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World News

30 years of shining a spotlight on Christian persecution: Q&A with Open Doors

by Kelly Valencia

This year marks three decades since Open Doors started ranking countries by the level of persecution faced by Christians. 

Since records started in 1993, the number of countries deemed dangerous for Christians increased from 40 to 70, with a total of 360 million believers facing severe attacks for deciding to follow Christ. 

Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK & Ireland spoke to Premier's Kelly Valencia about the reasons behind the increase in the number of countries persecuting Christians:

Since the list started in 1992, has the definition of extreme persecution changed at all? 

The definitions haven't changed, but the scores have increased for the different countries. So North Korea has been given its highest score ever. It actually scored 98 out of a possible 100 points, we're nearly at the maximum there. When we started the list 30 years ago, in 1992, there were only 40 countries that qualified for high, very high or extreme levels of persecution. Now we have 76 countries that we're monitoring that score over 40 out of 100 points. So you can see that the spread as well as the intensity, and we're measuring both persecution and discrimination. So they smash and squeeze, you can see that all of that has really increased over 30 years.

What are some of the trends that you think have caused this increase in the number of countries?

I think there are three main drivers. One is religious extremism. So the situation in Nigeria, in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is definitely around Islamic extremism and jihadism. It's religiously motivated. They want to eradicate the church and create an Islamic state with Sharia law. Without question, that, looking at the graphs, got much worse after 9/11 and is obviously happening in the Middle East as well. We saw the rise of ISIS in countries like Iraq and Syria, and so on. I think one of the reasons why that violence is getting worse and worse is because the perpetrators can seemingly attack with impunity. So the shocking thing is, nobody seems to be being brought to justice over these crimes, it appears that the Nigerian government, and the international community, turn a blind eye towards it. And we've said to the UK Government that these attacks are religiously motivated. But I don't think they entirely buy that argument yet, even though we have so much evidence to show that they are. And so that's a real challenge in terms of stopping it. And obviously, if people are not brought to justice, it encourages other extremists who think they can do the same, and they won't suffer any repercussions for it. So religious extremism is definitely a factor.

We also see religious nationalism. So in countries like India, where in order to be a sort of a pure Indian, you need to be Hindu as well. So in India, which is number eleven, on the list this year, all people belonging to religions that aren't Hinduism are suffering extreme persecution and discrimination, particularly Christians and Muslims. So we're seeing that in a variety of countries in Pakistan, that happens with Islam. And in other nations, obviously, like Sri Lanka, where, you know, people want you to be Buddhist, so that we see a rise in that.

The other thing, which I think is particularly marked over the last few years, is a rise in authoritarianism. And one of the things that strike me over the 30 years of the list is how we see history repeating itself. So, for example, with religious nationalism, one of the factors of that is that we see a rise in anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws. And you know, it's illegal to convert from the majority religion. And if you think about it, Jesus himself was crucified, having been falsely accused under anti-blasphemy laws. And brother Andrew started Open Doors by supporting Christians in communist countries behind the Iron Curtain. And now we see communism rising again, in countries like China. And the situation has become worse and worse for Christians in China. This year, China's at number 16 on the list, and they've made it, they've made it illegal for people that are under the age of 18. To attend church. Churches can only meet if the building is registered. It's illegal to show crosses publicly. They've made it very, very difficult to get Bibles, either physical Bibles or online. You know, the list goes on and on. I think other countries are moving in the same direction.

One of the aspects of authoritarianism that I think is particularly unnerving is that China is attempting to redefine human rights. So freedom of religion or belief, as you know, is article 18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. And China, its foreign minister in a speech to the United Nations in 2021, said they wanted to redefine human rights, more to things like prosperity, happiness, stability, security, and so on. So there's a shifting of worldview across the world. And, you know, even Tunisia where, of course, we celebrated the Arab Spring, back in 2011, that now has a much more authoritarian government, and we're seeing a clamp down on Christians there as well.

So I think those three things, religious extremism, religious nationalism and authoritarianism, in particular, we've seen really strengthen over the last years.

30 years, 30 lists. How do we, as fellow Christians, make sure we don't become desensitised to this information?

It's hard with the numbers, isn't it? Because this year's list shows that one in seven Christians experience high, very high or extreme levels of persecution and discrimination. One in seven, that's a lot of us. The total number equates to 360 million, which is actually six times the population of the UK, which is just extraordinary. And I think, when the numbers are that big, it's hard to sort of get your head around it, isn't it? But if you think about that, in relation to your own church, or say, perhaps even your own home group; How many people might there be in your home group or small group at your church - maybe, I don't know, 14 people tops, let's keep maths easy. So there were 14 people in your home group, and two of them would be experiencing this sort of persecution, I think that brings it home to you about how many people are suffering. 

But also, every individual story is powerful on two counts, one, in terms of what's happening to people, but two, I've just been so inspired. You know, the Bible talks about the testing. The testing of your faith produces perseverance, and perseverance produces hope, and hope produces character, and so on. And I do just think it's extraordinary the way people's faith is refined, in the face of the persecution they're facing, and it's so inspiring the way I see people stand strong.

A woman I met in Malaysia, the other year, became a Christian. She was from a Muslim family. And her husband said to her, 'you have to choose between Jesus and me.' And she chose Jesus and he threw her and their five kids out on the street. And she had her own food business. She talked about how hard life was for her. And then one night, she had the most extraordinary experience where she was lying in bed, and she heard someone come into the room, and she felt that she couldn't move in the bed. And this person touched the side of her body, and warmth flooded through her and she said she knew it was the Lord. She knew it was Jesus. And from that moment on, her life began to turn around. But I've heard so many stories like that where people have chosen Jesus against all the odds. They've been forced to choose. They've chosen him, and they've had the most extraordinary personal encounter with him, which has refined their faith and enabled them to see I'm strong. And I think that's a huge inspiration to us. And I think we should thank God for their witness and their perseverance, and recognize in the way of God's upside down kingdom, if I can put it like that, that what Jesus said about Blessings to you when you are persecuted, because great is your reward in heaven. I think that's what he was talking about is that the blessing comes through a growth of faith, a renewed relationship with Him. That there is something about this, the Lord is achieving his purposes through this in extraordinary ways. 

How can we take action and stand in solidarity with Christians across the world?

So I think there are three things we can do. One is we can give. And there's a lot of practical support that organisations... give to persecuted Christians, so where they've lost their jobs, we can help them develop new livelihoods, where they've lost their homes, we can help them build new homes, where they've had to flee their country or their village, we can help them settle elsewhere.

I think we can speak out to our own MPs and our own government and encourage them to bring influence or pressure to bear on their counterparts in other countries. So, for example, we know that the UK Government at the moment is signing a lot of trade deals with different countries, some of whom are on the World Watch list, like China and India. And we want them to raise human rights as part of those discussions, and particularly freedom of religion or belief.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we can pray. And I think we just, it means so much to our persecuted brothers to know that we're praying with them and standing with them. But also, we know that our prayers really make a difference in the natural and in the spiritual. So, back in the 1980s, brother Andrew started a seven-year campaign of prayer for churches behind the Iron Curtain. And at the end of the seven years, the Berlin Wall came down. We know that the Lord moves when we pray. So praying is really important. 

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