious persecutor (the persecution driver) is the North Korean state, which uses a variety of national, regional and local institutions–such as the police and “national security services”–to find Christians. These government officials employ spies and informants to help them as well. Neighbors also spy on each other, and even children are trained from their early years to report their own parents if they note suspicious behavior.

A Lethal Mix of Forces at Play

In Afghanistan, we see totally different engines and drivers. At play is a lethal mix of Islamic oppression, ethnic antagonism and organized crime and corruption.

Islamic oppression: In this persecution engine, extremists adhere to a strict version of Islam to oppress the people. When it comes to Islamic oppression, Afghanistan is one of the most extreme countries. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan neither allows any Afghan citizens to become Christians nor recognizes converts as such. Conversion is seen as apostasy and brings shame to the family and the community. As a result, converts hide their faith as much and as deep as possible.

Though the state is a driver of persecution, extremist groups, the local community and family members of converts are a much bigger danger in Afghanistan.

Ethnic antagonism (hostilities between different ethnic groups (tribes, etc.). The concept of nation is alien to the Afghan way of thinking. One’s own family comes first, followed by the clan and then the tribe–and all of these are much more important than the country. People are deeply entrenched in caring for their families, villages and tribes. When someone dares to turn from his tribe to embrace something new and maybe even foreign, pressure ensues. The person’s family and/or tribe will exert extreme pressure and even violence to make him return to traditional norms. If he doesn’t, he will be viewed as a traitor to the community, resulting in exclusion from family and society. While this protocol applies to all “deviations,” the pressure and violence intensify if it involves someone turning to  Christianity. The Christian religion is considered to be Western and hostile to Afghan culture, society and Islam. In this respect, conversion away from Islam is seen as treason.

Organized crime and corruption are alive and well in Afghanistan, an extremely poor country. One of the main economic problems the country faces is the fact that illicit drugs like opium are much more lucrative than virtually any other crop. Compared to wheat, farmers can earn 11 times the amount of money with poppy production. The Taliban are heavily involved in drug production; estimations indicate that 70 to 80 percent of all drug trafficking gains end up in the Taliban’s pockets.

Everyone who’s in the way of the drug lords will simply be pushed aside, a practice that has intensified. The situation is made additionally volatile by drug barons pressuring citizens and making parts of the country uncontrollable. In most cases, this pressure isn’t relegated to Christians only (they’re not visible anyway). However, believers are affected because they don’t have an alternative or someone to turn to for help.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS FOR CHRISTIANS?

In North Korea: When a Christian is discovered, he or she will be taken away by the police. Not only the Christian, but also his or her spouse and children. Sometimes even his/her parents too. To North Koreans, anyone who knows a Christian is “guilty by association.” If you’re guilty, so are the people who live or even just know you. After arrest, a Christian will be locked up in a small but overcrowded cell in a detention center. There, he/she will be interrogated for hours and subject to “light” or even heavy torture. Prisoners hardly receive any food and water; many don’t survive their detention.

After a few months, the courts will decide if the Christian will be prosecuted. When someone must go to court, he/she will be sent to a re-education labor camp with his/her family members. Prisoners in these camps receive on average of 500 calories of food a day and must work 10 to 12 hours a day. They will receive one day of rest every 10 days. At night, lengthy ideological training sessions are testing for the exhausted prisoners.

If someone is not sent to court, he/she will be transferred to a political labor camp.There, the circumstances are even more gruesome than re-education camp. Here, the prisoners have no hope of escape or release; they don’t receive ideological training. These camps are like the Nazi death camps of World War II.

A last possible fate for Christians is execution. Until a few years ago, Christians were sometimes publicly executed by a firing squad. But civilians found those executions too upsetting. Nowadays, political enemies, such as Christians, are killed in prison or labor camp basements by North Korean soldiers.

In Afghanistan, the state is hostile towards Christians, as noted above. However, the family, clan, tribe or local extremist group will “take care” of converts. Very often, there’s only one possible outcome for exposed and caught Christians: they will be killed. The family, clan or tribe must save its “honor” by disposing of the Christian. Extremist groups will surely not show mercy either.

There are reports that several converts were killed in the 2019 World Watch List reporting period but for security reasons, no details can be published. Even foreign Christian aid workers have been targeted and killed as recently as May 2017.

WHY DO NORTH KOREA AND AFGHANISTAN SCORE MAXIMUM POINTS IN 5 CATEGORIES OF THE LIST, BUT ARE SO DIFFERENT?

Our WWL methodology measures persecution in five spheres of life: private (your personal space), family, community, national and church. The reasons and actors for persecution are different, but North Korea and Afghanistan are simply so extreme in all these categories that they both received maximum points.

For example, Christians in North Korea are not allowed to have a Bible. If a Bible is discovered at someone’s home, the person will be arrested, tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment in a labor camp, which equates to a death sentence.

In Afghanistan, if a Bible of an Afghan Christian is discovered, the government will not take away the person; instead, that work will be done by family or local community. In the Middle Eastern country, torture with the purpose of forcing a believer to renounce Christ is the modus operandi. Again, just like in North Korea, if someone remains true to his/her faith, he/she will be surely killed.

WHY DON’T THESE COUNTRIES SCORE 100?

This relates to the violence category. An estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Christians live their lives inside North Korea’s vast prison system, where starvation, physical and mental abuse are part of every day. So there is a lot of violence in this country that we know of.

Because the church in Afghanistan is much smaller (several thousand believers) we cannot give specific details about violence incidents against Christians for security reasons. But we need little imagination to know that Afghanistan is a severely violent country.

However, both countries score zero points for several kinds of violence we measure, such as rapes or forced marriages for North Korea (which are unknown of), and shops and businesses or Christians destroyed in Afghanistan (where we lack reports). Maybe, even most likely, this is happening, but a lack of reports in terms of scores counts in favor of the country.

WHY IS NORTH KOREA #1 AND AFGHANISTAN #2?

As mentioned above, the church in North Korea is much larger (200,000-400,000 compared to several thousand in Afghanistan) and in a way, more visible compared to that of Afghanistan. That means persecution takes place on a larger scale; so it’s easier and more likely to receive reports. Second, Afghan Christians are able to leave the country easier than North Korean refugees, who face repatriation if they’re caught in China. However, many (Western) countries do repatriate Afghan refugees, even when they’re Christians.

WHAT IS THE GOOD NEWS?

In both countries, we know that there are faithful believers who will follow Jesus until death. Twenty years ago, the church in North Korea was much smaller. But during the famine in the ’90s, many refugees came to China and heard and brought back the gospel to their own country. This allowed the underground church to grow massively.

Twenty years ago, there were hardly any Afghan believers inside Afghanistan. Today, there’s a relatively small number of them–a miracle in itself.

HOW CAN WE PRAY?

  • Pray Brother Andrew’s prayer that God will make “seeing eyes blind.”
  • Pray that believers are able to worship, meet and grow in faith together in secret.
  • Pray for unity among believers and more exponential church growth.
  • Finally, don’t forget to thank the Lord for His faithfulness in these countries.

Jan. 19: A Dark Reality for Christian Women

A DARK REALITY—CHRISTIAN WOMEN IN 73 COUNTRIES FACE HIDDEN PERSECUTION EVERY DAY

When Maizah* invited Christ into her heart, she also invited persecution. As a Muslim and as a young woman, leaving Islam and converting to Christianity was basically a death wish. In Libya, she was beaten by a group of bearded men, who offered for her to become the fourth wife of one of the Muslim men who had just attacked her. The attack and ultimatum—combined with the very real potential her own family could kill her if they knew about her conversion—gave her little choice. She fled her home. In her 20s, Maizah is still suffering from the traumatic experiences even after she finally found refuge in a Western country where she is now free to profess her Christian faith.

Rita, a Christian woman from the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, was 26 when Islamic State militants invaded her town and took her captive. She was sold and bought four times as a sex slave before she was freed in 2017 and reunited with her father last April—almost four years since she was taken captive, four years after beatings, rape, mockery, intimidation, isolation.. the list goes on. IS militants, she says, see women as goods they can buy and sell and torture for disobedience.

Esther was 17 when the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram attacked her village of Gwoza in Nigeria’s Borno State and abducted her, taking her deep into the Sambisa Forest. In captivity, militants did everything they could to make the Christian girls renounce their faith. Determined to not give in, Esther was raped continually. In captivity, she conceived and had a daughter, Rebecca. When Esther was rescued a year later and returned to her community with Rebecca, she wasn’t prepared for the second phase of persecution she would endure, this time from her own community. “They called my baby ‘Boko,’” Esther says. People, even her own grandparents, were not so eager to welcome back the “Boko Haram women.”

Tragically, the examples of persecution and its devastating effects in these women’s stories are not uncommon.


Participating in Open Doors’ trauma counseling, Aisha is working through her pain.

Research for the newly released 2019 World Watch List surfaces some disturbing realities for Christian women and girls in countries where Christians are highly persecuted for their decision to follow Jesus. Around the world, Christians are targeted based not only on their faith but also their gender. Like Aisha, Maizah, Rita and Esther, increasing numbers of women face double vulnerability—because they are Christians and because they are female.

Persecution exploits all of a woman’s vulnerabilities, including (but not limited to): lack of education, healthcare, forced divorce, travel bans, trafficking, widowhood, incarceration in a psychiatric unit, forced abortions or contraception, being denied access to work and lack of choice to marry a person of similar faith. For someone who belongs to two minority groups, the compounded vulnerabilities can make life doubly difficult, even deadly.

TWICE AS MANY PERSECUTION TYPES

The research also found that Christian men and women experience persecution in very different ways. Notably, women face more physical violence than men in terms of the quantity and variety of forms violence can take. In fact, no overlap exists between the three most prevalent ways Christian men and women face pressure to abandon their faith.

For example, Christian men are most often subject to pressures related to work, military/militia conscription and non-sexual physical violence while Christian women are specifically and most frequently targeted through forced marriage, rape and other forms of sexual violence.

In addition to violent physical acts, persecution against Christian women also includes silent, often hidden and complex attacks such as shame, isolation, discrimination, and grief. On the surface, a woman’s persecution experience hardly shows, but as Hana, a Christian woman in Southwest Asia and one of Open Doors’ international guests for the launch of the 2019 World Watch List, points out, Christian girls and women have hidden, internal wounds that cannot be bandaged. Their persecution hides in plain sight.

A KEY TOOL TO DESTROY THE CHURCH

Whatever form it takes, the ultimate goal of all gender-specific persecution is to destroy the Christian community, say researchers Helene Fischer and Elizabeth Miller in their eye-opening report on gendered persecution. Fischer is women’s strategist and specialist at Open Doors International. Crimes committed against women are more likely to engender shame and ostracism than those committed against men.  … And attackers rely upon this community response.

For example, the sexual assault of women like Aisha and Esther in Nigeria by Boko Haram, and Rita in Iraq by Islamic State is typically acknowledged as rape, but not as a tool of religious persecution. A study of both the demographics of victims and their testimonies of the words their attackers’ hurled at them leaves no doubt that at least one primary objective of Boko Haram and the Islamic State is to eradicate the Christian population by every means.

And they see women as a key tool.

“The persecutors seek to isolate women and teenage girls from the (Christian) community,” Fischer and Miller write. “[These women and young girls] are forced into a marriage with a non-Christian man.”

Forced marriage accomplishes several things: married to a Muslim, these women will not have a Christian family; and as the wife of a Muslim, they’ll move in with the husband’s family who will oversee her.

“That means no contact with the Christian community,” Fischer and Miller write. “A forced marriage is a very effective way to isolate women.”

They offer a helpful scenario: “Try to imagine a young teenage girl who gets to know Jesus Christ. She got a new life in Christ, a life-changing experience, experiencing the love of God for the first time. And then, suddenly, she is cut off of from all contact with other Christians and with Christian television. That is such a successful means of isolation, that it’s impossible to keep track of them.”

It’s so untraceable that no figures are known about how often this kind of situation happens to Christian girls and women.

During the 2019 World Watch List press conference, Hana from Southwest Asia shares firsthand observations about the far-reaching impact of persecution of Christian women: “Behind every story that he tells and she experiences, a community, a street, a city, a town, a country is affected when Christians are persecuted,” she says. “That’s how deep the impact goes. That’s how deep the marginalization and religious injustice and the breakdown of dignity of both women and men goes.”

The lower the status of women in a society, the worse the violence will be against women in persecuted groups. Open Doors CEO David Curry explains how living as second-class citizens in many countries exacerbates persecution: “To further complicate and degrade their value, Christian women specifically face an even greater challenge. They are targeted specifically for their faith and often are helpless to demand justice. As the United States continues to focus on improving the lives of American women, let us not forget those who cannot even have a man arrested for violence against them.”

GENDERED PERSECUTION BY COUNTRY

While our research for the 2019 World Watch List shows that gendered persecution is particularly prevalent in Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Colombia, and the Central African Republic, here’s a quick look at what’s happening to female believers in several of the countries on the 2019 World Watch List:

Egypt, No. 16

The exposure of Christian women in Egypt to discrimination, threats of violence and aggression occurs on multiple levels. Broader political, socio-economic and cultural factors ranging from domestic violence to recent increased Islamist radicalism and political upheaval also provide a context for how Christian women in Egypt are treated. It’s is clear that the intersection between gender and religion in Egypt is leveraged to deliberately intimidate and weaken the church there.

Ethiopia, No. 28

Women are mostly victim to abduction, rape and divorce. An Open Doors researcher notes: “Some believers will also face the challenge of living without marriage. In Ethiopia, women comprise the majority of churches. “But, these women would not find husbands. And the community and their relatives will pressure/insult them,” church leaders explained.

Iraq, No. 13

Christian women in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan face compounded vulnerability from both cultural inequalities and religious persecution. The situation of all women in Iraq is exacerbated by the current conflict and insecurity of the region. The targeting of Christian women in Iraq can be deliberately used as a strategy to weaken or even destroy the church in the short and long term.

Colombia, No. 47

After decades of armed conflict and organized crime, coupled with a strongly “macho” culture, women in Colombia continue to face a great deal of violence and pressure. While this is not necessarily a direct result of their Christian faith, women face danger when their faith compels them to not submit to armed and criminal group. In addition, for those who are from indigenous communities, becoming a Christian can be seen as a betrayal of the indigenous beliefs and way of life, prompting action from the community against women and girls who convert.

Central African Republic, No. 21

Women in the Central African Republic (CAR) have gone from a traditional, pre-colonial position of being viewed as cherished educators of the next generation with economic influence to being deeply disadvantaged members of society. In a country with the world’s second-lowest gross domestic product, they face violence and exploitation, including strategic mass rape by armed groups and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers.

They also have the lowest levels of female literacy and the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world. Even in the church, widespread cohabitation and the blaming and suspicion of women leaves them deeply vulnerable in a community where they should be safest, particularly if they have been traumatized by war and sexual violence. This undermines the entire Christian community, leaving it far more vulnerable to external pressures because its own core is fragile.

Tunisia, No. 37

A journalist who conducted an in-depth investigation of the situation for Christian females in Tunisia comments: “Tunisian Christians face discrimination and targeting that is often obscure and hidden to the public eye. It affects their day-to-day lives. Because of their Christian identities, many experience job insecurity, abandonment from family, friends and even fiancés. They are victims of verbal, mental and physical abuse.”

Malaysia, No. 42

Women who convert to Christianity are often threatened with rape or forced marriage.

Nigeria, No. 12

Women and girls have often been abducted and subjected to sexual assault and rape—the  common practice of both Boko Haram and Fulani Muslim herdsmen. Many are also forced into marriage with non-Christians.

Laws that permit under-age marriage in some states (as well the existence of cultural and religious norms that discourage girls from attending school) only contributes to this problem. The persecution of women and girls has a detrimental effect on the church and Christian families. In addition to the great emotional toll and social cost, in some communities where widows are the main bread winners of the famil, such persecution of women also affects the economic well-being of the community.

Pakistan, No. 5

Horrific statistics continue to indicate that an estimated 700 Pakistani Christian girls and women are abducted each year, often raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men. This involves forced conversions as well, and if a Christian family is bold enough to challenge the abduction and marriage, they often face accusations of harassing the “voluntarily converted” girl and her new family. A report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan found that at least 1,000 girls belonging to Christian and Hindu communities are forced to marry Muslim men every year.

India, No. 10

The forms of persecution women and girls are particularly subject to include molestation, rape, physical and verbal abuse, attempted murder, forced participation in Hindu rituals; isolation, and expulsion from their home. Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has announced the launch of the “bahu lao-beti bachao” campaign. Under it, they “protect Hindu boys who marry Muslim or Christian girls” and create awareness among Hindu families “to protect their girls from falling in love or getting married to Muslim or Christian boys.”

Afghanistan, No. 2

Persecution is gender-blind, especially in this country. Given the very weak role women play in Afghan society, women who convert to the Christian faith are prone to even more pressure and harassment than men. However, because conversions are kept as secret as possible, women are able to live their newfound faith, bringing their husbands and whole families to Christ.

MALDIVES, No. 14

Given the very strict interpretation of Islam in the Maldives, there is no difference in the ways women and men are persecuted: Once they are discovered as converts, every effort will be made to bring converts back to Islam. However in general, women and girls are more vulnerable because despite the closely-knit social control on the islands, abuse, rape and sexual harassment are surprisingly common. Christian women are affected by this as well.

NEPAL, No. 32

Christian women and girls are also subjected to physical violence, but it comes gradually after emotional and mental torture. In an initial phase, they are emotionally tortured by immediate family members (such as husband, in-laws and parents). Gradually, the mental and physical torture starts until finally they are regarded as social outcasts by family and community.

This process makes them vulnerable and victims of sexual oppression. Nepal is a patriarchal society where girls have less opportunities. Education and exposure to wider society are minimal. Females are limited within the boundaries of home with a large amount of household duties. Those who become Christians do so mainly through witnessing healings and miracles in their own or closest family life.

Sri Lanka, No. 46

Due to cultural reasons, new female converts find it more difficult to follow their faith. Furthermore, women and girls are often subject to cultural dress codes or certain traditions (for example, in Hindu communities, to continue wearing certain religious symbols, etc.). If the female convert comes from a Muslim background and clings to her newfound faith, she is more at risk of being forced into marriage with a Muslim than a male convert.

When Christian women and girls—not just converts—are subject to persecution, their families are more reluctant to send them out for any church-related work again. Also, if there has been any kind of sexual assault due to their faith, most often it would be considered a shame on the whole family—also impacting those girls’ prospects for marriage in the village.

Mar. 08: Rape Is ‘Common’ Persecution Method Against Women

HIDDEN WOUNDS—CHRISTIANS SAY RAPE IS ‘COMMON’ PERSECUTION METHOD AGAINST WOMEN

Rita, a Christian woman from the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, was 26 when Islamic State militants invaded her town and took her captive. She was sold and bought four times as a sex slave before she was freed in 2017 and reunited with her father last April—almost four years since she was taken captive, four years after beatings, rape, mockery, intimidation, isolation.. the list goes on. IS militants, she says, see women as goods they can buy and sell and torture for disobedience.

Two years ago Aisha, a 28-year-old wife and mother of three from Nigeria (#12 on the 2019 World Watch List), found herself face to face with Fulani Islamic militants. During an attack on her northern Nigerian community of Kano, they had forced their way into her home. A Bible in the room was a sure sign, they thought, that Aisha’s husband was a pastor. Immediately, they grabbed him and took him away. Then the men demanded sex from her. When she refused, they beat her up. That night, Aisha was raped by two men.

When Maizah* invited Christ into her heart, she also invited persecution. As a Muslim and as a young woman, leaving Islam and converting to Christianity was basically a death wish. In Libya, she was beaten by a group of bearded men, who offered for her to become the fourth wife of one of the Muslim men who had just attacked her. The attack and ultimatum—combined with the very real potential her own family could kill her if they knew about her conversion—gave her little choice. She fled her home. In her 20s, Maizah is still suffering from the traumatic experiences even after she finally found refuge in a Western country where she is now free to profess her Christian faith.

Esther was 17 when the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram attacked her village of Gwoza in Nigeria’s Borno State and abducted her, taking her deep into the Sambisa Forest. In captivity, militants did everything they could to make the Christian girls renounce their faith. Determined to not give in, Esther was raped continually. In captivity, she conceived and had a daughter, Rebecca. When Esther was rescued a year later and returned to her community with Rebecca, she wasn’t prepared for the second phase of persecution she would endure, this time from her own community. “They called my baby ‘Boko,’” Esther says. People, even her own grandparents, were not so eager to welcome back the “Boko Haram women.”

Tragically, the examples of persecution and its devastating effects in these women’s stories are not uncommon.



A new Open Doors in-depth report focusing on gendered persecuition surfaces some disturbing realities for Christian women and girls in countries where Christians are highly persecuted for their decision to follow Jesus. Around the world, Christians are targeted based not only on their faith but also their gender. Like Aisha, Maizah, Rita and Esther, increasing numbers of women face double vulnerability—because they are Christians and because they are female.

In 59 percent of the 50 countries surveyed, sexual assault was described as a characteristic of religious persecution and 47 percent said rape was also common related to a woman’s Christianity identity or choice of faith. Christian women who do not dress like Muslim women, for example, wearing a hijab, are easily and immediately identified and can be subject to sexual harassment on the street.

Some 35 percent of the 50 countries surveyed mentioned forced divorce; and 31 percent of surveyed countries mentioned denial of custody of children for Christian women. Fifty-seven percent noted forced marriage as a means to persecute Christian women.

Persecution exploits all of a woman’s vulnerabilities, including (but not limited to): lack of education, healthcare, forced divorce, travel bans, trafficking, widowhood, incarceration in a psychiatric unit, forced abortions or contraception, being denied access to work and lack of choice to marry a person of similar faith. For someone who belongs to two minority groups, the compounded vulnerabilities can make life doubly difficult, even deadly.

TWICE AS MANY PERSECUTION TYPES

The research also found that Christian men and women experience persecution in very different ways. Notably, women face more physical violence than men in terms of the quantity and variety of forms violence can take. In fact, no overlap exists between the three most prevalent ways Christian men and women face pressure to abandon their faith.

For example, Christian men are most often subject to pressures related to work, military/militia conscription and non-sexual physical violence while Christian women are specifically and most frequently targeted through forced marriage, rape and other forms of sexual violence.

In addition to violent physical acts, persecution against Christian women also includes silent, often hidden and complex attacks such as shame, isolation, discrimination, and grief. On the surface, a woman’s persecution experience hardly shows, but as Hana, a Christian woman in Southwest Asia and one of Open Doors’ international guests for the launch of the 2019 World Watch List, points out, Christian girls and women have hidden, internal wounds that cannot be bandaged. Their persecution hides in plain sight.

A KEY TOOL TO DESTROY THE CHURCH


In trauma counseling from Open Doors in Nigeria, the women painted self-portraits to help them express their feelings. Here, Aisha shows hers.

Whatever form it takes, the ultimate goal of all gender-specific persecution is to destroy the Christian community, say researchers Helene Fischer and Elizabeth Miller in their eye-opening report on gendered persecution. Fischer is women’s strategist and specialist at Open Doors International. Crimes committed against women are more likely to engender shame and ostracism than those committed against men.  … And attackers rely upon this community response.

For example, the sexual assault of women like Aisha and Esther in Nigeria by Boko Haram, and Rita in Iraq by Islamic State is typically acknowledged as rape, but not as a tool of religious persecution. A study of both the demographics of victims and their testimonies of the words their attackers’ hurled at them leaves no doubt that at least one primary objective of Boko Haram and the Islamic State is to eradicate the Christian population by every means.

And they see women as a key tool.

“The persecutors seek to isolate women and teenage girls from the (Christian) community,” Fischer and Miller write. “[These women and young girls] are forced into a marriage with a non-Christian man.”

Forced marriage accomplishes several things: married to a Muslim, these women will not have a Christian family; and as the wife of a Muslim, they’ll move in with the husband’s family who will oversee her.

“That means no contact with the Christian community,” Fischer and Miller write. “A forced marriage is a very effective way to isolate women.”

They offer a helpful scenario: “Try to imagine a young teenage girl who gets to know Jesus Christ. She got a new life in Christ, a life-changing experience, experiencing the love of God for the first time. And then, suddenly, she is cut off of from all contact with other Christians and with Christian television. That is such a successful means of isolation, that it’s impossible to keep track of them.”

It’s so untraceable that no figures are known about how often this kind of situation happens to Christian girls and women.

During the 2019 World Watch List press conference, Hana from Southwest Asia shares firsthand observations about the far-reaching impact of persecution of Christian women: “Behind every story that he tells and she experiences, a community, a street, a city, a town, a country is affected when Christians are persecuted,” she says. “That’s how deep the impact goes. That’s how deep the marginalization and religious injustice and the breakdown of dignity of both women and men goes.”

The lower the status of women in a society, the worse the violence will be against women in persecuted groups. Open Doors CEO David Curry explains how living as second-class citizens in many countries exacerbates persecution: “To further complicate and degrade their value, Christian women specifically face an even greater challenge. They are targeted specifically for their faith and often are helpless to demand justice. As the United States continues to focus on improving the lives of American women, let us not forget those who cannot even have a man arrested for violence against them.”

GENDERED PERSECUTION BY COUNTRY

While our research for the 2019 World Watch List shows that gendered persecution is particularly prevalent in Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Colombia, and the Central African Republic, here’s a quick look at what’s happening to female believers in several of the countries on the 2019 World Watch List:

Egypt, No. 16

The exposure of Christian women in Egypt to discrimination, threats of violence and aggression occurs on multiple levels. Broader political, socio-economic and cultural factors ranging from domestic violence to recent increased Islamist radicalism and political upheaval also provide a context for how Christian women in Egypt are treated. It’s is clear that the intersection between gender and religion in Egypt is leveraged to deliberately intimidate and weaken the church there.

Ethiopia, No. 28

Women are mostly victim to abduction, rape and divorce. An Open Doors researcher notes: “Some believers will also face the challenge of living without marriage. In Ethiopia, women comprise the majority of churches. “But, these women would not find husbands. And the community and their relatives will pressure/insult them,” church leaders explained.

Iraq, No. 13

Christian women in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan face compounded vulnerability from both cultural inequalities and religious persecution. The situation of all women in Iraq is exacerbated by the current conflict and insecurity of the region. The targeting of Christian women in Iraq can be deliberately used as a strategy to weaken or even destroy the church in the short and long term.

Colombia, No. 47

After decades of armed conflict and organized crime, coupled with a strongly “macho” culture, women in Colombia continue to face a great deal of violence and pressure. While this is not necessarily a direct result of their Christian faith, women face danger when their faith compels them to not submit to armed and criminal group. In addition, for those who are from indigenous communities, becoming a Christian can be seen as a betrayal of the indigenous beliefs and way of life, prompting action from the community against women and girls who convert.

Central African Republic, No. 21

Women in the Central African Republic (CAR) have gone from a traditional, pre-colonial position of being viewed as cherished educators of the next generation with economic influence to being deeply disadvantaged members of society. In a country with the world’s second-lowest gross domestic product, they face violence and exploitation, including strategic mass rape by armed groups and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers.

They also have the lowest levels of female literacy and the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world. Even in the church, widespread cohabitation and the blaming and suspicion of women leaves them deeply vulnerable in a community where they should be safest, particularly if they have been traumatized by war and sexual violence. This undermines the entire Christian community, leaving it far more vulnerable to external pressures because its own core is fragile.

Tunisia, No. 37

A journalist who conducted an in-depth investigation of the situation for Christian females in Tunisia comments: “Tunisian Christians face discrimination and targeting that is often obscure and hidden to the public eye. It affects their day-to-day lives. Because of their Christian identities, many experience job insecurity, abandonment from family, friends and even fiancés. They are victims of verbal, mental and physical abuse.”

Malaysia, No. 42

Women who convert to Christianity are often threatened with rape or forced marriage.

Nigeria, No. 12

Women and girls have often been abducted and subjected to sexual assault and rape—the  common practice of both Boko Haram and Fulani Muslim herdsmen. Many are also forced into marriage with non-Christians.

Laws that permit under-age marriage in some states (as well the existence of cultural and religious norms that discourage girls from attending school) only contributes to this problem. The persecution of women and girls has a detrimental effect on the church and Christian families. In addition to the great emotional toll and social cost, in some communities where widows are the main bread winners of the famil, such persecution of women also affects the economic well-being of the community.

Pakistan, No. 5

Horrific statistics continue to indicate that an estimated 700 Pakistani Christian girls and women are abducted each year, often raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men. This involves forced conversions as well, and if a Christian family is bold enough to challenge the abduction and marriage, they often face accusations of harassing the “voluntarily converted” girl and her new family. A report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan found that at least 1,000 girls belonging to Christian and Hindu communities are forced to marry Muslim men every year.

India, No. 10

The forms of persecution women and girls are particularly subject to include molestation, rape, physical and verbal abuse, attempted murder, forced participation in Hindu rituals; isolation, and expulsion from their home. Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has announced the launch of the “bahu lao-beti bachao” campaign. Under it, they “protect Hindu boys who marry Muslim or Christian girls” and create awareness among Hindu families “to protect their girls from falling in love or getting married to Muslim or Christian boys.”

Afghanistan, No. 2

Persecution is gender-blind, especially in this country. Given the very weak role women play in Afghan society, women who convert to the Christian faith are prone to even more pressure and harassment than men. However, because conversions are kept as secret as possible, women are able to live their newfound faith, bringing their husbands and whole families to Christ.

MALDIVES, No. 14

Given the very strict interpretation of Islam in the Maldives, there is no difference in the ways women and men are persecuted: Once they are discovered as converts, every effort will be made to bring converts back to Islam. However in general, women and girls are more vulnerable because despite the closely-knit social control on the islands, abuse, rape and sexual harassment are surprisingly common. Christian women are affected by this as well.

NEPAL, No. 32

Christian women and girls are also subjected to physical violence, but it comes gradually after emotional and mental torture. In an initial phase, they are emotionally tortured by immediate family members (such as husband, in-laws and parents). Gradually, the mental and physical torture starts until finally they are regarded as social outcasts by family and community.

This process makes them vulnerable and victims of sexual oppression. Nepal is a patriarchal society where girls have less opportunities. Education and exposure to wider society are minimal. Females are limited within the boundaries of home with a large amount of household duties. Those who become Christians do so mainly through witnessing healings and miracles in their own or closest family life.

Sri Lanka, No. 46

Due to cultural reasons, new female converts find it more difficult to follow their faith. Furthermore, women and girls are often subject to cultural dress codes or certain traditions (for example, in Hindu communities, to continue wearing certain religious symbols, etc.). If the female convert comes from a Muslim background and clings to her newfound faith, she is more at risk of being forced into marriage with a Muslim than a male convert.

When Christian women and girls—not just converts—are subject to persecution, their families are more reluctant to send them out for any church-related work again. Also, if there has been any kind of sexual assault due to their faith, most often it would be considered a shame on the whole family—also impacting those girls’ prospects for marriage in the village.

ELEVATING THE VOICES OF OUR SISTERS


Open Doors is committed to elevating the voices of our sisters in Christ because we believe one of the most powerful ways to impact a vulnerable community is to empower its women.

Would you join us today as we stand with our persecuted sisters who fiercely love God at all costs? We have created powerful opportunities to help you engage—everything from writing your prayers and pledging to pray; to downloading a FREE 13-week Bible study/devotional and even sending a personal message to Aisha, a wife, mother and rape survivor in Nigeria.

Mar. 13: 11 Christians Killed Every Day for Their Decision to Follo...

Below, we look at the world’s 10 most dangerous places to be a Christian—countries where saying “yes” to following Jesus is truly a life-or-death decision.

1. IN NORTH KOREA, CHRISTIANITY IS THE NO. 1 ENEMY OF THE STATE

For three generations, everything in this isolated country has focused on idolizing the leading Kim family. Christians are seen as hostile elements in society that must be eradicated. There was hope that new diplomatic efforts in 2018—including the 2018 Winter Olympics—would mean a lessening of pressure and violence against Christians. But so far that has not been the case. In fact, reports indicate that local authorities are increasing incentives for anyone who exposes a Christian in their community. If Christians are discovered, not only are they deported to labor camps or even killed on the spot, their families to the fourth generation share their fate as well. Communal worship is non-existent. Daring to meet other Christians for worship is a risky feat that must be done in utmost secrecy. Yet Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in North Korea to be 300,000 strong—believers who are defying the unjust regime and following Jesus.

2. AFGHANISTAN—WHERE CHRISTIANITY IS NOT PERMITTED TO EXIST

Photo credit: IMB.ORG

Afghanistan is once again a close second behind North Korea on the 2019 World Watch List. An Islamic state by constitution, the country does not permit any faith other than Islam to exist. To convert to a faith outside Islam is tantamount to treason because it’s seen as a betrayal of family, tribe and country. Very often, there is only one possible outcome for exposed and caught Christians: death. In Afghanistan converts are considered literally insane to leave Islam. As a result, some may end up in a psychiatric hospital and have their homes destroyed. In addition to communal pressure, the security situation continues to deteriorate due to the influx of foreign militants who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. And the radical Islamic Taliban have also increased in strength; at least half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are either ruled or contested by the Taliban. Afghan Christians (mostly those with a Muslim background) are in hiding as much as possible.

Watch the 2019 World Watch List video

3.CHRISTIANS ARE HIGH-VALUE TARGETS IN SOMALIA

Estimates suggest that 99 percent of Somalis are Muslims, and any minority religions are heavily persecuted. The Christian community is small and under constant threat of attack. In fact, persecution of Christians almost always involves violence. Additionally, in many rural areas, Islamic militant groups like al-Shabab are de facto rulers who regard Christians with a Muslim background as high-value targets—often killed on the spot when discovered. In recent years, the situation appears to have worsened. Islamic militants have intensified their hunt for people who are Christian and in a position of leadership. An attempt to reopen a church in Hargeisa, Somaliland, failed; the government was forced to shut it down due to pressure from the local Islamic population. In the World Watch List 2019 reporting period, Christians in Somalia remained so vulnerable to attacks by Islamic militants that in the interests of security, Open Doors could publish no specific examples of persecution.

4.BELIEVERS IN LIBYA FACE DEADLY VIOLENCE

After the ouster of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya plunged into chaos and anarchy, which has enabled various Islamic militant groups to control parts of the country. Libyan converts to Christianity face abuse and violence for their decision to follow Christ. The country is also home to many migrant workers who have been attacked, sexually assaulted and detained, which can be even worse if your Christian faith is discovered. Libyan Christians with a Muslim background face extremely violent and intense pressure from their family and the wider community to renounce their faith. Believers from other parts of the continent are also targeted by various Islamic militant groups and organized criminal groups. Few will forget the horrifying video of Egyptian workers martyred by ISIS militants on the coast of Libya. The level of violence against Christians in Libya is very high, and Christians in Libya are subjected to violent, inhumane and degrading treatment.

5.CHRISTIANS IN PAKISTAN LIVE WITH OPEN DISCRIMINATION AND CONSTANT THREAT OF MOB ATTACKS

Under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, Christians continue to live in daily fear they will be accused of blasphemy—which can carry a death sentence. The most well-known example of these laws is the case of Asia Bibi. After sitting on death row for more than 10 years, the Christian wife and mother was acquitted of blasphemy charges in October however her life is still in grave danger from radical Islamists that have gained increasing political power in the world’s sixth-largest country. For that reason, the new ruling government must maintain good diplomatic relationships with some radical groups. Christians are largely regarded as second-class citizens, and conversion to Christianity from Islam carries a great deal of risk. An estimated 700 girls and women abducted each year are often raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men in the community, usually resulting in forced conversions. While traditional, historical churches have relative freedom for worship, they are heavily monitored and have regularly been targeted for bomb attacks (for example, the Quetta attack in December 2017 on Bethel Memorial Methodist Church). In Pakistan, all Christians suffer from institutionalized discrimination. Occupations seen as low, dirty and derogatory are officially reserved for Christians. Many Christians are very poor, and some are victims of bonded labor. On the other hand, many Christians belong to Pakistan’s middle class; however, this does not save them from being marginalized or persecuted.

6.CHRISTIAN CONVERTS IN SUDAN TARGETED FOR PERSECUTION

Sudan has been ruled as an Islamic state by the authoritarian government of President al-Bashir since 1989. Under his charge, the country offers limited rights for religious minorities and places heavy restrictions on freedom of speech or press. The last year has been difficult for Christians in many ways. There have been arrests; many churches have been demolished and others are on an official list awaiting demolition. And many Christians are attacked indiscriminately in areas like the Nuba Mountains where there is an ongoing conflict between government forces and rebel groups. Christian converts from Islam are especially targeted for persecution. So to keep from being discovered, converts will often refrain from raising their children as Christians because this might attract the attention of the government and community leaders (since children might inadvertently reveal their parents’ faith).

7.CHRISTIANS IMPRISONED IN SHIPPING CONTAINERS IN ERITREA

Since 1993, President Afwerki has overseen an authoritarian brutal regime that rests on massive human rights violations. During the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, government security forces conducted many house-to-house raids and imprisoned hundreds of Christians in inhumane conditions, including small shipping containers in scorching heat. Protestants, in particular, face serious problems in accessing community resources, especially social services provided by the State. Christians from non-traditional church groups, such as evangelicals, face the harshest persecution. In 2018, Eritrea embraced an end to hostility with both Ethiopia and Somalia. How that agreement will play out for the situation of Christians remains to be seen. This extreme pressure and state-sanctioned violence are forcing some Christians to flee Eritrea–often called “Africa’s North Korea”–and seek asylum.

8.BELIEVERS IN YEMEN ESPECIALLY VULNERABLE IN CIVIL WAR AND FAMINE

An ongoing civil war in Yemen has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory, making an already difficult nation for Christians to live in even harder. The chaos of war has enabled radical groups to take control over some regions of Yemen, and they have increased persecution of Christians. Even private worship is risky in some parts of the country. Christians are suffering from the general humanitarian crisis in the country, but Yemeni Christians are additionally vulnerable since emergency relief is mostly distributed through Islamic organizations and local mosques, which are allegedly discriminating against all who are not considered to be pious Muslims. Converts to Christianity from Islam face additional persecution from family and society. In Yemen, the small church is composed mostly of Yemeni Christians with a Muslim background who must live their faith in secret. They face persecution from the authorities (including detention and interrogation), their families, and radical Islamic groups who threaten converts with death if they don’t denounce Christ and re-convert.

9.ILLEGAL TO CONVERT, ILLEGAL TO PREACH IN IRAN

In this gateway to the Middle East, Christians are forbidden from sharing their faith with non-Christians. Therefore, church services in Persian, the national language, are not allowed. Converts from Islam undergo persecution from the government; if they attend an underground house church, they face the constant threat of arrest. Iranian society is governed by Islamic law, which means the rights and job possibilities for Christians are heavily restricted. The government sees them as an attempt by Western countries to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime of Iran. Leaders of groups of Christian converts have been arrested, prosecuted and have received long prison sentences for “crimes against the national security.” In December, to crack down on Christians sharing their faith, Iranian police arrested 100 Christians in one week, making a blatant statement to both Christians and Muslims. Iran is also infamous for its prisons and inhumane treatment of Christians in places like Evin Prison where well-known house church pastor Yousef Nardarkhani is serving a 10-year sentence.

10.UNPRECEDENTED CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION IN INDIA

In the world’s second most populous country, Christians saw unprecedented persecution on numerous fronts from both the State and general Hindu society. For the first time, India enters the top 10 on the World Watch List, jumping one spot from No. 11 in 2017. Home to more than a billion people, even an incremental rise in persecution yields an exponential impact. Since the current ruling party took power in 2014, Hindu extremists have fueled a crackdown on Christian house churches and have attacked believers with impunity—believing that to be Indian is to be Hindu. So any other faith is viewed as non-Indian. In rural areas, Christians were told that one church would be closed down every week because they have been “destroying” local tradition and culture by “luring” others to convert to Christianity. And it is common for Christians to be cut off from local water supplies and be denied access to government-subsidized groceries. In India, saying “yes” to Jesus has become a risky decision that costs you and your family greatly.

To read more about these countries and the remaining 40 countries on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List, click here to see the list and download the full report. To help you pray with these believers, Open Doors has a mobile prayer app that alerts you to prayer requests from believers. Learn more about it and sign up to get regular updates delivered to your phone. 

Mar. 20: The Radical Resurrection Story of the Church in the Middle...

“Despite all that has happened to us, God cared for us; He didn’t leave us.” –Father Poulos in Iraq in the Middle East

A resurrection story of God’s people.

You won’t find this account in the Old or New Testament, as first impressions might imply. But the feature protagonist and antagonist are the same. God and Satan are front and center in this narrative.

A FIGHT OF A DIFFERENT KIND


The church in the Middle East is rising up to be salt and light on the Nineveh Plain.

Clearly, the story of how the 2,000-year-old church in the Middle East has risen up after the inhumane brutality of ISIS and ongoing civil war is nothing short of radical.

It is a modern-day illustration of the words the Apostle Paul wrote to the persecuted church of Ephesus 2,000 years ago: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

Paul tells us this battle for survival and restoration is not merely physical; it’s also spiritual. Sound familiar?

Through ISIS and the trail of destruction the war left, Satan threatened to wipe out the entire Christian population in this region known as the birthplace of Christianity, including 2,000-year-old communities. The resurrection of the church in the Middle East is a tangible expression of a God who has carried His people since day one, a Savior who has already defeated our arch enemy and is more powerful than any group or ruler known to man at any time and place in the world.

FROM INVASION TO RESTORATION


News headlines throughout the world questioned the future of the church in the Middle East.

At the beginning of 2014, the picture looked bleak for believers and the Christian faith in the Middle East, with some news reports questioning, “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?” Throughout the region, Christians heard the ultimatum: “Convert, leave, or die.”

Once controlling 34,000 square miles stretching across Syria and neighboring Iraq, ISIS imposed its violent rule on almost 8 million people. Today, the last Islamic State forces in Syria are currently confined into a tiny area near the Iraqi border—prompting officials to cautiously declare ultimate defeat of the remnant and an imminent end to the Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.

Here, we offer a brief synopsis of what our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria have endured over the last five years—and the impact of millions of God’s people praying for and coming alongside the church in the Middle East. 

2012 to 2013: Iraq is invaded, with ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) launching its “Breaking the Walls” campaign, carrying out eight prison breaks that free jihadists and more than 500 convicts, many of whom were senior members of Al Qaeda.

August 2013: In Syria, northern Aleppo is attacked. Soon after, ISIS moves into Syria and later becomes “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS).

January 2014 and June 2014: The cities of Raqqa in Syria (January) and Mosul in Iraq (June) are captured. Thousands flee for their lives to makeshift refugee camps where they will live for the next three years. Militants establish an Islamic caliphate (Islamic state ruled by a caliph with absolute power), declaring Raqqa its de facto capital. Later that year, smaller yet important cities and towns, including Qaraqosh—Iraq’s largest Christian town—are invaded and occupied.

2014 to 2017: ISIS carries out its reign of terror, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Non-Muslim women who remain are captured and sold as slaves. Churches are turned into shooting ranges. Reports from inside and outside the Middle East begin to surface, using the term “genocide” to describe what was happening to Christians, as well as other religious minorities.

October 2016: The Nineveh Plain is liberated as part of the year-long Battle of Mosul. Tired and weary residents displaced from their homes get the news they can now return to their homes.

2016-2018 Families begin to return to their villages but find their homes and communities destroyed and devastated by war. It’s quickly apparent that Islamic State set fire to hundreds of houses intentionally. Local churches form committees to coordinate house restoration, making the easiest repairs first. The hard work of rebuilding starts.

July 2017: Mosul is liberated. Three months later, forces mount an offensive against the extremist group and on October 14 announce they have cleared ISIS fighters from the National Raqqa Hospital and Paradise Square, the infamous area where ISIS jihadists carried out public beheadings and crucifixions.

October 2017: The last major stronghold in Iraq is liberated followed by Raqqa. The victories bring much-needed hope to the watching world and Middle East Christians.  

Easter 2018 For the first time in three years, Christians in Iraq and Syria gather in their villages to celebrate Easter—a vivid picture of God’s power to rescue and restore.

1,206 HOUSES RESTORED


Local committees coordinating the restoration of the houses in Iraq and the return of the people report that 8,360 Christian families have returned.

Today, the Nineveh Plain in Iraq has come back to life. More and more Christians are returning to the birthplace of Christianity. And with your help, 1206 houses have been restored. While some have chosen not to return, three years ago few believers in Iraq and Syria thought they’d ever see their homeland, let alone their home and community, again.

The resurrection story continues.

By the end of November 2018, local committees coordinating the restoration of the houses in Iraq and the return of the people report that 8,360 Christian families have returned, and with your help 1206 houses have been restored. Some 5,122 families have returned to Qaraqosh and 487 houses have been restored followed by Bartella that has seen 1,325 families return and 300 houses restored.

Other towns include: Bashiqa (287 families, 228 houses); Bahzany (155 families, 120 houses); Batnaya (0 families, 31 houses are done (roads are still blocked, preventing families from returning); and and Karamles (329 families, 40 houses). 

And while the progress is encouraging, much is still left to do. Father George, who oversees the committee coordinating restoration in Qaraqosh, shares his disappointment: “I expected it would go faster. The money comes slower to us than we had expected. Per organization, it’s different. The money your organization promised to us always comes in time.

“We need more support to rebuild the houses to let the reconstruction move faster. We have some houses that we couldn’t complete.”

He points to reasons why some families are not willing to return. A year after the town was liberated, the streets still need repairing, and medical services are lacking. For any specialized treatment or hospital needs, they must travel to Erbil.

“Last night my daughter was having tummy problems,” says Father Poulos from the Iraqi village of Bashiqa. “I didn’t know where to go with her at 2 o’clock in the morning. But, despite all that has happened to us, God cared for us; He didn’t leave us.” 

All but 10 to 15 families from his village have returned. The remaining families still can’t return because their homes were completely destroyed.

EVIL FOR GOOD


In April 2017, Christians made their way back to this church in Karamles to celebrate Palm Sunday. No one lived there at the time. Today, 300-plus families have returned to their village.

In many ways, the Christian Church throughout the world is part of this resurrection story. Around the globe, believers rallied in prayer as the crisis grew worse. Millions joined hearts and voices for the persecuted church in the Middle East. And thousands have and continue to come alongside our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters as they rebuild their lives and communities.

We’ve rejoiced at the scenes of returning believers waving palm branches and celebrating Easter in their homeland. And we’ve wept at the ongoing reports of discoveries of more mass graves, repeatedly reminding us of the darkness that once covered the region.

The schemes and plots of ISIS were full of evil and death, yet reports from Iraqi and Syrian believers continue to reveal the omnipotence and sovereignty of God–using the ways of evil for good. 

Our partners in these areas have heard and shared repeated accounts of God’s hand moving and Muslims miraculously coming to Christ out of the turmoil and heartbreak that ISIS brought. And faithful and courageous friends, family and neighbors have risked their lives to share the gospel, resulting in Muslims turning from Islam and trusting in Christ as their Savior in unprecedented numbers.

Believers and churches have also grown stronger, Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche says of Iraqi Christians: “Years of displacement have shaken the faith of the Christians,” he says. “But I see that many have come closer to God; their faith has become stronger. You can see the churches are full.”

In Syria, churches are seeing the beginnings of a revival.

THE NEXT CHAPTER


An Iraqi woman stretches out her hand over the river Tigris to pray over Syria.

The story of Christianity in Iraq and Syria is still being written. While the church has come back to life, strengthening it is necessary for its future. The threat of ISIS and other extremist groups still remains. Persecution is still very real.

Father George in Qaraqosh voices the need for greater protection:

“We need more security, more justice for our people,” he says, “and we need political support to guarantee that the Christian existence is protected here. Every day, we’re fighting for our survival as Christians; our existence is threatened.”

In addition to protection from persecution, more homes and businesses must be rebuilt and restored. Jobs must be created. Medical services must be improved, streets must be repaired, and schools must be rebuilt or refurbished.

We know that God’s work in Iraq and Syria is not done yet—and we also know He has already begun to write this next chapter. Open Doors’ Hope for the Middle East project continues to work within that tension.

Eternally, we know the end of the epic story and who wins. We know the protagonist defeats the antagonist. Until then, as a believer and part of the global body of Christ, you’re part of this unfolding story with an integral part to play in the future of the church and God’s Kingdom here on earth and in Heaven.

Our Middle East brothers and sisters need prayer and support from the global church. The road ahead is long and hard.

Will you pray for Christians who have returned and those who are returning (or thinking about it) as they rebuild the church and focus on the Kingdom work God has yet to reveal both in their hearts and communities?

Pray that they hold tight to the hope and the truth of the gospel as they seek to forgive and share their story of how God has sustained them and resurrected the church. Pray that God would give them strength through the trials they’re currently facing and will encounter in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Father George reminds us of our role in this story:

“Thank you for showing us that people are still thinking of us and standing with us …” he says. “This gives us peace of mind; otherwise we could not continue.” 

Open Doors’ seven-year global prayer campaign aims to restore hope to the church in the Middle East—so that they can be a source of hope to their communities, their countries, and their region. It’s about seeing the Church rise up to be salt and light in the Middle East once again. It’s about the worldwide Church coming together to see God do what so many people thought was impossible. And it’s about you boldly standing with them.

Join the Hope for the Middle East Prayer Movement today.
#Hope4ME

Learn more about how you can stand with the church in the Middle East.

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