World Watch List 2019 – full documentation

World Watch Research has prepared complete background documentation on the World Watch List 2019 which was publicly released on 16 January 2019. This is now available on the Open Doors Analytical website.

The World Watch List (WWL) is an annual ranking of countries where Christians and churches experience the most pressure and violence. Hostility against Christians for faith-related reasons is a subject that is only gradually beginning to reach a wider audience. Many studies look at conflict situations or specific vulnerabilities involving civilians, but most overlook the religious dimension. This is in particular the case where Christians are involved. As a religious minority group, Christians seldom attract the attention of human rights activists, political leaders or other professionals that care about human dignity and the observance of human rights.

World Watch List documentation aims to show that the persecution of Christians is a reality, and that Christians deserve to be defended by anyone who takes human rights seriously. The documentation includes a section on Gender-specific persecution.

World Watch Research welcomes any critical comments or thoughts aiming to improve WWL methodology and documentation. Please contact by email: research@od.org.

North Korea: Personality cult receives a boost

As Daily NK reported on 13 November 2018, since July a 90 page handbook has been distributed by the government to help those involved in state propaganda to bolster the growing personality cult surrounding Kim Jong Un. The first official painting of Kim Jong Un has also recently been unveiled, as reported by BBC News on 6 November 2018.

Thomas Muller, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, is not surprised: “Everything in North Korea seems to revolve around personality cult. The handbook aims to encourage North Korean citizens to be loyal to their leader and to be ‘ideologically armed’. It emphasizes the legacy of greatness handed down to Kim Jong Un by his father and grandfather and now attempts to give him a somewhat warmer image by referring to him as the “Dear Great Leader”. In line with this, his first official portrait (unveiled when Cuban President Miguel Diáz-Cane visited Pyongyang) shows Kim Jong Un dressed in a dark suit and tie, not in a Communist-style uniform.”

Thomas Muller adds: “Naturally, none of this gives any hope of change occurring in the country. Despite the new-style propaganda and the flurry of international summits that took place in 2018, the regime is hiring ever more informants to clamp down on dissent, as Daily NK revealed on 7 November 2018. A wounded North Korean soldier, who crossed the de-militarized zone in a hail of bullets in November 2017, claims in a recent interview that the younger generation in North Korea is ‘indifferent’ and shows no real loyalty to its leaders (The Guardian, 19 November 2018). Whether true or not, such public statements can only lead to additional scrutiny and Christians have to be extra cautious as restrictions tighten in North Korea. According to state philosophy, Christians belong to the ‘hostile class’ since they believe in one more powerful than Kim Jong Un and have contact with foreign countries.”

Nicaragua: Pastor flees after constant intimidation

According to La Prensa reporting on 15 October 2018, the Baptist pastor of a network of churches with several hundred members in Nicaragua has fled the country with his family after experiencing constant death threats and acts of vandalism carried out by regime sympathizers. Pastor Rudy Palacios allegedly began supporting protesters with food and prayer in May 2018 and the government has now issued an arrest-warrant, accusing him of acts of terrorism.

Rossana Ramirez, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, explains: “The regime continues to intimidate Christians who allegedly offer support to the opposition. Church leaders have often been targeted when they have spoken out against the ruling party’s growing totalitarianism. The violence against church leaders also affects ordinary church members, since people connected to targeted leaders are also regarded as ‘terrorists’ by the government. The resulting fear also causes many Christians not to attend church services anymore. This is exactly what the regime seeks to encourage in its attempt to keep Christians quiet and under control in the country.”

 

Bangladesh/Myanmar: Repatriation of Rohingya refugees halted

As Benar News reported on 14 November 2018, the planned repatriation of the first Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh back to Myanmar stopped before it could begin, since guaranteeing security for the returnees remains a big challenge. Bangladesh has now officially announced that it will postpone the repatriation program until after elections have taken place on 30 December 2018, according to UCA News reporting on 19 November 2018.

Thomas Muller, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “More than 700,000 refugees poured into a relatively small area of Bangladesh in a very short time and even though international support is operating, Bangladesh is straining under the burden, especially in the region around Cox’s Bazaar. Due to the fact that the country is poor and frequently suffers from natural disasters, it is struggling to support its own citizens. Nevertheless, Bangladesh has promised to repatriate refugees only if they return voluntarily – and this is where the challenge lies. When the first lists for repatriation started to circulate, those refugees who had been selected went into hiding, frightened to return to a Myanmar which has not changed since the military crackdown began in August 2017. Thus it seems that the Rohingya refugees will continue to be in the news for any years to come.”

Thomas Muller continues: “Even if the program would run at repatriating 150 Rohingya per day – which was what both sides had initially agreed upon – it would take 13 years for everyone to return who had fled to Bangladesh in 2017. And this does not include those who had fled earlier! Meanwhile, the small Christian minority among the Rohingya is suffering both from the dire circumstances in the refugee camps and from their vulnerability to hostility and attacks from the Muslim majority.”

Bangladesh: Fears of coming violence as elections loom

National elections are set to take place on 30 December 2018, as reported by La Croix International on 13 November 2018. It had previously been announced that elections would take place on 23 December 2018.

Thomas Muller, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “Despite the move away from 23 December, Christians are still unhappy with the election date as it falls in the Christmas holiday season, a time where many from the Christian community are travelling and visiting family. Given that Bangladesh has an unfortunate history of violence occurring during the campaigning period and beyond, there may be little peace this Christmas. More violence than usual can be expected from all sides since the opposition party BNP (together with a coalition of many other parties) has vowed to take part in the elections for the first time in ten years. The clashes between BNP supporters and the police which erupted close to the BNP headquarters in Dhaka may be just a taster of what is to come in the run-up to the polling day (Benar News, 14 November 2018).”

Thomas Muller continues: “In a possible sign of growing nervousness, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appeared to be wooing conservative Islamic circles in her speech at a gathering of madrassas in November, by stating: ‘Anyone who pronounces offensive comments against [Islam] or against the Prophet Muhammad, will be prosecuted according to the law’, and by pointing out that the religion of the country is Islam (Asia News, 5 November 2018). Such words do not bode well for religious minorities. At the same meeting, however, she also stated that there is no room for Islamic militancy in Bangladesh.”

Argentina/Mexico: Criminal networks continue to target church

In Rosario, Argentina, gunmen fired shots through the door of the church served by the local Roman Catholic priest, Don Juan Pablo Nunez, according to Fides reporting on 25 September 2018. The attack is understood to be an act of intimidation since the priest is working with young people with drug problems and had become increasingly vocal against criminal groups in the area.

In Mexico, a Roman Catholic priest was abducted after a church meeting on 17 October in Mexico State. According to a report by Revista Ecclesia on 21 October 2018, he was found alive two days later. In an unrelated incident reported by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) on 26 October 2018, unknown gunmen posed as delivery men and killed a police officer guarding Cardinal Rivera’s residence in Mexico City. CSW reports that 10 church leaders were killed in Mexico in October 2018, more than double the number in October 2017.

Rossana Ramirez, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “Although it could be claimed that the incident in Argentina is an isolated case, research shows that gang violence against churches in the region also occurs where drug-trafficking is not such a serious issue. In Latin America, criminal groups are often the primary source of persecution against Christians. According to the director of the Catholic Multimedia Center (interviewed in an article published by Gaudium Press published on 7 November 2018), criminal groups extort, abduct, murder and defame church staff as a way of threatening whole communities and weakening opposition to their illegal activities.”

Libya: National elections postponed as violence continues

Plans for national elections on 10 December 2018 have quietly been shelved, according to Reuters reporting on 7 November 2018. UN special envoy, Ghassan Salame, hopes that a national conference can first be convened in 2019 prior to any elections: “The conference would aim to forge consensus in a country divided between hundreds of armed groups controlling mostly minimal territory, towns, tribes and regions.” The announcement came just a week after Islamic State militants attacked the oasis town of al-Foqha in central Libya, killing four and kidnapping a further ten, as reported by Reuters on 29 October 2018.

Yonas Dembele, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “Salame is the sixth UN special envoy for Libya since 2011 and there is little optimism that he will be able to make significant progress in helping Libya’s economy revive and bring peace. Libya is currently governed by two main rival administrations, one based in Tripoli (backed by the UN) and the other in Tobruk, but the country has become a haven for human traffickers and armed groups, many from neighboring countries. Christians among the thousands of African migrants trying to reach Europe are often prime targets for kidnapping and abuse by Islamic militias operating in the country. However, it seems that little can be done for them until the rule of law is restored.”

Central African Republic (CAR): More than 40 killed in attack on cathedral and IDP camp

According to America Magazine reporting on 17 November 2018, suspected former Seleka militants attacked the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Alindao and the adjoining compound sheltering more than 20,000 non-Muslim IDPs on 15 November. The bishop and church staff were among the dead. A nearby Mauritanian UN peacekeeping force did not intervene. It is believed that the brutal attack was retaliation for killings carried out by Anti-Balaka militants shortly before. In an official statement issued on 17 November 2018, the UN Secretary General warned that such attacks on defenseless churches and IDP camps may constitute war crimes.

Yonas Dembele, persecution analyst at World Watch Research (WWR), comments: “This attack took place 300km east of Bangui and is believed to have been carried out by primarily Muslim Seleka rebels belonging to the Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC), a militia commanded by General Ali Darassa, a leader of the Peul ethnic group. The Peul (also known as Fulani) are primarily Muslim pastoralists who have long been in conflict with Christian villagers in CAR. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Bangousion, whose diocese is in the same region as Alindao, expressed his view of the background to his colleague’s murder in an interview published by Agentia Fides on 19 November 2018:

‘Groups like the UPC are made up of foreign mercenaries who have occupied parts of our territory for 5 years. They are paid by some Gulf countries and led by some neighboring African states. They enter Chad through Birao with weapons sold to Saudi Arabia from the United States. They want to divide Central Africa by fueling hatred between Muslims and non-Muslims. In this way they take advantage to plunder the riches of Central Africa, gold, diamonds and cattle. But above all, some foreign and non-African countries want to use Central Africa as a gateway to enter the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rest of the continent, manipulating radical Islam.’

WWR has not verified the Catholic bishop’s claims regarding the composition of the group behind the attack on Alindao and how they obtained their weapons. However, it can be said that Christians continue to be the victims of sophisticated and organized attacks perpetrated by well-armed and well-trained groups.”

Cameroon: Hostages from Christian school released in exchange for school closure

More than 80 hostages kidnapped from a Christian school near Bamenda on 4 November 2018 have been released, according to Christianity Today reporting on 15 November 2018. The kidnappers demanded that the school to be shut down in exchange for the safe release of schoolchildren and staff. As Just Security reported on 12 November 2018, stopping children going to school is a favored tactic of the armed insurgents, who claim that schools are being used to spread government propaganda.

Yonas Dembele, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, comments: “Separatists have been fighting for the independence of the country’s English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions for many years, but only in the last two years has it developed into violent conflict. Several school abductions have taken place but the number of hostages taken from the Presbyterian school on 4 November was the largest so far. According to the Council of Protestant Churches of Cameroon interviewed by Christianity Today, four church buildings have been taken over in the months of struggle for independence and at least 50 Christian-run schools and hospitals have been affected. The fighting has caused the deaths of 400 civilians, including that of an American missionary in October 2018. These incidents show that Christians are vulnerable and can be used as political targets even if the actual conflict does not have a specifically religious background.”

Sri Lanka: Who should lead the country – and with what?

The constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka deepens further. As reported by Reuters on 20 November 2018, newly appointed Prime Minister Rajapaksa lost two motions of no confidence last week amid scenes of shouting and violence. Now it appears, he may soon have no government budget at his disposal.

Thomas Muller, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, explains: “Sri Lanka, arguably one of the oldest constitutional democracies in Asia, is in political turmoil ever since President Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in October and called on Rajapaksa to take over his position. It remains unclear who should and can now lead the country – and with what. Lawmakers opposed to Rajapaksa are seeking to remove funding for government staff salaries and other costs in a vote on 29 November. It will be interesting to see if the president then reacts by declaring a state of emergency.”

Thomas Muller continues: “Despite the political confusion, one thing is clear: Christians and other religious minorities are fearful of having Rajapaksa as prime minister since it is claimed that attacks against religious minorities almost doubled during his ten years term as president.”