A new report from Catholic group Aid to the Church in Need has documented the dramatic decline of Christian communities in a number of countries in recent years and warned that if current trends continue, Christianity will cease to be a global religion.
"Christians are fast disappearing from entire regions - most notably a huge chunk of the Middle East but also whole dioceses in Africa. In large part, this migration is the product of an ethnic cleansing motivated by religious hatred," says Persecuted and Forgotten? A report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2013-2015, released on Tuesday.
The report, which covers the past two years, looks at 22 countries where persecution against Christians is an issue of concern, and relies on the "help of local agencies, both religious and secular, to monitor attacks on churches and Christians' homes and businesses, political developments that threaten Christians, blasphemy cases against them and other social changes that might damage their wellbeing."
Persecution of Christians have worsened in 15 of the countries under review, according to the report, primarily due to Islamic extremism in the Middle East and Africa.
"Christianity is changing from being a global faith to a regional one, with the faithful increasingly absent from ever-widening areas," the report notes. "Christians are driven out of [the church's] ancient biblical heartland" of the Middle East, and are "on course to disappear from Iraq possibly within five years - unless emergency help is provided at an international level on a massively increased scale," it continues.
In Africa, "the one continent which until now has been the church's brightest hope for the future" Christianity is also under severe threat due to the rise of Islamic extremist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, Kenya and Sudan.
As reported by the Gospel Herald, in Syria alone, the Christian population has plunged by nearly two-thirds since the country's civil war started in 2011. In Iraq, the Christian population is teetering on extinction, dwindling from around 1.5 million in 2003 to well below 200,000 now.
Additionally, 120,000 Christians were forced to flee Mosul and Ninevah in Iraq after a takeover by Islamic State in the summer of 2014, and by May 2015, 100,000 Catholics had left the Nigerian diocese of Maiduguri in the wake of attacks by Boko Haram.
The dwindling presence of Christianity isn't just due to Islamic extremism, however. The report reveals that believers are also routinely targeted by extremists of other faiths and totalitarian regimes such as North Korea and China.
"Christians have been targeted by nationalist religious movements - Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist - many of which increasingly see Christianity as a foreign 'colonial' import, worthy of suspicion as a result of its perceived links with the West which is seen as corrupt and exploitative... Totalitarian regimes, including China, have put increasing pressures on Christianity which is perceived as a threat not least because of growing 'underground' support."
The report concludes that Christians are the most persecuted faith group in the world, citing the Frankfurt-based International Society for Human Rights 2012 report, which estimated that 80% of all acts of religious discrimination were against Christians.
In a letter, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's secretary of state, conveyed the Pope's support for Aid to the Church in Need's report, according to The Guardian.
"(Pope Francis) deeply appreciates the efforts of all involved in producing this report and in keeping before the world the plight and suffering of Christians," wrote Cardinal Parolin.
He added: "In this way, he prays that those in positions of authority will diligently strive not only to eradicate religious discrimination and persecution in their own nations, but also to seek ever more effective ways to promote international co-operation in order to overcome these offences against human dignity and religious freedom."
The Catholic Herald Online reports that David Cameron, the UK prime minister, also decried the systematic discrimination against Christians in a message for the report's launch.
"Every day in countries across the world, Christians are systematically discriminated against, exploited and even driven from their homes because of their faith," he wrote.
"No believer should have to live in fear, and this is why (the British) Government is committed to promoting religious freedom and tolerance at home and around the world," he added.
"It is also why the work of organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need is so crucial. This report serves as a voice for the voiceless, from their prison cells and the places far from home where they have sought refuge. Now is not the time for silence. We must stand together and fight for a world where no one is persecuted because of what they believe."