"I haven't seen my daughter since IS took her. I cried and shouted at them - what could they want with a three year old? She's just a child." The desperate mother told me her story as we sat on a cold, damp floor in Iraq in November. At Open Doors we estimate that there are over 100million Christians persecuted for their faith. And each one has a story.
Our 2015 World Watch List report, released today, reveals a devastating picture of what is happening to Christians around the globe. The numbers are clear - more Christians are being persecuted, more severely, and in more countries than at any time since the research began. Iraq and Syria have rightly had the attention of the media over the last year - with the Christians being driven out of the countries in which the faith was birthed. These are ordinary families whose ancestors have worshipped in these lands since the apostle Paul was converted on the road to Damascus.
But this goes far beyond the Middle East. And one of the most disturbing things to me is what has been happening in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Asia, in South America, while the attention of the world has been on I.S. In many countries it's the frog in boiling water - with life becoming inexorably harder to be a Christian - harder to get a job, harder to educate your children, harder to meet and worship with others. Many people I meet are simply exhausted.
In other countries of course there's the chilling violence as well as the other pressures. The reality is that what has happened to the Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria in April, while utterly devastating, are the tip of the iceberg there - over 2,000 Christians have been killed for their faith in Nigeria just in the last year, many through bombs or shootings during church services. Kenya, a Christian majority country, has had two incidents in the last two months alone of Al Shabaab capturing a group of people, separating out those who could say a Muslim prayer and killing everyone else.
People are scared - and with reason. Imagine having to take a really deep breath before meeting with others who share your beliefs, for fear of whether you or your children will come home alive. Imagine being afraid to send your children to school, like a Christian mother I know in the Middle East - she has daughters the same ages as my own - but every morning she says goodbye to her girls knowing that her parting words might be the last she ever says to them.
I am convinced that what happens in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa in the next three years will define the future of Christianity as we know it. We can't afford to sleep-walk through these critical days. Open Doors isn't saying there should be special treatment for Christians - of course there shouldn't. But there must be equal treatment - the fundamental right to follow any faith, or none.
Responding to a question from MPs about whether in light of increasing persecution now was the time to appoint an ambassador for religious freedom to campaign for religious freedom internationally, the UK deputy prime minister has just responded confirming that, "while it is necessary to keep an open mind" about whether more should be done to protect Christians, the UK government would not be making the appointment. Of course that appointment wouldn't have changed the world on its own, but it would have been a step.
Meanwhile the church is experiencing persecution on an unprecedented scale. Time is running out. Surely we need to move beyond "keeping an open mind" and do something?
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