Religious freedom is not a given in many parts of the world. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 80% of the world's governments interfered with their citizens' religious worship in some way in 2019. Furthermore, although Christianity is the world's largest religion, Christians are in no way immune to persecution. For example, Islamic countries often view other religions as heretical, an affront to Allah, which is considered an extremely serious crime. Communist countries, by comparison, often outlaw all religion—which Karl Marx famously deemed the "opiate of the masses"—preferring that the government be the only authority guiding people's concept of fairness and one's role in society.
Illegal versus persecuted
Whether or not Christianity is legal or illegal in a given country can be difficult to determine. There are two main reasons for this confusion. First, the laws themselves can be convoluted and often appear to contradict themselves. What's more, the regimes that are most likely to restrict freedom of religion are the same regimes that are more likely to be secretive and/or deceptive about differences between the letter of the law and its real-world implementation.
For example, the constitution of North Korea specifically establishes freedom of religion—however, it adds that “religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order.” This vague stipulation is used by the government to implement one of the most religiously oppressive regimes in the world. Similarly, Afghanistan's constitution names Islam as the state religion, but promises practitioners of other religions are free to worship "within the limits of the law." However, acts made illegal by those "limits of the law" include sharing one's Christian faith, speaking negatively of Islam, or publishing materials that contradict Islamic principles. Converting from Islam to another religion is also illegal and is punishable by imprisonment, confiscation of property, or even the death sentence.
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What does it mean for Christianity to be illegal? The severity of the laws (and the punishments for breaking them) vary depending upon the specific country. In most cases, it means Christians cannot gather to worship together in churches. Nor can they publicly express their faith or attempt to preach the gospel and attempt to lead others to adopt that faith. It frequently also means that simply owning a Bible or talking about Christianity—even among family members in the privacy of one's own home—can result in imprisonment or death.
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Christian persecution in Afghanistan and North Korea
When U.S. and NATO forces pulled out of Afghanistan in mid-2021, the extremist Islamic sect known as the Taliban immediately regained control of the country, replacing the US-backed democratic government with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This development secured Afghanistan's place as the worst country in the world for Christians.
According to the Taliban's strict interpretation of the Islamic scriptures, no other religions are permitted to exist. As such, Christianity in Afghanistan is practiced largely in secret. Converting to Christianity from Islam is considered a betrayal of one's faith and family, and Christians are subject to extreme persecution. Their possessions and homes may be taken, they may be beaten or flogged, and some reports indicate their daughters may be taken and forced to marry or serve Taliban soldiers. While some Christians may be forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital (because leaving converting to Christianity is considered insane), it is more likely for them to simply be put to death—frequently on the spot.
The notoriously secretive country of North Korea has no official state religion, and its oppressive government is especially intolerant of Christianity. Christians in North Korea risk torture, prison, and execution for their faith. As in Afghanistan, the punishments can at times extend to one's family as well, which can lead to Christians being handed over to the authorities by trusted family members desperate to escape punishment themselves. Churches are effectively nonexistent, and Christian parents often do not share their Christianity with their children until the parents are sure that the children will not reveal them or other family members to authorities. Known Christians who aren't killed outright are often either denied food rations or sent to labor camps, where they are frequently starved and/or worked to the point of death.
Christian persecution in Somalia and Libya
The few Christians living in Somalia are frequent targets of persecution similar to that experienced in Afghanistan. Those who are even suspected of being Christian may be harassed or killed. This is especially the case in regions of Somalia controlled by the Islamic terrorist group al-Shabab, which is suspected to have ties to al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.
Libya is another country in which those converting to Christianity often face opposition from their own families in addition to the government. Those who do not renounce their faith may be ostracized by society and left unable to find work, a home, or other support. Those who attempt to share their faith can be arrested and punished violently. Because Libya has no centralized government, Christians are often at the mercy of the closest extremist group. Kidnappings and murders of Christians are common, as are reports of Christians being sent to labor camps or forced into prostitution.
Christian persecution in Yemen, Eritrea, and Nigeria
One of several countries currently at war, Yemen is mired in what aid group UNICEF calls "one of the world's largest humanitarian crises" as it struggles to provide food and health care to its citizens. This challenting situation proves even more difficult for Christians because aid is often distributed by local Muslim leaders, who see little reason to aid non-Muslims. Additionally, Christians may be banished from their family or tribe, forced to divorce their spouse of give up their children, tortured and imprisoned, or simply killed, often via public beheadings.
The African country Eritrea is unique in that nearly half of its population is Christian, yet those Christians who do not belong to one of the three government-recognized denominations (Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran) are considered illegal and heavily persecuted. Non-recognized Christians are often arrested and imprisoned, but not charged. Some Christians have reportedly spent a decade or longer in prison with no formal charges ever filed against them. Many are forced into military service or placed under house arrest. State-sponsored surveillance of Christians is also common.
Christians in Nigeria are a prime target for kidnapping and murder by Islamic extremists such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), who seek to eradicate Christianity from the country. Christians are often forced to live as homeless refugees in their own country, collecting in camps for internally displaced people.
Christian persecution in Pakistan, Iran, and India
Christians in Pakistan are considered second-class citizens. Blasphemy laws that forbid any insult to the Muslim prophet Mohammed or the Quran are frequently used to justify the mistreatment of Christians, ranging from the denial of humanitarian aid to mob violence. Christian girls and women are also frequent targets of kidnappings, forced marriages, and forced conversions.
Like many other Islamic countries that follow Sharia law, Iran has a sizeable Christian minority. However, these Christians face harassment and persecution by the government, their non-Christian neighbors, and even their own families. The government in Iran views Christianity as an attempt to replace existing Islamic values with Western/U.S. values, and so treats Christians as a threat to national security. If an Iranian Christian attempts to convert someone to Christianity, they can go to jail. Additionally, if a Muslim in Iran converts to Christianity, that person can face jail time or even death.
Persecution of Christians is growing in India, where Hindu extremists continue to promote the idea that Christians, because they practice a faith that originated outside of India, are not as devoted to India as are Hindus. People who practice Christianity (and other non-Hindu religions) are subjected to harassment, organized disinformation campaigns, and anti-Christian activities that often turn violent. Christians in some parts of India were denied government aid during the COVID-19 pandemic and were even accused of spreading the virus.