Global persecution continues to grow, but so does the church
The level of persecution faced Christians around the world is continuing to rise, shows Open Doors' 25th World Watch List, published on 11 January. The list highlights the 50 countries in the world where persecution is most severe.
Open Doors seeks to support persecuted Christians worldwide through various means, including advocacy, providing Bibles and other Christian materials, and offering training and livelihood skills.
Despite the growing persecution, the report highlighted that the church continues to grow, with a particular rise in believers from a Muslim background.
The report will be discussed in the House of Commons at a cross-party launch hosted by Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP.
North Korea tops list again
The World Watch List works on a 'points-based' system. The higher the number, the greater the chance the country's inhabitants will face hardships because of their faith.
For the 15th year in a row, North Korea is the country where Christians experience the most persecution.
Somalia has risen from seventh to second, replacing Iraq which came second place last year.
"If a Christian is discovered in Somalia, they are unlikely to live to see another day. Just the suspicion that someone is a Christian can lead to a rushed beheading," said Lisa Pearce, CEO of Open Doors UK and Ireland.
'Squeeze' and 'smash'
World Watch Research distinguishes two main expressions of persecution against Christians, which it labels 'squeeze' (the suffocating pressure Christians experience in all areas of life) and 'smash' (violence).
Violence, including killings, rape, kidnappings and church burnings, was most commonly found in countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Syria and India.
The 'squeeze' method is more complex – it is the silencing of the Christian faith in the areas of private life, family life, community life, national life and church life. Countries such as North Korea, Somalia and Saudi Arabia experienced the highest levels of this.
Violence and foreign aid
Pakistan, which came fourth on the list, is the country where Christians experience the most violence.
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has previously spoken about the use of foreign aid in countries like Pakistan. He told BBC Radio 4 in 2015:
"I think we have to make sure that aid is properly targeted, that it is not tied, for example, to British commercial interests and certainly not to aid in corruption," he said.
"It is right, for example, for Britain to give educational assistance to Pakistan… but we have to be sure that this aid will not be used, for example, to further propagate the teaching of hate in textbooks."
Islamic extremism biggest cause
Islamic extremism remains the most common cause of pressure against Christians. In fact, Islamic extremism fuels persecution in 14 out of the top 20 countries, and 35 of the top 50.
The report shows that this is rising most sharply in Africa, where more people are killed for their Christian faith than anywhere else in the world.
In the Middle East, Christians in countries like Syria and Iraq continue to be targeted by militant groups such as ISIS.
The good news
Despite the enormous scale of persecution in many countries, the report also found encouraging news: The church is growing.
There has been a sharp rise in believers from a Muslim background, partly due to Muslims being exposed to the extremism of their own religion.
The report also found that some Christians who were driven from their homes in parts of Iraq, are determined to return to their towns and villages, after some of them have now been liberated.
"We will go back with a greater determination to keep freedom defended," said one church leader in Iraq.
The 2017 Open Doors World Watch List (Open Doors)
Nationalism in Asia, Islamic extremism in Africa – the 2017 World Watch List (World Watch Monitor)
North Korea heads surge in Christian persecution worldwide, dramatic rise in India (Christian Today)
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali discusses the use of UK aid in countries where Christians are persecuted (SoundCloud)