Over the years, mostly as a pastor, I encountered information about some of the tough places around the world in which to do church. It always made me feel very humble for the conditions where I was blessed to serve. Recently, I came across some new research about modern-day persecution and what church leaders in many countries throughout the world are facing right now, and honestly it brings me to my knees. I’m reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, reminding us that we are one church, one body:
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (I Cor. 12:26).
A new report from Open Doors reveals that more than 245 million Christians worldwide are highly persecuted where they live and lead their churches. Church leaders are specifically targeted. Just last month in China, two well-known house churches were closed, including arrests of Pastor Wang Yi, leader of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, and 10 of the church’s elders. More than 100 worshipers were taken from their homes and the streets for questioning. Reports are also coming out that in some parts of China police now have arrest quotas for Christians. Christian persecution is happening today.
The ministry founded by Brother Andrew (some of you may be familiar with his book, God’s Smuggler) to strengthen the persecuted church around the world just released its 2019 World Watch List—an in-depth investigative report ranking the top 50 most dangerous places to be a Christian and lead a church.
According to the report, persecution is increasing at an alarming rate (that 245 million number is up from last year’s total of 215 million). Take a look at what what’s happening in the top 10 countries where saying “yes” to following God’s call to lead a church is truly a life-or-death decision. I think, like me, your eyes will be opened.
Let’s take some time to pray today with our families and leadership teams for church leaders and their churches that are risking it all to be the Church (also, check out the specific prayers for these church leaders).
1. North Korea Ranks No. 1 for 18th Consecutive Year on World Watch List
For three generations, everything in this isolated country has focused on idolizing the leading Kim family. Christians are seen as hostile elements in society that must be eradicated. There was hope that new diplomatic efforts in 2018—including the 2018 Winter Olympics—would mean a lessening of pressure and violence against Christians. But so far that has not been the case. In fact, reports indicate that local authorities are increasing incentives for anyone who exposes a Christian in their community.
If Christians are discovered, not only are they deported to labor camps or even killed on the spot, their families to the fourth generation share their fate as well. Communal worship is non-existent. Daring to meet other Christians for worship is a risky feat that must be done in utmost secrecy. Yet Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in North Korea to be 300,000 strong—believers who are defying the unjust regime and following Jesus.
2. Afghanistan—Where Christianity Is Not Permitted to Exist
Photo credit: IMB.ORG
Afghanistan is once again a close second behind North Korea on the 2019 World Watch List. An Islamic state by constitution, the country does not permit any faith other than Islam to exist. To convert to a faith outside Islam is tantamount to treason because it’s seen as a betrayal of family, tribe and country. Very often, there is only one possible outcome for exposed and caught Christians: death.
In Afghanistan converts are considered literally insane to leave Islam. As a result, some may end up in a psychiatric hospital and have their homes destroyed. In addition to communal pressure, the security situation continues to deteriorate due to the influx of foreign militants who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. And the radical Islamic Taliban have also increased in strength; at least half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are either ruled or contested by the Taliban. Afghan Christians (mostly those with a Muslim background) are in hiding as much as possible.
3. Christians Are High-Value Targets in Somalia
Estimates suggest that 99 percent of Somalis are Muslims, and any minority religions are heavily persecuted. The Christian community is small and under constant threat of attack. In fact, persecution of Christians almost always involves violence. Additionally, in many rural areas, Islamic militant groups like al-Shabab are de facto rulers who regard Christians with a Muslim background as high-value targets—often killed on the spot when discovered.
In recent years, the situation appears to have worsened. Islamic militants have intensified their hunt for people who are Christian and in a position of leadership. An attempt to reopen a church in Hargeisa, Somaliland, failed; the government was forced to shut it down due to pressure from the local Islamic population. In the World Watch List 2019 reporting period, Christians in Somalia remained so vulnerable to attacks by Islamic militants that in the interests of security, Open Doors could publish no specific examples of persecution.
4. Believers in Libya Face Deadly Violence from Extremists
After the ouster of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya plunged into chaos and anarchy, which has enabled various Islamic militant groups to control parts of the country. Libyan converts to Christianity face abuse and violence for their decision to follow Christ. The country is also home to many migrant workers who have been attacked, sexually assaulted and detained, which can be even worse if your Christian faith is discovered.
Libyan Christians with a Muslim background face extremely violent and intense pressure from their family and the wider community to renounce their faith. Believers from other parts of the continent are also targeted by various Islamic militant groups and organized criminal groups. Few will forget the horrifying video of Egyptian workers martyred by ISIS militants on the coast of Libya. The level of violence against Christians in Libya is very high, and Christians in Libya are subjected to violent, inhumane and degrading treatment.
5. Christians in Pakistan Live With Open Discrimination and Constant Threat of Mob Attacks
Under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, Christians continue to live in daily fear they will be accused of blasphemy—which can carry a death sentence. The most well-known example of these laws is the case of Asia Bibi. After sitting on death row for more than 10 years, the Christian wife and mother was acquitted of blasphemy charges in October however her life is still in grave danger from radical Islamists that have gained increasing political power in the world’s sixth-largest country. For that reason, the new ruling government must maintain good diplomatic relationships with some radical groups.
In Pakistan, Christians are largely regarded as second-class citizens, and conversion to Christianity from Islam carries a great deal of risk. An estimated 700 girls and women abducted each year are often raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men in the community, usually resulting in forced conversions. While traditional, historical churches have relative freedom for worship, they are heavily monitored and have regularly been targeted for bomb attacks (for example, the Quetta attack in December 2017 on Bethel Memorial Methodist Church).
All Christians suffer from institutionalized discrimination. Occupations seen as low, dirty and derogatory are officially reserved for Christians. Many Christians are very poor, and some are victims of bonded labor. On the other hand, many Christians belong to Pakistan’s middle class; however, this does not save them from being marginalized or persecuted.
6. Christian Converts in Sudan Targeted for Persecution
Sudan has been ruled as an Islamic state by the authoritarian government of President al-Bashir since 1989. Under his charge, the country offers limited rights for religious minorities and places heavy restrictions on freedom of speech or press. The last year has been difficult for Christians in many ways. There have been arrests; many churches have been demolished and others are on an official list awaiting demolition. And many Christians are attacked indiscriminately in areas like the Nuba Mountains where there is an ongoing conflict between government forces and rebel groups.
Christian converts from Islam are especially targeted for persecution. So to keep from being discovered, converts will often refrain from raising their children as Christians because this might attract the attention of the government and community leaders (since children might inadvertently reveal their parents’ faith).
7. Christians Imprisoned in Shipping Containers in Eritrea
Since 1993, President Afwerki has overseen an authoritarian brutal regime that rests on massive human rights violations. During the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, government security forces conducted many house-to-house raids and imprisoned hundreds of Christians in inhumane conditions, including small shipping containers in scorching heat. Protestants, in particular, face serious problems in accessing community resources, especially social services provided by the State.
Christians from non-traditional church groups, such as evangelicals, face the harshest persecution. In 2018, Eritrea embraced an end to hostility with both Ethiopia and Somalia. How that agreement will play out for the situation of Christians remains to be seen. This extreme pressure and state-sanctioned violence are forcing some Christians to flee Eritrea–often called “Africa’s North Korea”–and seek asylum.
8. Believers in Yemen Especially Vulnerable in Civil War and Famine
The ongoing civil war in Yemen has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory, making an already difficult nation for Christians to live in even harder. The chaos of war has enabled radical groups to take control over some regions of Yemen, and they have increased persecution of Christians. Even private worship is risky in some parts of the country.
Christians are suffering from the general humanitarian crisis in the country, but Yemeni Christians are additionally vulnerable since emergency relief is mostly distributed through Islamic organizations and local mosques, which are allegedly discriminating against all who are not considered to be pious Muslims. Converts to Christianity from Islam face additional persecution from family and society.
In Yemen, the small church is composed mostly of Yemeni Christians with a Muslim background who must live their faith in secret. They face persecution from the authorities (including detention and interrogation), their families, and radical Islamic groups who threaten converts with death if they don’t denounce Christ and re-convert.
9. Illegal to Convert, Illegal to Preach in Iran
In this gateway to the Middle East, Christians are forbidden from sharing their faith with non-Christians. Therefore, church services in Persian, the national language, are not allowed. Converts from Islam undergo persecution from the government; if they attend or lead an underground house church, they face the constant threat of arrest. Iranian society is governed by Islamic law, which means the rights and job possibilities for Christians are heavily restricted. The government sees them as an attempt by Western countries to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime of Iran. Leaders of groups of Christian converts are often arrested, prosecuted and have received long prison sentences for “crimes against the national security.”
In December, to crack down on Christians sharing their faith, Iranian police arrested 100 Christians in one week, making a blatant statement to both Christians and Muslims. Iran is also infamous for its prisons and inhumane treatment of Christians in places like Evin Prison where well-known house church pastor Yousef Nardarkhani is serving a 10-year sentence.
10. Unprecedented Christian Persecution in India
In the world’s second-most populous country, Christians saw unprecedented persecution on numerous fronts from both the State and general Hindu society. For the first time, India enters the top 10 on the World Watch List, jumping one spot from No. 11 in 2017. Home to more than a billion people, even an incremental rise in persecution yields an exponential impact. Since the current ruling party took power in 2014, Hindu extremists have fueled a crackdown on Christian house churches and have attacked believers with seemingly no consequences—believing that to be Indian is to be Hindu. So any other faith is viewed as non-Indian.
In rural areas, Christians were told that one church would be closed down every week because they have been “destroying” local tradition and culture by “luring” others to convert to Christianity. And it is common for Christians to be cut off from local water supplies and be denied access to government-subsidized groceries. In India, saying “yes” to Jesus has become a risky decision that costs you and your family greatly.
Praying With Church Leaders
Let’s take some time today to pray with church leaders around the globe in countries where persecution is a daily reality. Below, Open Doors shares specific ways we can pray church leader to church leader…
Pray with church leaders for boldness. Ask God to remind them and plant on their hearts, as Paul did with Timothy, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”
Pray for wisdom and discernment. Pray that these leaders would daily ask God for discernment in navigating officials who appear at their churches, police who hassle and arrest them, community leaders who question their motives.
Ask God to affirm their decision to answer His call to lead a church. Ask Him to use people, Scripture and His voice in their lives to encourage and speak to these disciple multipliers in unfathomable ways—that we can’t even imagine.
Pray with imprisoned church leaders. Ask God to bring them comfort, to remind them that the global Body of Christ is praying with them and their churches. Numerous Christians say that while they were in prison they could sense thousands of people praying for them—and that gave them the strength to endure.
Pray that imprisoned leaders would have a Bible. In most prisons, Christians aren’t allowed to have a Bible. But Open Doors shares miraculous stories of the Bible finding its way to church leaders. Ask God for miracles to bring these leaders His Word.
Pray with imprisoned church leaders as they lead new gatherings in prison. Open Doors has numerous accounts of prison survivors who despite their circumstances, multiplied disciples—even in a North Korean prison camp.
Pray with house church leaders. Pray that God would bring them to Open Doors ministry partners to equip them with Bibles, other discipleship materials and training.
Pray that these leaders would find other leaders in their community and region. Ask God to bring them soul-nourishing community that they can lean into and learn from.
Pray that the Kingdom of God would be so tangible to these church leaders. Pray that as they birth gospel-centered gatherings and churches, others would see them, learn from them and follow their example.
To read more about these countries and the remaining 40 countries on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List (including China), click here to see the list and download the full report. To help you pray with these believers, Open Doors has a mobile prayer app that connects you with persecuted Christians around the world and alerts you to their prayer requests. Learn more about it and sign up to get regular updates delivered to your phone.