As the second Democratic presidential debate nears and 20 candidates gear up to spar with one another, the press continues to speculate over what topics these men and women will be discussing. Will they tackle health insurance, immigration, foreign policy, climate change?
These are all important subjects and deserving of attention. But one of the conversations that likely won’t make it onto the list might actually be the greatest issue of our time:
The treatment and persecution of people who adhere to a different faith than that of their country’s majority population.
Today, more than 245 million Christian men and women (that’s one in nine, worldwide) are enduring high levels of Christian persecution. From being taken advantage of, discriminated against and bombed to being beaten, raped or even killed, Christians are targeted in places around the world. In fact, throughout the world, 11 Christians die for their faith each day.
Simply put: This horrific reality should be a policy priority for anyone who wants to assume the most powerful title in the world!
Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List identifies the top 50 countries where it’s most dangerous to turn to and follow Jesus. In the top five countries on the list, including North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan, Christians representing Asia, the Middle East and Africa must live at risk of attack on them, as well as their families. In the top four, Christians must live in secrecy. If their faith is discovered, it’s not an overstatement to say that death is imminent. The state and extremist groups are swift to eliminate any adherents to Christianity.
Here’s a brief look into the lives persecuted Christians lead in these five countries—and why presidential candidates, regardless of political party, should engage with this reality in our world today.
North Korea—where 300,000 Christians risk death every day
The isolated country continues to make news amid headlines of nuclear missile testing and Kim Jong-un’s meetings with world leaders (in July, President Trump and Kim met for the third time in a year). But what isn’t being talked about is the country’s egregious human rights record, specifically the state’s brutal treatment of more than 300,000 secret Christians—ranking North Korea No. 1 on the World Watch List for the last 18 years. If a North Korean Christian is discovered, not only are they deported to labor camps as political criminals or even executed, their families will share their fate as well. Communal worship is non-existent in Kim’s hermit kingdom with reports indicating that local authorities are increasing incentives (such as extra food rations) for anyone who exposes a Christian. North Korean refugees have even shared that anyone closing their eyes in public is highly scrutinized—perceived as an act of prayer that quickly exposes them as Christians.
Afghanistan—where Christianity is not permitted to exist
Though the Afghan civil war is currently the focus of news stories and Twitter feeds, Afghanistan is a close second behind North Korea on the World Watch List. Synonymous with terrorism, the country doesn’t allow any faith other than Islam. In fact, 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 this country of 36 million people, converts are considered literally insane to leave Islam. Some may end up in a psychiatric hospital and have their homes destroyed.
Christians and other religious minorities in Afghanistan live their lives knowing that on any given day, they may die at the hands of their family, local community, the state, or foreign militants who have infiltrated the country, pledging allegiance to ISIS. Men, women and children who follow any faith other than Islam are forced to live their days in secrecy and hiding.
Somalia—where Christians are high-value targets
Suicide bombings led by the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab continue in the No. 3 country on the World Watch List (in the last two weeks, bombings of government buildings and hotels have killed and wounded hundreds of people). In the impoverished East African country, Christians live under constant threat of attack; persecution almost always involves violence. And in many rural areas, al-Shabab and terrorist groups like them are de facto rulers who regard Christians with a Muslim background as high-value targets—often killed on the spot when discovered.
In Somalia, Christians and other religious minorities remain so vulnerable to attacks by Islamic militants that, in the interest of security, Open Doors can publish no specific examples of persecution in the country.
Libya—where 38,000 people risk their lives to exercise their religious freedom
Few will forget the horrifying video of Egyptian Christian migrant workers in orange jumpsuits martyred by ISIS militants on Libyan coast. Or CNN’s capture of a slave market in Libya. After the ouster of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the North African country plunged into chaos and anarchy, enabling Islamic militant groups to control parts of the country. In Libya—the fourth most dangerous place to live as a Christian—converts from Islam face violent abuse from family and the wider community. The country is also home to thousands of migrant workers. If they are Christians, they can endure double persecution for both their social status and their faith. In this country of 6.5 million people, the estimated 38,000 people who follow Jesus are at grave risk for their decision to worship differently.
Pakistan—where 4 million people live as second-class citizens with constant threat of mob attacks
The world’s sixth largest country, Pakistan is also the fifth most dangerous country for Christians. Led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan has become notorious for its misuse of blasphemy laws—which can carry a death sentence. Horrific stories of Christians being accused of blasphemy followed by angry Muslim mob uproars (often instigated by radical Islamists) are continuously reported. In one especially heinous case, a 24-year-old Christian woman, five months pregnant, and her 27-year-old husband were burned alive. Accusing the illiterate woman of blasphemy, an angry mob descended on the couple, beating them to near death and then throwing them into the brick kiln where they worked as bonded laborers (a practice recognized by the UN as a form of modern slavery).
Christians like this couple live as second-class citizens in Pakistan. And in this misogynistic society where women are devalued and violently oppressed, an estimated 700 women and girls are abducted each year, often raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men.
Yet recent meetings between Khan and Trump (the first since Khan’s election in 2018) didn’t center on these deplorable conditions for the country’s 4 million Christians. And the topic hasn’t come up in any of the Democratic hopefuls’ foreign policy plans.
Scratching the surface of persecution
Unfortunately, the persecution of believers in these five countries only scratches the surface. In more than 60 countries around the world (including influential nations such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Russia, Iran, Syria, Nigeria and more), Christians are targeted for their faith by extremists; rejected and attacked by their communities, villages and even families; and hunted down by the state.
These five countries are, however, a strong starting place for this urgent conversation. In North Korea, bringing human rights to the front burner could eventually release 300,000 Christians from a life of tyranny. If the isolated country were to open up, it could free an estimated 50,000 Christians imprisoned for their faith in the country’s inhumane penal system. In Pakistan, protecting religious freedom would mean that 4 million people could actually live, contributing to the greater good—instead of just surviving.
Research continues to show that in places where religious liberty is embraced and protected, economic liberty is also elevated. Open Doors USA CEO David Curry points out that religious liberty should be the central issue in the race for the White House—“whether you’re looking at it through the lens of immigration or the lens of terrorism.”
Religious freedom across more than 60 countries would see the hearts, energies and imaginations of hundreds of millions of people released and multiplied to their fullest extent—for the Kingdom, both on earth and in Heaven.
As these presidential candidates gather on July 30-31 and in the months ahead on the road to Decision 2020, the violence and deaths that happen every day simply because a man or woman has exercised their religious freedom should not only be on the docket—but also take center stage.
The lives of more than 245 million people depend on it.