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The increasing effects of the Taliban on the persecuted Church: Q&A with persecution watchdog

by Heather Preston

Religious freedom charity Open Doors has revealed how the emboldening of Islamic extremists has led to a rise in global Christian persecution.

The annual World Watch List, which records the top 50 countries where Christians experience extreme hostility has been released for 2022.

Afghanistan has been ranked as the number one most dangerous place to be a follower of Christ - overtaking North Korea.

Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK & Ireland spoke to Premier's Heather Preston about the connection between a global rise in Christian persecution and the recent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Were you surprised to see Afghanistan jump to the top of the World Watch List for 2022?

North Korea's been at the top of the World Watch list for 20 years. So I think we were surprised that Afghanistan is now the most dangerous country for Christians. And, sadly, it's not the most dangerous country because things have got better for North Korea. Actually, the points this year for North Korea are higher than they've ever been in the 29 years we've been doing the research at Open Doors. So the situation in Afghanistan is even worse than that.

What forms of persecution are Afghan Christians currently facing?

The Taliban took over the government in Afghanistan last August and they want to create a pure Islamic State, they've reintroduced Sharia law. 

They are actively hunting out Christians, and people of other faiths to eradicate them from the country. So, unfortunately, reports and recordings were left in the country, which allowed the Taliban to identify Christians.

Many Christians have left but if Christians are found, men are detained, interrogated for more information about other Christians, and then killed. Women, if found, can be subjected to forced marriage and imprisonment. If women and girls are raped, they're often trafficked as a result. The situation for Christians in Afghanistan is absolutely horrific at the moment.

Many Christians have fled over land, and all the countries around Afghanistan are also on the World Watch list. So one of the things we've seen in the research this year is that the church globally is increasingly displaced.

Premier has reported on an increasing number of violent attacks on Christians by Islamic extremists and jihadist group in other parts of the world - particularly in West Africa. Has your research revealed any correlation between this and what's happened in Afghanistan recently?

Yes, they have. Unfortunately, the takeover by the Taliban there has encouraged other jihadist groups who now seem to think that if they persevere, eventually they will prevail because the international community is not going to take any action against them. 

One of the things that is striking about what's happening to our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world is the lack of justice for the perpetrators - these are crimes, and yet so few people are brought to justice about them. In some countries, it seems that the police and even the government are actually colluding with the violence against Christians. 

In Africa and Asia, we've seen a rise in Islamic extremism - particularly in West Africa. In Nigeria (which is now number seven on the World Watch List) 4,650 Christians were killed last year. We've seen the points in the research rise for Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon too. We know that the jihadist extremists take advantage of weak and corrupt governments. So the situation in that part of the world is extremely worrying. 

Those are staggering numbers and the report revealed 20 million more Christians are experiencing persecution compared to last year. Is this rising level of hostility towards Christians inevitable or are there significant changes that can be made to ensure safety and religious freedom for believers?

It's disheartening the way the numbers rise every year. Jesus said we would be persecuted but it's very difficult to see this happening - freedom of religion or belief is a human right, its article 18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. We believe that the key to this is for freedom of religion or belief to be upheld, in every country, around the world. 
We think there are three things that are really contributing to the increase in persecution. One is the lack of protection for Christians. I've already mentioned Nigeria, where the violence is very high indeed. In fact, if violence was the only criteria we used for our search, Nigeria would actually be number one on the World Watch List. 

Governments don't appear to want to protect Christians. So where the violence is worse, in Nigeria, for example, in the north, and in the middle belt, there is no government protection for Christians and churches.

Along with that, it appears that the perpetrators can get away with it. Nobody's holding them to account or bringing them to justice. In India, which is number 10 on the list, we see the police sometimes colluding with the Hindu extremists who perpetrate the violence against Christians. Sometimes the Christians go to the police in India to get help and support and suddenly, the police are accusing them of being criminals. Impunity and lack of protection is a real problem. 

Also the seeming indifference of the international community - if you look at Afghanistan, for example, the international community has stood by and watched the Taliban takeover but nobody in the international community appears to be intervening or bringing pressure to bear.

Have we seen any progress as a result of the introduction of the Bishop of Truro's recommendations on religious freedom?

Well the Prime Minister did make the special envoy role for freedom of religion or belief, permanent and we now have Fiona Bruce, MP in that role, who is doing great work within the government and within the foreign office, to encourage people to uphold freedom of religion or belief. 

We've also seen the government begin to impose sanctions on individuals who violate human rights. But this year is when the government agreed to review progress against the report's recommendations. We want to see the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office include faith as a vulnerability in all of its needs assessments so that whatever country it's working in, faith is recognised alongside gender, disability and age as something that makes people vulnerable. 

The second thing is the government have said they want to raise human rights as part of international negotiations and so we really want to see them push for freedom of religion or belief whilst they're discussing trade. 

Thirdly, we want the government to ensure any recommendations that are not yet in place from the Bishop of Truro's report are acted upon.

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