Throughout the world, men and women are planting the gospel, leading churches, mobilizing and multiplying disciples and birthing new gatherings to carry the fullness of Jesus into every nook and cranny into the world.
And they’re doing it in the face of increasing and intensifying persecution.
A new report from Open Doors reveals that more than 245 million Christians worldwide are enduring high levels of persecution for their faith—from militant extremist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram (an Islamic extremist group terrorizing West Africa), to government law and the general culture that often sees converting to Christianity as betrayal.
According to Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List—an in-depth investigative report focusing on the global persecution of Christians—persecution is increasing at an alarming rate. That 245 million number is up this year from last year’s total of 215 million.
Below, Open Doors gives us a look at what what’s happening in the top 10 countries where saying “yes” to following the call of Jesus to lead a church and make disciples is truly a life-or-death decision. They also share specific ways we can pray with these leaders who are following Jesus’ and the apostles’ example of making disciples—even as their government and culture opposes them.
In all of these countries—despite persecution—the church is still there. And in many, it’s multiplying as believers defy oppressive governments and their culture to share their hope in Jesus and tell others that they were created to be disciples who make disciples wherever they are or go.
The values and commitment of the early church are alive in these multipliers.
For three generations, everything in this isolated country has focused on idolizing the leading Kim family. Jesus followers 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 and multiplying—disciple makers who are defying the unjust regime and following Jesus’ call to carry the gospel into every nook and cranny.
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, anyone who leaves Islam is considered literally insane. As a result, Christians 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.
But the church is growing. According to the mission research organization Operation World, the secret church in Afghanistan is rapidly multiplying despite the intense opposition, the organization reported. And Afghans are being reached, in part, by Iranians because their languages are similar.
Estimates suggest that 99 percent of Somalis are Muslims, and any minority faiths 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, disciples 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.
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.
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 exemplified in 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, followers of Jesus 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).
Yet the church in Pakistan continues to thrive and multiply. Like the early church of 2,000 years ago, Pakistanis are starting house churches and placing a high value on teaching the Bible—and they’re doing it with targets on their backs.
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.
And in the Nuba Mountains, the Church is growing as young men and women participate in Bible training and learn to disciple each other as well as carry the fullness of Jesus to Muslims.
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 in these countries 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.
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.
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 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 have been arrested, prosecuted and have received long prison sentences for “crimes against the national security” including well-known house church pastor Yousef Nardarkhani who’s serving a 10-year sentence in the country’s notorious Evin Prison (also known as Iran’s “torture factory”).
Yet the church in Iran is multiplying—exponentially. In December, to crack down on Christians sharing their faith, Iranian police arrested 114 Christians in one week. Dr. Hormoz Shariat, president and founder of Iran Alive Ministries, notes that in addition to being a deterrent, the arrests are also a response to the exponential growth of Christianity in the Muslim country.
“As Christianity grows rapidly in Iran, the Islamic government and the clergy in power are alarmed,” he said. “Their only strategy to slow down this growth is through a campaign of fear, violence and intimidation … We expect the persecution in Iran will increase as the Islamic government feels threatened by the spread of Christianity among Muslims in Iran.”
Compared to roughly 500 known Christians in 1979, there are now approximately 500,000 (some sources say up to 1 million secret believers).
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 little consequence—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 Disciple-Making 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 in unfathomable ways—that we can’t even imagine. Ask Him to use people, Scripture and His voice in their lives to encourage and speak to these disciple multipliers.
Pray with church leaders in prison because they are making disciples. 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 find 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 make disciples in prison (wherever they are). 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 who are making disciples wherever they are, mobilizing the people of God and birthing new gatherings. 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 disciple multipliers. That they would be filled up with the fullness of Jesus and poured out as they plant the gospel in the hearts and minds of disciple-making multipliers. Pray that as they birth biblical disciple-making gatherings and churches, others would see them, learn from them and multiply.
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.