The annual study by Open Doors announced Wednesday (Jan. 8) ranked North Korea as the world's top persecutor of Christians for the 12th consecutive year. Meanwhile, the report showed Islamic extremism is the driving force for Christian persecution in 36 of the 50 countries at the top of Open Doors' World Watch List.
Open Doors, which seeks to strengthen the persecuted church overseas, named these countries as the top 10 persecutors of followers of Christ in 2013: (1) North Korea; (2) Somalia; (3) Syria; (4) Iraq; (5) Afghanistan; (6) Saudi Arabia; (7) Maldives; (8) Pakistan; (9) Iran; and (10) Yemen.
North Korea far outdistanced all other countries with a score of 90 on Open Doors' list. The other top 10 countries -- led by Somalia, with a score of 80 as the runner-up to North Korea -- all evidenced Islamic extremism as a source for their repressive treatment of Christians.
During the same time, Syria led in the number of Christian martyrs with 1,213, Open Doors reported. Nigeria was second with 612. Those two countries ranked far above all others in the number of Christians martyred for their faith.
Southern Baptist public policy specialist Barrett Duke described the report as "deeply troubling."
"Christians are facing irrational, hate-filled persecution just for being Christian," said Duke, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's vice president for public policy and research. "These are our brothers and sisters in Christ."
Followers of Jesus in the United States can help their persecuted, fellow Christians, Duke told Baptist Press in a written statement.
"We must pray more fervently on their behalf," he said. "We must also urge our government to do everything in its power to intervene to protect these vulnerable communities. Christians can start by urging President Obama to fill the still-vacant office of ambassador-at-large for religious freedom at the State Department. The Senate can start by passing the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2013, which will create a special envoy for religious freedom to focus on many of the places where Christians are facing the worst persecution for their faith.
"The church in America must not be silent. Our brothers and sisters in the Lord need us to speak up on their behalf," Duke said.
Open Doors USA President David Curry called the report "a wake-up call to Americans to become more aware of these atrocities and restrictions on religious freedom."
"Often completely unaddressed in the West is the fact that Christians are the largest persecuted minority in the world," Curry said in a written release. The countries on the World Watch List "are targeting Christians; imprisoning, punishing, and even in some cases murdering people who choose to express privately or publicly their Christian faith."
In its report, Open Doors pointed to increased persecution in countries described as "failed." A failed country, according to the organization, is "a weak state where social and political structures have collapsed to the point where government has little or no control."
Six of the top 10 persecutors, Open Doors reported, are classified as failed countries: Somalia; Syria; Iraq; Afghanistan; Pakistan; and Yemen.
North Korea, which practices communism and the cult-like worship of the ruling Kim family, continues to imprison from 50,000 to 70,000 followers of Christ in concentration camps, prisons or prison-like conditions, according to Open Doors. Possessing a Bible could result in execution or a life sentence in prison.
The countries that rose most dramatically in Christian persecution were the Central African Republic, which was not on the list last year but is No. 16 this year; Colombia, which moved from No. 46 to No. 25; and Sri Lanka, which is No. 29 after not being on the list in 2013.
The West African country of Mali showed the most improvement, dropping from No. 7 to No. 33 after the French military halted the threat of an Islamic takeover.
The rankings, which Open Doors began compiling in 1991, are based on not only violence against Christians but the degree of pressure in private life, family life, congregational life, community life and national life.
The list of 50 countries may be viewed 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" (CPCs) are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. The State Department, which is required to designate CPCs each year, has not done so since September 2011.
Tom Strode is the 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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