260 million Christians now live in countries where they face high to extreme levels of persecution for their faith according to research by religious freedom charity Open Doors.
This figure has risen by 15 million in the past year.
The charity launched its 2020 World Watch list on Wednesday, which ranks the top 50 countries where Christians experience the most extreme mistreatment each year.
According to the study an average of eight Christians are killed for their beliefs every day while 276 Christian homes are burned or destroyed every week.
Premier Christian News caught up with Open Doors CEO for UK and Ireland, Henrietta Blyth.
PCN: What significant changes have you seen come out of the 2020 report in contrast to previous years?
HB: Islamic extremism is growing particularly in West Africa. Burkina Faso, which has appeared on the list for the first time this year is at number 28. It's gone from zero to very high persecution within 12 months. We're seeing a real increase in Islamic extremism with Catholic priests and Protestant pastors being murdered, experiencing violence or being kidnapped. Usually, in countries, we've seen a gradual increase in persecution, but in Burkina Faso, we've seen it go from minimal to very high very quickly, which is a really worrying trend. There are many countries now in West Africa, on the list of the Top 50.
China continues to rise up the list and is now at number 23. The growth of the use of surveillance equipment around Christians in China is particularly worrying. We know of one large church that now uses facial recognition equipment to monitor worshippers. And it looks like India may follow similar trends around surveillance.
Then we've seen other countries jump up the list. Bangladesh and Malaysia have jumped up the list from high to very high levels of persecution. Its main source in those countries is for conversions to Christianity and the persecution comes from families and close neighbours. I met a man in Bangladesh, who came from a Muslim family, had become a Christian and married a Christian woman. When his family found out they came with 500 villagers to take him from his house on Christmas Day, and his father and eldest brother, both Muslim priests, chained him up overnight and said they'd kill him and tie his body in a public place as a witness to everybody else. Another woman I met in Malaysia, told me when she converted to Christianity from Islam, her husband told her to choose between him and Jesus. When she chose Jesus, he threw her and her five kids out on the street. If you convert to Christianity, it brings so much shame and dishonour on your family.
PCN: And yet people are still coming to know Jesus and standing firm in their faith despite going through such levels of persecution?
HB: Yes, I find it so convicting hearing these stories because, like this lady in Malaysia - she turned to me and speaking about Jesus she said, I know him. She had a personal encounter with the Lord of such intensity that she was prepared to give up everything else in her life, to hang on to Jesus.
People have to make a choice. They have to decide, is Jesus worth it? And some people do fall away but for the majority know that Jesus is worth it, and they hang on to him regardless of the cost and we hear stories in country after country of people making this choice and standing firm. In fact, they always ask two things for us in prayer - one is not to pray that the persecution will go away, but that they will be able to stand and hang on to Jesus in the face of it and continue to be salt and light within their communities. And second, they ask us to pray for their persecutors that they might come to know the Lord.
PCN: Wow, that's really extraordinary. So, you mentioned the various ways in which Christians are persecuted across the world - how are organisations like Open Doors campaigning to tackle this issue globally?
HB: The freedom to choose and practice your religion or belief is actually enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, so the key way in which we campaign is [to ensure] that countries who have signed up to the UN Declaration actually live by it. Many of the countries on the top 50 list are signed up to that declaration, yet it's not actually possible to practice your religion of choice within the country due to anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws. In countries like India and Nepal, the United Arab Emirates, it's illegal to convert. But these are all countries where our government can advocate with their counterparts for human rights to be respected and upheld.
PCN: The Prime Minister pledged to stand in solidarity for persecuted Christians in his Christmas message. How do you want to see the government honour this commitment?
HB: On Wednesday we launched a report of our findings in the House of Commons and have three particular asks for parliamentarians. We were really encouraged to hear the Prime Minister say the new government will stand by persecuted Christians and we're keen to see him talk about human rights and freedom of religion or belief as part of the trade deals, post-Brexit. I was encouraged to see reports that Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary is keen to make human rights part of those conversations.
We also want the government to recognise that faith can make people vulnerable. We think faith should be recognised by the Department for International Development, as a vulnerability as part of its needs assessment, alongside other vulnerabilities such as gender, age and disability.
Our experience also shows that the people who made the biggest difference for persecuted Christians in the field are local church and faith leaders, many of whom choose to stay behind to look after those who are struggling, when many are fleeing. We would like the UK government to recognise that church leaders and other faith actors in the field, are often the first people there when emergency or crisis strikes and provide them with funding, as they are the people long term who can improve lives and bring restoration and healing to communities.
PCN: We've talked about the responsibility of the government to intervene on this issue. How can the church play an active role in supporting those facing persecution?
HB: There are three things that we would ask people to consider. The first is to pray - prayer makes such a big difference. We provide monthly prayer diaries with specific prayer points and would ask people to join us in praying for Christians around the world who are experiencing persecution.
People also need financial support - it might be for rebuilding their houses, finding a job because they've lost theirs for being a Christian, to provide trauma counselling for people like the women in northern Nigeria who have been abducted and raped by Boko Haram, and suffered extreme gender-based violence - all these things require financial resources.
And finally, as members of the UK voting public, we would like people to write to their MPs and ask them to consider bringing influence to bear on these three - seeing faith as a vulnerability, working with faith actors in the field and raising human rights during trade talks after Brexit.