By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich
Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List brings much-needed attention to courageous Christians around the world who suffer because of their faith. Released on January 17, the annual World Watch List is a ranking of 50 countries where severe persecution and discrimination against Christians prevail.
Today, more than 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is highly or severely restricted. For millions of people, repression, violence, and discrimination are a part of daily life. Governments and hostile regimes prevent individuals from living in accordance with their faith.
As the latest World Watch List confirms, Christians are no exception.
According to the report, more than 360 million Christians face severe persecution and discrimination for their faith. The number of Christians who have been killed for their faith has also risen by 80 percent in the last five years.
The majority of these killings – 90 percent – have occurred in Nigeria. As militant Islamist groups use violence to advance political and ideological objectives, persecution against Christians is most severe in the north, though enforced Islamisation is gradually spreading toward the south.
Open Doors reports that groups such as Boko Haram, ISWAP, and Fulani militants kidnap, inflict violence upon, or kill their victims and appear to be increasingly conspiring together against Christians, as well as Muslims who oppose them. In northern Nigeria, Christians are also viewed as second-class citizens; converts from Islam may be rejected by their families or endure physical violence.
But as the report notes, Christian persecution extends beyond Nigeria’s borders. One-in-five of the world’s persecuted Christians live in Africa, and according to the report, “Violence against Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa has reached new heights.”
While in Asia, the Chinese Communist Party’s model for controlling Christian communities is expanding to other countries. According to the report, “Countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia have headed down this same authoritarian path, joining Central Asian states like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia.”
In Communist China, those under 18 are prohibited from attending church, crosses have been replaced with portraits of China’s communist leaders, and the CCP is working to rewrite the Bible to align with its ideology. Utilizing oppressive restrictions, surveillance, and propaganda, the Chinese Communist Party is forcing Christians to put the ideology of the Party before the teachings of Christ.
In Nicaragua, as in Communist China, religious freedom threatens the power and authority of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo. As Open Doors reports, those who speak out against the Ortega-Murillo regime’s human rights abuses and injustices are seen as destabilizing agents. Amidst increasing government oppression, Nicaragua was included in the top 50 countries on the World Watch List for the first time.
Nicaragua’s Catholics, which make up 50 percent of the country’s population, have been a strong force of resistance and, as a result, are targeted for voicing their opposition to the authoritarian Ortega-Murillo regime.
Prominent regime critic, Bishop Rolando Álvarez is standing trial following accusations of “conspiracy” and spreading “fake news.” Moreover, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations have had their legal status canceled by the regime, including the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order established by Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Tragically, the government accused the sisters of failing to comply with the country’s strict and wide-reaching terrorism law, shut down their organization, and ordered their expulsion from Nicaragua.
At the launch of this year’s report, Open Doors U.S. CEO Lisa Pearce affirmed, “The persecution of Christians is now sadly a global phenomenon.” However, she also noted, “For all of us, there is something to do. None of us is powerless to help.”
The findings of the 2023 World Watch List stand as an urgent call to governments, civil society, and activists to join together to advance and defend religious freedom around the world.