Thirty-two countries have gathered in Russia to compete for the most widely viewed sporting event in the world: the FIFA World Cup.
But amid all the excitement surrounding the event, Open Doors, a Christian watchdog group that gathers statistics on religious persecution around the world, has called attention to a grave detail. Out of the 32 countries represented in the 2018 World Cup, seven have a disturbing track record of persecuting believers.
Each year, Open Doors releases their World Watch List, an in-depth report that ranks the top 50 countries where it’s most difficult to be a Christian. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Mexico and Colombia, who are all competing for the World Cup, all appeared on the 2018 World Watch List.
Iran is ranked number 10, Saudi Arabia at number 12, Nigeria at number 14, Egypt at number 17, Tunisia at number 30, Mexico at number 39 and Colombia at 49.
In 2010, almost half of the entire world population tuned in to watch the World Cup hosted in South Africa. But while this is a major sporting event, few are likely to consider that these nations represent more than just jerseys on the field.
“In the Middle East in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Muslim converts to Christianity face extreme pressure from their communities and families,” Open Doors said in a recent statement. “In places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, Muslims that have chosen to follow Jesus must keep their faith secret, often isolating them from believers and Christian community. Christians in the Middle East are also the targets of Islamic extremist groups, such as ISIS (Islamic State, also known as IS, ISIL or Daesh). Over the last year, more than 200 believers in Egypt have been killed for their faith by extremists.”
The group pointed out that certain countries’ hostility toward Christians is sometimes reflected in their sports culture.
“While [soccer] brings together Egyptians regardless of status, class, social background and profession, recent reports indicate that religion is still a barrier, keeping young Coptic athletes from pursuing and competing in the sport,” Open Doors explained. “Coptic athletes say they face religious discrimination from Muslim coaches, trainers and in [soccer] clubs spread across the country.”
Iran is especially volatile towards Christians, frequently jailing believers and accusing them of threatening national security. Just last month, a court in Iran upheld a 10-year prison sentence against four Christians for trying to spread “Zionist Christianity,” The Christian Post reported.
Christians in Nigeria also face mass amounts of violence and persecution simply for practicing their religion. In Nigeria, a group of radical Islamic herdsmen known as the Fulani hunt down Christians with the goal of eradicating them from the country. In 2018 alone, the Fulani brutally murdered over 400 Christians, according to Open Doors. Boko Haram, another Islamic jihadist group in Nigeria, also regularly massacres Christians in the country.
In their most recent report, Open Doors details that 3,066 Christians were killed, 1,252 were abducted, 1,020 were raped or sexually harassed and 793 churches were attacked in the past year.
Pray for the people in these countries, and pray that the players on these soccer teams can use their platform to speak out for the persecuted.
(H/T: The Christian Post)