Inside the Dark Valley

This article was originally published in German on 22 January 2021 by Die Welt.

By Alfred Hackensberger, Christina zur Nedden, Marc Neller, Christian Putsch, Ibrahima Yakubu

Two recent reports with a total of some 900 pages come to a similar important conclusion: discrimination and persecution against Christians around the world is intensifying and increasing. These are the findings of last autumn’s report on religious freedom by the German federal government and the recently published “World Persecution Index 2021” by international Christian aid organization Open Doors.

For the period October 2019 to September 2020, the NGO Open Doors counted around 5,000 documented cases in which Christians were killed because of their faith. The year before that there were 2,983 cases. Nine out of ten of these killings were in Africa. According to the World Persecution Index 2021, worldwide more than 340 million Christians are exposed to high and even extreme levels of persecution, noting that the line between discrimination and persecution is not always clear.

Source: WORLD infographic

The motives for the increased discrimination and persecution given by the report of the German government and by Open Doors are political, religious, or ideological in nature. These motives have been the same for some time. In more than 70 countries, governments, extremist religious and political groups, and fanatic religious leaders are denying Christians the fundamental right to freely exercise their faith. Christians are slandered, harassed, imprisoned, and sometimes murdered. Two recent developments have exacerbated their situation: the corona pandemic and the Internet.

“In several countries, Christians have been defamed as being responsible for the pandemic, and they have been deprived of aid and relief supplies,” says the Open Doors’ Index. “Online hate speech has a devastating effect on freedom of religion and belief,” states the German report. Hate speech often intensifies existing conflicts.

The American Pew Research Center points to the fact that in many countries, restrictions not only target Christians but religious communities in general. Restrictions are sometimes imposed not only because of their religion, but also because of their social involvement and because Christians do not want to bow to criminal gangs, as is the case in Mexico.

Our WELT correspondents report from regions where being a Christian is particularly dangerous.

Terror in the Middle East. Terror in North Africa

With their heads looking down, one after the other in a long line and wearing orange overalls, they trudge through wet sand. Their hands tied behind their backs. Every step brings them closer to a certain death. ISIS fighters in black hoods are leading 21 Coptic Christians across the beach in the Libyan city of Sirte. They are led to their execution. The footage of the death march went all over the world in February 2015. Since then, the images have been symbolic of the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries.

Extremism and Islamism have haunted the Middle East and North Africa for more than 20 years. A wave of terror not seen before, is raging through many countries in the Middle East. A rage of terror which is mainly directed against religious minorities, especially against Christians.

In Afghanistan and Somalia, the Taliban, ISIS and the al-Shabab terrorist militia are waging a reign of terror in the name of a so-called holy war. Christians there should expect to be tortured or killed. In Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, where Christianity has a long and original history, things are hardly better. In those and in other countries, people of Christian faith are more targeted by radical Islamists than other faith communities are. The primary goal of the Islamists is to expel the Christian population.

It all began in Iraq where systematic persecution started after the US invasion in 2003. Persecution and discrimination spread like a wildfire. In 2004, the first Iraqi churches burned in several cities. Then suicide squads carried out attacks on Sunday masses and detonated bombs inside churches. Over the next decade, radical groups spread incomprehensible fear among Christians through murders, car bombs, and more attacks on churches.

April 2017: Assassination attempt on a Christian church in Tanta, Northern Egypt, with more than 40 dead Source: picture alliance / NurPhoto.

The events in Iraq and their consequences can be found in the German government’s latest report on worldwide religious freedom. According to the report, only a fraction of the 1.4 million Christians who were living in Iraq in 2003 remain today. Their number has dwindled to some 250,000. The number of acts of violence has recently dropped, but religious minorities continue to suffer from “widespread discrimination.” Political chaos and instability are additional reasons for Christians to leave the country.

In neighboring Syria, it was the civil war that led to a similarly dramatic emigration of the Christian population. Centuries-old monasteries and churches can be found all over Syria. The ancient Aramaic dialect that Jesus Christ is said to have spoken has survived in some Christian cities. In Syria, too, it is Islamist extremists who hunt down, expel or chase away Christians. All this aggravates the already difficult situation in the war-torn country.

Radical militias are an integral part of the rebel army that has been fighting the Assad regime since 2011. Also, Turkey has instrumentalized the Syrian opposition and lets it fight for itself, as was the case two years ago during the Turkish invasion of northern Syria.

The Syrian mercenaries specifically targeted and expelled the Kurdish population. Thousands of Christians also had to flee. They lost their homes, businesses and well over 10,000 hectares of arable land. According to reports by aid organizations active in Syria, Christians are still being attacked in many parts of the country. For example, in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is controlled by a militia closely affiliated with al-Qaeda, churches were destroyed and all property belonging to Christians was confiscated.

Some ten million – mostly Coptic – Christians live in Egypt. It is the largest Christian church in the Middle East. But it too has been shrinking since the beginning of the Arab Spring. With the Egyptian revolution starting in the winter of 2010, Islamist-motivated attacks on Christians and their institutions dramatically increased.

This is especially true in 2013, when Muhammed Morsi, the President of the Muslim Brotherhood, was overthrown in a coup. After the coup, his followers burned dozens of churches across the country. Life was no longer safe for Christians. According to estimates by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, more than 100,000 Coptic Christians have emigrated since 2011.

After the coup and the seizure of power by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the situation improved for Christians. He designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and arrested its members en masse. But attacks on Christians did not stop and there are repeated orchestrated bomb attacks, such as the attack on Palm Sunday 3 years ago on a church in Alexandria. 45 people died.

Most of the time, however, there are minor incidents that get little publicity but show just how deep resentment against Christians is. In October 2020, for example, a mob of Islamists attacked several Christian families in the village Dabous on the Nile in central Egypt. The attack was preceded by a dispute after Muslim youths had beaten up a Christian girl from the village.

Libya, Egypt’s neighbor to the west, like Syria and Egypt, has a centuries-old Christian tradition. In the 42 years that dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi ruled the country, the church was protected. “He respected our religion, gave us everything and allowed us to freely practice our faith,” said the late Archbishop of Tripoli a few years ago in an interview with WELT.

Today the situation is totally different. The country has not seen peace since Gaddafi’s fall from power more than 10 years ago. Although there is an officially recognized government in the capital Tripoli, it has little executive power. The real rulers are the widely present militias in the capital and who espouse Islamist ideology. They control different areas in which corruption, arbitrariness and violence are commonplace.

According to reports from aid organizations, Christians must keep their faith a secret. They face kidnapping, torture, and murder. This explains why Christians from Libya are among the hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to flee and cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe on rickety boats. The Libyan militiamen take advantage of their helplessness. They kidnap migrants to blackmail their families and put thousands of them in prisons. Christian migrants are particularly at risk. They are brutally mistreated because of their beliefs.

Nigeria: center of violence

When a horde of young men came to kill their family, Catherine Bernard hid in the storage room of her house. She saw the men walking past the room with knives, machetes, and pistols. She even recognized some of them. They were young Muslims, most of them just of legal age, who lived not far away in Kasuwan Magani. In this community in northern Nigeria, Christians and Muslims have lived in the same neighborhood for generations – something that is not self-evident in the region.

Catherine Bernard tells about what happened on that day two years ago. Catherine Bernard went undetected but her husband, who was sick in bed, and one of her daughters were not able to flee. They were killed. Bernard was trembling and terrified. When the men left the house, she sagged to the ground, she said. “I didn’t know where I was.”

Catherine Bernard with two of their children. Source: credit ibrahima Yakubu (Honorar pauscha)

Catherine Bernard and two of her children now live a few hundred kilometers away from Kasuwan Magani. She too fled the religiously mixed province like thousands of other Christians did because recently there has been a large increase in the number of attacks considered to be religiously motivated.

Reports by Open Doors tell of appalling events. Open Doors supports persecuted believers in 60 countries around the world. In 2019 there were 1,350 Christians killed in the area in central Nigeria where the Christian-dominated south merges into the Muslim north. The murder rate of Christians is the highest in the world, one-third of the world’s Christians are killed because of religious reasons.

June 2012: One of the many major attacks on a Christian church in Kaduna. Source: REUTERS

11,500 Christians were killed between 2006 and 2014, and more than a million have been displaced since 2000. Years later, many of these displaced people often still remain in refugee camps. According to Open Doors, Nigeria, with a population of 210 million, is one of the most dangerous countries for Christians to live in worldwide.

The human rights organization Genocide Watch reports that militias such as the Fulani and Boko Haram have killed more than 27,000 Christians in Nigeria since 2012. That is higher than were killed in Syria and Iraq by ISIS. Boko Haram repeatedly forces Christian girls to convert through forced marriage, and Christians were used as human shields in fighting.

According to Open Doors, thousands of churches have been destroyed or closed, and many murderers explicitly explained their acts because of the victims’ beliefs or ethnic origin.

Debate is ongoing whether religion is the real or only reason because the violence often also targets Muslims, also in this region. Countless crimes involve rivalries, land and grazing rights. In Nigeria, however, they are linked.

For years conflicts have been on the rise between nomadic peoples and settlers like the Bernard family. The shepherds in the region are mostly Muslim, while the settlers are mostly Christians.

In addition, Christians in Africa’s most populous country live in comparatively fertile areas. In recent years, the desert in the Chad Basin has expanded, so shepherd peoples from neighboring Niger and Chad have moved on to Nigeria. They too have used force to gain access to cultivable land. According to the American lobby group In Defense of Christians, this has led Christians being driven from their land.

Behind the violence by Muslims against Christians in Nigeria is a small Muslim minority. According to a survey, everyday tensions are the reason why 4 out of 5 residents of Christian communities rate the development of relationships between Muslims and Christians as negative.

George Ehusani, the former Secretary General of the Catholic Church in Nigeria, has been campaigning for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims in the region for decades. He believes that the increasing attacks also have historical reasons, dating from colonial times. Back in the 19th century, the British granted the caliphs in the north extensive rights of self-determination. “Missionaries were not allowed to preach in the villages, Christian workers were treated as second class citizens,” says Ehusani. This continues to this day, especially in the state of Kaduna where the number of Christians and Muslims is roughly equal.

Under the current President Muhammadu Buhari, who comes from the Fulani nomadic people in the north, 8 of the 9 leaders of the army, police and law enforcement agencies are Muslims. In Kaduna, one of the larger states of the country, the Christian population expected the Muslim governor to appoint a Christian as his deputy, as has been the case there for a long time. But he decided on a Muslim. More and more Muslims were appointed since as leaders at the local level including in predominantly Christian villages. Tensions are mounting.

Constitutionally there is freedom of religion in Nigeria. In most of the northern states, however, Sharia law has also been in parallel force since 2001 – the last time Sharia law was in force was in the 19th century, before British colonialism. Sharia law, for example, dictates conversion can be punishable by death. The Hisba Sharia police, which attracted much attention because of gruesome cases of vigilante justice until around 15 years ago, seems however, to have become somewhat more moderate. In any case, Sharia law is no longer applied that often.

“There is a climate of impunity,” says church leader Ehusani. The government is not acting consistently enough against Fulani and other groups responsible for the attacks on Christian villages. “The Christian population is angry. They feel excluded,” because also in the current government, Muslims are over-represented relative to what their share of the population of around 50% would justify.

Ehusani appears on television twice a week and advocates peace. The violent conflicts are dealt with in local workshops. Often, they are meant to avoid retaliation because where murders on Christians had no religious background, they did trigger spiral of mutual retribution.

Catherine Bernard tries to teach forgiveness to her 2 surviving children. Despite the loss of her husband and daughter. Despite the fact that she will probably never return to her home village. Despite her anger. “Forgiveness is the only thing that keeps me alive,” she says. It is the only way out of this crisis. Otherwise, there will always only be revenge, from Muslims, from Christians. Violence, she says, has shaped her life. It should not shape the lives of her children.

The power of the Hindus in India

They were accused of having adopted a foreign religion and so brought the wrath of the gods over their village. This was the accusation that 15 Christian families in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh were exposed to last autumn. It was the reason why 3,000 villagers attacked them, injured them, and destroyed their homes. This incident is one of many in India that has entered the Open Doors organization’s statistics.

India is therefore one of the ten most dangerous countries in the world for Christians. About 1.3 billion people live in the country. 66 million are Christians. More than half of them belong to the Dalits, the poor and often discriminated members of the lowest caste.

A destroyed church in Raika, India. Source: Getty Images.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, the ideology of Hindu nationalism has gradually become more important. Its proponents target the influence of non-Hindu religions. According to reports from local organizations, this is the reason why violence against Christians has increased dramatically in recent years. Extremist Hindus view Christians as a foreign body which has penetrated their country. Christianity is therefore considered a “foreign” religion, and India should be “cleansed” from it.

In the first 6 months of 2020, 349 attacks on Christians were reported. 5500 people were affected and at least 4 died. The number of unreported cases is probably significantly higher because not all attacks are reported and, due to the corona-pandemic lockdown around the world, international media coverage has become very difficult. The pandemic works like a fire accelerator in the persecution of religious minorities. Extremist Hindus accuse Muslims of spreading the virus, but Christians are also exposed to violence, especially in the north of the country.

“Indian Christians suffer violent attacks from their neighbors or village authorities. In the first half of this year alone, we recorded incidents in which four people were murdered,” says Heena, who does not want to give her real name. She works for an aid organization in India and distributes aid to persecuted Christians.

Since Modi came to power, attacks against women and children have increased, she says. “In the past mainly priests were attacked, now there are many mob attacks against women. I recently met a girl who had been raped and almost strangled because of her Christian faith.”

Protests by Christians in New Delhi. Source: The India Today Group.

According to investigative reports by several organizations, attempts to “re-convert” Christians have also been registered. Christians are attacked and forced to convert to Hinduism by e.g., performing Hindu rituals. The latest report by the German government on the worldwide situation of religious freedom says Hindu nationalists have “brought home”, according to their own statements, more than 30,000 people to Hinduism since 2014. More and more people are giving up their religion due to social hardship and convert to Hinduism.

Helper Heena says: many Christians in India experienced “a kind of social boycott”. Some therefore decided to deny Jesus and convert. “This has increased this year amidst pandemic hardships.”

According to the aid organization Church in Need, Christians are prevented from accessing social services, food aid and jobs because of their faith. India is constitutionally a secular state. Nevertheless, there are state funding programs only helping Hindu Dalits, says Church in Need.

The life of Christians has been increasingly made difficult since the Indian parliament passed a new law in September 2020 which severely restricts the funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by foreign donors. Numerous Christian organizations and communities are affected, most of which are registered as NGOs and rely on donations from abroad.

North Korea: Kim’s ruler cult does not allow a competitor

There is no country that is considered as dangerous for Christians as North Korea. The personality cult around the ruling family is a kind of state religion – the Kims tolerate no other gods than themselves. People sing hymns for them and bow to the numerous Kim statues. Children in kindergarten do not thank God but thank the Kims for their food. Year one of the national calendar is 1912, Kim Il-Sung’s birthyear.

Christianity has no place in the world of the Kims. In their view, it is a clear threat to the peace of the state. They see faith as a threat linked to the western world. We know that despite this, part of the population is Christian. Nobody can say how big but, depending on which estimate you believe, there are 30,000 or 400,000 Christians in North Korea.

Activists prepare Bibles in bags to be air ballooned from South Korea to North Korea. Source: AFP / Getty Images

Before World War II, more than a fifth of the population was Christian. At that time there were still many missionaries working on the then Japanese-occupied peninsula. Today, North Korea’s Christians are divided into three groups “who do not communicate with one another because of the high risk of being discovered,” says Pastor Eric Foley, founder of the organization Voice of the Martyrs Korea.

The first group therefore includes those who were converted by South Korean missionaries on the North Korean border with China. These included refugees who found accommodation with Chinese Christians during the famine in the 1990s and who later returned to North Korea. The second group is made up of wealthy Christian North Koreans whose beliefs are tolerated by the government as long as they do not express it publicly. The third group are underground Christians who practice their faith at home using only the Ten Commandments or the Bible. Without churches, without pastors.

“These people often see no Christian other than their own relatives in their entire lives,” says Pastor Foley. They did not even tell their own children about their faith. For legitimate reasons, because teachers regularly try to elicit schoolchildren whether their parents are Christians with questions like: “Do your parents sing different songs than the ones we sing in school?” At least that is what the third generation of North Korean underground Christians, who have written a book with Pastor Foley, report.

According to the latest report by the German government on the state of religious freedom in the world, the so-called “Songbun system” divides North Koreans into three groups at birth: “reliable”, “neutral” and “hostile” to the official ruling Labor Party. Family history is one criterion. People and their relatives who are religious can quickly be seen as unreliable. You have to be prepared for anything.

Christians who are discovered or accused of having contact with Christians or missionaries often disappear overnight. They end up in penal camps, are tortured, sexually abused, or killed. According to various estimates, up to 80,000 Christians are currently imprisoned in camps. According to Church in Need, at least 200,000 Christians have been missing in North Korea since the partition of Korea in 1953, including more than 150 Catholic priests and churchmen who were in the north at the end of the armistice.

Pastor Foley and his organization, based in South Korea, regularly send Bibles tied to balloons across the border. Owning a Bible is prohibited in North Korea. The regime publishes a Bible itself but does not distribute it. So, it can pretend to adhere to the constitution, which promises freedom of religion. Despite everything, Christians in South Korea hope that Christianity in the North Korea can contribute to political change. Pastor Foley says: “The church in North Korea is growing faster than the churches in Germany, Europe, South Korea or the United States by all estimates.”