Int'l (MNN) — A priority for Open Doors is keeping track of the world's countries according to the intensity of persecution Christians face for actively pursuing their faith. Today, Open Doors released the 2013 World Watch List, and there are a few surprises.
The most notable trend Open Doors researchers found was the increase of persecution in Africa. Fundamentalist variations of Islam rapidly gained influence on the continent. On the one hand, this was due to focused attacks, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria (#13). On the other hand, the influence of Islam increased through infiltration in different social and economic areas. Open Doors saw a similar pattern in several African countries.
According to Paul Estabrooks with Open Doors, "There were five newcomers on the top 50 list. In fact, one of them jumped all the way to Number 7 in the top ten. That was a huge surprise. That was Mali. The other four are Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Niger."
Why are they on the list now? Eastabrooks says, "These countries of Africa are experiencing Islamism more significantly than they have before, and it's resulted in challenges for Christians in those countries and a deterioration of that situation."
Tanzania (#24), Kenya (#40), Uganda (#47) and Niger (#50) also moved onto the World Watch List, and Ethiopia is one of the strongest risers (from #38 to #15) on the list. In addition, the small African country of Eritrea made the Top 10 for the first time at #10. Libya climbed from #26 to #17.
"We do not necessarily distinguish one overall plan from one source in the whole of Africa. However, we do see that radical Islamic groups are patiently waiting for the right time to show their power," says Jerry Dykstra, a spokesman for Open Doors. "Apart from the pattern of violent attacks, we see that radical Muslims are infiltrating into politics, business, and the judicial power, such as introducing Sharia family courts. On a number of occasions, Muslims were ready to step into a power vacuum: take Mali, for example, where Touareg rebels and Muslim fundamentalists gained power in April 2012."
"Mali used to be a model country," says Dykstra. "The situation in the north used to be a bit tense, but Christians and even missionaries could be active. Currently, the situation in northern Mali is somewhat similar to Saudi Arabia. Christians are simply no longer allowed to be there."
A pastor from the northern part of Mali told Open Doors that he was informed that Muslim fundamentalists were planning to kill all Christians. He warned all the members of his congregation to leave. That happened. Hundreds of Christians fled from the north to the south of the country or neighboring countries.
North Korea is still #1 when it comes to persecution of Christians. For the 11th consecutive year, the hermit communist country heads the World Watch List. Possessing a Bible alone can be a reason for a Christian to be executed or sent to a prison camp along with three generations of his or her family. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians suffer in horrific prison camps. The intense persecution has continued under new leader Kim Jong-un. The number of defectors to China greatly decreased in 2012, and half of those who try to defect do not make it.
"Nothing much has changed under new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un," says Dykstra. "In fact, persecution of Christians has increased. Reportedly one labor camp alone could hold up to 6,000 Christians."
Apart from North Korea, the Top 10 on the World Watch List consists of eight countries where extreme Islam poses the largest threat for Christians. They are (from #2 to #9): Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, and Yemen. Worldwide, Open Doors reports an increase in the persecution of Christians.
Outside of Mali, Syria made the largest jump on the World Watch List. The country is 11th on the list, compared to 36th in 2012. For years under the regime of President Assad, Christians were allowed the freedom to worship but not evangelize. Estabrooks says, "Many Christians have fled the country because the opposition to the Assad Regime is predominately Islamic. They are Islamists. They are strong believers that Islam should dominate all of society, and they have very little tolerance for Christians."
Is there good news? Yes. China continued its descent on the World Watch List. Estabrooks says, "Five years ago, China was in the top 10 countries where persecution was severe. Now, China has dropped significant. Last year it was #21. This year it has dropped down to #37." However, house searches, arrests, and the confiscation of Bibles and Christian books no longer occur on a large scale. Instead, the government forces many church leaders to keep an accounting for their whereabouts–a way to keep them subdued and under control. At least 100 Chinese Christians are still in prison.
Egypt has also descended on the World Watch List, going from 15th to 25th. Nevertheless, the country's score does not show any improvement. The drop is a result of Open Doors' change in methodology to monitor and chart the persecution of Christians. The Christians with a Muslim background are facing the most serious problems. Apart from that, Egypt is going through a difficult stage. Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are gaining more power after the election of Mohammed Morsi last summer.
More than ever before, the World Watch List provides an insight into the overall spectrum of the persecution of Christians in all spheres of life (private, family, community, national, and church.) The freedom to come together and the degree in which Christians are exposed to acts of violence are also included in the monitoring. This results in a balanced scoring, taking into account both the impact of violent incidents and less visible, structural developments threatening the position of Christians.
To get the entire World Watch list, click here.