SANTA ANA, Calif. The most dangerous countries in which to practice Christianity are overwhelming Islamic ones, according to Open Doors International.
Open Doors released its annual World Watch List (WWL) January 5 which lists the top worst countries in the world for practicing Christianity.
For the ninth consecutive year, North Korea tops the WWL list, but eight of the top 10 most dangerous countries have Islamic majorities. They include Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Maldives, Yemen, and Uzbekistan.
Dr. Carl Moeller, the president and chief executive officer of Open Doors, said Christian persecution has increased significantly in places like Iraq, which has jumped from number 17 to number 8 on this year's list.
"Iraq has jumped specifically because of the intentional targeting of the Christian community there by extremists within the factions of Iraq," said Moeller. "Al Qaeda this year indicated on its website that Christians were, quote, 'legitimate targets for their holy warriors.' We are actually labeling it a 'religicide' as extremists there want to exterminate all Christians from the country of Iraq."
Iraq has experienced an exodus of Christians in recent years, with an estimated 334,000 Christians remaining in this ancient cradle of Christianity, a drop of more than 50 percent since the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime.
According to Open Doors, the main reason why Christians are fleeing is organized violence by an extremist militia, especially in the northern city of Mosul and in the capital Baghdad, in an attempt to cleanse these areas of its Christian presence. At least 90 Christians were martyred last year in Iraq while hundreds more were injured in bomb and gun attacks. More killings have taken place in the last two weeks of 2010.
"Being a Muslim Background Believer or 'Secret Believer' in a Muslim-dominated country puts a bulls-eye on the backs of Christians," says Moeller. "There is either no freedom to believe or little freedom of religion."
The country with the largest Christian community on the WWL's top 15 is Pakistan with more than 5 million believers. Pakistani Christians also faced a sharp erosion of their religious liberty with the country leaping from No. 14 to No. 11 on the current list. Twenty-nine Christians were martyred in the reporting period with at least one killing occurring every month. Four Christians were sentenced to long terms in jail for blasphemy against Islam, at least 58 Christians were kidnapped, more than 100 Christians were assaulted and 14 churches and properties were damaged.
Also in Pakistan, officials continue to hold Asia Noreen Bibi, a mother of five who is facing a death sentence on charges of blasphemy after she responded to taunts by Muslim women while fetching water.
"Please pray for brave believers like Asia Noreen Bibi who remains in prison in Pakistan after being sentenced to death on a false blasphemy charge," said Moeller.
Another country that rose markedly was Afghanistan, up from No. 6 to No. 3, especially in the wake of ugly demonstrations when footage of Muslims being baptized was shown on network television. Dozens of Christians from the tiny Afghan church have had to move due to subsequent death threats. In August 10 members of a Christian aid group affiliated with International Assistance Mission were slaughtered in an attack in Afghanistan, where the ministry has been serving since 1966.
The year's grisliest headlines were found in Nigeria (No. 26), where a staggering 2,000 Christians lost their lives in riots caused by Muslim extremists in some of the northern states in the country. Tension has been growing for more than a generation in northern Nigeria, and escalated after 1999 when 12 northern states adopted Sharia (strict Islamic law). On Christmas Eve a Baptist pastor and five other Christians in northern Nigeria were killed. Many Christians have taken refuge to avoid further attacks as soldiers and police keep watch at churches and other strategic locations in the state.
While persecution continues to increase in Muslim-dominated countries, there is no question that North Korea deserves its No. 1 ranking, according to Open Doors.
North Korea's attitude towards Christians is extremely hostile. There is no freedom to build churches or to worship in homes. Possession of Christian materials is punishable by death. In May 2010 a group of 23 Christians was discovered. The police found Bibles and other Christian literature. Three people were publicly executed, and the others disappeared within the infamous Yodok Prison camp. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians suffer in prison camps. The number of Christian martyrs in North Korea is hard to discern because it is such a secretive society, but Open Doors reports that hundreds of believers have been arrested.
The U.S. State Department has condemned the recent attacks on Christians and churches in Nigeria, Iraq and Egypt. They are calling upon the governments to redouble their efforts to protect Christians and apprehend the terrorists who are behind the acts.