Persecution Trends to Watch in 2024
1. Suppression via Technology
Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has succeeded in reducing the attractiveness of Christianity in China—effectively isolating and fracturing the church.
China’s Christian minority has now stalled to just 2-3% of the total population, according to a recent Pew Center report. But the data, based on government statistics, may be highly inaccurate due to the Communist party’s strong disapproval of religion. Indeed, the Chinese government treats religion—including Christianity—as a security threat. Bible apps and thousands of Christian websites have been blocked; one cannot even access a single hymn on the internet in China. With sophisticated surveillance, including the use of artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology, China’s 135 million Christians face a level of control not seen before.
Christian schools and programs for minors have been banned. Christian citizens are emigrating from China to other nations. Churches in cities are now difficult to find. The churches that remain are becoming informal and decentralized to avoid government crackdowns; for example, even house churches have split into smaller groups to evade the watchful eyes of the government. China is also influencing other authoritarian regimes to adopt policies and technology that negatively impact Christian minorities.
2. Violent Nationalist Ideologies
In India, the Hindu nationalist government continues to sever the lifeline of the Indian church with the global church.
Hindu extremists regained power in 2014 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In two terms, India’s 70 million Christians have seen hate normalized, education and media taken over, and institutions hollowed out. Violence against Christians in India has increased substantially, especially in the northeastern state of Manipur. While the causes are complex in nature, in 2023, thousands of believers from the Kuki tribe were displaced amid strife with Hindu extremists, ultimately leading to ethnic segregation.
The ruling BJP political party government started refusing licenses for charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to receive foreign funds under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act. More than 19,000 NGOs and counting have lost licenses—mostly Christian and Muslim groups—shutting down social and educational work and effectively preventing the global church rendering aid to the Indian church. The BJP also sold media and education sectors to business elites who promote its Hindu nationalist agenda. Two billionaire friends of Modi control 82% of Indian media, significantly restricting press freedom.
3. The Growth of Islamic Extremism
In the Sahel region of Africa, violence keeps rising as Islamic insurgencies mushroom and take advantage of states becoming more fragile.
Extremism has been steadily growing in Africa. In the late 1990s, several northern Nigerian states declared themselves under Sharia law, defying the constitution. In 2002, militant groups like Boko Haram emerged. After the 2011 collapse of Libya, Middle Eastern extremists and arms flowed south into fragile African states. This sparked Islamist insurgencies, displacing Christians in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
By 2023, Islamists controlled 40% of Burkina Faso, affecting over 1 million Christians. Nigerian believers continue to suffer recurring acts of violence at the hands of Fulani Muslim herders and Boko Haram. A root cause is the lack of education and jobs, especially for younger people, which drives recruitment into extremist groups. The church provides vital education, and sustaining this could temper violence and bring stability to the region. However, with Islamic extremism currently entrenched, the situation for African Christians remains perilous.
4. Heightened Propaganda & Disinformation
The explosion of state-controlled media and technology fans persecution by spreading old lies in new ways.
According to GCR’s Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, there are four types of common lies told in countries opposed to Christianity. One involves nationalistic lies, for example, “You are not Indian if you are Christian.” Another is a familial lie often heard in places like the Middle East, such as “You dishonor your Muslim parents if you follow Christ.” Criminal lies often ensue in places like Pakistan, where believers are falsely accused of blasphemy: “Christians are guilty of terrible crimes.” And lastly, there are extremist lies, for example, “Christians are violent and evil, so we must kill them first.”
Today, authoritarian governments like that of North Korea are harnessing media to spread its disinformation campaigns with greater reach and effectiveness. Consider a recent report about North Korean propaganda on YouTube, which falsely depicts life in North Korea as affluent, comfortable and free of censorship—despite the fact that in reality, millions suffer from poverty, and books like the Bible are considered treasonous. In closed nations, the proliferation of lies about Christians through state-controlled media serves to isolate, dehumanize and justify violence against them. The church must work to counter disinformation with facts and free speech to preserve truth, regain trust and defend persecuted faith communities.
5. The Weaponization of Religion
Around the world, religion is increasingly being co-opted to justify violence in God’s name.
For an example of this persecution trend, look no further than the war between Russia and Ukraine, where the Russian Orthodox Church is being utilized to justify the conflict from a religious perspective. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, a bishop in the Orthodox Church and a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has declared that Russia’s invasion is a Holy War. Furthermore, he described Ukraine as infested with evil forces, secretly referring to the Jewish minority population. An anonymous Orthodox priest commented, “Putin gave the Russian Orthodox Church its lands back … now it owes him, and he is not bashful to call in the favor.”
This weaponization of religion harms Christianity in both Russia and Ukraine. Russian Orthodox leaders betray Christ by sanctifying violence and scapegoating minorities. In Ukraine, hundreds of religious buildings were reduced to rubble, including centuries-old churches. Meanwhile, too many observers miss the religious dimensions of the conflict. The Russian state exploits faith to sanctify its militarism and expansionism beyond Ukraine; several African nations now look to Russia’s Wagner mercenaries instead of Western forces to combat Islamists. Christians worldwide must recognize how religious identity is distorted to bless war and speak out for peace and truth.
6. The Spread of Organized Crime
In Central and South America, drug cartels and criminal organizations continue to target brave Christian leaders who refuse to take bribes.
Drug cartel violence against Christians in Latin America has escalated as criminal groups expand operations across borders. Crackdowns in Colombia and El Salvador have sent cartels into neighboring countries like Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador—and throughout Central America. As Christian pastors boldly speak out against the cartels’ ruthless violence, they have increasingly become targets.
With organized crime metastasizing across Latin America, Christian communities suffer displacement, extortion, kidnappings, and murder—especially the church leaders willing to oppose the rising tyranny. Mexico has been hit hard, ranking fifth globally for Christian killings according to the new Violent Incidents Database. Advocacy groups are calling for regional cooperation to restore rule of law and protect religious minorities from cartel violence. Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and El Salvador exploit religion to bolster their legitimacy while restricting religious freedom for Christian leaders. Venezuela closed more churches from 2022-2023 than any other country.
7. Resistance to Advocacy
Governments committing persecution are becoming increasingly hardened to advocacy for the persecuted church.
Growing allegiance with the regimes in China, Iran, and Russia is resulting in significant resistance to Christian advocacy efforts. China’s “Belt & Road” infrastructure program—a strategy to invest in more than 150 countries and organizations—has directed tens of billions in loans to the governments of Vietnam, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, among others. In the Middle East, Iran wields growing influence on governments and military groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. And several Sub-Saharan African nations look to Russia for help with security against Islamist extremism.
These efforts to extend influence and increase intolerance of religious minorities have been emboldened by a perceived pullback of the West from international affairs—including the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan. Advocates for the persecuted church can expect to encounter much greater resistance to their efforts, from securing the release of imprisoned Christians to securing protections for Christian communities and places of worship. New and more effective ways to advocate for the persecuted church are urgently needed. Thankfully, efforts to strengthen advocacy for the persecuted church are already underway.
8. A Rise in Christian Persecution
In 2014, the persecution of believers rose on every continent simultaneously and has continued to rise sharply ever since.
Five factors primarily contribute to this troubling trend. First, jihadist caliphates, civil wars, and resurgent authoritarians in Shia and Sunni states are ravaging the Middle East—forcing religious minorities to flee. Second, Islamic extremism gained another hub in Sub-Saharan Africa, making the region the world’s most violent religious fault line. Third, China’s leadership has returned the country to the climate of the 1950s, during which Christians were seen as subversives likely to launch an anti-communist revolution. Fourth, Hindu extremists regained power in India in 2014 led by their charismatic leader, Narendra Modi. Fifth, Latin America has seen a huge rise in corruption and violence due to the former guerilla movements morphing into narcotics traffickers and entering governments.
In response, GCR seeks to stop the exodus of Christians in the Middle East; to reduce the violence in the Sahel region by strengthening churches to bring more education and employment to the area; to resist the squeeze particularly in Asia where the church is suffocated by government surveillance and ideological pressure; and to speak up for the suffering, so the whole church may know their stories and walk with them in faith and prayer.
9. Resilience of the Persecuted Church
Under pressure, the global church continues to show astonishing strength and growth.
A pastor in Iran once remarked, “Christians may be the victims of persecution, but the Gospel rarely is.” To exhibit his point, the church in sub-Saharan Africa is set to double in size up to 1.1 billion by 2050, according to the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life, keeping Christianity at roughly 33% of the world population. In India, there is a remarkable movement of Hindus following Jesus: those who consider themselves culturally Hindu even though they follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
The population of former Muslims coming to Christ is rapidly growing from the Middle East to the Far East, especially in Iran and Indonesia. Even in China, a Christian social scientist remarks that, “The more the Communist Party seeks to give the people material security, the more they crave spiritual experience … and that leads them to God, if not to church.” Perhaps the greatest concern, though, is the Middle East where Christians remain in what one pastor called Exodus mode; young, professional Christians are seeking to exit the region due to a number of factors, including persecution. Said another leader, “In the Middle East today, the Christian more and more needs a clear sense of call to remain.”
10. The Advancement of Religious Freedom
Advocacy efforts for religious freedom are becoming increasingly advanced across the West.
Over the past decade, significant new government and civil society coalitions have formed to advance religious freedom in government policy. In 2018, the U.S. launched the first Ministerial-level government conference on international religious freedom—currently the highest formal level for a diplomatic event. The Ministerial for International Religious Freedom has continued to be hosted by successive governments, including Poland, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic, through 2023. In 2020, a formal alliance of countries dedicated to protecting and advancing religious freedom was launched. The International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance has since grown to 37 member states as of 2023.
International religious freedom roundtable gatherings of faith leaders and advocates have been established in nearly 25 countries. Strengthening these efforts, the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C. brings together over 1,000 speakers and attendees annually to coalesce support for persecuted communities around the world. Each of these initiatives represents an unprecedented level of coordination to advance religious freedom around the world for Christians and other people of faith.
About the Author
Ronald Boyd-MacMillan is the Chief of Global Strategy & Research for Global Christian Relief and a seasoned expert on the topic of religious persecution. He aims to champion religious freedom and draw attention to the plight of persecuted Christians everywhere through special projects like GCR’s Persecution Trends to Watch in 2024 List and the all-new Violent Incidents Database. Learn more at GlobalChristianRelief.org.