With North Korea leading the way and Islamic extremism rapidly expanding, 2015 was the “worst year in modern history for Christian persecution,” according to Open Doors’ 2016 World Watch List, a ranking of the 50 most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian. Iraq was ranked just behind North Korea, the first of 35 countries on the list where Islamic extremism “has risen to a level akin to ethnic cleansing,” according to the report, released on Jan. 13.
The nonprofit organization Open Doors has tracked persecution of Christians since 1955. On its World Watch List map, the top 10 nations where “extreme” persecution of Christians takes place are highlighted in blood red.
North Korea, where as many as 70,000 Christians are held in labor camps because of their faith, topped the list for the 14th consecutive year. According to the report, in North Korea Christians hide their faith to avoid arrest. “Being Christian has to be a well-protected secret, even within families, and most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith in order to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked.”
Number two, Iraq, was followed by Eritrea, the first of several sub-Saharan African nations on the list. Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Iran follow consecutively. Libya finishes up the top 10, appearing there for the first time in 2015. Saudi Arabia, which recently executed a Shiite cleric, came in at No. 14.
In 2015 more than 7,100 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons, and 2,400 churches were destroyed or damaged, said David Curry, president of Open Doors. Curry gave a world tour of murder, exile, terror, detention and destruction at a press conference in Washington introducing the new report. The militant groups Boko Haram and al-Shabab, he added, are the “sinister” power behind persecution in four African countries.
“The level of exclusion, discrimination and violence against Christians is unprecedented, spreading and intensifying,” said Curry.
It’s vital to track such persecution, not only on behalf of its victims, but to recognize growing threats to global peace and security, Curry said. “The persecution of Christians is a lead indicator of when countries are beginning to tip into chaos.”
David Saperstein, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, added to Curry’s list of atrocities and crimes against humanity.
“In far too many countries far too many people face daunting, alarming restrictions” on living and practicing their religion; and yet, Saperstein said, most “refuse to surrender their faith or their God.”
“Every one of the numbers in this report is a human being,” the ambassador said, as he stood at the podium directly in front of Gladys Juma, whose husband was murdered in Kenya.
Juma described in detail a heartbreaking night of searching for her husband, Benjamin, who had gone with a pastor to “share the word of Christ” in a nearby Muslim area.
Hours after the two men went missing, Juma went to a hospital nearby, where she was shown a gunnysack of hacked and burned body parts and a seared skull sitting in a burned tire rim. No one could say who they were. A few hours later, she learned that those unidentifiable victims were, in fact, her husband and the pastor.
“It hit us very hard,” Juma said. “In Mombasa, we had had religious tolerance for many years and suddenly the tables had turned with no warning. We are still healing.”
That healing, for herself and her four children, relies on forgiveness, on trust in God and in her belief, she said, that America will act “to make sure people respect other people’s faith.”