A recent global survey reveals that the rise of radical Islamic extremism is the primary reason for the persecution of Christians around the world – and many of the victims are women.
“Unfortunately, more and more women are the target of terrorist groups,” Emily Fuentes, communications director for Open Doors, told CNA April 20.
“There are numerous international incidents of women being kidnapped, raped, and forced to convert from Christianity to Islam by radical extremist groups like Boko Haram. Many are also sold on the open market. This brutality is not only occurring in the Middle East but in Africa and in many other places.”
The California-based Open Doors organization focuses on anti-Christian persecution in countries around the world. According to its 2016 World Watch List, the level of violence against Christians globally has reached an all-time high, with numbers almost doubling every year.
The report also found that Islamic extremism is “the primary driving factor in 35 out of the top 50 states.”
“In many of these countries, women are subject to persecution because they are considered second-class citizens because of their gender,” Fuentes added. “As minorities in both gender and faith, Christian women face double the persecution. Although we don’t have an exact number, we know that millions of women are being persecuted.”
In the last two years, the Islamic State group has reportedly executed 250 girls in for refusing to become sex slaves. Two years ago, Boko Haram infamously stormed a school in Chibok, Nigeria, kidnapping 276 teen girls. The majority of those girls are still missing.
Open Doors’ top 50 watch list ranked North Korea as the country where Christians are most persecuted, followed by Somalia, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Most of the countries listed are either in the Middle East or Africa.
Last year, more than 7,000 Christians were killed for their faith. This is an increase from 4,344 in 2014 and 2,123 in 2013. The statistics do not include Christians killed in North Korea, Iraq or Syria, where reports are unattainable.
In 2015, there were 2,484 Christians killed for their faith in Nigeria—the most deaths of Christians in any country. The Central African Republic was second worst, with 1,088 deaths. Syria, Kenya and North Korea also proved deadly for Christians, with at least a hundred deaths in each country.
Fuentes explained that these countries fear public religious expression.
This can especially have an effect on women.
“Christian women tend to be more outspoken and devoted to their faith than men. Unfortunately, they end up paying a price for it,” she said, noting that some countries believe that religion is a threat to their rule.
“Women are seen as valuing their faith and serving a God that is higher than the government, and that is unacceptable to foreign governments,” she said.
According to the Pew Research Center, Christian women are the largest religious group in the world, making up almost 34 percent of the global population. In many countries, these women pray more frequently and attend weekly church services more often than men. They also consider religion more important.
Fuentes underscored that the persecution of women goes beyond physical abuse.
“In these Muslim-dominated countries, Christian women are systematically deprived of their freedom to live and are denied basic human necessities,” she explained. “They do not have access to proper health care, nutrition or education.”
“Surviving is all about strategically going about their day and taking extra precautions like traveling with a male relative,” Fuentes added. “In some cases, it is easy for them to make small inconvenient plans. But most times, there is no solution–which puts women at grave risk daily.”
Fuentes said knowledge of this situation is lacking.
“There definitely needs to be a lot more education and advocacy on behalf of women who are facing persecution all over the world,” she said. “It is vital to assess international aid and relations with different governments to see how they are treating Christian women.”
She said it’s necessary to say that “persecuting women and people of faith is unacceptable.”
In March, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously voted on a resolution against the actions of the Islamic State Group against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. The resolution officially recognized these acts as “war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”
But Olivia Enos, research associate in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, told CNA that identifying the problem is only the first step.
“The Obama administration has not made this issue a priority,” she said April 21. “It’s great that the U.S. government has identified these atrocities as genocide, but it really hasn’t done much to follow-up on this designation.”
“If we want to demonstrate that religious freedom is something our government really cares about,” she said, “then there should be next steps and action items.”
Enos said that only a more comprehensive approach can resolve this “ethnic cleansing.”
“Oftentimes, human rights issues are viewed in isolation from broader national security concerns when they really should be viewed as complementary to those efforts,” she said. “Advancing national security interests should never be to the detriment of human rights. A safe country is tolerant of different religions.”
“When you don’t defend religious freedom, you have severe human rights abuses,” Enos added. “It is not just religious freedom for women or one group of people, it is religious freedom for all.”