North Korea - effectively a non-religious state - topped an annual list of countries where Christians are persecuted the worst, according to an international missionary organization. But it said whole Christian populations face possible eradication in Muslim countries, including Syria and Iraq, which accounted for most of the spots in the top 10.
“The World Watch List,” is published annually by Open Doors, an organization that was founded in the 1950s to smuggle Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. It is one of many conservative Christian groups that say Western media and politicians are not taking the plight of their fellow believers seriously.
“The world still does not get it,” David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, told a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. “The persecution of Christians is real, it is horrifically violent often, and it is spreading at an unprecedented rate.”
Curry conceded that reliable information is hard to come by from North Korea - a closed state where the free exercise of religion is banned and the ruling family expects to be worshiped as semi-deities. Still, it led the rankings for the 13th year in a row, he said, because it is a place “where even to be caught in possession of a Bible” is banned.
But violence by Islamic extremists plays a role in 40 other of the top 50 countries on the list, he said.
Iraq and Syria are ranked third and fourth respectively largely, Curry said, because of “the displacement of an entire population and Christian culture in this region” by the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State.
He expressed concern that Africa now accounts for four of the top countries, including for the first time Nigeria, where an insurgency led by the Muslim group Boko Haram has killed thousands of people.
While many of the countries on the Open Doors’ list are also found on more general rankings of top human rights violators - by the U.N., the State Department, and non-governmental organizations, Curry said the persecution of Christians is “a bellwether for the other human rights issues.”
“When people begin to attack people for the expression of their faith, you see the rest of the societal issues start to pop up,” he said.
Nina Shea, who directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told the news conference that she prefers the term “religious cleansing” over persecution to refer to what Christians are facing in the Muslim countries. She estimates between one third and one half of all Iraqi Christians have fled the country in the past decade.
In an interview after the press conference, she said that while hundreds of thousands of Muslims have also sought refuge from the Islamic State militants and are in U.N. camps in northern Iraq, they will eventually be able to count on the support of sectarian leaders and governments when stability returns to the region.
“We cannot be sure that there will be a Christian presence,” she said. “In fact, it seems to be almost eradicated now.”