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The 50 Countries That find it hard to follow Jesus
More than 5,600 Christians were killed for their faith last year. More than 2,100 churches were attacked or closed.
More than 124,000 Christians were forcibly displaced from their homes because of their faith, and almost 15,000 became refugees.
Sub-Saharan Africa—the epicenter of global Christianity—is now also the epicenter of violence against Christians, as Islamist extremism has spread well beyond Nigeria.
And North Korea is back at No. 1, according to the 2023 World Watch List (WWL), the latest annual accounting from Open Doors of the top 50 countries where it is most dangerous and difficult to be a Christian.
The concerning tallies of martyrdoms and church attacks are actually lower than in last year’s report. But Open Doors emphasizes they are “an absolute minimum figure,” and is quick to note the data decline does not suggest real improvements in religious freedom.
For example, the reduction in church closures was “due in large part” to Chinese officials having closed almost 7,000 churches over the prior two years. And the drop of Afghanistan from No. 1 last year to No. 9 this year “offers little cheer” because it’s driven by how most Afghan Christians “went deep into hiding or fled overseas” after the Taliban’s takeover.
Overall, and same as last year, 360 million Christians live in nations with high levels of persecution or discrimination. That’s 1 in 7 Christians worldwide, including 1 in 5 believers in Africa, 2 in 5 in Asia, and 1 in 15 in Latin America.
And for only the third time in three decades of tracking, all 50 nations scored high enough to register “very high” persecution levels on Open Doors’ matrix of more than 80 questions. So did 5 more nations that fell just outside the cutoff.
Islamic extremism continues to cause the most persecution (31 nations), especially in sub-Saharan Africa where Open Doors fears Nigeria will soon trigger “a vast humanitarian catastrophe” across the continent. Researchers also noted how China has increased digital restrictions and surveillance and is “forging a network of nations seeking to redefine human rights—away from universal standards and religious freedoms.” And a fourth Latin American country, Nicaragua, entered the list as authoritarian governments increasingly view Christians as voices of opposition.
The purpose of the annual WWL rankings—which have chronicled how North Korea has competition as persecution gets worse and worse—is to guide prayers and to aim for more effective anger while showing persecuted believers that they are not forgotten.
The 2023 version tracks the time period from October 1, 2021, to September 30, 2022, and is compiled from grassroots reports by more than 4,000 Open Doors workers across more than 60 countries.
Leaders in six countries explain how Christians can best support and rejoice with fellow believers suffering for their faith.
COMPILED BY MORGAN LEE
Today’s report also marks 30 years of the list, first created in 1993 after the Iron Curtain fell. What has Open Doors learned?
First, it’s clear that persecution continues to worsen. The number of countries hitting the WWL threshold to be tracked has risen from 40 in 1993 to 76 today, and the average country score has gone up 25 percent.
Yet the biggest threat to the church is not external but internal, concludes Frans Veerman, Open Doors managing director of research. And 1 Corinthians 12 means no believer should suffer alone.
“The biggest threat to Christianity,” he said, “is that persecution brings isolation, and when it keeps going on incessantly it may cause loss of hope.”
While violence and pressure lead to significant trauma and loss, Veerman noted how “remarkably many respondents to our questionnaires keep on saying that the biggest threat does not come from the outside but from within the church: ‘Will the next generation be prepared for the kind of persecution we are witnessing? Are they strong in their faith and in knowing Christ and the gospel?’”
“This shows that the level of resilience of the church is as defining for the future of the church in a country as is the level of persecution,” he said. “So the biggest threat to the church in countries with persecution is decrease of resilience caused by incessant persecution and the feeling of being forsaken by the rest of the body of Christ.”
After three decades of research, Open Doors has learned that such needed resilience is found by being “anchored in the Word of God and in prayer,” said Veerman. Also by being “courageous,” as the persecuted church is most often “active in spreading the gospel” and “vital and growing against the odds.”
In short, the persecuted church has taught Open Doors the truth of 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
Where are Christians most persecuted today?
Afghanistan does not represent the only substantial change in this year’s rankings. Cuba moved to No. 27, up from No. 37, due to the intensification of repressive tactics against Christian leaders and activists opposing Communist principles. Prior to widespread demonstrations in 2021, it didn’t even rank. Burkina Faso moved to No. 23, up from No. 32, due to increased jihadist activity, exacerbated by similar instability in neighboring Sahel nations. Mozambique moved to No. 32, up from No. 41, due to Islamic militancy in its northern region. And Colombia moved to No. 22, up from No. 30, due to targeted violence against Christians by criminal gangs.
Comoros joined the list at No. 42, rising 11 spots due to increased government paranoia (only foreigners there are allowed religious freedom). And Nicaragua joined the list for the first time, rising 11 spots to No. 50 due to growing dictatorial repression, especially against the Roman Catholic Church.
Where It’s Hardest to Follow Jesus:
1. North Korea
Overall, other than Afghanistan dropping eight slots, the top 10 nations mostly shuffled positions from last year [see sidebar]. Sudan rejoined the group at No. 10, bumping India which at No. 11 still scores within Open Doors’ “most extreme” level of persecution.
Surprisingly removed in 2021 from the US State Department’s annual listing of Countries of Particular Concern after finally being added in 2020, Nigeria was again given special attention in the Open Doors report, which noted:
Violence against Christians … is most extreme in Nigeria where militants from the Fulani, Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and others conduct raids on Christian communities, killing, maiming, raping and kidnapping for ransom or sexual slavery.
This year has also seen this violence spill over into the Christian-majority south of the nation. … Nigeria’s government continues to deny this is religious persecution, so violations of Christians' rights are carried out with impunity.
Repeating last year’s performance, Africa’s most populous nation ranked No. 1 in the WWL subcategories of Christians killed, abducted, sexually assaulted or harassed, forcibly married, or physically or mentally abused, as well as ranked No. 1 in homes and businesses attacked for faith-based reasons. It again ranked No. 2 in the subcategories of church attacks and internal displacement.
Violations of religious freedom in Nigeria are emblematic of a rapidly growing Islamist presence in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mali rose to No. 17 from No. 24. Burkina Faso rose to No. 23 from No. 32, and Niger rose to No. 28 from No. 33. Farther south, the Central African Republic (CAR) rose to No. 24 from No. 31; Mozambique rose to No. 32 from No. 41; and DRC rose to No. 37 from No. 40.
Countries with Christian majorities rank relatively low in the top 50, and include Colombia (No. 22), Central African Republic (No. 24), Cuba (No. 27), Ethiopia (No. 39), the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC (No. 37), Mozambique (No. 32), Mexico (No. 38), and Cameroon (No. 45), and Nicaragua (No. 50). (Kenya and Tanzania fall just short of making the 2023 list.)
Regarding Latin America, Open Doors noted:
Direct government oppression against Christians seen as voices of opposition is rife in Nicaragua (No. 50), Venezuela (No. 64), and Cuba (No. 27), where Christian leaders were imprisoned without trial for their part in last year’s demonstrations. In many countries in Latin America, organized crime has taken hold, especially in rural areas for Christians who speak out against the cartels’ activities.
Of the top 50 nations:
11 have “extreme” levels of persecution and 39 have “very high” levels. Another five nations outside the top 50 also qualify as “very high”: Kenya, Kuwait, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates, and Nepal. (Then OD tracks another 21 with “high” levels. The only nations to rise in level were Nicaragua and Sudan, while Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka were the only nations to drop in level.)
19 are in Africa, 27 are in Asia, and 4 are in Latin America.
34 have Islam as a main religion, 4 have Buddhism, 1 has Hinduism, 1 has atheism, 1 has agnosticism—and 10 have Christianity. (Nigeria is 50/50 Muslim-Christian.)
The 2023 list included two new countries: Comoros and Nicaragua. Two countries dropped off the list: Kuwait and Nepal.
Where Christians Face the Most Violence:
5. Burkina Faso
6. Central African Republic
8. Democratic Republic of Congo
Open Doors reporting period: Oct. 2021 to Sept. 2022
Other noteworthy increases include Mali at No. 17, up from No. 24, due to threats from jihadist and mercenary fighters in the context of a weak government that links some Christians to Western interests. Similarly, fellow Sahel nation Niger rose to No. 28 from No. 33, due to ongoing attacks by Islamist militants. And in North America, Mexico rose to No. 38 from No. 43, due to criminal violence against Christians perceived to be a threat to illegal activity, as well as social pressures faced by indigenous believers who refuse to follow ancestral customs.
Not all noteworthy movement was negative. Open Doors noted the “promotion of greater tolerance” in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Bahrain and the UAE. Qatar dropped 16 spots from No. 18 to No. 34, due to no churches being closed last year. (However, many previously closed house churches remained shut.) Egypt dropped 15 spots from No. 20 to No. 35, due to fewer reported attacks on Christian properties. Oman dropped for similar reasons from No. 36 to No. 47, and Jordan dropped from No. 39 to No. 49 due to no reports of Christians forced from their homes.
How Victims of Sexual Abuse Can Get the Better of Satan
Just over 25 years ago, Christian therapist Dan Allender released The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. For thousands of victims suffering the aftereffects of sexual trauma, it became a trusted guide. Now, after decades of clinical practice, Allender has published a follow-up: Healing the Wounded Heart: The Heartache of Sexual Abuse and the Hope of Transformation (Baker). Author Mary DeMuth, who has written widely about her own recovery from childhood sexual abuse, spoke with Allender about the spiritual contours of healing and the importance of kindness to victims.
What have you learned about the aftermath of sexual abuse since writing The Wounded Heart?
We now know much more about the brain. We know, for example, that trauma shuts down the left functional lobe where language resides. We have always known that trauma victims have fragmented memories, but now we have a clearer understanding of why.
The more we understand about the psychology of sexual abuse victims, the greater the potential for showing kindness. We can say, “This is what one would expect given the harm.” When clients have a better understanding of the neurology of trauma, it opens the door to greater kindness toward themselves.
What has struck you most powerfully as you’ve counseled clients?
It’s not enough to know the biology of trauma. We also need to know the spirituality of trauma. The natural tendency of victims is to turn shame and contempt against themselves. And this gets exploited by the Evil One. Satan is an accuser. He fans the flames of guilt and shame with whisperings, attacks, threats, or seductions.
The two greatest signs of a restored heart are increased freedom and joy. When you’re no longer in bondage to shame and contempt, you enjoy a greater capacity to be who you are and to delight not just in life, but also in the One who made you to be in relationship with him.
Someone once asked me, “Aren’t you tired of this? How can you handle these heartbreaking stories?” But I am more excited than ever about the potential for restoration where there’s a willingness to deal with spiritual warfare.
Kindness is hugely important to victims of sexual abuse. Why is it so hard for victims to accept kindness?
Abuse by someone you loved or trusted is a form of betrayal. We have certain expectations of what a teacher, coach, or neighbor ought to be. And when that trust is shattered, it destroys our world.
But there’s a deeper reason that kindness feels terrifying to someone who has been abused. In a sense, kindness “arouses” the body. When someone is kind, it rings the body’s pleasure centers. But victims of abuse can struggle with a sense of guilt and complicity in the way their abusers aroused them. And in those lies, they have come to regard their bodies as dangerous or repulsive.
Rinse, Repeat: Should Believers Be Dunked Again?
Just like being “born again,” the symbol of baptism is a way of life, not a repetitive ritual.
MARK FUGITT|JANUARY 19, 2023
Since I was baptized at the age of eight by my pastor father, I haven’t really lingered on the meaning of baptism as part of my devotional life.
It was a one-time event that marked a spiritual milestone in my life, and over time, I’ve lost some connection to that moment. I considered the significance of baptism as a church ordinance or sacrament only much later when watching other people get baptized.
As a pastor in a faith tradition that practices baptism for believers, I am having an increased number of conversations with people who wonder about their baptisms. I am not alone. The uncertainty of COVID-19 seems to have only multiplied these questions. In their confusion, many sincere believers feel the need to get baptized again to recapture the feeling of being cleansed through the work of Christ.
If we couple the cultural moment with the beginning of a new year when people are considering a deeper commitment to God, this longing increases.
Throwback when Fernando Torres was going through the worst form of his career, scoring only 3 goals in 9 months. David Luiz came up with a priestly role as a ranking man in their team to bless him before the game and Torres ended up scoring 2 goals in 30 minutes.
We say this every time, ministry shouldn’t be limited to the four corners of the church building only.
Remember that we’re the LIGHT OF THE WORLD and not the LIGHT OF THE CHURCH.