June 16, 2024

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‘Seismic Changes in the Persecution Landscape’: Afghanistan Emerges As Global Leader In Christian Persecution

The worst perpetrator of religious persecution is no longer North Korea or China. The most difficult and dangerous place to be a Christian is now Afghanistan, according to a recent report by Open Doors USA. Afghanistan takes the lead thanks to its recent seizure by the Islamic militant group, the Taliban, which violently enforces its peculiar brand of Muslim extremism. 

The total number of Christians in Afghanistan is estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000, and almost all are converts from Islam. The Taliban forbid the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. Those who do risk being tried and convicted of apostasy, the punishment for which is death according to their interpretation of sharia law. Given widespread reports that the Taliban are already responsible for a hundred extrajudicial killings since their capture of the country last summer, it’s also very possible that Afghan Christians will be murdered prior to trial.

Almost 6,000 Christians were killed for their faith last year, according to the report, an increase of almost 25 percent from 2020. The world is becoming a less safe place for Christians. Where these deaths are happening points to another theme: the role of Islam.

Of all Christians killed, 4,650, or almost 80 percent, were in Nigeria alone (about 53 percent of Nigeria is Muslim). Another 11 percent (620 Christians) were killed Pakistan, which is about 95 percent Muslim. Yet there are few Muslim countries — or countries with large Muslim populations — where Christians can avoid intimidation, harassment, or violence. Seven out of the top 10 countries on the 2022 World Watch List experience some level of Islamic radicalism.

Qatar forced many church closures in the name of Covid-19, but those churches have been forced to remain shut even after other faith communities were allowed to reopen. Al-Shabaab, a powerful Islamic extremist group in Somalia, has executed people who commit what they consider apostasy. Jihadists have killed dozens of Christians in Burkina Faso, and forced hundreds of others to flee their homes. Christians suffer similarly from west Africa to Indonesia.

But it’s not just Muslim nations where Christians endure such things. For two decades prior to this year, North Korea was number one on Open Doors’ list — where Bibles are banned, North Korean citizens cannot attend church, and between 50,000–70,000 Christians are estimated to be held in the country’s notorious prison camps. Things haven’t gotten better in North Korea, it’s just that conditions have significantly worsened elsewhere in the world.

In communist China, Christian worship is tightly restricted and monitored, while the government imprisons and tortures Christians and regularly shuts down their churches. Hindu-majority India is in the top 10 of worst places for Christians, while Buddhist-majority Myanmar ranks twelfth. Cuba pushes many restrictive measures on churches, particularly Protestant ones.

Across the world in 2021, more than 360 million Christians suffered high levels of persecution or discrimination for their faith. Last year 5,110 churches or Christian buildings were attacked, 4,765 Christians were detained for their faith, and 3,829 Christians were abducted for faith-related reasons. 

Perhaps the most famous example of the latter was the abduction of a group of American missionaries in Haiti by a strange, violent gang that practices voodoo. The missionary group, which included a baby, only recently escapedin December.

Open Doors USA President and CEO David Curry said there are “seismic changes” happening in the persecution landscape around the globe. The organization’s World Watch List is based on a data-driven comparison of several factors, including the proportion of types of Christianity persecuted; proportion of inhabited territory affected; intensity of persecution; and frequency of persecution. Each country is then given a score based on this evaluation.

As I served in Afghanistan in the U.S. military and spent years advocating on behalf of Christians who suffer persecution at the hands of Muslim extremists, I recently published a book on this very topic, extensively detailing the suffering of Christians in Muslim countries. The book is especially focused on those who have fled Pakistan and sought refugee status while living as asylum seekers in Thailand, where I met hundreds of them.

I met two young Pakistani women who have extensive burn marks on their torsos from when they were captured and set on fire by Muslim extremists. Others have had female family members abducted and forcibly married to Muslim men and converted to Islam. That happens about 1,000 times every year in Pakistan. All have courageously retained their faith in Christ under terrible circumstances few of us in the West, God willing, will experience.

There are many ways Americans can support the global persecuted church. The first, which cannot be overestimated, is to pray. If we really believe in a merciful, personal God, then we must believe our prayers on behalf of the persecuted will not go unanswered. Prayer changes lives.

Jesus himself warned his followers they would face persecution. “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first” (John 15:18).

But that doesn’t mean we should put up with it, or sit idly by while our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer. For our Lord exhorts us: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

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HD Editor’s Note: Why Is This News Biblically Relevant?

Decision magazine in their report on Open Doors’ annual World Watch List, additionally described the conditions faced by Christianians living in Afghanistan writing:

The shift in ranking occurred because of the Taliban takeover of the Afghanistan capital of Kabul in August 2021, which made a deadly situation for Christians even worse. Since the takeover, Afghan believers have had to leave their country or relocate internally. 

“For more than 20 years, Open Doors’ World Watch List has given us a clear and current picture of religious freedom conditions,” said David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA. “But this year’s findings indicate seismic changes in the persecution landscape—and challenge the United States to take action that, according to the report’s conclusions, has never been more critical.” 

The situation in Afghanistan made headlines around the world, and Christian persecution is extreme in all spheres of public and private life. The risk of discovery has only increased, since the Taliban controls every aspect of government—including paperwork from international troops that may help identify Christians.

It is impossible to live openly as a Christian in Afghanistan, the Open Doors report states. Leaving Islam is considered shameful, and Christian converts face a choice if their new faith is discovered—either flee the country or be killed. This was true before the Taliban takeover. The situation has become even more dangerous for believers this year.

The Taliban will make sure that Islamic rules and customs are implemented and kept. Christian converts have no option but to obey them. If a Christian’s new faith is discovered, their family, clan or tribe has to save its honor by disowning the believer, or even killing them. Under the Taliban, this is widely considered to be justice. Alternatively, since leaving Islam is considered a sign of insanity, a Christian who has converted from Islam may be forcibly sent to a psychiatric hospital. 

Ken Ham, regarding Christian Persecution around the world, wrote:

All around the world, Christians are suffering for their faith, even paying the ultimate price of their lives. We need to remember to be in prayer for them. Also remember to pray that the freedoms we currently enjoy in our Western nations will not be taken away. And, regardless of our freedom or lack thereof, we need to share the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ with needy people. We always need to be about the business (proclaiming the truth of God’s Word and the gospel) of the King (Luke 19:13).

In 2 Timothy 3, we are told that in the “last days” before Christ’s Return, perilous times would come in which “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”

Hal Lindsey in his article, “Through Many Tribulations,” wrote:

Salvation is free. Jesus paid the whole price.  But in this world, bearing His name carries its own cost.  In Acts 14:22, Paul the great teacher of grace, gave this warning to the Christians of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch.  “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

It reminds me of the third verse of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”  “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come. ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home!”

That amazing grace abides… It abides with millions around the world facing various levels of persecution because of their stands for Christ.  If you are His, it also abides with you.

According to the Bible, as we approach the end of the age, persecution of believers will increase.  But don’t despair.  In John 16:33, Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

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