". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Africa’s Christian Believers Face Ever-Increasing Dangers

July 17, 2023

Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Christian persecution in Africa. We will report specifically about the ongoing attacks in Nigeria next week in The Washington Stand.

Today’s Christian believers are facing an ever-darkening world. We are continuously confronted with shocking news reports, disturbing ideologies, and dangerous influences in our own country — outrageous stories vie for our attention. And, of course, our first responsibilities lie close to home. Every day, The Washington Stand focuses on those national concerns.

Still, at the same time, it’s important for us to remain aware of the enormous struggles and threats our spiritual sisters and brothers are facing abroad — far beyond our national borders. With that in mind, let’s focus our attention on one of the most challenging places in the world to be a Christian: The vast continent of Africa.

Here are some recent developments:

In Uganda: On June 18, BBC reported that Ugandan students “… were singing gospel songs before an attack by suspected Islamist militants. ‘Then I heard screaming,’ a woman who lives opposite the school explained.” The vicious attack in Mpondwe left about 40 people dead. Islamic State-linked militants have been blamed for the attack.

In Libya: As reported in late May, six Christians are facing the death penalty for converting from Islam and proselytizing under laws increasingly being used to silence civil society and human rights organizations.

In Mozambique: ISIS (Islamic State) boasted in 2022 about the establishment of a new ISIS province in Mozambique built “on heaps of Christian corpses and rivers of their blood.”

In Sudan: During the present civil war, innumerable Christians in Sudan are fleeing for their lives, trying to survive the fighting, and still facing persecution for their faith in Christ. 

In Nigeria: Every month, hundreds of Christians are being killed in ongoing attacks. “Christian death tolls include at least 300 in several attacks in Plateau state spanning May 15–17 … more than 100 in attacks spanning May and June in Benue state … 43 in Nasarawa state in mid-May. Tens of thousands were displaced. Whole villages, dozens of church buildings, and thousands of homes reportedly were destroyed …”

As of 2020, Christians represented 49% of Africa’s surging population, with Muslims accounting for 42%, and various other religious groups making up the rest. Yet despite the old saying that “the majority rules,” five of the countries on earth where it is most difficult to be a Christian are in Africa (as listed in the Top 10 on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List): Somalia (No. 2), Eritrea (No. 4), Libya (No. 5), Nigeria (No. 6), and Sudan (No. 10). Meanwhile, 13 other African countries are also listed among the top 50 persecutors of Christians.

In fact, 36% of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians are in Africa.

The Big Picture: Christians Face Danger Across the Continent

So, what exactly is taking place among Africa’s numerous Christian communities? The continent itself is beset by crippling poverty, widespread political corruption, and ever-increasing terrorism. As a result, millions of Africans suffer under the continuous threat of violence; untold numbers are homeless refugees who have fled for their lives. And no African population experiences these misfortunes as acutely as the continent’s 685 million Christians.

In 2021, Britain’s Guardianrelated that worldwide, “…more than 340 million Christians — one in eight — face high levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith. … This was a 60 percent increase over the previous year in the number of Christians killed for their faith.” The Guardian’s account went on to say that more than nine out of 10 of the global total of 4,761 deaths were those of African Christians.

Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian Christians in North Africa face local dangers — particularly converts from Islam — from family and local radicals. Meanwhile, the encroachment of terrorist groups creates increasing concern to both military and security observers.

Likewise, reports from East Africa warn that ISIS, al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Sharia, and other Islamist groups are strengthening their numbers and increasing their territory. Incidents of violence have occurred against Christians in buses, on university campuses, and in villages.

At the same time, across Africa’s heartland are the so-called “Group of Five” (G5) nations — Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger. In this region, Christians and non-radicalized Muslims face continuous and escalating threats and attacks. This is of deepening concern to international military analysts and religious freedom advocates alike.

Who Is Responsible for This Surging Violence?

Clearly, the most well-known threats to most African countries emanate from Sunni Muslim jihadis — groups like ISIS, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and countless others. Much, but not enough, has been written about the growth of these groups, who compete but also cooperate at times. The Islamic State is working intensively and successfully to expand; it often absorbs smaller terror organizations into its well-oiled operation. Thanks to such groups, a significant number of which appear to be internationally funded by ISIS, there is a wide swath of terrorism that extends from Mozambique across the center of the continent and ends in the devastating massacres in Nigeria.

Most of the better-known terror groups are affiliated with Sunni Muslims and are supported by ISIS and others. However, they are not alone in their African ambitions. There is another force at work in Africa, far more quietly seeking to fulfill its own vision of Islamist conquest: The Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Iranian campaign to “export the Revolution” — even into Africa — has long been carried out through Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its many proxies — most famously through Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In 2018, Middle East Institute reported, “Iran told Hezbollah that it needed to recruit and train Nigerians to establish a stronghold there so that it could serve as an operational base for the rest of Africa, mainly to thwart Israeli and western ambitions in the region.” At the time of this writing, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi is visiting three significant African countries — Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

What Can U.S. Believers Do?

As American Christians, we often focus our attention solely on our own country and its increasingly anti-Christian leadership and appalling legislation. However, as we watch, pray, and seek opportunities to push back against ungodly forces in our homeland, let’s also keep this in mind: There never has been a more dangerous and deadly time for Christians across the world.

Perhaps it’s time for us to stop looking regretfully at Africa’s tragedies in the rearview mirror. Instead, a determined coalition of nations needs to step forward and begin to develop ways and means of extinguishing the surging jihadi violence there. At the same time, it is increasingly important for our Christian communities not only to continue to pray, but also to demand international action. Why? Because, as the wildfire of terrorism continues to rage across that vast continent, a couple of things are abundantly clear:

Africa’s Christians will continue to pay the ultimate price for the world’s inaction as they suffer murder, rape, abduction, displacement, and persecution.

And what happens in Africa will not stay in Africa.

Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council and Fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. She lived in Israel for over ten years, and is the author of "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner."