WASHINGTON (BP) -- Targeted Christian persecution tailored to hurt women is trending globally, Open Doors reported in its 2019 World Watch List of 50 countries most dangerous for Christians to practice their faith.
"The data proves conclusively that Christian women are the most exploited group on the face of the earth today," Open Doors President David Curry said in a Jan. 16 press conference in Washington announcing the list. "While not minimizing the incredible violence against men, women are doubly persecuted. They're exploited for their vulnerability as females, and also for their faith.
"And the shame culture within many of these regions of the world," Curry said, "makes sexual violence victims very cautious of how they rebuild their lives within these shame cultures."
In Nigeria, the 12th country on the persecution list, Boko Haram captured 15-year-old Esther, killed her father and raped her repeatedly for a year because she refused to denounce her faith. The captors released her to her home when she gave birth to a girl.
"What does the future hold for Esther in northern Nigeria? What does the future hold for her daughter?" Curry posed. "I also wonder if she were your daughter or your sister, what you would be willing to fight for."
Esther's release was not happenstance, said Helene Fisher, global gender persecution specialist for Open Doors International.
"She was returned because actually there is more damage in having her return and having to live with that shame, having her family have to live with that perceived shame," Fisher said. "There is a generational impact and it is intentional. This is not a byproduct that nobody thought of."
Elisha, a persecuted Christian from India whom Open Doors introduced at its press conference, spoke with Baptist Press by telephone in advance of the Washington event. She fled India with her daughter for safety in 2017, but returns months at a time to help her husband operate a secret ministry to educate and empower women. In India, the 10th most dangerous country for Christians, most women are denied an education and are left to learn only what their husbands tell them at home.
Christian men in India are more insulated from attacks than Christian women, Elisha said, because cultural customs make a woman's religion more obvious.
"Not only the community throws her out, but even she also falls from the family," Elisha said in broken English. "And for the children -- if they are living in the community, they are also discriminated [against]."
Sexual attacks, forced marriage, domestic abuse, denial of inheritance and murder, all with impunity, were noted especially in the top five countries of persecution, Open Doors said, naming North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan.
In North Korea, sexual violence against all women has become so commonplace it's considered a part of everyday life, Human Rights Watch has reported. But Christian women and girls are particularly subject to such abuse, Open Doors said.
Persecution varies among the 50 countries on the watch list but is widespread and increasing.
"Religious persecution is not gender blind. Religious persecution is firmly gender specific," Fisher said. "It is the easiest and most effective means of religious persecution ... There will not be a court case. There will not be another post in the #MeToo campaign. It will be accepted and understood."
Open Doors provides education, trauma care and microloans to help survivors rebuild their lives, and encourages churches to become active in relief efforts.
"We've been called to inform ourselves. We've been called to pray. We've been called to say this is part of who we are and this ought not to be done," Fisher said. "Because when an individual is targeted, it is not done just to hurt an individual, but it is done to destroy a community."
While women are targeted sexually, men are targeted economically and are not immune to sexual harassment.
"Persecution targeting minority Christian men and boys in the five worst 2019 (World Watch List) countries is characterized by severe physical violence and socio-economic ostracism," Fisher wrote in a report supplemental to the list. "Analysis of the situations in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan exposes the use of physical violence, including torture and death, against minority Christian men after their faith is discovered."
Fisher's report is available at OpenDoorsUSA.org.