According to a new Pew Research Center report, there are already more Christians in Africa than any other continent. By 2060, six of the top ten countries with the largest Christian populations will be in Africa, up from three in 2015.
But as Christianity grows in Africa, so does the persecution of Christians.
“Christians are increasingly seen as a threat to Muslim-dominated lands and governments,” said Dede Laugesen, the executive director of Save the Persecuted Christians, a U.S. charity.
“Mass territories of uninhabited, ungoverned regions provide easy cover for Islamic terror group activities. Combined with extreme poverty, joblessness and well-established routes for illegal arms dealing and the illicit slave trade, resource-rich African countries north of the equator provide fertile ground for Islamic State fighters fleeing the Middle East and looking for new territories to dominate,” he told Crux.
What follows is Laugesen’s full conversation with Crux.
Crux: Open Doors, which supports persecuted Christians, has said, “In Africa, Christians are in the flames of persecution-and on fire for Jesus.” Is this a fair assessment of what is happening to Christians in Africa?
Laugesen: Christians in Africa are quite literally frontline foot soldiers for faith in Christ. Christianity is growing in Africa faster than anywhere else on the planet. At the same time, persecution is increasing. Romans 5:20 poignantly describes what is happening in Africa today. “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more,” said Paul.
How widespread is the phenomenon of Christian persecution on the continent?
Aid to the Church in Need reports that 327 million Christians are persecuted worldwide – a number roughly equal to the current U.S. population – of which some 245 million, according to Open Doors USA, experience heavy persecution in the top 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. Fourteen of these countries – 28 percent – are in Africa.
Which regions of Africa are mostly affected?
Terror groups promoting Sharia supremacy are growing, and increasingly coordinating activities across northern Africa and the Sahel. The Lake Chad region encompassing Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and including Burkina Faso and Mali feature prominently in areas most affected by Islamic extremism.
The Islamic State is increasing activities and influence with already established African terrorists – providing arms and know-how in an aim to establish new territories for conquest and expansion.
Particularly, persecution by Muslim Fulani militants, Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa with signs of coordination between these groups is cause for alarm. But, persecution of Christians in East Africa is also gaining traction where in Somalia, Uganda, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, jihadist groups and anti-government rebels are growing lucrative networks for smuggling which funds their arms and operations.
What factors drive such persecution?
Because Christianity is experiencing its greatest growth in Africa, Christians are increasingly seen as a threat to Muslim-dominated lands and governments. Mass territories of uninhabited, ungoverned regions provide easy cover for Islamic terror group activities.
Combined with extreme poverty, joblessness and well-established routes for illegal arms dealing and the illicit slave trade, resource-rich African countries north of the equator provide fertile ground for Islamic State fighters fleeing the Middle East and are looking for new territories to dominate.
Some reports indicate that the persecution is not only carried out by Islamic extremists, but also by some governments. For instance, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki was said to “fear Christian evangelism because it could destabilize and disunite the country.” How do you react to that kind of persecution carried out by the state?
State support of extremist groups has been widely alleged in the Fulani-dominated federal government of Nigeria, which seems incapable of, or unwilling to, address increasing mass slaughter of Christians and rampant kidnappings-for-ransom by so-called Fulani herdsmen. The Nigerian government continues to force-feed a false narrative of “farmer versus herder clashes” to the international community, which consistently refuses to acknowledge the religious basis for the violence that those harmed say is the primary and root cause.
In June, Save the Persecuted Christians brought Christians from Nigeria to Washington, D.C. to give testimony to the violence. They asked: “How can these attacks against sleeping communities of helpless, poor, unarmed, mostly Christian farmers be framed as clashes between farmers and herdsmen?”
These witnesses from the mostly Christian Adara chiefdom of Kaduna state, which saw more than 400 mostly women and children killed in multiple well-armed Fulani ambushes in early 2019, said these attacks are a concerted effort to clear the land of Christian farmers. They also said Fulani and Boko Haram activities are supported and encouraged by the federal government of Nigeria and northern state governments committed to the establishment of Sharia – Islam’s oppressive and authoritarian legal code – over the entire land.
The attitude of some of the persecuted Christians has been astounding. For instance, the teenage Nigerian girl, Leah Sharibu, refused to renounce her faith even as she remains in Boko Haram captivity. She could easily have regained her freedom by saying “no” to Christ. How has her courage impacted the Church and is this an attitude that persecuted Christians ought to adopt?
“Leah Sharibu” should be a household name in Christian homes worldwide. Her adamant refusal to denounce her faith in the face of her Boko Haram kidnappers is a witness of courage and heroism.
Rebecca Sharibu, Leah’s mother, came to Washington, D.C. in June at the invitation of Save the Persecuted Christians and the International Committee on Nigeria to meet with members of the administration including the office of Vice President Mike Pence. With tears welling over, Rebecca said, “I don’t know if I could have done what she did.”
Increase in faith under fire is a mystery of our faith, but one that is being played out in Africa in real time. Christ said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. No slave is greater than his master.” As Christians, we are called to pick up our cross and follow after Jesus. Persecution will happen, we are seeing that globally. But faith grows in the midst of this persecution and we are seeing that too.
All over Africa, in persecuted lands, the Christian faith is growing and stories like Leah’s are filtering out. We are also hearing that Jesus himself is coming to these people in dreams and visions and thousands are converting and being baptized in his name.
What reforms in Africa and what policy changes do you think are required to begin changing the situation of Christians in Africa?
First and foremost, the U.S. must acknowledge that what is happening in Africa is genocidal, religious-based violence, enacted against Christians by Sharia supremacist extremist groups. They must also come to terms with the fact that the Islamic State has not been defeated, but has merely moved to new territory in Africa and is a growing threat not only there but, if allowed to flourish, to the interests of the United States, Europe and the world.
With the inspiration and encouragement of our long-time coalition advisor, former congressman Frank R. Wolf, Save the Persecuted Christians advocates for the appointment of a U.S. Special Envoy to Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. It was immensely effective when in 2001 Senator John Danforth was appointed by President Bush as a special envoy to Sudan where more than 2 million had been killed and Christians and black Africans were being enslaved by an Islamist regime.
So too, we believe, a coordinated effort by a special envoy appointed by President Trump is needed now to address growing insecurity and genocidal activity abetted by jihadist groups supported by Islamists in government in Nigeria and Lake Chad region.