Persecution watchdog Open Doors USA has released its annual "World Watch List," which rates countries based on the level of religious persecution it inflicts on Christian believers. CEO Carl Moeller tells The Christian Post that, despite the situation for persecuted Christians, the Gospel has been gaining ground.
The list is compiled from a survey completed by field workers, prosecuted believers, and indigenous contacts that asks specific questions pertaining to religious freedom.
This year's report saw some expected results, but also major surprises, including a large jump in Islam majority countries, as well as the spread of Christianity in unexpected places.
North Korea Still on Top
North Korea topped the list for the tenth straight time. According to Open Doors, "There are an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians being held in North Korean prison camps where they face even more horrific treatment than other prisoners."
As Open Doors reports, North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-un, appears likely to extended efforts to eradicate Christianity in the oppressive country, with four government surveillance groups monitoring the belief practices of the communist country's citizens.
Any religious worship besides that directed toward the royal family is highly restricted in North Korea.
The other nine countries in the top 10 have a predominately Islamic population and include, in order of highest persecution: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Iran, the Maldives, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan.
The Future of Iraq and Afghanistan
Iraq and Afghanistan pose an especially foreboding future with the lack of a U.S. presence. Since Dec. 2011, all U.S. troops had been removed from Iraq, and 100,000 troops removed from Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately the situation for Christians in Iraq and Afghanistan only promises to become more of a crisis," Open Doors President and CEO Carl Moeller told The Christian Post.
"One of the tragedies of the American engagement in both Afghanistan and Iraq is we are leaving countries that we have spent billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, both in casualties and in deaths, to liberate," he added.
Moeller went on to say that there is arguably less religious liberty now in both Afghanistan and Iraq than there was 10 years ago, when the U.S. first entered Afghanistan.
"It’s open season on Christians in Baghdad and Mosul and our expectation is that things in those countries will get markedly worse in the short term," Moeller said.
Nigeria and Sudan Jump Up the List
The countries of Nigeria and Sudan have also seen a large amount of religious persecution this past year, directed especially at Christians. These two countries jumped the most spots on this year’s list, with Nigeria rising from number 23 to 13 and Sudan from number 35 to 16.
Moeller contends that there is a "real tightening on the visible Christian Church" in these areas, designating Nigeria as "one of the worst places now for violence against Christians."
"The belt across the part of Africa that separates Northern Africa from sub-Saharan Africa has become a flashpoint for violence against Christians by Muslim extremists," Moeller told CP.
Nigeria had the most martyrs in 2011, with 300 recorded deaths. Fears of kidnappings and shrinking church funds often prevent Sudanese Christians from practicing their faith.
"The Book of Quran wants to exterminate Christians from that country. It’s committed to violent action in order to do that," Moeller said.
Religious Plurality Under an Islam-Led Government
Egypt, which has also seen severe Christian persecution since the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in February, ranked the highest among all Arab Spring countries at number 15.
Christians are particularly fearful of their future in Egypt, as the Muslim Brotherhood has won the majority of seats in parliamentary elections. Christians fear the Brotherhood will incorporate interpretation of Islamic Sharia law into politics and government action.
Moeller argues that it is Islamic extremism, both in religious and family pressure, that poses the biggest threat to the future of Christianity in the Middle East.
"As those governments become more aligned with the radical Islamism elements within them, within their societies, it may well be that there’s more and more government sanctioned and sponsored persecution in those countries," Moeller said.
Hope in Unlikely Places
There exists a paradox of persecution in that the Gospel is gaining unprecedented ground in some of the most persecuted countries. China, North Korea, and Islamic countries have all seen church growth in light of growing persecution.
Although the established church in these countries suffers great violence, it is the underground, invisible church that continues to grow. Christians are putting their lives at risk for their continued faith.
According to Moeller, a fourth stream of Christianity has arisen in the Middle East’s invisible church, known as the Muslim Background Believer Church.
"Men and women, out of emptiness of their current situation spiritually, are turning to faith in Jesus Christ despite the literally lethal risks in doing so," Moeller said.
"That’s only attributable to the work of the Holy Spirit."