WASHINGTON — At the rollout of Open Doors USA's annual top-50 list of countries where Christians are most persecuted, Christians from Africa, Asia and the Middle East shared how persecution has affected their families and communities.
Last week, the nondenominational ministry that monitors persecution in more than 70 countries, released its 2019 World Watch List at an event held at a Heritage Foundation office in Capitol Hill.
As was the case in past years, Open Doors invited Christians from different countries to share their own stories of persecution.
The Christian Post spoke with believers from India, Iraq, Nigeria and one undisclosed South Asian country about the violence they and their communities have faced.
Rev. Dogo: Nigeria
Rev. Dogo is a church leader from the Yobe state of Nigeria, which is located in the northeastern part of the nation.
Dogo explained how the Islamic militant group Boko Haram has attacked communities and how his own congregation has dramatically decreased in the last eight years because of various types of violence against the Christian community.
Dogo said that the most severe persecution the Christian community in Yobe faced came during the post-election riots in 2011.
In 2011, Goodluck Jonathan — a Christian from the south — defeated Muhammadu Buhari — a Muslim from the north — in the presidential election. Hundreds were killed and thousands were displaced as a result of 2011 post-election riots.
"Goodluck Jonathan won the election and that post-election riots led to the burning of not less than 50 churches in Yobe," Dogo explained. "From there, immediately after that post-election riot, then the [persecution] of Boko Haram began in 2012 and it is a common thing that is on and on and on moving up to today."
Based in northeast Nigeria, Boko Haram is regarded as one of the world's deadliest terrorist groups and is responsible for thousands of deaths and kidnappings. In 2014, Boko Haram reportedly killed more people than the Islamic State did in Iraq or Syria.
"So what they do is attack people, kill, bomb and destroy houses or communities or businesses," Dogo said.
Since the 2011 post-election, Dogo said that the Christian community in Yobe has dropped nearly in half as many Christians have fled to other states.
"The church that I was pastoring as of then that used to have not less than 700 people is reduced to 100 or even less 100 every Sunday," Dogo said. "They just run and left the state. They fled to Plateau and some other middle part of the country."
Dogo is calling on Christians around the world to pray that the Christians will return to Yobe state.
"We depend on the prayer of fellow believers to pray to bring peace so that people will come back to their native land," he said. "In Nigeria, your citizenship stems from the place of your birth. If you leave that area, you don't have any part of Nigeria that is designated for you to call your own."
Another presidential election will take place in Nigeria in February.
"Whoever [wins], it may come with persecution after the election," Dogo stressed. "I want [the U.S.] to help in ensuring that a very good credible election is carried out."
Nigeria ranks as the 12th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to the World Watch List.
Fr. Daniel: Iraq
Growing up in a suburb of Baghdad, Daniel knew from an early age what it meant to live as a Christian in Iraq.
He told CP about the time when he was 7 years old and the first friend he made at school began ignoring him. The reason? Because his Muslim father told him never to speak to Christians.
But the persecution that Daniel and his family experienced escalated in 2003 when President Saddam Hussein was taken out of power thanks to the U.S. invasion. From that point on, Daniel said, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda stepped up their targeting of Iraqi Christians.
On his 16th birthday, Daniel and his family received a death threat and were given just 24 hours to leave town.
"They threatened and blackmailed Christians and kidnapped some," Daniel recalled. "My family was one of the families that received the kill threat from al-Qaeda. We needed to leave in 24 hours or else we were going to be killed. Instead of spending time with cake and a gift, I was crying while looking for a safe place for my family."
Fast forward to today, Daniel now serves as a priest with the Ancient Church of the East in Erbil and Kirkuk. His church was responsible for housing 1,600 Christians who fled the Nineveh Plains of Iraq in 2014 due to the invasion by the Islamic State.
"They didn't have any place to go so they stayed in my church for more than two to three years," Daniel explained. "After the liberation of Mosul, they had the chance to go back. But their houses were burnt and their churches were destroyed. So they didn't have any place to go. The church started the process of rebuilding the house and the churches."
The work to restore the damage caused by IS is a tall task.
According to Daniel, there were over 313,000 houses in need of repair following the liberation of the region in 2017. So far, over 5,000 homes have been repaired. However, much of the utilities still need to be restored.
"The central government is not really serious about rebuilding these cities and towns," Daniel said of the Christian communities. "We do have questions for the government. What are they waiting on? If they really want the Christians to stay, they need to really take some actions to empower the existence of Christianity in Iraq and take care of them."
Daniel said that over 120,000 Christians fled from the Nineveh Plains in 2014. So far, just 45 percent have returned. Many of those who haven't returned are thinking about migrating from the region.
"They are thinking they are not welcome or that they do not have any rights," Daniel said. "They think that if they leave, they will have a chance to be educated. They may have a good opportunity to work. But in their own country, they don't have these things. They feel like their country doesn't want them anymore. There are big fears that Iraq is going to be without the Christians one day."
Iraq ranks as the 13th worst country in the world for Christian persecution, according to Open Doors.
South Asia: Hannah
Much like Father Daniel, Hannah also faced a social stigma for her family's faith in Christ at a young age.
"Persecution starts on the very first day that you go to school and you are known to be Christian. Nobody wants to share space with you," the young lady explained. "You become aware as a 4-year old of what you say and who you say it to and who you sit with and who you are going to trust."
The persecution Hannah faced as a female Christian continued all through primary school, secondary school and eventually into university and the workplace.
"I have been ridiculed many times and questioned and put into a position where you are forced to say something that could be considered as blasphemy," she explained. "You have an answer but if you say it that equals an insult to the majority faith. So you are then insulted for being stupid for not having answers. You have to pick the battles that you fight."
Hannah said she has had her books stolen, her uniform trashed and her homework destroyed.
"That is the story of millions of Christian children in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran," she said.
Hannah said that her family members live in a place where if anyone were to find out that they were meeting for worship or to pray, they would be flogged or thrown out of their towns.
"There is a wide spectrum of persecution. It goes from school even to when you go to get jobs for employment," she said. "The reason behind persecution is the same. They say: 'We don't want Christians in South Asia.' It is that narrative that the Islamic State and Taliban are propagating that: 'This is an Islamic territory and we will claim it for Islam.'"
Hannah and her family have seen all types of persecution. She said that some have even "practiced witchcraft and the occult" against her family because of their Christian faith.
"In the midst of this, our prayer is that God will keep our hearts tender so that we can learn to forgive every single day," she said.
India: Samuel and Alisha
Christian ministry leaders Samuel and Alisha told CP about how the system of government has changed for the worst in the last five years due to the rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
"Because of the Hindunization and the ideology has come into the very mind of the people and the Hindus, they started thinking that the country belongs to the Hindus only," Samuel explained. "The country has not been declared as a Hindu nation but in the mindset of the people, the country has already become a Hindu nation."
Samuel said that "the poison has been spread in the minds of people."
"That kind of mindset will not change so easily," Samuel stated.
India ranked at No. 10 on the 2019 World Watch List. Persecution against Christian communities has increased since the BJP government came to power in 2014. The rise of the BJP has led Hindu radicals to believe that they can attack Christians and their churches with "no consequences," according to Open Doors.
Between April and May, India will hold another presidential election.
"We are praying that the government may be formed [to allow] the church to grow and flourish," Samuel said. "We hope there will be some change. There is no clear opposition to the BJP. Most of those government agencies is in their hands. It is very likely that even if they don't have the majority, they will have a good stronghold."
Despite the persecution, Alisha assured that churches are creating more awareness of the religious freedom issues they face.
"Churches and leaders are coming up together," she said. "It is a great thing and the revival is there in the presence of God because they are coming together. The public is understanding now what is right and what is wrong. As leaders and people come together, there may be some change at that level."
Samuel said that there is a "sense of urgency" because the "church is being attacked and isolated and cornered."
"The church is growing very fast in India," Samuel said. "The opposition, they know that. That is why they have a strategy now that they don't want the Christians to meet together because they know that if they meet, something will happen. That is why they attack the church on a Sunday morning."
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