In the shadow of oppression, North Korea, Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, and India emerge as some of the arduous places for Christians. Today, as religious freedom continues to dwindle, the persecution of Christians has surged to its highest point in three decades. The global stage witnesses a distressing reality, with believers facing unprecedented challenges in these regions.
Father Walter Ihejirika, President Signis Africa, said, “There's no other way one can speak about this, it is a calculated attempt to decimate the population and to instill fear in them so that they can really drop their fate. But thank God they are holding fast.”
On the Feast of St. Stephen, the proto-martyr, Pope Francis in his Angelus Address noted, “2,000 years later, unfortunately, we see that the persecution continues.”
Since the era of the apostles, Christians have endured persecution from opposing factions. In various corners of the world, Christians still grapple with existential threats emanating from both governmental bodies and other entities.
Pope Francis continued in his Angelus Address, “There are still those, and there are many of them, who suffer and die to bear witness to Jesus, just as there are those who are penalized at various levels for the fact of acting in a way consistent with the Gospel, and those who strive every day to be faithful, without ado, to their good duties, while the world jeers and preaches otherwise,”
According to a recent report by the watchdog group Open Doors, over half of the global population resides in a country grappling with severe religious persecution, whether from governmental authorities or other entities. Among the most egregious offenders are countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, among others.
In 23 of the 28 countries that were listed in the “red” category, the worst categorization for religious persecution, the situation has worsened from the previous report.
Father Walter warned, “The Persecution of Christians is a real situation. In fact, Nigeria counts as one of the highest places where Christians are persecuted in the whole world, and it is deadly. You know, last Christmas in Jos, many Christians, Catholics, were persecuted and massacred on the eve of Christmas. And just yesterday, also, I read about some other massacre in the same place, Jos. So that's a very terrible thing that is happening, you know. Where there's always the issue of Fulani herdsmen, Boko Haram, or non-government violent actors that are really targeting Christians.”
In Nigeria, a West African nation with a population exceeding 226 million, deep divisions persist along ethnic and religious lines. Just over 46 percent of Nigeria's populace identifies as Christian, and approximately 25 percent of the country's Christians adhere to the Catholic faith, constituting 12 percent of the overall population.
In Nigeria, ethnic and religious conflicts have turned the nation into one of the most perilous zones for Christians globally. During the Christmas weekend, a horrifying terrorist attack in the Nigerian state of Plateau claimed the lives of almost 200 Christians.
More than 5,000 Christians were killed in attacks by bandits and Islamic or Fulani militia across Nigeria in 2022, and in 2023, Nigeria’s Christians endured a similarly high toll.
“It is a bad situation,” Father Walter said, “And I must say that we are really facing, you know, a terrible situation of persecution in the country which really requires urgent intervention. Not only from the government in place but we also call on the international community that this situation cannot continue to go on otherwise you know it will really lead to some other violent situation.”
As in previous years, the latest edition of the annual World Watch List, released this week by Open Doors, reaffirms North Korea's standing as the most hostile environment for Christians on a global scale.
Timothy Cho, a North Korean Defector, explained the usurpation of religion in North Korea. He said, “When I discovered my faith in God, this was when I realized, ‘Wow,’ the system North Korea used was a Biblical system, where they took out the word ‘God’ and replaced it with ‘Kim.’ So, they have a Trinity system inside North Korea. Leader, Party, State. So, it is the same structure as Christians and believers. We go to Church and we confess to God.”
In North Korea, Christians face severe restrictions on their freedom to worship, with the grim consequences of labor camps or death awaiting those caught practicing their faith. In 2023, North Korea heightened its border controls with the People's Republic of China, further complicating the plight of Christians seeking refuge from persecution.
Timothy Cho explained further the isolated nature of North Korean society. He said, “They would have been able to build this kind of almost perfect prison society system. It is because they used biblical structures. And so, there is a huge spiritual battle. However, there are underground Christians.”
As of 2022, Pope Francis has reiterated his willingness to visit North Korea, emphasizing that he awaits an official invitation from the authorities.
Pope Francis expressed his solidarity on the Feast of St. Stephen, saying, "I stand with the Christian communities experiencing discrimination, and I encourage them to persevere in charity towards all, peacefully striving for justice and religious freedom."
Adapted by Jacob Stein
Benjamin Crockett is a journalist for the EWTN Vatican Bureau.