Open Doors has released its annual list of the top 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted. Two countries were taken off the list and two were put on this year. Bahrain, a tiny Muslim-majority nation in the Persian Gulf, earned its way off the 2019 World Watch List. In previous editions, Open Doors called out the “relatively religiously tolerant” kingdom of Bahrain for placing inhibitions on the freedom to assembly, prohibitions against Christians proselytizing and restrictions to religious expression. Open Doors USA CEO David Curry praised Bahrain and stated that the country now represents the hope for change that drives the purpose of the World Watch List.
Curry added “Thank you to the royal family of Bahrain and the government there for what they have done in the last several years. It could be a model within that region for how it could be done.” In Bahrain, Curry said, there are Christians, Jews and people of various other faiths worshiping “more freely than ever before” he explained. Johnnie Moore, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said that the removal of Bahrain from the World Watch List is a sign that Bahrain is “getting the credit they are due.” “In terms of Bahraini culture, they have led the way in this area for centuries,” Moore said.
Moore explained, “the country is home to the oldest synagogue in the region and is also home to thriving Coptic, Catholic, evangelical and Anglican churches as well as a thriving Buddhist community. “The Bahraini culture has always been a culture that has welcomed others throughout the centuries. It is part of their DNA,” Moore stressed. The removal of Bahrain from the list “reflects that they are doing a better job of telling their story” of tolerance. When asked what steps the Bahraini government had taken to be removed from the World Watch List, Curry explained that the royal family had done a better job of including all minority groups in public discussions.
“Minority religions are often pushed to the side and not included in these conversations. In Bahrain however they have been talking with these Christian and Jewish leaders and others, trying to protect the space for people to worship,” Curry said. “Bahrain has created a safe place for people to worship and that is critically important.” At the first-ever State Department Ministerial on Religious Freedom last July, a Bahraini official announced the creation of an ambassador-at-large position for peaceful coexistence and religious freedom within its ministry of foreign affairs. In July 2017, Bahrain King Hamad Al Khalifa signed “The Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration.”
The declaration calls for an end to religious extremism and greater religious tolerance in the Middle East and other places around the globe. In 2018, the king established the King Hamad World Centre for Peaceful Co-Existence. The centre is housed in a large building in the capital city, Manama. In 2008, Bahrain became the first Arab nation to assign a Jew to serve as an ambassador to the United States. “Bahrain is modelling for the region that you can have both,” Moore said. “You can be a distinctly majority-Muslim country in the gulf and be an entirely welcoming society that doesn’t see the freedom of worship or belief as a threat but rather an asset.”
Even on the gender equality front, progress is being made in Bahrain. In December, a woman for the first time became head of the Bahraini parliament. Bahrain is, however, still listed as a “Tier 2” country of concern for religious freedom by USCIRF. The East African nation of Djibouti was another nation dropped from the World Watch List in 2019. Last year it was listed as the 50th-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution while Bahrain ranked 48th. Newly added to the World Watch List in 2019 are the Russian Federation (41) and Morocco (35).
“Christians in parts of Russia dominated by Islam report the highest level of persecution,” an Open Doors fact sheet on Russia explains. “An increase in state control has resulted in more tight controls for any Christian denomination seen as non-Russian, which means evangelical churches are often regarded with suspicion.” The government continues to pass restrictive legislation on religious freedom in Russia restricting evangelism and missionary activities.“ Moore said. “It feels like certain leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church are in collusion with the government in suppressing certain other groups.”
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