Christian persecutors largely unchanged, Open Doors reports

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The most dangerous countries for Christians, led again by North Korea, remain largely the same, according to the 2018 list compiled by a leading advocate for the persecuted church.

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Open Doors USA released its annual World Watch List Jan. 10, two days after President Trump renominated Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as ambassador at large for international religious freedom in a move welcomed by supporters of people of faith overseas.

For the 17th consecutive year, North Korea -- a communist country that enforces worship of its leader, Kim Jong-un -- was ranked as the worst country for followers of Jesus Christ. Christians are "the number one enemy of the state in North Korea," Open Doors President David Curry said.

Meanwhile, Muslim extremism remained the primary force driving persecution, with Islamic oppression the source in eight of the top 10 countries and 33 of the 50 countries on the list, Open Doors reported. Nine of the top 10 countries were the same as the previous year.

Religious freedom advocates called for the church to pray for and speak out for persecuted Christians.

"The church should see this list as an urgent call to prayer," said Travis Wussow of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) in written comments for Baptist Press. "We appeal to a perfectly righteous King, so let us pray for the freedom of our brothers and sisters in Christ in these 50 countries.

"As advocates for religious freedom, we are thankful that Open Doors shines a light on persecution with its World Watch List," said Wussow, the ERLC's general counsel and vice president for public policy.

Speaking at a Jan. 10 news conference in Washington, D.C., Curry said the list "should be a rallying cry for the body of Christ for the people who call themselves by the name of Jesus to know that [these are] not individual incidents but this is happening around the world on a massive level."

"[U]ntil the voice and heart of the American church [are] heard on this subject, I don't think much will be done," Curry said.

Open Doors -- which measures violence against and pressure on Christians in compiling its list -- reported about 215 million followers of Jesus experience high levels of persecution in the countries on its list. While the list includes 50 countries, Open Doors said Christian persecution occurs in more than 65 countries.

According to Open Doors, the 10 most dangerous countries for Christians and their totals on a 100-point system are: (1) North Korea, 94 points; (2) Afghanistan, 93; (3) Somalia, 91; (4) Sudan, 87; (5) Pakistan (the most violent), 86; (6) Eritrea, 86; (7) Libya, 86; (8) Iraq, 86; (9) Yemen, 85; (10) Iran, 85.

Only Libya was not in the top 10 last year. Syria, which was No. 6 on last year's list, fell to 15th.

India -- where persecution is motivated largely by Hindu nationalism -- reached its highest ranking ever at No. 11 with 81 points. Christians in the top 11 countries undergo "extreme persecution," while those in the countries ranked from Nos. 12 to 35 suffer "very high persecution" and those in Nos. 36 to 50 are subject to "high persecution," according to the list.

In its report, Open Doors cited three major trends in Christian persecution: (1) The expansion of radical Islam in Africa and Asia; (2) the increase in religious nationalism, such as Hindu forms in India and Nepal and Buddhist ones in Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka; (3) the rise of persecution in Central Asian countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Another trend is the increased persecution of female believers, Curry told reporters.

"The data [seem] to prove that Christian women are the most vulnerable population in the world today, with sexual harassment, rape and forced marriage being prime tactics of extremists" throughout the world, Curry said.

Trump renominated Brownback, a strong religious liberty advocate during his 17 years in Congress, after the Senate failed to act on the nomination last year.

When Brownback was originally nominated in July, ERLC President Russell Moore described him as "a seasoned, respected leader who brings conviction and gravity to the work of this crucial post."

At the Open Doors news conference, Curry called the ambassadorship "critical to raising awareness and to synthesizing and bringing together the efforts of the United States government around religious freedom" and supporting persecuted Christians.

In its research to compile the World Watch List, Open Doors measures the freedom of Christians in five areas of life -- private, family, community, national and church. Its researchers also gauge the degree of violence.

The full report of the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List is available at https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/.

The State Department announced its "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) Jan. 4. The category, reserved for especially severe violators of religious liberty, consisted of the same 10 countries designated in 2016: Burma; China; Eritrea; Iran; North Korea; Saudi Arabia; Sudan; Tajikistan; Turkmenistan; and Uzbekistan.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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