Nearly 140 million Christians suffered high levels of persecution in Asia last year, according to a new report, which described the situation facing the faith in China as the worst since the Cultural Revolution.
The annual Open Doors World Watch List, released on Wednesday, said Asia is "the new hotbed of persecution for Christians".
It noted a sharp increase in the persecution of Christians in Asia over the past five years - but with a dramatic spike in 2018, driven by the likes of a rise in Hindu ultra-nationalism in India, radical Islamism in Indonesia and tougher religious regulations in China.
North Korea was ranked as the world's most anti-Christian country for the 18th consecutive year. Pakistan and India were determined to have "extreme" levels of Christian persecution, with the Maldives, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam rounding out Asian countries in the top 20.
Open Doors defines persecution, in simple terms, as "any hostility experienced as a result of one's Christian faith. This can include hostile attitudes, words, and actions towards Christians".
China and Indonesia, both entering the top 30, were singled out for a drastic deterioration in the treatment of Christians.
"The report confirms my impression of what's going on around the world and confirms my knowledge of what has been happening in China," said Yang Fenggang, the founder of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the United States.
"Under Xi Jinping, the suppression of Christian churches and other religious organisations is being carried out nationwide with unprecedented determination."
Of about 403 million Christians from Afghanistan to the Korean peninsula, an estimated 139 million - or one in three - were found to live under "high persecution", or where "prominent Christians are targeted, churches themselves subject to significant restrictions, and the culture remains largely hostile to a Christian presence".
ALL AT ONCE
Militant atheism, radical Islamism and nationalism are three basic motives for Christian persecution, said Nina Shea, the director of the Centre for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a US think tank. Asia, in her words, is exhibiting all three.
"There are different reasons for it in each country. It's baffling that they have all come at once," said Shea, a former head of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. "Intolerance is gaining strength, but these trends are not consistent with each other or any pattern. You certainly can't say it's from one source."
Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, said he was "very concerned" about the rise of religious intolerance. "Freedom of religion is routinely violated across much of Asia," he said in a speech in Bangkok in August.
"In many countries, the civic space is closing and restrictions on expression and other civil liberties are rising. The persecution of religious minorities is increasing, a worrying trend confirmed by the 2019 World Watch List report," Shaheed, a former Maldivian foreign minister, told the South China Morning Post. "Governments need to recognise the close links between respect for freedom of religion or belief, and societal peace and economic prosperity."
Open Doors, a Britain-based charity, was founded in 1955. In 1981, the group smuggled 1 million outlawed Chinese Bibles to a beach in southern China. Its yearly watch list compiles field interviews and reports, questionnaires and news reports, scoring countries out of 100 for "persecution points" to determine their rank on the list. The watch list is independently audited by International Institute of Religious Freedom.
NATIONALISM AND IDENTITY
Myanmar, home to more than 4 million Christians, went up six places due to Buddhist-led sectarian repression, and Laos rose one spot but increased on the persecution scale by four points out of 100. Indonesia, which suffered a triple bombing of churches in May, jumped eight places, with the report citing intolerance linked to the upcoming election.
Other Southeast Asian nations fared better. Malaysia improved dramatically, dropping 19 places. Vietnam dropped two places and Brunei fell 10 spots.
Terence Chong, deputy director of the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said that in some parts of Southeast Asia nationalism was synonymous with ethnicity.
Such "exclusivism", in his words, becomes problematic in multicultural societies, and he cast doubt on the methodology of the Open Doors watch list.
"Christian persecution is nowhere as intense in Southeast Asia as it is in China or some parts of Africa," Chong said.
"For the most part Christians and Muslims coexist in harmony. There are occasional tensions, but it's hardly persecution. It would be a mistake to identify single incidents, such as the persecution of [Christian ex-mayor of Jakarta] Ahok in Indonesia, and extrapolate from it.
"Many such incidents are triggered by local politics and forces resistant to a personality who happens to be a Christian. As such, religion becomes embroiled by way of local politics and may not signal a concerted persecution of Christianity."
Papang Hidayat, an analyst for Amnesty International in Indonesia, agreed persecution in the country had become politicised.
"I would not say the Christians being 'persecuted' because of their belief in the country," he said. "It is more that politicians use religious identity as their arsenal for their political campaigns. In many districts and some provinces, it is the logic of majority against minority, although in most cases it is Muslims being the majority."
Even so, he conceded that the harassment, discrimination and attacks against religious minorities were troubling.
"The situation is clearly worsening," he said.
HALF EMPTY OR HALF FULL?
The report's toughest comments were aimed at China, where by some estimates the country's 97 million Christians outnumber the membership of the Communist Party.
By Open Doors' reckoning, more than 20 million Christians experienced persecution last year, and it forecasts that number to increase to 50 million in 2019. It cited the country's revised Religious Affairs Regulations, which have governed the practice of all religions since the 1980s; an array of crackdowns and raids; and a wave of church closures such as that of Beijing's Zion Church in September.
"In China, our figures indicate persecution is the worst it's been in more than a decade - alarmingly, some church leaders are saying it's the worst since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976," said Henrietta Blyth, chief executive of Open Doors UK and Ireland, in a statement.
Shea, of the Hudson Institute, called the situation in China a turning point.
"China had been on the trajectory of being the biggest Christian country in the world in a decade or two. It now seems headed towards forcing its Christians into the North Korean model - weak, small and invisible in the deep underground," Shea said.
"Remnants will survive but the community will be vastly diminished and facing an existential threat. The officially tolerated Christianity will conform with the teachings of Xi and the Communist Party."
Yang said persecution reached Chinese Christians worshipping in both official and unsanctioned churches - but that it's important to look at the other side. Beijing has also worked to mend relations with Chinese Catholics, as evidenced last month when it recognised two previously excommunicated Chinese bishops.
"Is the bottle half empty or half full? Almost half of the estimated 90 million Chinese Protestant Christians did not feel the persecution," Yang said.
He also that he believed the intensity of the Chinese crackdown against Christians had reached its peak and was unlikely to be sustained because of its astronomical costs.
"It is simply impossible to return to the Cultural Revolution to completely eradicate religions, because there are simply too many Christians today," he said.
Pastor Eric Foley is the chief executive of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, the Asian sister mission to Release International - which monitors and reports international persecution of Christians - and a member of the International Christian Association (ICA).
The missions of the ICA, called the Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), work with persecuted Christians. For 18 years, VOM Korea has worked with underground Christians in North Korea and China.
"For governments and activists, religious freedom is a kind of 'canary in the coal mine' for human rights issues overall," he said.
"In wealthy nations, religion is often regarded as simply as a matter of private devotion, and so religious persecution can seem only to affect zealots. But careful studies, like the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, continue to demonstrate a correlation between failure to protect religious liberty and systematic human rights abuses.
"So where Christian persecution occurs and certainly where it is on the upswing, even non-Christians should be motivated to take notice."
Additional reporting by Mimi Lau
This artice was first published in South China Morning Post.