African Christians face the biggest increase in persecution

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SANTA ANA, Calif. — Christians in Africa are facing the highest increase of persecution, according to Open Doors USA.

The organization released its annual World Watch List that ranks the 50 countries that are the worst offenders of religious freedom. The countries on the list are home to about a quarter of the world's 2.2 billion Christians.

North Korea tops the list for the 11th year in a row. Officials at Open Doors state that North Korea will likely stay there as long as its combination of "communist oppression" and "dictatorial paranoia" remains in place. The ministry estimates between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians live in the country, where they face arrest, torture and even execution if exposed. According to Open Doors, it is the only country where the list says "absolute persecution" reigns.

Mali, a west-African country, jumped from unranked to number 7 on the list.

Predominantly Muslim, Mali had long accommodated Christians peacefully until March 2012 when groups linked to al-Qaida seized power in the northern half of the country and imposed a regime based on sharia, or Islamic law.

"If you stayed, you were killed," said Ronald Boyd-MacMIllan, who directs Open Doors strategy and research. "All the churches were closed. There were house-to-house searches. It was pretty clear they were looking for Christians to kill."

Two other African nations, Somalia and Eritrea, are included among the World Watch List top 10. In all, eighteen African countries are included on the list of 50 nations. Five are ranked closer to the top than they were in 2012. Five others — Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Niger — are on the list for the first time.

The addition of new African countries, and the ascension of several already on the list, can be traced to extreme Islam according to Open Doors. In some cases it was linked with gradual expansion of Islamist influences in local governments or societies, or terrorist violence, or a combination.

The trend isn't confined to Africa.

Syria made the largest jump, up from number 36 to number 11.

One country that didn't move up on the list was Egypt, even though Islamist political parties have made deep inroads there as well. They won the presidency in 2012 and produced enough votes to pass a constitution built partly on the principles of Islam. Yet about one of every nine Egyptians is Christian, and at about 10 million, they comprise the largest Christian community in the Arab world.

Taken as a whole, Boyd-MacMillan said, the 2013 list describes a world where persecution of Christians has intensified overall, mostly because of the rise of militant sectarian movements, not only in Africa but in some of the world's most populous countries, such as India, where Open Doors says Hindu extremists routinely assault Christian worshippers.

China fell furthest in the rankings, down 16 spots to No. 37. Its Christian population is growing faster than anywhere, and the government's direct suppression of the Mao era has evolved into a wary watchfulness, according to Open Doors.

"There does seem to be the possibility of greater rapprochement," Boyd-MacMillan said, as Communist Party leaders begin to regard the church's ability to moderate social tensions as an asset during an age of rapid economic and societal change.

The rest of the top ten list is composed of Uzbekistan (7), Yemen (8) and Iraq (9). Laos was the only country to drop from the top 10 list, falling to number 12.