Open Doors unveiled on Tuesday its annual World Watch List of the top ten countries with the worst Christian persecution. Dr. Carl Moeller, president/CEO of Open Doors USA, talked to The Christian Post about some of the notable changes that were made to the list since last year as well as his expectations regarding religious freedom under newly installed President Barack Obama.
CP: Were there any surprises in the top 10 World Watch List this year? Anything you would like to highlight about the list overall?
Moeller: Two things in the top ten that I'd like to highlight. First of all, Somalia's reemergence as really a horrible, horrible place. Christians have always been persecuted there, at least for the last several decades. But in the World Watch List, they made a move back into the top 10 this year. At the fifth worst place to be a Christian, Afghanistan is another place that moved up on the list this year.
Also noteworthy is Somalia and Eritrea that are both in the top ten. You can see that that part of Africa has just been hammered. The Christian community there has just been hammered.
But interestingly, both China and Bhutan dropped out of the top ten - both Asian countries. China is an enigma, of course, in many ways in terms of persecution. There has never been greater openness in China, but at the same time - having spent some time there in the last several years, particularly just a few months ago - we still hear direct reports from individuals who have been arrested and interrogated, even held for several days without being told why. And this type of persecution continues to go on especially in more rural areas.
So you can say there are a number of surprises in this list. In the top 10 those are the surprises.
There are other surprises, particularly in India and Algeria, which were raised a number of places in the list. Those places have seen dramatic rises in persecution. They are not yet in the top 10, but we're keeping an eye on India in particular as a place where increasing anti-Christian violence by Hindu nationalists has taken center stage.
CP: Has North Korea always been ranked the No. 1 worst Christian persecutor since Open Doors has begun releasing the list?
Moeller: Not since the beginning of the list, but for several years. Over a decade ago we didn't have enough information nor enough knowledge to really rank North Korea adequately. It was in the last decade that we known more information through our contacts and co-workers who were able to get us first-hand information.
You see, the World Watch List is very much a ground-oriented, first-hand account type of report. We are not using other people's data. This is something that Open Doors is very committed to having - first-hand reports. As we rank these countries, North Korea continues to dominate the discussion because it is so intense. The persecution there is so dramatically bad for Christians that it can't help but be ranked each year at the top of the list.
So for the past seven years that's where it has been.
CP: Out of all 50 countries listed in the World Watch List, which country do you think does not get enough coverage on their Christian persecution situation? Which one would you like people to know more about?
Moeller: Part of my heart says you have what there is to say about all 50 of the countries. These are all places where Christians suffer simply for being a Christian. But I think one of the places that continue to tug at my heart is Pakistan. In Pakistan we have a situation where a traditional, historic church – which has been there literally since the time of the apostles - and a minority Christian community that continues to face horrendous discrimination.
But not only them, but also the thousands of Muslims who have turned to faith in Jesus Christ and have come to meet this prophet in their [former] religion as their Lord and Savior. They face an extremely precarious situation in Pakistan. As a Muslim background believer, their lives are subject to daily threats by family members and by the society they live in.
I think most Americans need to remember that when they see Pakistan listed as one of the most dangerous places on earth, it is not just a general statement. It is actually more intensely bad for the Christians that exist in Pakistan.
CP: Which country would Open Doors say had the most improvement over the past year in respect of religious freedom? What types of improvements were there?
Moeller: Two countries with major positive developments in measurement of persecution were Vietnam and Columbia. Vietnam is ranked No. 23. As little as two years ago it was No. 8 on the list. The improvement in Vietnam has been really remarkable. However, it is very clear that in local areas in Vietnam, particularly the highlands and tribal areas, there is still intense persecution against Christian believers there. So it's not off the list and certainly it is not even on the bottom half of the list yet but the improvement there is rather substantial.
Likewise for Columbia, which for many years had figured highly on the persecution list, this year dropped off out of the top 50. That doesn't mean, again, that persecution has stopped in Columbia, but the incidence of persecution were such that they no longer rank up in the top 50 countries in the world.
CP: Do you any reason to hope for improved religious freedom in these countries under an Obama administration? President Obama has expressed willingness to talk to leaders of some of these rogue states listed among the top 10 worst Christian persecutors.
Moeller: Considering the fact that 7 out of the top 10 countries are Islamic countries, and given President Obama's commitment to broadening the Islamic world's understanding of America and our policies in terms of religious liberty, I think that we can hope that this would be a positive development. I think that the President has given us as well as other members of the religious liberty and human rights community a great deal of optimism because of their commitment of promoting human rights around the world. Time will tell.
And our position as Americans shouldn't be confused with compromising our values of religious liberty in order to obtain peace in different parts of the world. I think we continue to need to be ... and one charge that we would have to the new administration, is to continue to hold up the most basic American value – that is of religious liberty as a key component of national and international policy in relationship to these countries. So we are hopeful but we are also going to be watching closely for ways in which we can help the process forward.