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African Countries Register Highest Growth in Christianity Globally amid Persecution

Ordination of 25 Deacons from six African countries at St. John the Evangelist Parish, Karen of the Archdiocese of Nairobi/ Credit: ACI Africa

Christianity is on the rise in African countries despite the harsh religious environment on the continent that is characterized by persecution of Christians and lack of government support of churches, a new study has revealed.

The study, which was carried out in 166 countries globally to examine the correlation between the growth of Christianity and the support given to it by the respective governments has placed 10 African countries on top of the list of countries where there has been immense growth.

The 10 African countries in the study are Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, Rwanda, Madagascar, Liberia, Kenya, DR Congo and Angola.  In these countries, only Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia enjoy some form of State support while the rest have been left to their devices.

Dubbed “Paradoxes of Pluralism, Privilege, and Persecution: Explaining Christian Growth and Decline Worldwide”, the study by Nilay Saiya and Stuti Manchanda was published last month in the Sociology of Religion, an academic journal.

Further, no African country falls in the list of countries where decline of Christianity has been recorded the most.

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Countries experiencing the fastest declining Christian populations amid strong support of Christianity by the State include the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Albania, Moldova and Serbia.

Other countries where Christianity is on the decline include Germany, Lithuania and Hungary, according to the Sociology of Religion journal report.

In their study, Saiya and Manchanda argue that Christians living their faith in difficult environments are forced to compete with others for survival.

“In these (harsh) environments, Christians do not have the luxury of becoming complacent,” the researchers say, and add, “On one hand, pluralism means that Christianity must actively compete with other faith traditions in order to gain and maintain adherents. On the other hand, persecution can, paradoxically, sometimes strengthen Christianity by deepening attachments to faith and reinforcing solidarity among Christians.”

Making reference to the study in an essay published by the Evangelical magazine ‘Christianity Today’, Saiya posits, “The biggest threat to Christian vitality is not persecution, affluence, education, or pluralism. It’s state support.”

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In her May 6 publication, Saiya says that the study seeks to challenge the belief that science, technology, and education result in the decline of Christianity.

Other scholars, he says in the article, have suggested the cause of religious decline is the accumulation of wealth.

“Increasing prosperity, it is believed, frees people from having to look to a higher power to provide for their daily needs. In other words, there is a direct link from affluence to atheism,” the scholar says, and adds, “My coauthor and I challenge the perceived wisdom that education and affluence spell Christianity’s demise.”

In their analysis of a global sample of 166 countries from 2010 to 2020, the two scholars find that the most important determinant of Christian vitality is the extent to which governments give official support to Christianity through their laws and policies.

However, the support does not come in the way devout believers might expect, the two researchers assert, and explain, “As governmental support for Christianity increases, the number of Christians declines significantly.”

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The scholars found that seven of the 10 countries with the fastest-growing Christian populations offer low or no official support for Christianity.

“Paradoxically, Christianity does best when it has to fend for itself,” Saiya says.

He adds, in reference to the growth of Christianity in Africa, “Today, there are nearly 700 million Christians in Africa, making it the world’s most Christian continent in terms of population. Indeed, the 10 countries noted above with the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world from 2010 to 2020 are all located in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Christianity has made inroads into Africa not because it enjoys a privileged position with the State, but because it has to compete with other faith traditions on an even playing field, the researcher says.

He further says that of the countries where Christianity has seen remarkable growth, only one, Tanzania, has a level of official support for the religion that is at the global average.

The study found that in the rest of the cases, including Kenya and Zambia, support for Christianity was below the global average.

The scholars found that nine of the 10 countries with the fastest declining Christian populations in the world offer moderate to high levels of official support for Christianity.

They concluded that such privilege includes funding from the State for religious purposes, special access to state institutions, and exemptions from regulations imposed on minority religious groups.

This support, however, does not end up helping the church, according to the data gathered by the scholars.

In his article to explain the findings, Saiya posits that state-supported churches often become bereft of the spiritual substance that people who practice the faith find valuable, leading laypeople to leave.

This has been observed in the Catholic Church in countries where Christianity enjoys State privilege.

Saiya says that a similar trend has been experienced in Catholic-majority countries.

He explains that for much of the 20th century, countries such as Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and Italy offered strong support to the Roman Catholic Church and actively discriminated against non-Catholics in the areas of family law, religious broadcasting, tax policy, and education.

“While Catholic privilege in these countries has weakened in many parts of Europe, the Religious playing field remains unbalanced in important ways, especially with respect to the barriers to entry for new religious movements,” the researcher says.

The study also found that contexts of anti-Christian discrimination do not generally have the effect of weakening Christianity.

“In some cases, persecution even strengthens the church,” Saiya says in his submission to Christianity Today, and adds, “Like healthy Religious competition, Religious persecution—for entirely different reasons—does not allow Christians to become complacent.”

He says that in persecution, believers turn to their faith as a source of strength, and that it is such devotion that attracts those outside their faith.

In their study, the two scholars urge institutions of faith to shun the temptation of privilege and to not see religious competition as threatening and something to be shut out.

This does not mean that Christians segregate themselves from public life and to abandon politics altogether, they say, and explain that the approach “would strongly caution Christians against equating any political party, political ideology, or nation with God’s plans.”

“Our research suggests the best way for Christian communities to recover their gospel witness is to reject the quest for political privilege as inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus,” Saiya says.

He explains, “In doing so, they (Christians) would show that they take seriously Christ’s promise that no force will be able to prevail against his church.”

The religious scholar says that rejecting privilege will make believers more reliant on the Holy Spirit to open hearts to the gospel message.