The International Olympic Committee, which puts on the Olympic Games every two years, has a simple vision: “Build a better world through sport.”
And that’s what the Games are meant to do. They bring countries together on a world stage to compete peacefully—even countries that are enemies put aside their arguments for two weeks as their athletes compete.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are trying to meet this vision, even if 2020 has become 2021. The vision is that the Games will allow us to broaden our understanding of other cultures—the customs, traditions and beauty of each country is on full display through the participating athletes.
But of course, there are realities that don’t go away during the games. Countries at war don’t necessarily have a cease-fire; human rights abuses don’t disappear; and for Christians in many of the countries participating in the games , religious persecution doesn’t end.
In fact, out of the top 10 countries on the 2021 World Watch List, nine are participating in the summer Games in Tokyo. And teams overall, 49 of the 50 countries on the World Watch List will have in Tokyo, their athletes competing for sport’s highest honors. While the Games commence, in many of these places, Christians will continue to suffer, far away from medal counts and media attention.
So this year, as you watch and read about the Olympics, lift up the countries where Christians suffer most for their faith. To get you started, here are the top 10 countries on the World Watch List:
1. North Korea
Olympic fact: North Korea is not participating in the 2020 Olympic Games. They say they are concerned about COVID-19 safety. Many experts believe the pandemic is deeply impacting the dictatorship and that a severe lockdown is also leading to significant food shortages.
What life is like for North Korean Christians: Being discovered as a Christian is a death sentence in North Korea. If you aren’t killed instantly, you will be taken to a labor camp as a political criminal. These inhumane prisons have horrific conditions, and few believers make it out alive. Everyone in your family will share the same punishment. Kim Jong-un is reported to have expanded the system of prison camps, in which an estimated 50,000-70,000 Christians are currently imprisoned.
How you can pray: Pray for North Korea’s secret believers, that God will continue to strengthen them, provide for their needs and keep them safe. Pray for the nation as it deals with the pandemic and potential famine. Pray the Olympic Games would lead to more attention on how Christians are treated in North Korea.
Olympic fact: Afghanistan has won two medals in the Olympics, both in taekwondo from Rohullah Nikpai, who took bronze in 2008 and 2012.
What life is like for Afghan Christians: It is impossible to live openly as a Christian in Afghanistan. Leaving Islam is considered shameful, and Christian converts face dire consequences if their new faith is discovered. If they don’t flee the country, they will be killed.
How you can pray: Pray that despite their isolation, Afghan believers would be strengthened and encouraged in their faith. Pray they would find safe ways to access the Word of God and communicate with other believers. Pray the Olympics would help the world see how dangerous it is for religious minorities in Afghanistan.
Olympic fact: Somalia has never won a medal in the Olympics. Its first female athlete competed in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.
What life is like for Somali Christians: It is impossible to publicly admit your Christian faith in Somalia, and “church life” is non-existent. Islam is considered a crucial part of Somali identity, and if any Somali is suspected of having converted to Christianity, they are in great danger. Members of their family, clan or community will harass, intimidate or even kill them. Additionally, Christians are in danger from extremist groups like al-Shabaab.
How you can pray: Pray for the families of those who have been murdered for their faith, that they would receive the comfort of their heavenly Father and be healed from bitterness. Pray the Olympics would help people around the world see the reality of how Christians are treated in Somalia.
Olympic fact: Libya has participated in 11 Olympic Games, starting in 1968. That year, they had a single athlete participate in the 400 meter hurdles.
What life is like for Libyan Christians: There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion and very limited possibility of public church life in Libya. Although there are around 34,500 Christians in the country, only a tiny number (approximately 150) are Libyan —The majority are expatriate and migrant workers.
How you can pray: Pray the Olympic Games will be an opportunity for the struggles facing Libyan believers to be seen by a worldwide audience. Pray for the secret Christians who live in constant fear—even as the world’s eyes are on Tokyo. Pray for both strength and peace for these Libyan Christians.
Olympic fact: Pakistan has won three gold medals—all in hockey. But their most recent Olympic success in hockey was in 1992, when the men’s team won the bronze medal.
What life is like for Pakistani Christians: Christians in Pakistan face extreme persecution in every area of their lives. Believers who have converted from Islam face the greatest levels of persecution, but all Christians are considered second-class citizens in this hardline Islamic country.
How you can pray: Ask God to use the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as a way to raise prayers and awareness of how Christians suffer in Pakistan. Pray for believers who endure the daily pressure of following Jesus.
Olympic fact: Historically, almost all of Eritrea’s Olympic athletes have been distance runners. Its only Olympic medal was a bronze in the 10,000 meters in 2004.
What life is like for Eritrean Christians: Christians from non-traditional denominations face the harshest persecution in Eritrea, both from the government and from the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC). The EOC is one of the only Christian denominations recognized by the government, and it is tightly controlled by those in power.
How you can pray: Pray Eritrean Christians and church leaders would have wisdom and opportunities to engage their government on the topic of religious freedom. Pray for unity among Eritrean believers, and that the Olympics would cause a spirit of love and hope to break out among God’s people in Eritrea.
Olympic fact: In 2016, three people represented Yemen in the Olympic Games, competing in three sports. Yemen has mostly competed in judo and athletics at the Olympics.
What life is like for Yemeni Christians: Christians in Yemen usually keep their faith hidden. If their faith is discovered, they could face the death penalty. Leaving Islam is forbidden, and all Yemenis are considered Muslims by the state.
How you can pray: Pray for the Yemeni people after a year in which the war continues alongside COVID-19. Pray the Olympics might spur on peace in Yemen, and that people can start rebuilding their lives. Pray for secret Christians, that they will find freedom in Christ.
Olympic fact: Iran has participated in the Olympics since 1900, and has been very successful in weightlifting, wrestling and taekwondo.
What life is like for Iranian Christians: Christians from a Muslim background are persecuted the most, primarily by the government, but also by their families and communities. Secret churches are often raided, and their leaders and members have been arrested and given long prison sentences for “crimes against national security.”
How you can pray: Pray for believers in isolation. Many Christians don’t dare to share their faith with anyone around them, or don’t know any other believers. Pray also that the Olympics might be a time to draw attention to the Iranian Christians who have been imprisoned because of their faith.
Olympic fact: One of Nigeria’s most successful events has been soccer—the Nigerian men’s team won gold in 1996, beating Argentina, the silver in 2008 and the bronze in 2016.
What life is like for Nigerian Christians: More Christians are murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Violent attacks by Boko Haram, Hausa-Fulani Muslim militant herdsmen, ISWAP (affiliated with the Islamic State group) and other Islamic extremist groups are common in the north and middle belt of the country.
How you can pray: Pray the Olympics will show all Nigerians that Christians and Muslims can live peacefully together. Pray that a peaceful relationship will help bring on an end to rampant violence in Nigeria, and that radical Islamic militants will stop their attacks on Christians. Pray for the Lord’s grace and comfort for believers as many are displaced, have lost loved ones and their homes. Many have also experienced trauma.
Olympic fact: India has won multiple gold medals in hockey—though it hasn’t won a hockey medal since 1980. The most recent successes came in 2016 when Indian athletes won medals in badminton and wrestling.
What life is like for Indian Christians: Hindu extremists believe that all Indians should be Hindus, and that the country should be rid of Christianity and Islam. They use extensive violence to achieve this goal, particularly targeting Christians from a Hindu background.
How you can pray: Pray for protection for our brothers and sisters, especially those who are new Christians, and those who live in rural areas and are particularly isolated. Pray the eyes of the world will see how religious minorities are targeted in India, and that the Olympics will be a catalyst for peace for believers.
HELP PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS STAND STRONG IN THEIR FAITH
Your gift today will show our persecuted brothers and sisters in countries in the World Watch List they are loved and remembered by you.