Each year Open Doors compiles the World Watch List of 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. Once again North Korea tops the list. Islamic-majority countries comprise nine of the top 10. Four of the top offenders have received massive amounts of U.S. foreign aid.
The presence of these countries on the list reflects megatrends in the global church over the past three decades. One key shift is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism that has resulted in an exodus of Christians from the Middle East. Perhaps nowhere in the region is this exodus more pronounced than in Iraq.
In 2004, Iraq was No. 32 on the list of 50. Just eight years later, as extremists increasingly target churches for bombings and Christians for murder, kidnappings and threats, Iraq has risen to No. 9. The once-vibrant community of 1 million believers has plummeted to 300,000. More leave daily.
Christians are fleeing other parts of the Middle East as well. A year ago the much-celebrated Arab Spring revolutions began toppling entrenched dictators, including Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. But so far Egypt, the Middle Eastern country with the largest population of Christians, has not treated its Christ-following citizens well.
In addition to Islamist mob violence directed at Coptic Christians, Egypt's military stormed a monastery last March. Soldiers beat 11 monks and shot one. In October, the military unleashed brutal violence against a peaceful Christian protest in Cairo, killing at least 26. Egypt rose four positions on the 2012 World Watch List to No. 15.
Another trend is the clash of Christianity and Islamic extremism in Africa's Sahel belt zone dividing the Sahara Desert in the north from the green southern south. In the past year this conflict has been especially volatile in northern Nigeria, which has arguably become the persecution horror story of the early 21st century.
The al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has carried out shootings and bombings against Nigeria's Christians, including a four-city Christmas Day attack on churches which killed 41. In the past year at least 300 Christians were killed, although the actual number is believed to be double or triple that figure. On the World Watch List, Nigeria moved from No. 32 in 2008 to No. 23 last year. This year it ranks No. 13.
Sudan also reflects this trend. Ongoing Muslim violence against Christians in Sudan's predominantly Christian south led the region to form a new country, South Sudan. North Sudan President Omar al-Bashir declared his intent to change the constitution to make his country even more Islamic, making life much more difficult for Christians remaining in the north.
Many Christians have died in Sudanese military attacks on Christian communities, especially in resource-rich Abyei on the border. Sudan ranked No. 35 in last year's tabulation. This year Sudan is No. 16, making the greatest leap of any country on the World Watch List compared to 2011.
But the list also reflects positive trends. In the past 20 years, and especially in the past 10, there has been a major turning to Christ among Muslims. The rise of the Muslim Background Believer, or MBB, movement, particularly in Iran, is similar to the church that emerged in China post-1948. As a result of isolation and persecution, the house church movement has produced a unique, indigenous, underground church that is neither Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, but its own distinct strand of Christianity.
Iran, the second-worst persecutor on last year's World Watch List, has fallen to No. 5. This drop, however, is not because of any improvement in the plight of Iranian Christians but rather worsening conditions for Christians in the top four countries on the list.
A second hopeful trend is that Western Christians are organizing to help make the persecuted a priority. Grassroots advocates are using word of mouth and social media to spread the word about the persecuted church. Events such as the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church has greatly raised awareness.
We've seen this greater attention to the issue in Congress as lawmakers challenge oppressive governments about their treatment of the Christian minority. Open Doors USA Advocacy Director Lindsay Vessey has joined forces with other religious liberty advocates, which has led to a shift in attitude and real change at the United Nations regarding religious freedom.
We're seeing hope and progress, but much remains to be done. You can help. Continue supporting Open Doors and other Christian advocacy group campaigns which provide materials, training and encouragement to persecuted believers.
Also join Open Doors USA as we pray through the year for each country on the World Watch List. Take the 5 Minute Challenge to pray daily for these 50 nations at www.worldwatchlist.us. Your prayers and support can make an eternal difference for persecuted Christians.
Dr. Carl Moeller is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, an affiliate of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians living in the most dangerous countries around the globe since 1955. For more information, visit www.OpenDoorsUSA.org.
Publication date: January 19, 2012