Pressure on Christians intensified in a number of countries in 2013, with the situation deteriorating most rapidly across northern Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf in countries where sectarian violence has advanced unchecked by impotent central governments.
The findings are contained in the Open Doors 2014 World Watch List, the only annual global survey of Christian religious freedom. The list ranks the 50 countries most hostile to Christians during the 12-month period ending Oct. 31, 2013.
Open Doors carries out extensive research globally on five spheres of life – private, family, community, national and church, plus a sixth sphere measuring the degree of violence.
Since the first list was published in 2002, the number-one spot has been held by North Korea, where exposed Christians face long prison terms or execution.
“It cannot be right that amidst such widespread and ongoing persecution of Christians, many of the international community simply look away,” said Lisa Pearce, deputy CEO of Open Doors U.K. and Ireland.
“This shocking research demonstrates how important it is that church and government do more to protect religious liberty, a fundamental human right.”
Among the top 10 on the list are six countries where the government has little or no control: Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Syria is number three, up from number 11 a year ago. The continuing civil war has afflicted all segments of society, but Christians have paid an especially high price, often at the hands of imported jihadists. In October, Islamist militias killed 46 Christians in Sadad.
At number eight, Pakistan has a huge number of extremists because the national government does little to control local politicians who provide room for anti-Christian pressure to grow.
In October, two suicide bombers killed 96 Christians at a church in Peshawar, believed to be the worst single act of anti-Christian violence since Pakistan was created in 1947.
The Central African Republic (CAR) joined the list for the first time at number 16, having spiraled into anarchy since the March overthrow of the government by an Islamist-dominated rebel coalition.
In the months since, rebel attacks on Christian villages have killed thousands and driven up to a million people from their homes. The U.N. peacekeeping force has since struggled to prevent escalation of violence.
Of the top 10 countries on the list, all but North Korea are majority Muslim. Continuing a 15-year trend, militant Islam is a growing source of pressure on Christians and has become the primary driver of persecution in 36 of the 50 countries on the list.
The result is especially violent in sub-Saharan Africa. Four sub-Saharan countries rank among the 10 most violent countries for Christians in 2013: Central African Republic, Nigeria, Eritrea and Sudan.
Somalia, at number two, is the first sub-Saharan nation to rank at the top of the World Watch List.
It is largely governed by militia-backed clans, not a central government, and prominent Islamic leaders regularly proclaim there is no place for Christians in the country.
“In this country, a Christian cannot trust anyone,” a Somali Christian said. “One false confidence and you literally lose your head.”
Beyond Africa and the Middle East, several Asian countries climbed the list.
In India, which rose from 31st in 2013 to 28th in the current list, the Hindu nationalist movement behind the Bharatiya Janata Party broadened its reach.
Two Asian countries not included on the 2013 list are included in 2014.
Sri Lanka ranked 29th, due largely to increased violence and the emergence of a Buddhist extremist movement that has targeted Christians and Muslims.
Bangladesh is 48th, primarily because of a new Islamist extremist group demanding the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law.
No country rose further on the World Watch List in 2014 than Colombia, which ranked 46th a year ago and is 25th on the current list.
Open Doors says the higher ranking is due partly to better research methods, and partly to a greater number of reports of violence toward Christians in 2013.
A common source of violence is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has become more involved in the drug trade and has attacked Christians who oppose the illegal activity.
Founded in 1955, Open Doors is an international charity serving persecuted Christians in more than 50 countries around the world.
An estimated 100 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest and even death for their faith in Christ, with millions more facing discrimination and alienation.
A version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times of Great Britain and is used with permission.