Islamic and authoritarian nations once again dominate the 2017 World Watch List of nations most hostile to Christians, and the group behind the list says persecution of believers around the world is getting worse all the time.
Compiled by the Christian organization Open Doors USA, the list of 50 nations is divided into three categories. The ten worst nations are described as inflicting extreme persecution, the next 20 nations are accused of severe persecution, while the remaining 20 are named for moderate persecution.
Open Doors USA President and CEO Dr. David Curry says a lot of factors go into the evaluation of each nation.
“What’s it like for a person in their private life? What happens if they become a Christian in the family setting or the community setting? Do they lose their job? Are the police forces after them? And of course violence is a factor,” said Curry.
“At the top of the list, you’re talking about places where all of the factors are in the high level of persecution, where you have national persecution, family persecution, or at the personal level. That’s part of the factors. But there should be no mistake. If you’re on the World Watch List, even in the top 50, there are significant issues there,” said Curry.
North Korea remains the worst of the worst.
“Things aren’t getting better in North Korea. Things are very difficult for Christians there. It’s the sixteenth year in a row North Korea has been at the top. In the 25 years we’ve done it, there are only a couple of countries that have been number one,” said Curry.
“In North Korea, the cultish government enforces worship of their leaders, uses the power of the government. (Christians would) be arrested and put in labor camps,” said Curry.
Shooting up the list from seventh to a very close second place is Somalia.
“In Somalia, if you’re even rumored to have become a Christian, you can be executed on the spot by mob violence, by extremists,” said Curry.
He says Islamic nations makes up 70 percent of the of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians.
“Thirty-five of the top 50 countries have Islamic extremism as a factor. It’s something we’ve continued to see. What’s different this year is the spread into sub-Saharan Africa, the growth of the extremist movement’s infrastructure, the spreading of technical expertise into some of these countries. It does not portend well into the future,” said Curry.
Curry says even Islamic nations that have dropped on the list like Eritrea and Saudi Arabia are only looking better because other countries are getting worse.
“You have countries like Eritrea, which is the government using Sharia law. They’re number ten on the list. Very difficult for Christians. Saudi Arabia is on the list at 14. They have total control, through the kingdom, of religious faith. People aren’t allowed to decide for themselves what they want to do. They can’t go to church. They can’t have a Bible. There’s not a lot of violence in Saudi Arabia against Christians, largely because there aren’t many,” said Curry.
Turkey jumps eight spots in the World Watch List to number 37 after a year of political and terrorist turmoil.
“Extremism seems to be growing there. The government is going to use it’s force against Christian churches. That would add another layer of complexity,” said Curry.
A smaller number of nations are trying to tie the practice of religion with fidelity to the state. India, the world’s largest democracy, is now up to fifteenth on the list.
“People are saying, ‘You’re not Indian if you’re not an extremist Hindu.’ Lots of people in India are Christian, millions and millions, and there is a rising tide of violence against them. There are groups that publicize they want to rid India of Christians by 2021. The Modi government has thus far done nothing to stop it,” said Curry.
China, which was much higher on the list in past years, is now ranked at number 39. Curry says there had been some marginal improvements there but things are looking more ominous as a result of nationalist impulses.
“Just last week, the president of China spoke out against the pope and basically said, ‘We would give you freedom if you’d just be more Chinese.’ They want the church to be an arm and organ of the state and to rubber stamp the cultural impact of communism. And of course the church isn’t going to do that,” said Curry.
Only two nations in the Western Hemisphere make the list, Mexico (#41) and Colombia (#50). Curry says believers there face a different problem than autocratic governments and radical Islamic groups.
“When people are living their faith, they’ll speak out against organized crime. That’s happened in Mexico. It’s happening in Colombia. As such, the cartels strike out,” said Curry.
“In one part of Mexico, a dozen pastors – maybe more – were executed for their faith when they spoke out against drug cartels,” said Curry. “Yes, you’re free to choose your faith in Mexico. But when you stand up for what Jesus is talking about, the cartels and organized crime will sometimes strike out against you.”
While the trends are bleak, there are some encouraging signs. Azerbaijan dropped off the list after ranking thirty-fourth in 2016. And even though war-ravaged Syria (#6) is still a desperate place in many ways, Curry reasons for encouragement there.
“There are some hopeful signs. One of them is the vibrancy of the church in Syria that remains and the growth of the church in the Middle East, the new branches of Christianity from people who are coming to know faith personally through the tragedy of what’s happened through the Islamic State,” said Curry.
As part of the roll-out for the World Watch List, Curry says Open Doors USA met with the incoming Trump administration to implore them to make religious liberty a priority around the world.
“What we’ve encouraged them to do is take action in the first 90 days to appoint the right people at the State Department and other parts of government, to make sure that the U.S. government is using it’s policies to support the basic human right of religious freedom,” said Curry.
But he says churches and individual believers also have a role to play.
“Every church in America should be praying through this list on Sunday morning and being heard. If millions of Christians wrote letters and let people know they cared about this, the policymakers would certainly move,” said Curry, who notes that Open Doors USA has resources available to help guide your correspondence with our elected leaders.