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Christian persecution increases; N. Korea still No. 1

WASHINGTON (BP) — North Korea ranks as the most dangerous country for Christians for the 16th consecutive time after a year in which the persecution of followers of Jesus continued to rise, according to a new report.

Release of the annual World Watch List from Open Doors USA came as religious freedom advocates call for President-elect Trump to act in the first 100 days of his administration to protect Christians and other people of faith overseas.

About 215 million Christians underwent “high, very high or extreme persecution” last year in the 50 countries on its watch list, Open Doors reported Wednesday (Jan. 11). Open Doors — which has served the persecuted church overseas for more than 60 years — defines persecution as hostility endured by a person because of his identification with Christ. It can include loss of property, imprisonment, torture, rape and death.

According to Open Doors, the top 10 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution and their totals on a 100-point system are: (1) North Korea, 92 points; (2) Somalia, 91; (3) Afghanistan, 89; (4) Pakistan, 88; (5) Sudan, 87; (6) Syria, 86; (7) Iraq, 86; (8) Iran, 85; (9) Yemen, 85; (10) Eritrea, 82.

Open Doors’ list “is a crucial and sobering source of information to help Christians know how to pray and advocate for their persecuted brothers and sisters,” said Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy, as well as general counsel, of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This advocacy makes a real difference in shaping U.S. policy, which can in turn play a crucial role in protecting the persecuted church around the world.”

In written remarks for Baptist Press, Wussow encouraged “all believers to review the report and select one or two countries and pray for the church there by name.”

David Curry, president of Open Doors, said in a written statement the list clearly shows Christians in the West “need to advocate on behalf of those who do not have the same religious freedom privileges we do.”

Curry and others have urged Trump, who will be inaugurated Jan. 20, to take steps in the opening days of his administration to protect international religious liberty. The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative has drafted — and solicited signers to — a letter urging the president-elect to retain or nominate in his first 100 days an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and a special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia.

Both those positions in the U.S. State Department could be vacant by the end of January.

David Saperstein, whose work as ambassador-at-large the last two years has been commended by conservatives and liberals, apparently will have to leave his post by the inauguration, according to a Trump transition memo first reported by The New York Times, World magazine said in a Jan. 9 article.

Knox Thames, also highly regarded across the board for his service the last 16 months as the first special advisor for religious minorities, will lose his job Jan. 31 unless the Trump administration retains him, World reported.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. — a Southern Baptist — told World, “During this unconventional transition, I encourage the Trump administration to make religious freedom positions a priority and maintain key offices within the State Department.”

Though North Korea is a communist country that enforces worship of its leader, Muslim extremism remained the primary force driving persecution last year, with Islamic forces instigating it in 35 of the 50 countries, according to Open Doors.

Persecution increased especially in South and Southeast Asia, reaching levels of violence experienced in such areas as the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, Open Doors reported. In Asia, the persecution was “fueled by dramatic religious nationalism and government insecurity,” according to Open Doors. Commonly, teetering governments scapegoated Christians.

Pakistan, which moved from No. 6 to No. 4 this year, was the most violent country, surpassing the violence in northern Nigeria by Muslims against Christians. India reached its highest ranking ever at No. 15 because of Hindu violence toward Christians.

In its research to compile the World Watch List, Open Doors measures the freedom of Christians in five areas of life — private, family, community, national and church. Its researchers also gauge the degree of violence.

Release of the latest Open Doors list followed a Dec. 30 report of a study by the Italian-based Center for Studies on New Religions, which found Christians are the world’s most persecuted faith group. Using an admittedly broader definition of dying for religious reasons, the study reported nearly 90,000 Christians died for their faith in 2016, according to the International Business Times.

The full report of the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List is available at https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/.

Last year, the State Department designated 10 “countries of particular concern,” a category reserved for especially severe violators of religious liberty. They were Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.