One in seven Christians worldwide face high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith – that’s 365 million of our brothers and sisters.
Five years ago, the figure was one in nine. In the past year alone, the number of persecuted believers has risen by about five million.
Put simply, the persecution of Christians is worsening.
One of the reasons that it’s getting worse is because the church is growing. In the most hostile of environments, it continues to thrive. More than anything, it’s a testament to the power of the gospel and the eternal truth that “God’s word is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9). But it’s also because the global church is standing with its most vulnerable members. It’s what family does.
A key trend is growing violence in sub-Saharan Africa. The region accounts for some 90 per cent of the estimated 5,000 believers killed for their faith worldwide, with the highest number of Christians killed being in Nigeria (4,118). The main driver of this is Islamic extremists capitalising on regional instability. Because of their faith, Christians are affected disproportionately.
African governments are spending £800 million per year on surveillance technology, mostly to strengthen the capabilities of autocratic governments. The main exporter is China, a country whose use of sophisticated surveillance technology is synonymous with repression of religious freedom (and one of the main reasons it’s number 19 on the World Watch List).
Meanwhile, the Wagner Group – a private military contractor with reported connections to the Russian government – is fighting for governments across the region. Known for its ruthless activities in countering Islamic extremism, it has been increasingly active in countries including Burkina Faso and Mali, where speaking out against their activities is near impossible and even life-threatening.
Two-thirds of all attacks and closures of churches and public Christians properties were in China, where tightening religious laws and intrusive surveillance have forced many churches to splinter into a myriad of small, less visible groups.
Elsewhere, in Algeria, only four of the 46 churches affiliated with the country’s Protestant umbrella organisation remained open in 2023 – and it’s unlikely it will stay that way for long.
The situation in Syria has worsened, enough to now make it a country where believers face extreme persecution. Ongoing conflict, pressure from the Islamic majority, the influence of extremist groups and a collapsed economy contribute to the vulnerability of Christians.
In Iraq, waning political influence and an increase in incidents of incitement of hatred against believers has increased pressure on the country’s embattled Christian minority.
Meanwhile, Libya has climbed to third on the World Watch List, due to an increase in violence against Christians. In Tunisia, pressure on Christians continues to grow as President Kais Saied’s rule drifts into authoritarianism.
The statistics and stories that highlight rising persecution are sobering, but they point to a greater reality: the church is growing.
A big riser in this year’s list is Laos, jumping ten places to 21st, due to a spike in violence against Christians. “In all my years working as a researcher, I never saw a clearer connection of a growing church with growing opposition, resulting in higher scores,” said a researcher. “I find it comforting that the biblical verses predicting this connection are still true.”
It’s a similar story worldwide – one that began around 2,000 years ago, when persecution scattered the early church because of the impact of the gospel. Wherever believers settled, the church continued to grow.
“Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel,” Paul wrote in Philippians 1:12, before adding his courage has enabled others ‘dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear’ (1:14).
As we remember and support our persecuted family, may Paul’s words be true of us, too.
Father God, thank you for the brave faith of Christians around the world who are choosing and committing to keep following You despite horrific persecution and pressure. I pray you will strengthen each and every Christian who knows what it means to count the cost of believing in Jesus. Give them hope, peace, comfort and courage. Holy Spirit, equip, protect and embolden them. I pray through them many more will come to know You and Your love. Amen.
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