The Islamic State (ISIS) may be on the run in the Middle East, but Islamic oppression continues to fuel persecution of Christians across the world.
Open Doors USA released its 2018 World Watch List this month, and out of the 50 worst countries for Christian persecution, “Islamic Oppression” inspires persecution in 33. Worse, it drives oppression in eight of the eleven countries where Christians face “extreme” persecution, according to the list.
North Korea’s Communist regime may be the worst state for persecuting Christians for the 16th consecutive year, but the main story in Christian persecution is Islamic oppression.
The Open Doors report listed three “major trends” in Christian persecution, and Islamic oppression ranked number one. “Islamic oppression is one of the most widely recognized sources of persecution for Christians in the world today—and it continues to spread—aiming to bring many parts of the world under Sharia law,” the report stated. “The movement, which often results in Islamic militancy and persecution of Christians, is expanding in Asia (Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia) and Africa (Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia).”
Other forces proved notable as well. Religious nationalism fosters persecution in 5 countries — India (11), Myanmar (24), Nepal (25), Bhutan (33), and Sri Lanka (44).
Dictatorial paranoia inspires persecution in Eritrea (6), Uzbekistan (16), Turkmenistan (19), Tajikistan (22), Kazakhstan (28), and Azerbaijan (45) — many of these Muslim-majority countries as well. Communist and post-Communist oppression fosters the worst Christian persecution in the world in North Korea (1), but it has a similar effect in Vietnam (18), Laos (20), and China (43). Finally, organized crime and corruption foster a degree of persecution in Mexico (39) and Colombia (49), according to Open Doors.
How does Islamic oppression feed Christian persecution? The Open Doors report revealed three levels of persecution: “extreme persecution,” “very high persecution,” and “high persecution.” Muslim ideologies inspire each kind. To be clear, this report does not suggest all Muslims hate or oppress Christians, or that all forms of Islam necessarily entail persecution.
1. “Extreme persecution.”
Open Doors identified eight Muslim countries that use Islam to foster “extreme persecution” against Christians: Afghanistan (2), Somalia (3), Sudan (4), Pakistan (5), Libya (7), Iraq (8), Yemen (9), and Iran (10).
These Muslim-majority countries have two major forces of persecution: state laws against proselytizing and conversion, and social pressure against any convert from Islam.
“Because all Christians in Afghanistan are essentially converts, they are unable to express their faith, even in private. Converts can experience loss of personal property and businesses, beatings, and even death at the hands of their own family members and communities,” the report explained. Afghanistan’s Islamic Republic does not allow conversion from Islam.
In Somalia, “Islam is the state religion and society expects all Somalis to be Muslim. Imams in mosques and madrasas as well as leaders of al-Shabab state publicly that there is no room for Christians in the country.”
In Sudan, President al-Bashir rules with an iron fist: “press and media laws are restrictive, and freedom of expression has been highly curtailed.” The Open Doors report concluded that persecution in this country “is systematic and reminiscent of ethnic cleansing.” The government’s official policy enshrines “one religion, one culture and one language.”
In Pakistan, radical Islamic groups flourish and teach young people to persecute religious minorities. Even so, the worst danger for Christians comes from their own families. Conversion from Islam is seen as a cause of shame, and “Christian women and girls in Pakistan … live under the threat of abduction, rape and forced marriage.”
Civil war, Islamist groups, and family pressures also attack Christians in Libya, Iraq, and Yemen.
While society often presents the worst threats to Christians in the Middle East, Iran proves a notable exception, according to the report. The Islamic Republic enforces a hard line, and “society is much less fanatic than their leadership.” Even so, “Any Muslim who leaves Islam faces the death penalty, although authorities haven’t acted on this law in recent years.”
Open Doors called readers to “pray that the laws will change, allowing for freedom of religion.”
2. “Very high persecution.”
In the second-tier Muslim countries, persecution mostly comes from either the government or Islamist terror groups, the Open Doors report explained. No less than 15 countries experienced this level of persecution from Islamic oppression.
In Saudi Arabia (12), “government officials create and maintain a strict Islamic system that treats Christians as second-class citizens and denies places of worship to any other religion than Islam.” In the Maldives (13), the government “insists all citizens be Muslims,” and “the Bible is considered contraband.”
Christian persecution in Egypt (17) mostly stems from society and the pressure of extended families. However, “severe restrictions on building or securing places for communal worship prevent Christians from congregating, in addition to hostility and violence toward believers who do manage to gather.” Similar social pressure shames converts from Islam to Christianity in Jordan (21) and in Tunisia (30).
In Kuwait (34), “converts from Islam experience discrimination, harassment, police surveillance and intimidation by vigilante groups as well as legal problems related to personal status and property.”
A ban on conversion is written into the very constitution of Malaysia (23), and “every ethnic Malay is considered Muslim.” Similarly, conversion from Islam is illegal in Brunei (26), and the implementation of Sharia law in that country means Christians are forced to adhere to Islamic customs and rites. Islam is also considered the only acceptable faith in Qatar (27).
In Ethiopia (29), the government, Islam, secularism, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) persecute Christians outside the EOC.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has worked to transform Turkey (31) from a secular state into a Sunni Muslim one. Christians are barred from state jobs, and experience discrimination in private employment as well, especially where employers have ties to the government.
Quite a few countries in the “very high persecution” list have large Christian populations, but face persecution due to rogue actors — Islamist terror organizations — in these countries.
Christianity dominates southern Nigeria (14), but Islam dominates the north, where radical groups like Boko Haram (which is formally tied to ISIS) and Muslim Fulani herdsmen violently persecute Christians. In this region, “Christians are treated as second-class citizens.”
Most persecution against Christians in majority-Christian Kenya (32) comes from the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which is based in nearby Somalia. Some tribal leaders oppose Christianity, and the government also restricts churches occasionally.
In another Christian-majority country, the Central African Republic (35), formerly marginalized Muslims have joined the militant group Séléka, fighting against another group comprised of animists and nominal Christians. According to Open Doors, both of these warring factions persecute Christians.
3. “High persecution.”
The last ten counties where Islamic oppression fosters Christian persecution may be far less obvious. These countries do not garner the kind of press attention involving Christian persecution often given to nations like Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, or Iraq, but their lack of religious freedom is also notable.
Christian persecution in the Palestinian Territories (36) often results from Palestinian Christians finding themselves “caught in the middle of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Their Christian faith makes them minorities in the Palestinian community, while their Arab ethnicity results in numerous restrictions on the Israeli side. “Palestinian society considers conversion from Islam to Christianity to be unacceptable.”
Many more tolerant Muslim countries nevertheless foster Christian persecution in various ways. The Open Doors report described Mali (37), the United Arab Emirates (40), Oman (46), and Bahrain (48) as relatively tolerant.
Even so, militant Islamic groups have taken control of parts of Mali; converts from Islam to Christianity are persecuted by their families and society in the UAE; converts in Oman often face eviction, job termination, discrimination, harassment, and bullying; and Bahrain has prohibitions against Christians proselytizing Muslims or expressing their faith in various ways.
Indonesia (38), another comparatively tolerant Muslim country, has extreme areas where “radical Islamic groups exert great influence, resulting in Sharia-inspired policies.” Despite a widespread culture of cooperation between Muslims and Christians in many parts of Indonesia, the government is tightening the country’s blasphemy laws.
In Bangladesh (41), Christian converts are persecuted by radical Islamist groups, local leaders, and their own families. Algeria (42) enforces “laws regulating non-Muslim worship, banning conversion and prohibiting blasphemy.” Mauritania’s (47) government acts as a protector of the Islamic religion, and preachers and militants fuel hatred toward non-Muslims.
In Djibouti (50), “The government seeks to control society by stifling the basic freedoms of association, religion and expression. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion, with all laws and policies influenced by Sharia law.”
Islam is a diverse religion, even in many of these high-persecution countries. Many Muslims oppose state-enforced Sharia law, and many would prefer peace with non-Muslims. Even so, Islamic oppression across the world is a key force in the persecution of Christians and other religious groups.
This report should encourage the United States and other Western powers to reconsider their alliances with the governments that persecute Christians, and to take decisive action against the worst offenders.
In that vein, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. funding from Pakistan (officially over complaints that the country is funding terrorism, which Pakistan denies) arguably represents a step in the right direction.