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African Nations Surge Up Ranks of World's Worst Persecutors

Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Niger make debuts on Open Doors's 2013 World Watch List.

Persecution of Christians is rising in at least eight African countries, according to the latest Open Doors USA list of the world's worst violators of religious freedom.

"Africa, where Christianity spread fastest during the past century, now is the region where oppression of Christians is spreading fastest," the group noted.

On the 2013 World Watch List (analysis and Top 10 country summaries at bottom), which ranks the 50 countries where Christians face the most religious persecution, Mali has skyrocketed from being unranked to No. 7 this year, joining Somalia (No. 5) and Eritrea (No. 10) among the top 10.

"Mali used to be a model country. ... Christians and even missionaries could be active," said Jerry Dykstra, spokesman for Open Doors. "[But] currently the situation in northern Mali is somewhat similar to Saudi Arabia. Christians are simply no longer allowed to be there."

Other African nations new to the list include Tanzania (No. 24), Kenya (No. 40), Uganda (No. 47), and Niger (No. 50). Ethiopia was one of the countries that rose the most on the list, from No. 38 to No. 15. (Africa has 17 nations on the list in total, including Sudan (No. 12) and Nigeria (No. 13).)

Yet, the world's worst persecutor of Christians remains unchanged, just as it has for the past 11 years: North Korea. "Intense persecution has continued under new leader Kim Jong-Un," stated Open Doors in a press release. "The number of defectors to China greatly decreased in 2012 and half of those who try to defect do not make it"

China dropped from No. 21 to No. 37, continuing its descent since being ranked in the Top 10 only five years ago. "The government still considers the church to be a political movement and wishes to be informed of all Christian activity," noted Open Doors. "However, house searches, arrests, and the confiscation of Bibles and Christian books no longer occur on a large scale."

But other news-making nations made significant jumps. Syria leapt from No. 36 to No. 11 (the largest increase of any country other than Mali), thanks to jihadist rebels fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Iraq moved up from No. 9 to No. 4, and Ethiopia from No. 38 to No. 15 (also one of the largest increases).

Dropping off the list entirely were Chechnya, Turkey, Cuba, Belarus, and Bangladesh.

Explanations for the rankings of the Top 10 nations–North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, and Eritrea–can be found at the bottom of this post. Explanation for the remaining 40 countries can be found on the World Watch List website (in-depth analysis here, and trend analysis here).

Open Doors has also launched a new journalism initiative called World Watch Monitor, which replaces its Compass Direct News service that closed in July. Former Compass editor Jeff Sellers has founded his own persecution news service, Morning Star News.

CT has spotlighted the nations where it's hardest to believe and charted the differences between international religious freedom advocates, as well as covered a landmark Pew study on religious persecution.

CT also reported on the WWL rankings in 2009 and 2012, and highlighted geographic trends among refugees and asylum seekers. CT also previously reported on persecution in China and North Korea, as well as on religiosity in Africa.

Here is WWM's repot on the new world watch list (link broken so here is complete text):

Washington, D.C., January 8 (World Watch Monitor) — Africa, where Christianity spread fastest during the past century, now is the region where oppression of Christians is spreading fastest, a new report says.

The two-year-old Arab Spring has toppled autocrats across Northern Africa, but it also has energized militant Islamist movements that have killed hundreds of Christians and endanger thousands more, according to the annual World Watch List, released Tuesday. The list, published by Open Doors International, a ministry to persecuted Christians, ranks the 50 countries it considers to be most hostile to believers during the year that ended Oct. 31. The countries on the list are home to about a quarter of the world's 2.2 billion believers.

For the 11th straight year, North Korea tops the list, and Open Doors says it figures to stay there as long as its combination of "communist oppression" and "dictatorial paranoia" remains in place. The ministry estimates between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians live in the country, where they face arrest, torture and even execution if exposed. It is the only country where the list says "absolute persecution" reigns.

But down the list, the story is Africa.

Mali, a west-African country never before included in World Watch List, was No. 7 in the 2013 rankings. Predominantly Muslim, Mali had long accommodated Christians peacefully until March 2012 when groups linked to al-Qaida seized power in the northern half of the country and imposed a regime based on sharia, or Islamic law. Open Doors said its contacts in the country reported that most Christians fled the north, abandoning homes and churches that later were confiscated or destroyed.

"If you stayed, you were killed," said Ronald Boyd-MacMIllan, who directs Open Doors strategy and research. "All the churches were closed. There were house-to-house searches. It was pretty clear they were looking for Christians to kill."

Two other African nations, Somalia and Eritrea, are included among the World Watch List top 10. In all, 18 African countries are included on the list of 50 nations. Five are ranked closer to the top than they were in 2012. Five others — Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Niger — are on the list for the first time.

The addition of new African countries, and the ascension of several already on the list, can be traced to Islamist parties gaining power in places where regimes had fallen, or where a hard-line, Wahabi version of Islam made inroads against more tolerant, Sufi forms, according to Open Doors. In some cases it was linked with gradual expansion of Islamist influences in local governments or societies; or plain terrorist violence; or a combination.

The trend isn't confined to Africa. In Syria, rebel forces ignited by the Arab Spring in early 2011 already considered Christians as aligned with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Christians fled Homs, the city where many were concentrated, and the 2012 arrival of foreign jihadists only intensified the pressure on those who remained in the country. Result: Syria made the biggest jump up the World Watch List, from No. 36 to No. 11.

One country that didn't move up on the list was Egypt, even though Islamist political parties have made deep inroads there as well. They won the presidency in 2012 and produced enough votes to pass a constitution built partly on the principles of Islam. Yet about one of every nine Egyptians is Christian, and at about 10 million, they comprise the largest Christian community in the Arab world. The new constitution, nearly unanimously opposed by Christians and liberal allies, was approved by voters in December, and its effect on Christian life has yet to be seen.

Various private and government agencies monitor persecution, but Open Doors claims its World Watch List is the only annual survey of Christian religious liberty around the world. Based on a mix of face-to-face interviews with underground Christians, surveys of church leaders, opinions of Open Doors field workers and external experts, and review of publicly available data, it claims to measure "the degree of freedom of a Christian to live out their faith in five spheres of life: private, family, community, congregation and national life."

It also measures the degree of violence experienced by Christians, a category that thrust Nigeria to No. 13. Africa's most populous country, Nigeria was ranked No. 27 as recently as 2010, but has ascended partly because it has become, by the World Watch List measure, the most violent place on Earth for Christians.

The militant Islamic group Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for numerous mass killings of Christians and other Nigerians in an attempt to impose an Islamic system over Nigeria's north. Two churches in northeastern Nigeria were attacked on Christmas Day, leaving eight worshippers dead. Authorities openly suspect Boko Haram.

Taken as a whole, Boyd-MacMillan said, the 2013 list describes a world where persecution of Christians has intensified overall, mostly because of the rise of militant sectarian movements, not only in Africa but in some of the world's most populous countries, such as India, where Open Doors says Hindu extremists routinely assault Christian worshippers.

Other monitors of reglious freedom have documented a similar global pattern. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion & Public Life concluded that government restrictions on religion rose worldwide during the year. Sub-Saharan Africa was one of three regions where the report said both government restrictions and social hostilities toward religion increased. The Pew forum is concerned with all religions, not only Christianity.

"Our study found, for instance, that in Nigeria, violence between Christian and Muslim communities, including a series of deadly attacks, escalated throughout the period," said Brian Grim, senior researcher and director of cross-national data for the Pew forum.

Even so, the World Watch List did detect a decline in persecution in some areas.

China fell furthest in the rankings, down 16 spots to No. 37. Its Christian population is growing faster than anywhere, and the government's direct suppression of the Mao era has evolved into a wary watchfulness, according to Open Doors.

"There does seem to be the possibility of greater rapprochement," Boyd-MacMillan said, as Communist Party leaders begin to regard the church's ability to moderate social tensions as an asset during and age of rapid economic and societal change.

Open Doors country summaries for the Top 10 persecutors (the remaining 40 countries can be found here):

1) North Korea

In North Korea, the main persecution dynamics are Communist oppression and dictatorial paranoia. The country, as one of the remaining communist states, promotes two ideologies vehemently opposed to religion of any kind: the self-reliance of man or "Juche" and the God-like worship of the leaders or "Kimilsungism." Fuelled by a rampant ideology, North Korea believes Christianity to be linked to the West and therefore a real threat which could inflict harm on North Korea's social disciplines. This threat must therefore be eradicated. Exact information is difficult to obtain due to the country's inaccessibility and the inability to gain timely information. Apart from some church buildings in Pyongyang serving to showcase religious freedom in the country, there is an underground church movement. Open Doors estimates that the number of believers may be between 200,000 and 400,000. Christians are classified as hostile and face discrimination, arrest, detention, torture or even public execution. There is a system of labor camps including the renowned prison No. 15 (Yodok) which could reportedly house 6,000 Christians alone. Koreans, having converted after defecting to China and are later repatriated, are in particular danger and there is a vigorous elimination program in existence to convert, imprison, banish or execute individuals who have converted to Christianity in China. Spies have reportedly been sent to China to expose networks, Christians helping defectors there have been killed. Christians are likely to remain targets of this regime. North Korea ranks first on the WWL for the 11th consecutive year in the category of Absolute Persecution.

2) Saudi Arabia

The main persecution dynamic in Saudi Arabia is Islamic extremism. Centuries ago, there was a large Christian population in Saudi Arabia. During the conquest of Islam, this population was Islamized or was expelled. Now, citizens are only allowed to adhere to Islam, and Christian worship is forbidden. There are no provisions for religious freedom in the kingdom's constitution or basic laws and anti-religious sentiments are strong throughout society. The legal system is based on Sharia law and conversion to another religion is punishable by death. The government generally allows non-Muslims to worship in private yet the religious police (Muttawa) do not always respect this. Men and women from different families are prohibited from intermingling and worshippers risk imprisonment, lashing, deportation and torture. Evangelizing Muslims and distributing non-Muslim materials is illegal. Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) risk honor killings and migrant workers have been exposed to verbal, physical and sexual abuse from employers who still have tremendous power over foreign workers. Despite this, the migrant community of believers is growing and converts are responding to Christian TV programs and to God-given dreams where God is revealed. Christians risk further persecution and oppression in the future due to the rising number of converts and their boldness in sharing their faith. Saudi Arabia ranks second on the WWL, in the category Extreme Persecution.

3) Afghanistan

Islamic extremism as well as organized corruption are the main persecution dynamics in Afghanistan. Family and societal pressure combined with government persecution makes the situation for Christians in the country very difficult despite international agreements designed to protect the freedom of religion. Seeing itself as the "defender of Islam," the state treats converts, who all come from a Muslim background, in a very hostile manner. Christians cannot meet in public and even gatherings in private houses require extreme caution. No church buildings exist, even for expatriates, and both local and expatriate Christians are subject to cases of kidnapping, abduction, killing and having to flee the country. The Taliban is regaining strength in the country and has vowed to purge all Christians from Afghanistan, both foreign and local. Relief organizations and non-government organizations are accused of evangelizing and Christian relief workers are a prime target. The future does not look bright for Christians. Afghanistan is entering a new phase with the withdrawal of troops in 2013-14, different ethnic factions struggling for their share of power and the election in April 2014 is approaching. Also, the volatile situation in neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban have a stronghold, is complicating the situation. The church has been pushed underground – and is likely to remain there. Afghanistan ranks third on the WWL, in the category Extreme Persecution.

4) Iraq

The main persecution dynamic in Iraq is Islamic extremism. There is a long history of Christians living in Iraqi cities such as Baghdad and Mosul. Christians have lived here for two millennia but are currently on the verge of extinction. Islamic extremism is the main persecution dynamic in the country. Sharia is the primary source of law and makes it impossible to apply freedom of belief. There are estimated to be approximately 330,000 Christians left from the 1.2 million at the beginning of the 1990s. Large numbers have fled abroad or to the (until recently) relatively safer northern Kurdish region where they face problems such as unemployment and inadequate schooling, medical care and housing. The situation in Kurdistan used to be better than in the areas around Bagdad or Mosul. However, the situation in Kurdistan is also rapidly deteriorating (Christian businesses were attacked in December, 2011). Structural uncertainty, conflict and instability are on the rise since U.S. troops started to withdraw at the end of 2011. The church faces many challenges –members succumbing to pressure, fleeing or being killed or abducted and a lack of capable leaders. The situation is the worst in the middle and the south of the country where traditional Christians are suffering as much as Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) and possibly encounter more violence as a result of their visibility. Both groups are suffering in all spheres of life, though MBBs are suffering more in the realm of family. There is a lot of fear among Christians in the country, ever since the bloody attack against Christians during a church service in Baghdad two years ago. Christians have been attacked in church during 2011 and 2012 as well. Iraq ranks fourth on the WWL, and is included in the category Extreme Persecution.

5) Somalia

Islamic extremism is the main persecution dynamic in Somalia. Terrorist groups such as al-Shabab are a threat to Christians and the general Muslim population, in addition to the backdrop of tribal antagonism and organized corruption. Christians in Somalia, made up of Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) and expatriate aid workers, face persecution from Islamic extremism. When MBBs are identified, they are eliminated and aid workers, Christian or otherwise, require tight security due to the risk of abduction. Islamic leaders maintain that Somalia remains a strictly Islamic state with no room for Christians. Children attend mandatory Madrasa Islamic classes, people are buried with Islamic burial rights whatever their religion might be and it is extremely difficult to openly declare faith. It is too dangerous to meet openly and families of converts are fearful that they might be suspected of conversion and risk execution. All regions in Somalia are affected and al-Shabab remains a threat as it has backing from al-Qaeda. In September 2012, the election of a president by the new parliament created a framework for a more accountable, legitimate and transparent government. However, for Christians and the church the prospects are significantly less positive, bearing in mind that the provisional constitution that was passed does not allow for religious freedom. There is some hope though as returnees have been exposed to Christianity, and are bringing more tolerance towards Christians. The government is starting to take charge and house fellowships are emerging. Somalia ranks fifth on the WWL, and is included in the category Extreme Persecution.

6) Maldives

Islamic extremism and organized corruption are the main persecution dynamics of the Maldives, 1,200 islands located in the Indian Ocean. It is the only country in the world which requires its citizens to be Muslim. The Islamic government sees itself as the protector of Islam and its laws prohibit Maldivians from converting to other faiths. According to Sharia law, converts face the death penalty although this is not implemented in the Maldives. Every convert discovered will immediately face heavy pressure by family and society; often they have to leave the country. There is extensive control by the authorities to keep watch and to correct any deviation from the path of Islam. There are no church gatherings or buildings. The Wahhabi form of Islam arrived in the 1990s and radical Islam was rarely associated with the Maldives until September 2007 when a bomb exploded in the capital. This posed a great challenge to the seemingly peaceful country. The September 2011 amendment to the Protection of Religious Unity Act reinforced Islam as an inseparable part of a Maldivian's cultural identity. Religion in the Maldives is moving towards Deobandi Islam, the religion of the Taliban, whose mission is to cleanse Islam of all other influences. The chief justice even criticized a silent protest for religious tolerance in 2011 as weakening the country's Islamic faith. Unsurprisingly, there are very few indigenous believers and even foreign Christians have to be careful. The Maldives ranks sixth in the WWL in the category Extreme Persecution.

7) Mali

Islamic extremism is the main persecution dynamic in Mali. Mali's appearance towards the very top of the WWL is surprising. The country has always been a typical West-African state with moderate Islam; a constitutionally secular state which proscribes religious political parties, even though a high percentage of its population is Muslim. In the north, the situation has been more difficult than in the south, but international missionaries have even been able to work there. However, the situation changed with the capture of the northern part of the country by Tuareg separatist rebels and Islamists fighters, and the proclamation of the creation of the independent state of Azawad in northern Mali. The Islamists soon established an Islamic state with a stern Sharia regime in the north. Christians couldn't stay. They also were very hard on traditional Muslims, killing people, amputating limbs and destroying Sufi sanctuaries. Since the fighting started in March 2012, tens of thousands of Malians have fled the north to the south or neighboring countries. There is a very high degree of hostility - Christians and churches simply cannot exist. In the southern part, Christians can live but have to be cautious. Much will depend on the success of the intended intervention of the international community against the occupation of northern Mali. There is widespread concern that Mali is fast becoming a Jihadist hub. In October 2012, the U.N. stated that they were ready to send international forces to help the Malian government reclaim its lost territories in the north. Preparations for this are expected to take several months. The tendency for religious radicalization in Malian society may continue, and increasingly squeeze and/or smash the lives of Christians and their churches. Mali ranks seventh on the WWL in the category Extreme Persecution.

8) Iran

The main persecution dynamic in Iran is Islamic extremism, in combination with dictatorial paranoia. Islam is the official religion and all laws must be consistent with the official interpretation of Sharia law. Of all types of Christianity, mostly MBBs are affected, as well as Protestant Evangelicals. There is relatively less pressure on historical ethnic Armenian and Assyrian Christian minority, as long as they do not evangelize Muslims. Ethnic Persians are by definition Muslim, according to the state. Evangelism, Bible training and publishing scriptures in Farsi are all illegal, yet this has only fuelled the flames of church growth. In Iran, detentions of Christians are very common. In addition, Christians were physically harmed (a number of them in jail). Several Christians were forced to leave their homes or to flee the country. There is squeeze in all spheres of life. Any Muslim who leaves Islam faces the death penalty and church services are monitored by the secret police. Pressure is increasing on Christians and comes from family and authorities. The regime's focus is on those reaching out to converts and even well-established Christian denominations are not safe from harassment. Activities are closely watched, members identified and taken note of. The Iranian authorities' fear of increasing numbers of Christians, particularly in house churches, is based on fact with many disillusioned Iranian Muslims becoming curious about Christianity. Persecution may further intensify as the authorities seek greater control over political and civil aspects of people's lives to consolidate power at home whenever international pressure increases. Iran ranks eighth on the WWL in the category Extreme Persecution.

9) Yemen

The main persecution dynamic in Yemen is Islamic extremism. The Constitution declares that Islam is the state religion and Sharia is the source of all legislation. There is some religious freedom for foreigners but evangelism is prohibited. Conversion is forbidden for Muslims and Yemenis who leave Islam may face the death penalty. Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) face persecution from authorities, family and extremist groups who threaten "apostates" with death if they do not revert. Yemen is very unstable and has deteriorated since the Arab Spring riots of 2011. Kidnappings of foreigners occur regularly, MBBs face strong family and societal pressure and Christians are believed to be under surveillance by extremists. In Aden, there are a few official churches for several thousand Christian expats and refugees living in Yemen. In the north, no church buildings are allowed. Large numbers of expats have left the country and the number of MBBs is estimated at a few hundred. The government used excessive force to crack down on protestors after 10 months of mass protest caused by high unemployment levels and government corruption. In February 2012, elections were held and the acting president and only candidate Mansour Hadi was sworn-in amid a climate of violence. The country is divided between pro- and anti-Saleh forces, the south is claiming independence, there is a strong tribal system and small al-Qaeda-linked groups struggle for power. Yemen ranks ninth on the WWL and belongs to the countries with Extreme Persecution.

10) Eritrea

The main persecution dynamic in Eritrea is dictatorial paranoia. The Christian and Muslim population is estimated at 50 percent. Eritrea has three types of Christianity: registered historical churches, Christian Background Believers (CBBs), and independent Christians. No Muslim Background Believer (MBB) issue was reported. Eritrea has a violent history with Ethiopia, and shares a long border with its arch-enemy. A government official once declared in public that there are three enemies that need to be eradicated: HIV/ Aids, the regime in Ethiopia and independent Christians. There are traces of "Ecclesiastical arrogance" – especially the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC). There is also a serious potential for Islamic extremism. The Eritrean Orthodox Church is the largest church in the country and its members are said to spy on the activities of CBBs and independent Christians and report them. Violence was high against CBBs and independent Christians. The horrific story of Christians being held in containers in military camps is widely known. Thirty-one cases of deaths of Christians in prison were reported in 2012. Muslims are also subjected to government hostilities, especially groups with Wahhabi tendencies. The future for the church in Eritrea is worrisome. The government is still very hard on CBBs and independent Christians, and pressures the registered churches, too. Extremist Islam seems to be preparing itself to be unleashed on Eritrean society as soon as the government releases its squeeze on churches and mosques. Eritrea ranks tenth on the WWL in the category Extreme Persecution.

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