Violent persecution of Christians is set to increase in 2017, warns Release International. The greatest area of concern is the Islamic world, where persecution is increasing from both the state and Islamic militants.
There are also worrying trends in India and China. In India, recorded attacks from Hindu militants have increased dramatically, and in China, pressure is building on unregistered churches, according to Release’s annual Persecution Trends report.
‘Around the world Christians face an increasing array of violent persecutors. These include the brutal Islamic State in the Middle East, heavily armed militants in Nigeria and Hindu extremists in India,’ warns Release Chief Executive Paul Robinson.
‘Our report on the likely trends of persecution in 2017 is a wake-up call to take our prayers and practical support for our persecuted family to a new level.’
Conflict in Syria and Iraq continues to force tens of thousands, including Christians, to flee their homes. The historic churches, which have maintained a faithful witness for nearly 2,000 years, now face the loss of up to half their members. Some church leaders warn of a wholesale exodus of Christians from the lands of the Bible.
In 2017 the refugee crisis in the neighbouring regions is likely to continue. One focus will be Kurdistan in northern Iraq, which is now home to nearly two million internally displaced people.
Despite losing ground in both Syria and Iraq during 2016, Islamic State (IS) and its supporters look set to continue targeting Christian communities. Escaping Christians have described how IS has tortured, sexually abused and even crucified those who refuse to renounce their faith.
In Iran the state is likely to continue its clampdown on underground churches. The state is targeting Christian leaders who face arrest, imprisonment and torture.
To avoid jail terms Christians are being forced to pay hefty bail bonds. $10,000 or more is not uncommon.
‘Increasingly the figure can be over ten times that amount,’ adds Release’s partner, who says, ‘Persecution in Iran is increasing. The state identifies Christianity, particularly the house churches, as a threat to the Islamic Republic.’
Sporadic attacks against Christians by Islamist militants in Egypt are continuing, but in Nigeria, the scale of violent attacks is alarming, and largely unreported.
Since 2011, Islamist terror group Boko Haram have killed up to 15,000 people – including many Christians – in their armed rebellion against the Nigerian government. The conflict has driven more than two million people from their homes.
Both Boko Haram and Islamic State, to which it has pledged allegiance, are suffering military defeats. But Christian communities in north and central Nigeria continue to face widespread violence at the hands of heavily armed Fulani militants.
These herdsmen typically attack Christian villages at night. They fire shots in the air to drive people out of their homes. They then slaughter them with knives and seize their land. Nigerian church leaders say the police and the military are doing little to prevent it.
The weapons used, the suspected collusion of the authorities and the scale of such attacks suggest a concerted campaign to drive Christians out of the sharia states in northern Nigeria.
In Pakistan, Christian mother Asia Bibi remains on death row for a sixth year on a charge of blasphemy, which she denies. Politicians who have tried to defend her or repeal the law have been assassinated. To date, the Supreme Court has seems unable to find judges willing to consider her appeal. A hearing in October was postponed after 150 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa against the court.
A succession of bomb attacks by militants has resulted in the death or injury of hundreds of Pakistani Christians. The Easter 2016 bombing of a park in Lahore killed 75 and injured more than 300. Such attacks are likely to continue in 2017.
Meanwhile, Christians face widespread discrimination in the legal system and Pakistan’s blasphemy laws remain open to widespread abuse.
‘Christians in Pakistan are considered third-class citizens,’ says a Release partner. ‘In 2017 we will face more discrimination, forced conversions and forced marriages.’
In India, church leaders have charted a worrying increase in violent persecution from Hindu extremists.
The Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) recorded 134 attacks on Christians or churches in the first half of 2016 alone – close to the annual totals for both 2014 and 2015 combined. Release expects attacks on Christians will continue to rise in 2017.
And China’s policy of Sinicisation – to make the Church somehow more Chinese in character – looks set to bite down harder in the new year. The thinking behind it is that the Church is an unwelcome foreign import into China. The Government’s 2016 draft Regulations on Religious Affairs looks set to increase the pressure on unregistered churches in particular.
‘The restrictions are meant to hinder house churches and reduce contact with organisations outside of the government-controlled Chinese churches,’ says Release partner China Aid. ‘The [Communist] Party wants to take charge of religion,’ said one pastor. ‘The Government wants to control everything – even the smallest aspects.’
A worrying trend in China has been to charge Christians with offences related to espionage and state security – effectively treating them as enemies of the state who are colluding with foreign powers.
‘2017 looks set to be a harsh year for many Christians, under authoritarian regimes and at the hands of militants,’ says Paul Robinson of Release. ‘Our Christian family will need our prayers and our practical support.’
Through its international network of missions Release serves persecuted Christians in 30 countries around the world, by supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice. Release is a member of the UK organisations Global Connections and the Evangelical Alliance.