A total of 132 priests and religious were under arrest, abducted or killed last year globally, with Belarus, China, Nicaragua and Nigeria being the countries where clergy were most under threat.
Presenting its research findings for 2023, Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) stated that the total figure – up eight on the previous year – only covers confirmed cases.
Problems accessing data in some countries means that the real total is likely to be higher.
Regina Lynch, ACN International executive president, said: “We are deeply concerned about the rise in threats faced by priests, in countries such as Nigeria and Nicaragua, who are at risk often for simply for carrying out their pastoral ministry.
“Authoritarian regimes have resorted to detaining priests and religious in order to punish the Church for speaking out against injustices and human rights violations, or merely for trying to operate freely.”
During the year, a total of 46 clergy were arrested including two bishops and four seminarians, while a number of priests and religious were expelled from the country or refused re-entry after foreign visits.
Nicaraguan authorities arrested at least 19 clerics in the last two weeks of December, including Bishop Isidoro de Carmen Mora Ortega of Siuna.
Two priests were later released, and the remaining 17 – as well as Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who was arrested in 2022 and sentenced to 26 years in prison – were expelled from the country on 14th January.
In China, 20 members of the clergy were under arrest at some point in 2023, according to ACN’s sources, even though accurate data is hard to come by.
Authorities in Belarus detained at least 10 priests in 2023, and three of them were still behind bars at the end of the year.
Two priests arrested in Ukraine by Russian forces more than a year ago have not been released either.
In India, where anti-conversion laws continue to be used to try to impede the work of Catholic organisations, a religious Sister and at least five other priests and religious were detained in 2023.
Despite all of them having been released, some still face charges that could lead to imprisonment.
When it comes to abductions, Nigeria was the worst offender with 28 cases, including three religious Sisters.
Other countries where kidnappings occurred included Haiti, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.
Most of those abducted have been released, but three priests are still missing in Nigeria and one in Burkina Faso.
Of the 132 cases, 86 members of clergy were arrested or detained in 2023, while the rest were already in custody or missing at the start of the year.
ACN’s statistics include all kidnappings and murders of Catholic priests and religious around the world, but arrests were only tracked when they were related to persecution.
With thanks to Filipe d’Avillez