January 6, 2010
When Open Doors released its annual World Watch List (WWL) this week, the list looked very similar to 2010's list. The real story, according to Open Doors, is the sharp rise and severity of persecution that have been on the list for years. Blasphemy Laws, political instability, and increasing restrictions on religious expression all contribute to the rise.
According Open Doors, almost every country on the list last year saw a dramatic increase in the persecution of Christians and its severity. An estimated 200 million Christians are persecuted worldwide.
Dr. Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, noted that Christians are the most persecuted religious community around the world. "The number one trend is for a continuing increase of persecution across the globe. There are only a very few spots where we saw a noticeable or dramatic improvement in the conditions of Christians," he said.
North Korea ranked number one on Open Doors annual WWL for 2011. Following North Korea in the top ten spots are Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Maldives, Yemen, Iraq, Uzbekistan and Laos.
Anti-blasphemy laws are a prominent expression of increased persecution. These laws can easily be twisted to discourage and defeat non-Muslim believers.
Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan all have anti-blasphemy laws or traditions in place. In these countries, anything perceived as an offense to Islam can lead to long trials and stints in prison for Christians. Worse still, if a Muslim converts to another faith, he is guilty of a crime that can be punishable by death.
"Christians face an incredible opposition to their faith and to the practice of their faith by these anti-blasphemy laws in Islamic countries," said Moeller.
Blasphemy laws are not unique to Muslim-majority countries - for instance, several states in India are also grappling with them - but they are frequently used to discriminate against Christians in those nations. Eight of the top 10 countries on the WWL are Muslim, and most have some variation on blasphemy or apostasy laws.
"Pakistan, a country ranked number 11 on the WWL, is very much the forerunning country where blasphemy laws are perpetrated against Christians in very unfair and unrealistic ways," said Paul Estabrooks, a senior communication specialist for Open Doors.
"It only takes one person to accuse someone of that and all kinds of personal vendettas are used as a basis for blasphemy laws."
Political instability further complicates the mission of many Christian communities worldwide, challenging their growth, stability and strength of the Christian church.
Moeller said political instability is a "real, precipitating factor" in persecution in several countries.
"Any time a government perceives itself to be unstable or a threat, it is going to find a vulnerable community to blame and to attack. We've seen that happen in North Korea, Pakistan and Iran as well," he continued.
Additionally, many of the top countries often view Christianity as primarily a United States or Western religion. It is also a huge problem that Christians are now considered legitimate targets.
"One thing that we can see is that Christianity is often used as a ‘whipping boy' for some of these regimes hatred of the United States and West. So, Christians really represent soft targets throughout the world. We know that is true in North Korea," said Moeller.
North Korea, which has ranked number one on the WWL for the ninth year in a row, has convicted its citizens simply for claiming Christianity or owning a Bible. Those convictions often lead to sentences in labor camps, where prisoners are often worked to death unless they escape.
"Each year, it is the worst place on earth to be a Christian," Moeller added.
Increasing restrictions on Christian practice or Christian expression is another significant trend.
"In many cases, countries will allow Christian churches to exist, but they will restrict them dramatically in terms of what they might be able to do outside of their church building, for example. So, home Bible studies would be prohibited and people are actually arrested in places like Iran for home Bible studies," Moeller said.
Estabrooks added that in the number two country of Iran, where the official number of Christians is close to a half million, officials are constantly working to stop the spread of Christianity.
"In the first part of 2010, there were hundreds of Bibles seized by security forces in Iran and they were burned," Estabrooks said.
In other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, any public expression of Christianity could result in prison terms or killings of Christians who are caught.
Moeller said that the trend of increasing restriction is typified by a change in terminology that has popped up at the United Nations and other diplomatic circles. Instead of using the term ‘freedom of religion,' which would for Christians include the ability to propagate the Gospel, to share their faith, the term is being replaced in conversation with the term ‘freedom of worship,' which only says that within the closed doors of a church will Christians be permitted to worship Jesus Christ and God as they see it.
"The reality is whether it is a Communist country like North Korea, or if it is a Muslim country like Iran, or if it is a country dominated by radicals and into Hinduism, like parts of India, Christians are facing these pressures increasingly, today, across the globe," Moeller said.
The World Watch List has been compiled for 20 years by Open Doors and the list ranks countries by the intensity of persecution that Christians face for demonstrating their faith. It focuses on the world's top 50 persecutors. For a complete World Watch List 2011, visit http://www.opendoorsusa.org.