Last month, a member of Germany’s parliament proposed the creation of an International Day Against the Persecution of Christians.
The motion failed. And the pushback from lawmakers even challenged the integrity of the international Christian persecution advocacy organization Open Doors.
The resolution came from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD), whose website declares that “Islam does not belong to Germany.” When the party was founded in 2013, it was mostly known for its skepticism toward the European Union.
A couple of years later, however, the AfD’s attention shifted to opposing high levels of immigration to Germany, especially from Muslim-majority countries. Its rhetoric is similar to some other right-wing populist politicians in Europe who have appealed to Europe’s Christian cultural identity, such as Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán.
In his January 27 speech introducing the measure, AfD representative Jürgen Braun repeatedly blamed Islam as the source of persecution.
He cited statistics from Open Doors, including a figure stating that 360 million Christians suffer intense persecution or discrimination worldwide. Following Braun’s remarks, this and other figures were criticized by other legislators as “exaggerated,” “false,” and “completely unbelievable.”
During the debate, legislators from all five of the other parties that hold seats in the Bundestag had spoken forcefully against Braun’s proposal for a new day of remembrance and accused the AfD of using the plight of persecuted Christians to stir up hate or suspicion against Muslims. Some also noted Germany already has two days that have been designated for remembering persecuted Christians: St. Stephen’s Day in the Catholic church and Reminiscere Sunday in Protestant churches.
Meanwhile, Open Doors found that it had surprisingly become a political punching bag on the floor of Germany’s parliament.
‘Rejects the instrumentalization’
Open Doors’ primary advocacy tool is its annual World Watch List, a report that highlights the top 50 countries where Christians experience the highest levels of persecution around the globe. Ado Greve, the press officer for the German branch of Open Doors, distanced his organization from the AfD and the proposed International Day Against the Persecution of Christians.
“Open Doors did not work with the AfD on this proposal,” he told CT. “There was and is no collaboration between Open Doors and AfD. As Open Doors provides information on its website for the general public, everybody can quote it, of course.”
While declining to speculate on the AfD’s motives for this specific initiative, Greve emphasized that “in general, Open Doors rejects the instrumentalization of the suffering of persecuted Christians for political purposes.”
Greve also responded to some of the statements made by Bundestag members that cast doubt on the veracity of Open Doors’ research. The critiques came from representatives Falko Droßmann and Nadja Sthamer of the center-left Social Democratic Party, as well as Boris Mijatović of The Greens Party. Droßmann claimed that the “known evangelical organization” cited in the motion considers Christians to be suffering persecution when they merely live as “minorities in a majority-Muslim or atheist country.”
Open Doors disputed that allegation and pointed to definitions from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the European Union as standards they use to identify persecution.
“Living as a minority in a Muslim-majority country is not equivalent with discrimination or persecution,” Greve stated.
Droßmann also claimed that Open Doors’ figures were contradicted by another source: the Ecumenical Report on the Worldwide Religious Freedom of Christians, which was published together by Germany’s Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches in 2017. According to Droßmann, this report gave “completely different, more detailed figures.”
Greve says Open Doors “welcomes” the Ecumenical Report as another vehicle to increase awareness of the persecution of Christians. He noted, however, that contrary to Droßmann’s claim, it “largely refrains from using figures.” The report itself says the authors decided against presenting “concrete numbers.”
“Therefore, it is not clear in what regard this report contradicts Open Doors’ statistics,” Greve stated.
In response to an emailed request for comment, an aide in Representative Droßmann’s office noted that the representative did not mention Open Doors by name in his speech and declined to answer further questions.
The persecution of Christians has been a problem on Frank Heinrich’s mind since childhood. As an adolescent growing up in West Germany, he helped his parents smuggle Bibles into East Germany and Eastern Europe. He was aware of Open Doors even back then.
Years later, when he served in the Bundestag as a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union from 2009 to 2021, he tried to raise the profile of Open Doors among his fellow legislators. He found that the information Open Doors shared was generally “taken well” by other representatives.
“I invited them, I quoted them, I [brought them] into meetings with other colleagues,” he said. “[I wanted to] make them aware of our system and the system aware of them.”
During his time in the Bundestag, the Christian Democrats founded the Stephanuskreis (Stephen Circle), a working group that still meets regularly to discuss how to alleviate the suffering of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities.
Since leaving public office, Heinrich was chosen to be codirector of the German Evangelical Alliance, an association that represents many Protestant churches and groups and is a member of the World Evangelical Alliance. Now watching the political process as a former policymaker, he fears that the AfD’s approach to combating religious persecution will be a setback for the cause in German politics. Members of some parties are hesitant to seriously engage with the issue, as they fear they will be linked to the AfD’s anti-Islam rhetoric.
“Their way of discussing the subject is not a Christian way,” Heinrich said. “It’s instrumentalizing a group of persons that need support.”
Greve, the Open Doors spokesperson, emphasized that the organization seeks to advocate for persecuted Christians in a Christlike manner, which includes “calling [believers] to prayer not only for Christians but also for those who persecute them.”
He also insisted that the reality of Christian persecution “receives far too little attention in the Bundestag” and called for “more political initiatives such as support for faith-based organizations and churches” in countries where Christians face maltreatment.
Each edition of the annual World Watch List is audited by the International Institute of Religious Freedom (IIRF). The academic think tank works with a network of scholars around the world and promotes religious freedom for all faiths.
This year’s audit was coordinated by Dennis Petri, who serves as the IIRF’s international director and has previously worked for Open Doors. He led a team of five other scholars who determined that the World Watch List “upheld the quality standards of the previous years.”
“[The auditors] all came to the same conclusion: that Open Doors does its job well,” Petri said. “There’s always room for improvement, minor things. But overall, we found that it’s a serious process.”
One part of the process that can always be further developed, Petri explained, is how researchers justify preferencing one source of information over another. Open Doors draws on several streams of information, including field offices around the world, external experts, and their own analysts. Auditors also suggested additional sources that Open Doors could consider in future reports.
In 2012, Open Doors conducted a major overhaul of its methodology for producing the World Watch List. Petri, who was working there as a researcher at the time, described the previous process as “basic” and “rudimentary.” The changes, which were implemented in consultation with IIRF, made the list “compliant with academic standards.” Open Doors regularly analyzes its methodology and began another review earlier this year.
Jason Bruner, a religious studies professor at Arizona State University, has written extensively on world Christianity and religious violence. In his book Imagining Persecution: Why American Christians Believe There Is a Global War against Their Faith, he cited and engaged with data from Open Doors.
“On the whole, I think they do a reasonably good job of trying to make [their research process] transparent,” Bruner said. “For the most part, they seem to follow numbers that would generally be within the margin of error of other groups that track [religious persecution].”
He also noted that Open Doors often calculates a lower annual total of martyrs than some other Christian research organizations. They seem to use a definition of martyrdom that is “more closely aligned with how Christians historically have tended to think about what a martyr is.”
Bruner appreciates that Open Doors and other similar Christian groups are advocating for their co-religionists around the world, but he sees difficulties in using their data in political debates. Because there is a comparative dearth of data about religious persecution against other faiths, it is challenging for policymakers to consider different forms of religious oppression in context. Additionally, he fears that persecution data can be easily co-opted by “exclusionary nationalist kinds of political movements,” even when that’s not the intention of the researchers.
“I do think [persecution data] can so easily be put to an Islamophobic agenda or other kinds of agendas that, at least in my mind, aren’t substantiated by those same numbers but nevertheless can easily lend their support to groups like the AfD,” he said.