Dying for Christianity: millions at risk amid rise in persecution across the globe

Increase in murder, as well as rape, torture and discrimination, has led the pope to warn of a ‘form of genocide’

Christians are facing growing persecution around the world, fuelled mainly by Islamic extremism and repressive governments, leading the pope to warn of “a form of genocide” and for campaigners to speak of “religio-ethnic cleansing”.

The scale of attacks on Christians in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America has alarmed organisations that monitor religious persecution, with most reporting a significant deterioration in recent years.

On his recent trip to Latin America, Pope Francis said he was dismayed “to see how in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world many of our brothers and sisters are persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith in Jesus”. He went on: “In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place, and it must end.”

At Easter, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the leader of the Anglican church, spoke of Christian “martyrs”. Christians were living under persecution in almost half of the 38 Anglican provinces worldwide, he said this month. “They fear for their lives every day.”

The Prince of Wales has described threats to Christians in the Middle East as “an indescribable tragedy”.

According to David Alton, a crossbench peer who campaigns on religious freedom, “some assessments claim that as many as 200 million Christians in over 60 countries around the world face some degree of restriction, discrimination or outright persecution”. That is about one in 10 of the 2.2 billion Christians in the world. Christianity remains the faith with the most adherents.

“Whatever the real figures the scale is enormous. From Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt to North Korea, China, Vietnam and Laos, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, from Cuba, Colombia and Mexico to Eritrea, Nigeria and Sudan, Christians face serious violations of religious freedom,” Alton said. Persecution ranged from murder, rape and torture to repressive laws, discrimination and social exclusion.

North Korea

One consequence was “a form of religio-ethnic cleansing of Christian communities”, said John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a Catholic campaign group that monitors persecution. “The persecution of Christians is at a level we’ve not seen for many, many years and the main impact is the migration of Christian people. There are huge swaths of the world which are now experiencing a very sharp decline in the number of Christians.”

In the past 15 months, a number of egregious attacks have highlighted the targeting of Christians by Islamic extremists in the Middle East and Africa. They include:

• the abduction of more than 270 Nigerian schoolgirls;

• the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya, and other attacks by Isis militants in Iraq and Syria;

• the killing of 147 people on a university campus in Garissa, northern Kenya.

In addition, a heavily pregnant woman, Meriam Ibrahim, was sentenced to death in Sudan for alleged apostasy, triggering worldwide protests. She was later allowed to leave the country.

But monitoring groups say the persecution of Christians goes far beyond high-profile cases. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians face harassment in 102 countries – more than any other religion. The US government advisory body the Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), recommended this year that eight countries – the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam – be added to the State Department’s existing list of nine “countries of particular concern”.


The 2014 report on religious freedom in the world by ACN said conditions had deteriorated in 55 countries, and significantly so in six countries: Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria. Although Muslims “also face terrible and systematic persecution … and Jewish communities have also suffered increased threats and violence”, Christians were by far the most persecuted faith group, the report said.

Open Doors, a global organisation monitoring Christian persecution, conservatively estimates that 4,344 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons in 12 months up to November 2014, and 1,062 churches were attacked. It says persecution increased in 24 countries last year, with Kenya, Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria entering the top 10 of its country-by-country league table. North Korea has headed the list for the past 13 years; up to 70,000 Christians are held in gulags, with “tens of thousands of people banished, arrested, tortured and/or killed”, it says.

In general, persecution of Christians is increasing, “and the rate of increase is accelerating”, said Lisa Pearce, chief executive of Open Doors UK and Ireland. The nature of persecution was also changing, she added. “It used to mean several years in a forced labour camp. Now it means watching your loved ones being beheaded.”

The rise of Islamic extremism is driving much of the increase in Christian persecution, said campaigners and church leaders who point to militant groups such as Isis, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. “One of the 21st century’s major challenges to freedom of religion or belief [is] the actions of non-state actors in failing or failed states,” said USCIRF’s 2015 annual report.

Lee Marsden, professor of international relations, specialising in religion and security, at the University of East Anglia, said the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East during the Arab spring was a significant factor. “They had many downsides, but they did protect minority faiths. Take them away, and it becomes open season on minorities – that was one of the unforeseen consequences of toppling these people. And the Arab spring was hijacked by Islamists, which was bad news for religious minorities.”


Social media has allowed religious extremists to push their message beyond geographical boundaries. Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi, speaking in a recent debate on religious freedom in the House of Lords, said the internet was “to radical political religions what printing was to Martin Luther. It allows them to circumvent and outflank all existing structures of power. The result has been the politicisation of religion and the religionising of politics, which, throughout history, has been a deadly combination.”

Other forces driving persecution include authoritarian regimes restricting the activities of particular faith groups, tensions between groups coming into contact as a result of migration and displacement, and declining tolerance and pluralism in some parts of the world. Christian leaders this week protested against a campaign to remove crosses from churches in eastern China.

And there are some unexpected pockets of persecution. In 2014, five Catholic priests were killed in Mexico, prompting the Vatican to say it was the most dangerous country in Latin America for its followers. Powerful criminal groups see the church as a target for extortion and money laundering, and view some priests as standing in the way of their own influence. Attacks on priests in Mexico increased by 80% between 2012 and 2014, local organisations reported.

Some campaigners and church leaders acknowledged the danger of religious persecution being seen as a modern-day clash of civilisations, a titanic struggle between Islam and Christianity, carrying the risk of polarising people of different faiths.

“It is not about Islam and Christianity. It is about the right for everyone to have the freedom to choose, practise, share non-coercively, and change their religion or belief – and it includes the right not to believe as well as the right for adherents of all religions to follow their beliefs,” said Lord Alton.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic church in England and Wales, said: “It would be a serious mistake to cast this as a Muslim-Christian conflict.” He cited a bishop in northern Nigeria, who had told him the most recent killing in his diocese was of 39 Muslims by Boko Haram. “The extremist groups are certainly perpetrating violence, against anyone who does not share their world view. That includes Christians, but it’s not exclusively Christians by any means.”


According to Marsden, there could be an element of Islamophobia in some Christian campaign organisations, “but there is also an element of victimhood – a view that the church has always been persecuted, which feeds into the martyrdom narrative”.

And, in the House of Lords, the archbishop of Canterbury alluded to Christianity’s own historical record of persecuting others, saying “the church’s sporadic record of compelling obedience to its teachings through violence and coercion is a cause for humility and shame”.

In the same debate, Sacks – along with others – pointed to the increasing threat faced by “people of all faiths, and of none”. He said: “Christians are being persecuted throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Jews are facing a new and resurgent antisemitism. Muslims who stand on the wrong side of the Sunni-Shia divide are being killed in great numbers. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Bahá’í and others face persecution in some parts of the world. Religious freedom is about our common humanity, and we must fight for it if we are not to lose it. This, I believe, is the issue of our time.”

Not all agreed with the pope’s use of the word genocide. But, said Pearce, “if you look at what’s happening in the Middle East, it’s being purged of Christians, and there are definitely elements of religious cleansing. So I can see where the pope got that word from.”


She drew a distinction between “smash” – extreme violence – and “squeeze”, where “life as a Christian becomes inexorably harder. The squeeze inevitably makes the church more vulnerable to the smash when it comes.” The groups that were the most violent were not necessarily the worst persecutors, she added.

Campaigners have suggested action such as increased governmental pressure, legal help where there is a functioning judicial system, providing havens for refugees, and supporting NGOs on the ground. Alton would like the prime minister, David Cameron, to appoint a special envoy for religious freedom, as the US and Canada have done.

The archbishop of Canterbury said that attacks on religious freedom were often linked to economic, social and historical circumstances. “If we want to defend religious freedom around the world ... do not sell guns to people who oppress religious freedom; do not launder their money; restrict trade with them; confine the way we deal with them,” he told his fellow peers. In addition, said Nichols, “for people of faith, the promise and pattern of prayer is very important; to say you are not forgotten is a crucial and sustaining gift.”

Pearce said Open Doors constantly wrestled with how to “make clear we’re talking about the impact of extremism, that it’s not only Christians that are persecuted, and that the overall goal is to create an environment where people are free to follow any religion, or none. This is not an issue just for Christians, but a human rights issue that affects us all. It’s not a problem for the church, but much wider than that.”

Under attack

Garissa University – Kenya

On 2 April this year, gunmen from the militant Islamic group al-Shabaab attacked Garissa University in Kenya, killing 147 people and injuring 79. The gunmen released Muslim students and shot those who identified themselves as Christians, in some cases telling the students to call their parents and talk to them as they died. The gunmen held the university in a state of siege for 15 hours, with more than 700 students trapped inside. The siege ended when four of the gunmen were shot by police; the fifth was able to detonate his suicide vest, killing himself and injuring Kenyan commandos. It was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the bombing of the US embassy in 1998 and one in a series of al-Shabaab attacks on the country, which the terrorist group claimed were carried out in retribution for the “unspeakable atrocities against the Muslims of East Africa by the Kenyan security forces”.

Pregnant woman sentenced to death for apostasy – Sudan


Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese Christian, was sentenced to death for adultery and apostasy after marrying a Christian man, with whom she had a young son. Ibrahim was raised as a Christian by her Christian mother after her Muslim father left the family when she was a young child. The Sudanese court said she should have followed the religion of her absent father, which would have prohibited her from marrying a Christian, and found her guilty of abandoning her Muslim faith. Ibrahim was arrested when she was eight months pregnant and held in a Sudanese prison with her 21-month-old son to await hanging after the birth of her second child. She was denied medical care and prison staff refused to take her to hospital when she went into labour; she gave birth to a daughter in prison with her legs shackled. Amid international outrage, Ibrahim was released on the order of the Sudanese appeal court, but was rearrested as she was boarding a plane with her husband and two children the next day. After intense diplomatic negotiations the whole family were allowed to leave and they are now living in the US.

Attacks on Christians by Isis – Iraq, Syria, Libya

Iraq’s Christian population has decreased dramatically since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, as large numbers have fled because of escalating persecution. Christians, as well as other minority groups, have been targeted by Isis in the large parts of Iraq and Syria under its control. It is believed that more than 100,000 people, many of them Christians, fled Qaraqosh, Mosul and the Nineveh plain in 2014 as Isis swept through. The Islamic extremists present Christians with the choice of converting to Islam, paying a very high tax or being murdered. In February 2015, Isis posted a video purporting to show 21 Coptic Christians being beheaded on a beach in Libya. Two months later, a second Isis video apparently showed another 30 Ehiopian Christians being shot or beheaded.

Kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram – Nigeria


A group of Boko Haram militants attacked a school in Chibok, a primarily Christian village in Nigeria, on the night of 14 April 2014. They kidnapped schoolgirls who had returned to the school to sit their final physics exam. It is uncertain how many girls were kidnapped, but estimates put it at between 276 and 329 girls, with 53 escaping in the few weeks following the attack. The girls were taken to Boko Haram strongholds and attempts by the Nigerian government and the girls’ families to rescue them have been unsuccessful. Less than a month after the kidnapping, Boko Haram released a video showing 130 of the kidnapped girls, all wearing Islamic dress. It is believed they are being held as sex slaves and have been forced to convert to Islam. Kate Lyons


Harriet Sherwood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Christianity under global threat due to persecution, says report
Catholic campaign group claims Christians are disappearing from entire regions, notably Middle East and Africa, because of ‘ethnic cleansing’

Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

13, Oct, 2015 @2:30 PM

Article image
Pope and patriarch condemn Middle East persecution of Christians
Pontiff wraps up Turkey visit by addressing plight of Christians in Syria and iraq and calls for ‘constructive dialogue’ with Islam

Constanze Letsch in Istanbul

30, Nov, 2014 @4:05 PM

Article image
Sudanese woman spared death for apostasy meets Pope Francis
Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death for apostasy in May, sparking an international campaign to save her life

Mark Tran and Lizzy Davies in Rome

24, Jul, 2014 @1:03 PM

Article image
Pope to show solidarity with Egypt's Coptic Christians in wake of church bombings
Coptic church head in UK welcomes Pope Francis’s visit to Cairo amid concerns over Isis attacks and perceived security failings

Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent and Ruth Michaelson

10, Apr, 2017 @2:51 PM

Article image
'It's a war on Christians': Egypt's beleaguered Copts in sombre mood before papal visit
Pope Francis heads to Cairo for peace mission after spate of church bombings, as Isis proclaims Christians its ‘favourite prey’

Ruth Michaelson in Cairo and Harriet Sherwood

27, Apr, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Pope Francis criticises 'new colonialism' in Kenya speech
Pontiff receives rapturous welcome in Nairobi’s Kangemi slum as he condemns inequality and injustice during first Africa tour

Murithi Mutiga in Nairobi and Harriet Sherwood in London

27, Nov, 2015 @9:30 AM

Article image
Dialogue between religions essential, says pope on first day of African visit
Bridging divisions between Muslims and Christians is main theme of pontiff’s three-nation tour of continent

Murithi Mutiga in Nairobi and Harriet Sherwood

26, Nov, 2015 @4:18 PM

Article image
Pope Francis to embark on Africa tour despite security fears
Pontiff to go ahead with trip to active war zone in Central African Republic as part of six-day, three-nation African tour

Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

24, Nov, 2015 @11:27 AM

Article image
Christians flee growing persecution in Africa and Middle East
Millions escaped countries such as Nigeria, Eritrea, Syria and Iraq in 2015, according to charity

Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

13, Jan, 2016 @4:00 AM

Article image
Pope Francis willing to visit North Korea, Vatican official says
Conditions would have to be met before invitation from Kim Jong-un could be accepted

Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

19, Oct, 2018 @11:10 AM