Islamic Saudi Arabia and communist North Korea are expected to be the world's worst persecutors of Christians in 2008, a church persecution advocacy group predicted.
In both countries, Christianity is illegal and practice of the religion is strictly forbidden and results in severe punishments.
"In 2008 millions of Christians will face persecution," said Andy Dipper, CEO of U.K.-based Release International, which released the survey of Christian persecution in the new year.
"They're our family. If it was your husband, wife, daughter or son behind bars you'd move heaven and earth to help them," he said. "So what better new year's resolution than to take your stand with your brothers and sisters imprisoned for their faith?"
According to Release, most of the persecution of Christians in 2008 will take place in four "zones" – Islam, Communism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Harassment can originate from the government or its agents – such as the secret police, military, and judiciary – or from non-governmental movements, such as militant Islamic groups.
In the Islam zone, Saudi Arabia stands out not only for its extremely harsh laws against all religion other than the Wahhabi branch of Islam, but also because it spends millions each year disseminating Islamic teachings around the world.
These religious literatures have been accused by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) of spreading intolerance among young Muslims by teaching them to hate "infidels," or non-believers.
Besides Saudi Arabia, moderate Muslim countries are also guilty of not providing enough protection for their Christian minorities.
In moderate countries such as Egypt and Turkey, Christians still suffer from kidnapping, forced conversion to Islam, imprisonment, destruction of churches, execution, rape of Christian girls, torture, and discrimination in education, employment, housing and legal system.
"Islamist militants often view Christians and non-Muslims as infidels, who must be converted, by force if necessary, or be killed or driven out of Islamic lands," according to Release. "They believe it is their religious duty to impose Islamic Sharia law throughout their nation."
Meanwhile, in communist regimes such as China, Cuba, and North Korea, believers face a more systemic form of persecution that involves house arrest, interrogation, fines, and imprisonment.
But in North Korea, which remains arguably the world's worst persecutor of Christians, believers are imprisoned in special labor camps, brutally tortured and even publicly executed.
"Pressures include an absolute ban on owning a Bible, assembling to pray or to read the Scriptures, and evangelism – even of one's own children," said Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea. Helping Hands, a partner of Release International, helps refugees escape North Korea.
Peters added, "Being discovered as a member of the underground church inside North Korea can result in one's entire family being sent to a prison camp, and even torture and summary execution in extreme cases."
In the Hindu zone, Christians face extremists who have lately increased attacks against not only believers in Jesus but also Muslims. This Hindu nationalism is linked to one of the country's largest political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is associated with a number of militant Hindu groups.
Believers are also persecuted in Buddhist Burma and Sri Lanka where religious militants regard Christianity as a threat to national identity and unity.
"Persecution is part of the normal Christian life – just as Jesus warned. But Jesus also told us to love one another, sacrificially," said Release International's Dipper. "And the Bible encourages us to bear one another's burdens.
"At Release we've found it an immense privilege to stand with these faithful, overcoming Christians in prayer and in providing practical support," he said, "And we have so much to learn from them."
Release International works to support persecuted Christians in some 30 countries through its global network. The organization supports Christians imprisoned for their faith and the family they left behind. It also helps church workers, pastors and evangelists by providing training, Bibles, Christian literature and broadcasts.
Other efforts include reconstructing Christian homes destroyed in riots and providing legal aid, shelter, medicine and welfare.
Release International is a member of UK organizations Global Connections, the Evangelical Alliance and the Micah Network.