Eight of the top 10 persecutors of Christians -- and 24 of the top 30 --- are countries marked by militant Islam, according to Open Doors' 2013 World Watch List released Jan. 8.
Meanwhile, North Korea, a non-Islamic country, maintained its hold on the No. 1 spot in the Open Doors list for the 11th consecutive year.
"Islamic extremism is the prime persecutor of Christians in the world today," said Ron Boyd-MacMillan, Open Doors' chief strategy officer, at a Washington, D.C., news conference. Among 24 of the leading 30 persecuting countries, "it is Islamic extremists, either in government or in violent opposition forces, that are the source of the persecution," he said.
The new list of the world's most severe persecutors of Christians includes five African countries that were unranked last year but reached the top 50 because of the impact of Islamic extremism: Mali (No. 7); Tanzania (No. 24); Kenya (No. 40); Uganda (No. 47), and Niger (No. 50).
In addition, militant Islam in Ethiopia helped catapult that East African country from No. 38 to No. 15. The Muslim state of Sudan, Ethiopia's neighbor, jumped from 16th to 12th.
The uprisings against totalitarian states in North Africa and the Middle East that began about two years ago have produced greater persecution for Christians, according to Open Doors.
"The Arab Spring has turned into an Islamic Winter for the Christians in the Middle East," Boyd-MacMillan told reporters. "In every country where a regime has been deposed -- such as Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Egypt -- Islam is still in power and putting pressure on the Christian minority."
The top 10 countries on Open Doors' latest World Watch List, which covered November 2011 through October 2012, are: (1) North Korea; (2) Saudi Arabia; (3) Afghanistan; (4) Iraq; (5) Somalia; (6) Maldives; (7) Mali; (8) Iran; (9) Yemen, and (10) Eritrea.
Syria, which is torn by civil war as a result of an Arab Spring-like conflict fueled by militant Muslims, jumped from 36th to 11th this year.
North Korea far outranked the other persecutors on the list with a score of 87 points, making it the only country to achieve "absolute persecution," which is reserved for scores of 86 to 100. Saudi Arabia was second with 75.
Christian persecution in North Korea, which practices Communism and the cult-like worship of the ruling Kim family, has been "slightly worse" since Kim Jong Eun succeeded his late father in December 2011, Boyd-MacMillan reported.
Kim sent about 100 assassins into China to kill people who were evangelizing North Korean refugees, he said.
"The worship cult is basically still going strong," Boyd-MacMillan said.
The North Koreans continue to imprison from 50,000 to 70,000 followers of Christ in Auschwitz-like labor camps, but Christians in the country number from 200,000 to 400,000, according to Open Doors. Iran, ranked eighth, has an estimated 450,000 Christians despite the country's militant Islamic regime, reported Open Doors, which serves the persecuted church.
"Persecution usually occurs because the church is a genuine threat to evil," Boyd-MacMillan said. "Otherwise it can safely be ignored.
"Jesus said, 'Love your enemies.' He didn't say, 'Don't make any.' And all over the world millions of nameless Christians are standing up and making an enemy of unjust ideologies, cruel dictators.... And without this tidal wave of loving defiance, the world would be an awful place. And from this loving defiance, growth comes and hope stays strong."
Mali, which had been a largely model country, made the jump into the top 10 after a March coup in the north resulted in imposition of Sharia law in a newly created state and produced an exodus of Christians to the south or into other countries.
China, long known for its persecution of Christians and other religious adherents, was the only country to show significant improvement, according to Open Doors. It dropped from No. 21 to No. 37.
The rankings, which Open Doors began compiling in 1991, are based on not only violence against Christians but the degree of restrictions in private life, family life, community life, congregational life and national life.
The list of 50 countries -- which have a total Christian population of nearly 530 million, Boyd-MacMillan said -- may be accessed online at http://www.worldwatchlist.us/.
The U.S. State Department compiles a list of the world's most severe violators of religious freedom regardless of the faith being targeted. Its "countries of particular concern" are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
Also speaking at the news conference was Nik Ripken, whose interviews with persecuted Christians around the world are chronicled in the new book "The Insanity of God," which was published by B&H Publishing Group.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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