The Apostle Paul knew about persecution. When he was Saul of Tarsus, he was the persecutor of those faithful to Jesus. Following his conversion and decision to follow Christ on the road to Damascus, found in the Book of Acts, Paul became persecuted for his faith.
In his charge to Timothy, Paul warned that people who obey God and live for Christ will be persecuted for their beliefs and practices. In II Timothy 3:12, Paul wrote, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted …” (NIV)
Those words, written by Paul nearly 2,000 years ago, continue to ring true today as Christians around the world continue to be persecuted at varying degrees for their beliefs and faith in Christ.
Open Doors, an international ministry which has been supporting and strengthening persecuted Christians around the world for almost 60 years, once again has compiled its annual World Watch List (WWL) of the 50 worst counties in which to practice Christianity. That list was revealed Wednesday, Jan. 8.
“Often completely unaddressed in the West is the fact that Christians are the largest persecuted minority in the world,” Open Doors USA President/CEO Dr. David Curry said. “Countries on the WWL, such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East and North Africa are targeting Christians; imprisoning, punishing and even in some cases murdering people who choose to express privately or publicly their Christian faith. The 2014 WWL is a wake-up call to Americans to become more aware of these atrocities and restrictions on religious freedom.”
North Korea at top again
Nowhere is the persecution of Christians more prevalent and severe than in the Communist nation of North Korea.
For the 12th straight year, North Korea remained the world’s most restrictive nation to practice Christianity, according to the Open Doors 2014 World Watch List.
“There’s quite a gap between North Korea and other countries on the list,” said Paul Estabrooks, international senior communications specialist for Open Doors. “North Korea is such a horrendous situation for Christians that continues to go on.”
Christians in North Korea live under one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, dealing with governmental corruption, natural disasters, disease and hunger. People are forced to worship their leaders rather than having the freedom to worship any other gods. Despite such persecution, there has been a growth rate in Christian believers of 6 percent a year.
As a result, those choosing to follow the Christian faith must keep hidden their decision, leading to many “underground churches.” Being caught with a Bible can lead to execution or a lifelong prison sentence. Some 50,000-70,000 believers are held in concentration camps and prisons, forced to do hard labor, under the dictatorship of Kim Jong-un, who celebrated his 31st birthday on the day of the WWL release.
However, Estabrooks indicated there could be a glimmer of hope for Christians in North Korea. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry has been investigating crimes against humanity in the Communist country and is expected to release its findings in March. There is speculation the report will declare that Kim Jong-un’s regime is guilty of such crimes, which should lead to some form of action against North Korea. Revelation of such crimes might even lead to a reduction in support of Kim Jong-un supporters who may not know of such atrocities committed against their fellow citizens.
A look at the rankings
Somalia was ranked second on the list, up from fifth in 2013, and Syria was third, jumping eight spots from the previous year.
Dominated by Muslim extremists with no true central government, Somalia instead is ruled by a quagmire of warlords and militia-backed clans fighting for power.
“It’s very difficult for anyone to be a Christian there and stay alive,” Estabrooks said. “It’s no place for Christians at all, and they are told that.”
The rise in the rankings for Syria comes as no surprise given the nearly three-year civil war that continues to rage in the country, forcing countless thousands from their homes and even to other nations. The Christian community in Syria has faced threats not only from the government there but also the foreign-supported jihadi groups.
Iraq, held the No. 4 position for a second straight year, followed by Afghanistan (third in 2013), Saudi Arabia (second in 2013), Maldives, Pakistan, Iran and Yemen.
Iran continues to hold captive American pastor Saeed Abedini, who was arrested for spreading religious beliefs and establishing churches in Iraq in September 2012. He has been imprisoned in two of the worst prisons in the country for more than 460 days.
“It’s not surprising that the top 10 after North Korea are all Muslim nations,” Estabrooks said. “A significant change is that Somalia moved to No. 2 and is the first sub-Saharan country to rank that high on the list.”
Three newcomers joined the list for 2014. They were the war-torn Central African Republic (16th), Sri Lanka (29th) and Bangladesh (48th). Estabrooks observed that Christians are on the brunt of the killing end of violence in CAR, and the heavy concentrations of Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Muslims in Bangladesh pose issues for Christians in those countries
A country making a significant jump in the rankings was Colombia, climbing from No. 46 in 2013 to No. 25 in the latest list. Estabrooks attributed that to violence against Christians in rural areas opposed to the illegal drug trade as well as being caught in the crossfire of battles between the government and guerrilla militia groups.
Standing for the faithful
Estabrooks said Christians in these oppressed nations merely desire prayer and encouragement as they continue to stand for their faith.
“They honestly believe God honors prayer and is in control,” he said. “They ask that we pray for their lives to improve but pray with them that the church will grow in their countries, that they would stand strong against their pressures and the Lord would be honored in the situations they face.
“We need to let them know that we are praying for them and they are not forgotten. When believers are isolated, attacked and feel alone, that is a great weapon used by Satan. But when they are aware that others are praying for them, that’s a big boost.”
In an article for the Christian Post, Curry emphasized the need to pray for all persecuted believers around the world and be advocates for them as such a spiritual battle rages, noting that many Christians worldwide stand firm in their faith at great costs.
Findings of the report
The main force driving persecution of Christians in 36 of the 50 countries is Islamic extremism. The most violent region was found in Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east where approximately 20 percent of the world’s Christians are in perilous proximity to about 14 percent of all global Muslims.
Open Doors also tracked a marked increase of persecution for Christians in countries listed as “failed,” or those defined as a weak state where social and political structures have collapsed to the point government has little or no control. Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen – all ranked in the top 10, are examples of failed states.
Additional information compiled by Open Doors showed the greatest number of violent acts against Christians – including murders, rapes, kidnappings and church burnings – occurred (in order) in the countries of Central Africa Republic, Syria, Pakistan and Egypt (tie), Iraq and Myanmar (tie), Nigeria, Colombia, Eritrea and Sudan.
The organization also released data showing that 2,123 Christians were martyred in 2013, up from 1,201 a year earlier. Syria had the most martyrs with 1,213, followed by Nigeria with 612, Pakistan (88) and Egypt (83).
“It will go on until the Lord comes again,” Estabrooks said of Christian persecution. “There are times when some believers give their lives for their faith.”
The Open Doors World Watch List is the only annual survey of religious liberty conditions of Christians around the world. It measures the degree of freedom Christian have to live out their faith in five spheres of life – private, family, community, national and church life, plus a sixth sphere measuring the degree of violence.
To view the complete list, go to http://www.worldwatchlist.us/.