ROSARIO, Argentina — Anti-Christian persecution is on the rise, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

Every day, more than 340 million Christians suffer discrimination, inequality or active persecution in at least fifty countries in the world, according to a report released Wednesday by Open Doors, a Christian human rights organization.

In 2018-2019, 2,983 cases of Christians being killed for their faith were recorded by the international watchdog group, while there were at least 4,781 between Oct. 2019 and Sept. 2020. Over 90 percent of these killings were in Africa, where a terrorist group blamed Christians for the coronavirus pandemic.

“The numbers are astonishing,” Open Doors said in a statement introducing the 2021 World Watch List. “But behind each number and statistic, there is a human story.”

Each year, the World Watch List provides an unparalleled glimpse into the 50 places around the world where Christians face the worst persecution.

The latest report found that the coronavirus pandemic “has been a catalyst for the repression of Christian minorities, who, in countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, as well as Yemen and Sudan, were sometimes denied aid.”

This year, “for the first time in history”, the 50 countries that make up the list have reached “very high” levels of persecution. A dozen of them, including North Korea, China, Syria, Iraq, India, Nigeria, Yemen or Iran, show “extreme levels of persecution.”

Open Doors says 74 nations “showed extreme, very high or high levels of persecution,” meaning that 1 in 8 Christians in the world suffer because of their faith.

The majority of 50 countries on the list are in the Middle East, Africa or Asia, but there are two Latin American countries: Colombia and Mexico. In Latin America, violence against Christians is not perpetrated by members of another religion, but by organized criminals that sees faith communities as a barrier to expanding their drug business.

In Muslim or Hindu majority countries where conversion to Christianity is either illegal or informally banned, lockdowns and worship restrictions made things harder for Christians, particularly women and children.

“For millions of Christians, work, education and other outside interests provide a brief time of calm from regular persecution,” the report says. “So when the lockdowns occurred, it meant this respite was no longer available.”

There are 34 Muslim-majority countries on the list, and this doesn’t include Nigeria, where the Islamic-Christian population is close to 50-50.

The Open Doors study combines surveys with interviews with experts and an investigation based on newspapers reports. It found, among other things, that “the lack of governance and even the collusion of the authorities means, too often, that there is impunity for violence or discrimination based on religious motives.”

For instance, the Islamist group Al Shabaab in Somalia blamed Christians for the coronavirus. They announced that it was spread “by the crossed forces that have invaded the country and the incredulous countries that support them.”

The coronavirus pandemic was often used as a pretext for discrimination.

In Sri Lanka, COVID-19 was a pretext for the police to investigate several churches.

In India, more than 100,000 Christians received relief aid from Open Doors partners, and 80 percent of them reported being dismissed from food distribution centers for being Christians. They had to walk for miles and hide their faith to get food elsewhere.

In Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Central Asia, Malaysia, North Africa, Yemen and Sudan, cases were reported of Christians in rural areas being denied aid.

“Sometimes, this denial was at the hands of government officials, but more often, it was from village heads, committees or other local leaders,” investigators found. “Some Christians even reported that their food ration cards were torn up or waved away.

In southern Kaduna, in Nigeria, families from several villages said they received one-sixth of the rations allocated to Muslim families, while in Guinea-Bissau, when a state of emergency was imposed, some Christians said Muslim neighbors “complained” to the government about them, while in Guinea, one leader said church closures prompted followers of local animist religions to mock Christian pastors.

“The global pandemic made persecution more obvious than ever—simply because so many people needed help,” says the report. “The clear discrimination and oppression suffered by Christians in 2020 must not be forgotten, even after the COVID-19 crisis fades into our collective memory.”

“The World Watch List is really all about resilience,” wrote David Curry, the chairman and CEO of Open Doors USA. “The numbers of God’s people who are suffering should mean the Church is dying—that Christians are keeping quiet, losing their faith and turning away from one another.”

“But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, in living color, we see the words of God recorded in the prophet Isaiah: I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert,” he wrote.

The facts and figures, Curry argued, give a detailed recount of the problem. But the resilience of the people presented in it, “will inspire you to see what God is doing in our midst.”

North Korea, Pakistan and Somalia are the top three countries on the list

In Somalia, the report claims, “members of a believer’s family, clan or community will harass, intimidate or even kill them.”

“Female converts are at high risk for rape and forced marriage. And if a Christian man is killed or abducted, he leaves his whole family unprotected and ‘marked’ by his conversion,” it adds.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma