June 9, 2017

Christians faced widespread harassment in 2015, but mostly in Christian-majority countries

Egyptian Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas in Cairo. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptian Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas in Cairo. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

Vice President Mike Pence recently drew attention to the persecution of Christians around the world, telling a summit in Washington, D.C., that “no people of faith today face greater hostility or hatred than the followers of Christ.” In the same speech, Pence singled out “the suffering of Christians in the Middle East,” promising that the U.S. would act to protect Christians in that part of the world.

Some of the vice president’s statements on Christian persecution comport with data from a recent Pew Research Center report on global religious restrictions in 2015. Christians have been harassed in more countries than any other religious group and have suffered harassment in many of the heavily Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. But the report also shows that this widespread harassment is due in part to the huge size and broad geographic dispersion of Christians around the world, and that the Middle East is just one of a number of regions where Christians have faced harassment.

(The Center’s recent report tracks harassment against religious groups around the world, but it does not attempt to estimate the number of victims in each country. As a result, it does not speak to the intensity of harassment in each country.)

Christians were harassed by governments or social groups in a total of 128 countries in 2015 – more countries than any other religious group, according to the report. But there also were 2.3 billion Christians in 2015, more than any other religious group. Large populations of Christians are present in all but a few parts of the world: Roughly two-thirds of the world’s countries, for example, have Christian majorities.

By contrast, smaller religious groups may not have been harassed in as many countries simply because they are not present in as many countries. For instance, because of their dense concentration in a small number of countries, 99% of Jews and Hindus lived in nations where members of their groups were harassed. And despite being one of the most geographically dispersed religious groups, 97% of Muslims lived in countries where harassment of Muslims occurred in 2015. (By comparison, 78% of Christians lived in places where Christians were harassed.)

Due in part to the large number of Christian-majority countries, Christians were actually harassed mostly in Christian-majority countries. In some of these countries, the Christian majority was itself harassed, often by the government. For example, in Nicaragua – where an estimated 59% of the population is Catholic – the Catholic Church reported that the government monitored its emails and telephone conversations and granted financial support for churches based on the clergy’s political affiliation. The church also reported that the Nicaraguan government used Catholic traditions and symbols when promoting political agendas, saying it undermined the church’s religious authority.

In other Christian-majority countries, Christian minority denominations were targeted. For example, in Eritrea – where Eritrean Orthodox Christianity is the dominant faith – Jehovah’s Witnesses reported being unable to obtain official identification documents because of their faith. In addition, the majority of religious prisoners in Eritrea in 2015 were Protestants, namely Pentecostals and evangelical Christians.

While Christians were harassed in countries far beyond the Middle East and North Africa, they faced significant harassment in this region, too. In Syria, for example, Christians reported that tolerance within society was on the decline as extremist groups gained influence.

And in Egypt, Christians were killed for having converted from Islam or simply because they were Christian. For example, in January and February 2015, two Christian men were killed – one of these murders was claimed by the Islamic State – in the North Sinai city of Arish, according to a Christian advocacy group with a presence in the region.

Topics: Religion and Society, Religious Affiliation, Restrictions on Religion, Christians and Christianity

  1. Photo of Katayoun Kishi

    is a research associate focusing on global restrictions on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous2 months ago

    “But the report also shows that this widespread harassment is due in part to the huge size and broad geographic dispersion of Christians around the world” – that may be part of an explanation but it does not excuse the harassment and persecution of Christians.

    “(The Center’s recent report tracks harassment against religious groups around the world, but it does not attempt to estimate the number of victims in each country. As a result, it does not speak to the intensity of harassment in each country.)” That is a major flaw of the Center’s approach. It should make a large difference whether or not someone is “harassed” or is murdered.

    Christian-majority countries often have regions that are Christian-minority, where the harassment and persecution of Christians is greatest.

  2. Anonymous2 months ago

    This is a very good study reflecting the difficult situation of Christians in the world, and succeed to overcome possible local( USA) biases.
    It would be great if all American people would have this global perspective.

  3. Anonymous2 months ago

    The conflicts or coordination between religion and power is a constant theme. The thesis in this study suggests that Christianity is a more frequent target because it is most widely distributed. That premise seems logical, while clearly not suggesting that all religions don’t face harassment or attempted suborning or endorsement by power/governments. It is also unlikely that a historic backward glance would find much difference over time.

  4. Cal Munson2 months ago

    This raises the question of who is doing the harassing. Fervent believers of other religions?

  5. Anonymous2 months ago

    This study is meaningless and worse, it is deceptive.
    We are likely to find a few disgruntled or deranged attackers in even the most benign, peaceful and accepting countries. Without information on how many attacks were made against each different faith within a country, how many people of each faith there are in a country, and what percentage of all attacks those religious ones represent, no meaningful conclusions can be drawn.

    Mike Pence is wrong. Christians in America enjoy special privileges, which are not available to all non-Christians. In the last 70 years the Christian god has found it’s way on to the money, into the oath of allegiance, and has become so deeply embedded into politics that all politicians must pay lip service to Christianity. There are tax exempt Christian Churches on street corners throughout America.
    Christians are discriminated against? Not in America. Every single president since the formation of America has been Christian.

    It is not “harassment” when citizens exercise their first amendment rights to insist that government meetings not support Christian practices like prayer at the start of the meetings. That is a legal issue regarding secular government.

    Pew Research is normally well researched and effectively presented.
    Religious interference and religious intolerance are important areas of study.
    This article was a rare failure by Pew.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      Given that Christians have been down talked more and cannot say what they feel without some derogatory term coming up.

    2. Anonymous2 months ago

      While I agree that this study is leans to the lame side, to pretend that Christians in America are not harassed, which is a word distinct from “discriminate”, is inaccurate.

      Religious references on money, in our Pledge of Allegiance and other such things is merely the reflection of our heritage. But the continued existence of such references does nothing to mitigate the claim that harassment of Christians is true and, I’d argue, rising. What other group can be mocked with impunity if not the Christian? Comparisons to the Taliban for the crime of wishing to be exempt from the celebration of sexual immorality is a bit over the top, to say the least, but incredibly commonplace. Christians are told they must set aside their beliefs when doing business, because apparently, morality has no place there…until an atheist, non-Christian or CINO believes himself to be a victim of unethical business practices. Christians are regarded as superstitious, backward and foolish for believing in God, hypocritical for not being as perfect as Christ, but instead only as human as their detractors and simply in the way of those for whom their every whim and desire informs their notions of morality and right v wrong.

      Christians expect to be harassed, since they were warned by Christ that they will be, and without wishing to endure it, their expectations are met routinely.