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Open Doors Releases 2021 World Watch List
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Global Coronavirus Pandemic Exacerbates Systemic Discrimination Against Minority Christians

While Canadians start 2021 getting used to new pandemic restrictions, Christians from India to Yemen are being refused food, medical care and other necessary aid, experiencing increased surveillance, violence and discrimination, because of their faith. This year’s World Watch List (WWL), produced annually by Open Doors International, highlights how the global pandemic has exacerbated the systemic discrimination and persecution that over 340 million Christians experience on an ongoing basis.

The 2021 World Watch List (WWL) was released at an online event on January 16th, via Facebook and YouTube.

You can still access the January 16th online event by clicking HERE.

WWL rankings reveal the persecution stories behind the headlines. COVID-19 has been a catalyst for repression of minority Christians, who in countries from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan to Yemen and Sudan were at times denied aid; some were told it was because “your Church or your God should feed you” or even “the virus was created and/or spread by the West.”

The violent Islamist group Al Shabaab in Somalia blamed Christians for the coronavirus, announcing it was spread “by the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them.”

Sometimes, such as in an incident in Sri Lanka, coronavirus was the pretext for police to visit Christians’ homes to investigate church members and activities.

The World Watch List (WWL) is the only instrument actively measuring the persecution of Christians, world-wide, annually. This year, for the first time ever, all top 50 countries score levels of at least “very high” persecution; the top 12 scoring “extreme” levels of persecution. To compare, in 2020, 34 countries registered a “very high” level of persecution. Beyond the top 50, four more countries also score “very high,” showing the impact of COVID-19 restrictions.

Overall, 74 countries — one more than the previous year — showed extreme, very high or high levels of persecution, affecting at least 1 of every 8 Christians worldwide.

The top twelve countries ranked as having an “extreme” level of persecution are shown in this chart to the right.

Gary Stagg, Executive Director of Open Doors Canada, comments:
“As we grapple with restrictions here, we can learn a great deal from our brothers and sisters living in countries where their faith costs them dearly, every year. They know they are not alone, because we have not forgotten them. The World Watch List helps us advocate for them intelligently, and pray for them intentionally that they would be able to stay, as lights in dark places.”


The World Watch List is a ranking of the 50 countries where the persecution of Christians is most extreme. It is produced using detailed information from 150 countries.

Data is gathered on five spheres of life – private, family, community, national and church life. A sixth block, ‘violence’, cuts across all five, and measures serious ‘violence’ (including deprivation of freedom) to people or property.

Persecution in each country is recorded by Open Doors using a points system. Open Doors’ research methods and results are independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom.

World Watch List 2021 Findings:

  • Nigeria again scores the maximum for violence (as in previous years), due mainly to armed Fulani herdsmen laying waste to several hundred Christian villages, as well as to Boko Haram and a range of criminal groups who continue to kill, kidnap and rape with impunity.
  • Sudan, however, has abolished the death penalty for apostasy (i.e., renouncing Islam). Its 2019 interim constitution guarantees freedom of religion, omits sharia as its primary source of law and no longer specifies Islam as its state religion - although there is still a lot of resistance to such sweeping changes after 30 years. It has dropped from no. 7 to no. 13.
  • Iraq has risen from no. 15 to no. 11, partly due to the ongoing insecurity of Christians returning to their homes. Christians continue to be killed, kidnapped and subjected to physical, psychological, sexual and emotional abuse. Also, many who fled inside the country came under Turkish attacks on the Dohuk area in summer 2020.
  • Syria has dropped one place from no. 11 to 12. Despite better conditions, especially in Kurdish-Controlled Areas, there are still violent Islamist attacks: one in November 2019 killed 7 Christians and wounded 70.
  • China is in the top 20 for the first time in a decade, rising to no. 17 from no. 23 in 2020. The Communist Party extended its regulation of all religions in 2020, and even government-approved churches, both Catholic and Protestant, are under ever-more surveillance, both online and offline.

    Under-18s are still officially banned from all religious activity. The “China-fication” of Christianity continues, even including so-called “rectification” of Bible passages.
  • Vietnam has risen to no. 19 from 21: many ethnic minority Christians reported exclusion from COVID-19 aid.
  • Turkey has risen to no. 25 from no. 36 due mainly to an increase of its score for violence. Christians say that, since the 2016 attempted coup against President Erdogan, there’s a much more open Islamist and nationalist agenda, with a general atmosphere of “hate speech” and actions against minorities such as Armenian and Greek Orthodox communities. In Oct 2019, Erdogan, as host of the 3rd African Muslim Religious Leaders Summit in Istanbul, criticised missionaries for converting African Muslims, saying they were acting “under the protection of the Western powers.”
  • Colombia has risen to no. 30 from no. 41. After the breakdown of the 2016 peace deal, organized crime groups continue to control parts of the country, especially rural areas. During quarantines, their control grew as they appropriated government curfews and other restrictions for their own ends. They were even able to build local social capital when state structures and institutions could not. When Christian leaders tried to provide material or spiritual assistance to others, they were prevented and even fined by the criminal groups. Sometimes they were treated as "informants" for other rival groups, or for the police and state. At times, pastors or their family members were killed.
  • Bangladesh has risen to no. 31 from no. 38. There has been much coverage of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Cox’s Bazaar. Amongst them are about 2,000 Muslim converts to Christianity. After a mob attack in January, apparently by violent Islamists, two men are still missing, while a 14-year-old girl, also abducted, was reportedly forcibly married to a militant.
  • Mexico rose again, to no. 37 (from no. 52 in 2020, though it was no. 39 in 2019).
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo rose to no. 40 (from no. 57 in 2020) mainly due to the Islamist group ADF, which the UN says has killed 1,000 civilians since 2019, while Mozambique entered the Top 50 (at no. 45 from last year at no. 66) due to its own Islamist violence in Cabo Delgado. Cameroon, battling an Anglophone/Francophone conflict and violent expansion from Boko Haram and other Islamist groups rose to no. 42 from no. 48 in 2020.
  • The Comoros Islands, east of Mozambique, re-entered the Top 50 (from no. 54 last year) after many years’ absence. The government has openly denied freedom of religion for its citizens. A Christian seen preaching can face a year in prison.

According to incidents recorded by Open Doors:
  • Every day, an average of 13 Christians were killed for their faith.
  • Every week, an average of 86 churches or Christian buildings were attacked.
  • Every month, on average 142 Christians are abducted for faith-related reasons.

A print copy of the World Watch List annual report can be requested HERE.