By / Jan 24

Every year for the last three decades, Open Doors has released the annual World Watch List, a report ranking the top “50 countries where Christians suffer very high or extreme levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith.” In a country like the United States where the free exercise of religion is enshrined in its Constitution, the World Watch List (WWL) is a sobering reminder that our brothers and sisters around the world face real and present danger for their faith in Christ

What does the 2023 World Watch List reveal?

During its 30 year history, the WWL has revealed an alarming and consistent trend: the persecution of Christians across the globe has grown exponentially, which proved true again this year. Today, more than 360 million Christians suffer at least ‘high’ levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. Here are some of this year’s takeaways:

  1. North Korea tops the list: With 2022 as the lone exception, North Korea has topped the World Watch List every year since 2002. And this year, with the introduction of a new “anti-reactionary thought law,” there was an increase in the number of Christians arrested and the number of house churches discovered and closed, earning North Korea its highest-ever persecution score. Tragically, those who are discovered and arrested “are either sent to labour camps as political prisoners where the conditions are atrocious“—they face starvation, torture, and sexual violence, for instance—”or killed on the spot.” Often, their families will share their fate.
  1. Sub-Saharan Africa in catastrophe: Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa face the threat of violence every day. The epicenter of the violence is Nigeria, where militants from the Fulani, Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and others “inflict murder, physical injury, abduction and sexual violence on their victims,” scores of whom are Christians. In the last year, there have been more than five thousand religiously motivated killings in Nigeria, which accounts for 89% of the international total. Conditions in the region have also led to a refugee crisis, as many Christians have been displaced while fleeing persecution.
  1. China’s campaign to redefine human rights: Another development has been the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) campaign to redefine international human rights away from universal standards, leading countries like Russia, India, and others to follow suit. Christians in these countries who are seen to oppose these new rights “by refusing to support the ruling part[ies]” are often labeled “disturbers of the peace” and even “terrorists,” and face arrest and the demolition of church buildings.
  1. Afghanistan’s descent: Afghanistan, who topped the 2022 WWL, fell eight spots to land at number nine this year. While that’s a significant drop, the situation for Christians there remains dire. After the Taliban assumed power in 2021, they went door-to-door rooting out and executing many Christians. Of those who survived, many went deep into hiding or fled the country. The Taliban remains committed to eliminating not only Christians but those with ties to the old regime. 
  1. Top 10 (last year’s rankings in parenthesis): North Korea (2), Somalia (3), Yemen (5), Eritrea (6), Libya (4), Nigeria (7), Pakistan (8), Iran (9), Afghanistan (1), Sudan (13).

While there have been some positive developments, like a decrease in the total number of Christians killed for their faith (from 5,898 to 5,621) and a growing tolerance in several Middle Eastern countries such as Bahrain and the UAE, discrimination and persecution against Christians on the basis of their faith continues to grow around the world. 

What can we do?

As Christians, no matter how many miles separate us from the people represented in the World Watch List, they are our brothers and sisters. While we may feel helpless, we do have the opportunity to “stand with them in solidarity, and remind them they are not alone.” 

Here are several ways we can support and stand with our brothers and sisters who face these significant threats everyday:

  • Pray for persecuted Christians around the world. Use the World Watch List tool as a prayer prompt that both alerts you to the need for prayer and informs you of specific ways that you can pray. 
  • Partner financially with organizations like Open Doors who serve the persecuted church in difficult regions around the world.
  • Sign up to receive email alerts from Open Doors and keep abreast of how you can pray and partner with them in their work. 

Because Christians believe that God works providentially through our prayers, we can all commit to using the World Watch List to remind and motivate us to pray for believers around the world who endure such unimaginable terror. By doing so, we can be certain that God will use our prayers to encourage and minister to Christians in these countries.

What is Open Doors?

Open Doors began in the mid-1950’s when a man known as Brother Andrew “started smuggling Bibles to the persecuted Christians in Communist Europe.” After a visit to Warsaw, Poland, Brother Andrew’s encounter with an “oppressed, isolated, and apparently forgotten church” compelled him to travel throughout Eastern Europe for the next twelve years, “delivering Bibles, encouraging those he met, and recruiting others to help him.” After the publication of God’s Smuggler in 1967 — an account of Brother Andrew’s work in Eastern Europe — his ministry became known worldwide, and “an entire generation caught the vision of supporting Christians who faced persecution and discrimination for their faith.”

Nearly 70 years later, Open Doors has steadily expanded its reach, “serving persecuted Christians in more than 70 countries, working with churches and local partners to provide Bibles, Christian materials, training, livelihood skills and advocacy.” The aim of Open Doors “is to encourage and raise up people in every nation to pray, support and speak up for Christians around the world who suffer for their faith.”

What is the World Watch List?

Beyond its ranking system, the World Watch List is an interactive tool that enables users to “explore the country profiles to find information, stories and prayers for each of the countries, along with ways that [Christians] can stand with [their] persecuted church family in prayer and action.” The list apprises readers of information such as the percentage of Christians persecuted worldwide (along with each specific region), the number of churches attacked and Christians detained or murdered annually, and country-specific information like its dominant religion and system of government. 

Truly, the World Watch List is a tool of immense value, informing Christians like us of how we can pray for and serve those who find themselves in locations hostile to Christianity. For information on the WWL methodology, visit this site.

By / Aug 3

Since November, the Ethiopian government and a regional military group have been engaged in a struggle for power and control over Tigray, the northern region of Ethiopia. On June 28, rebels known as the Tigray Defense Forces occupied Mekelle, Tigray’s capital city, following the retreat of Ethiopian government troops, marking a major shift in the country’s ongoing civil war. Tigrayan leaders claim to be fighting for the restoration of their regional autonomy, guaranteed under Ethiopia’s constitution as a part of its governing system of ethnic federalism, while Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seeks to preserve the country and its developing democracy. 

How long has the conflict been going on, and why?

Tigray has been occupied by Ethiopian military occupation and denied communications through the internet for eight months in an effort to isolate the rebellion. The national military invaded the region in conjunction with the national army of Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbor, in order to take control from the regional government known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a longstanding political party. However, the Tigray Defense Forces have been reorganizing their armies to push back against the occupation, an effort that has escalated in the past week with their counterattack on Mekelle. 

For many months investigations on the conflict in Tigray were inconclusive because the Ethiopian government blacked-out communications from the region. The only commmunications from northern Ethiopia reported continued combat as well as growing reports of atrocities such as rape and civilian killings. Now, it is clear that Tigrayan forces are on the counterattack. 

What specific events led up to the occupation shift in Mekelle?

A deadly incident occurred on Tuesday, June 22, when a government airstrike killed dozens of people in a market in Tigray. Tigrayan forces would strike back a day later by shooting down an Ethiopian Air Force C-130 cargo plane over Mekelle. Ethiopian forces have since abandoned many strategic posts throughout southern Tigray, and thousands of their soldiers have been claimed to be captured by the Tigrayan military.

On Monday, June 28, the Ethiopian government announced it had called a unilateral cease-fire in Tigray, but it wasn’t clear if Tigrayan forces accepted the measure. Throughout the rest of the day, Ethipoian forces were spotted in vehicles leaving Mekelle. Later that afternoon, the interim government’s headquarters in Tigray were empty as federal police officers were seen boarding buses outside of the building. The strategy of the Ethiopian government is unclear, but nonetheless, Tigray is gaining ground.

How are Ethiopians and others reacting to this conflict?

The powerful advances of the Tigray Defense Forces are stripping the authority and credibility of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister. Ahmed, a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been primarily concerned with democratising Ethiopia since beginning his position in 2018. Seven months into the civil war, his country is only becoming more divided. Christopher Clapham, an expert on Ethiopia at Cambridge University, believes the democratic efforts of Ahmed need a stronger coalition as a foundation for a new structure of the country. Drastic shifts through one prime minister could explain some of the backlash.

When Mekelle changed hands from Ethiopian occupation to Tigray Defense Forces, the city erupted in a celebration, complete with flags and fireworks. According to The New York Times, one passionate Tigrayan resident declared: “They invaded us. Abiy is a liar and a dictator, but he is defeated already. Tigray will be an independent country!”

Residents of Ethiopia, as well as international onlookers, are concerned that the new government will reject any outsiders and cause humanitarian crises as institutions are undermined by war. Ethiopia is briefing diplomats from Britain, Germany, Spain, and the United States on the potential for continued conflict as it seeks to preserve the Ethiopian federation. Although Tsadkan Gebretensae, commander of the Tigray Defense Forces, has called for a negotiated ceasefire in principle, he quickly followed that call by stating: “if there is no other choice, then the next choice will be: try to resolve [the war] militarily.” 

Pray for peace in Ethiopia, for the protection of its citizens, and for Christians to be able to minister to the physical and spiritual needs around them with the hope of Christ. 

ERLC intern Ethan Lamb contributed to this article.

By / Apr 5

This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the campaign of genocide in Rwanda. Here are five facts you should know about one of the most horrific atrocities in modern times:

 1. The Rwandan Genocide was a genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority. During the approximate 100-day period from April 7, 1994 to mid-July an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed, constituting as much as 20 percent of the country’s total population and 70 percent of the Tutsi then living in Rwanda. The inciting event appears to have occurred on April 6, 1994 when an airplane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on its descent into the Rwandan capital. Genocidal killings began the following day as soldiers, police, and militia executed key Tutsi and moderate Hutu leaders, then erected checkpoints and barricades and used Rwandans’ national identity cards to systematically verify their ethnicity and kill Tutsi.

 2. In rural areas, the local government hierarchy served as the chain of command for the execution of the genocide. The governor of each province disseminated instructions to the district leaders, who in turn issued directions to leaders within their districts. The majority of the actual killings in the countryside were carried out by ordinary civilians, under orders from the leaders. Tutsi and Hutu lived side by side in their villages, and families all knew each other, making it easy for Hutu to identify and target their Tutsi neighbors. Historian Gerard Prunier ascribes this mass complicity of the population to a combination of the “democratic majority” ideology, in which Hutu had been taught to regard Tutsi as dangerous enemies, the culture of unbending obedience to authority, and the duress factor—villagers who refused to carry out orders to kill were often branded as Tutsi sympathizers and killed themselves.

 3. An estimated 200,000 people participated in the perpetration of the genocide. Participants were given incentives, in the form of money, food, or land, to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Hutu were allowed to appropriate the land of the Tutsis they killed. The horrors also included mass rape. Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped during the 100 days of genocide. As a result of this rape, up to 20,000 children were born from these women. More than 67 percent of women who were raped during the genocide were infected with HIV. In many cases, this resulted from a systematic and planned use of rape by HIV+ men as a weapon of genocide

 4. Local Rwandan radios would use propaganda to incite Hutus to violence. Broadcasts included such statements as, “You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches. We must all fight the Tutsis. We must finish with them, exterminate them, sweep them from the whole country. There must be no refuge for them.” Most of the murder was done with machetes (in 1993 Rwanda imported three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of machetes from China), but automatic weapons and hand grenades were also used.

 5. The U.S. was reluctant to get involved in the “local conflict” in Rwanda and initially refused to label the killings as “genocide.” Then-president Bill Clinton later publicly regretted that decision in a television interview. Five years later, Clinton stated that he believed that if he had sent 5,000 U.S. peacekeepers, more than 500,000 lives could have been saved.

Image info: Rows of the skulls of victims of the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

By / May 9

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 9, 2018—Steven Harris, policy director for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, gave testimony at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations meeting, today at 1:30 p.m. EST at Rayburn House Office Building 2172.

The topic of the hearing was “Protecting Civil Society, Faith-Based Actors and Political Speech in Sub-Saharan Africa." Below are excerpts from his report:

“[I]t cannot be rehearsed enough that the right to be religiously free—to worship or not to worship according to the dictates of one’s own conscience—is a right that stands at the heart of what it means to be human.

“As we consider whether certain democratic ideals are taking root in a particular country, it is important to remember that the consent to be governed does not include state ownership over the conscience.

“When religious freedom is not protected, myriad human rights violations, various forms of violence, and overall destabilization is usually the result. This sentiment has been expressed by officials of our current administration. Moreover, scholars have argued that one of the effects of civil society—religious community being a significant part thereof—is the checking of state power and the resisting of corrupt authoritarian rule and overall undemocratic impulses.

“Consistent with many of the recommendations of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Sudan report, we strongly urge that religious freedom be a serious factor taken into account as a foreign policy priority as the United States considers the nature of its relationships to these African countries. Governmental structures, and the ideologies that undergird them, must be addressed. Religious freedom cannot be expected when it is concurrently undermined by constitutional order. Targeted tools and broad diplomacy efforts ought to be utilized in order to attain measurable improvements.

“With respect to Sudan in particular, we oppose the normalization of relations until a measurable impact on the ground for religious freedom and the health of civil society can be observed. There are discussions about removing Sudan from the State Sponsor of Terror list, and we have significant concerns with this action absent a local improvement on human rights in general and religious liberty in particular.”

Here is a link to Harris’ written testimony which focused on the constricting religious and civil society space in Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Other panelists included John Prendergast, co-founder, The Sentry; Nanythe Talani, representative, The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition; Negussie Mengesha, director, Voice of America, Africa Division; and Emerson Sykes, legal advisor, The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

By / Jan 19

Smooth Via shares his testamony and his experiences with international adoption at the Evangelicals for Life 2018 Conference in Washington DC.