Three weeks ago in this space, you read about the difficulties with which Christians contend in nations around the world. This week, an international ministry that has long supported the persecuted church has released a "watch list" documenting even more issues.
"For the 12th consecutive year the hermit communist country of North Korea remains the world's most restrictive nation in which to practice Christianity, according to the Open Doors 2014 World Watch List (WWL)," the group stated in an announcement. While the group disclosed this, onetime basketball star Dennis Rodman was shown, on cable TV news reports, serenading dictator Kim Jong-un with a chorus of "Happy Birthday."
At the same time, several "failed states" have joined the list of nations where Christianity can draw real fire. A "failed state," Open Doors said, is described as one "where social and political structures have collapsed to the point where government has little or no control,"
But there's nothing "happy" about the persecution of Christians, in North Korea or anywhere else. The nine countries that complete this sad "top ten" are Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Maldives, Pakistan, Iran and Yemen. All nine of those other countries are mostly or overwhelmingly Muslim and some form of Islamic extremism, official or otherwise, can be found there. The Open Doors group says this type of extremism is a key factor in Christian persecution.
"Overwhelmingly, the main engine driving persecution of Christians in 36 of the top 50 countries is Islamic extremism, with the most violent region being the states of the African Sahel belt (a semi-arid zone extending from Senegal on the Atlantic Ocean eastward to Sudan and the Red Sea) where a fifth of the world's Christians meet one seventh of the world's Muslims in perilous proximity," the group said.
According to David Curry, the group's president and chief executive, the list "is the most comprehensive study of the systematic persecution of Christians ever done. Often completely unaddressed in the West is the fact that Christians are the largest persecuted minority in the world. Countries on the WWL, such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East and North Africa are targeting Christians; imprisoning, punishing, and even in some cases murdering people who choose to express privately or publicly their Christian faith."
All this comes in the face of both centuries of Islamic tolerance and coexistence, things that still exist in many places today. But in too many parts of the world, choosing to become a Christian is an invitation to peril.
As the Open Doors announcement points out about North Korea, "being caught with a Bible is grounds for execution or a life-long political prison sentence. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians live in concentration camps, prisons and prison-like circumstances under the regime of leader Kim Jong-un."
Somalia — for the first time, the group says — takes the No. 2 position on the list. While life in the capital city of Mogadishu is somewhat better than in years past, Open Doors reports, "surveillance is conducted to root out converts from Islam and the church has to remain secret. Large parts of the country remain ungovernable and retreating al-Shabaab rebels vent their anger by imposing an even more restrictive form of Sharia law."
According to the group, one Somali Christian told its researcher, "In Somalia, a Christian cannot trust anyone. One false confidence and you literally lose your head."
The chaos in Syria, where Christians are often caught in the crossfire between the Assad regime and various rebel groups, is taking a human toll, Open Doors reports. "Syria had more martyrs (1,213) than any country" on the watch list, they said. "Nigeria followed with 612 martyrs, Pakistan 88, Egypt 83, Angola 16, Niger 15, Iraq 11, the Central African Republic 9 and Colombia 8."
The Central African Republic, the report says, "has been torn apart by warlords and especially foreign mercenaries from Chad and Sudan who target Christians for rape, robbery and murder."
Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, head of Strategy and Research for Open Doors International, says, "It is our intent through the [watch list] to encourage more people and organizations to carefully study the needs and stories of persecuted Christians, and as a result deepen the passion to pray for them."
Prayer isn't the only thing Americans can do, however. Sustained political pressure on Congress, the Department of State and the White House to make religious persecution a priority is very much in order. Lives might well depend on it.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.