Egyptian Christians shout as ambulances transport the bodies of victims killed in the bombing of Cairo's main Coptic cathedral to the funeral, in Cairo, Egypt, on Dec. 12, 2016.
Egyptian Christians shout as ambulances transport the bodies of victims killed in the bombing of Cairo's main Coptic cathedral to the funeral, in Cairo, Egypt, on Dec. 12, 2016. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah )

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President-elect Donald Trump must help persecuted religious groups around the world or his administration will fail, said the leader of a nonprofit at the release of its annual list of the most dangerous countries for Christians.

Religious liberty "is the central issue that they're going to have to deal with, whether you're looking at it through the lens of immigration, whether you're looking at it through the lens of terrorism," said David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which aids Christians threatened by hostile governments and extremist groups.

"We're hopeful that they take it seriously. If they don't I think we will see this administration fail," said Curry, who met with aides to Trump in October.

Unveiling the list, Open Doors and its supporters in Congress pointed to Islamic extremists as the most deadly force around the world for Christians, followed by governments hostile to Christianity, led by North Korea. Curry said the plight of repressed Christians has deteriorated, as it has in the past several years.

"2016 was the worst year of persecution of Christians on record, with a shocking 215 million Christians experiencing high levels of persecution for their faith," he said. "Nearly one in every 12 Christians in the world today lives in an area or in a culture in which Christianity is illegal, forbidden or punished."

"And yet today the world is largely silent on the shocking wave of religious intolerance," he added.

North Korea tops the list — tabulated with an equation that takes into account crimes against Christians and restrictions on practice — for the 15th consecutive year. Somalia, where the Islamic militia al-Shabab terrorizes Christians, came in second.

The rest of the top ten resembles a scrambled version of last year's list, but with the addition of Yemen and the dropping of Libya from 10th to 11th place.

  • North Korea
  • Somalia
  • Afghanistan
  • Pakistan
  • Sudan
  • Syria
  • Iraq
  • Iran
  • Yemen
  • Eritrea

The persecution of Christians "is not something that happened 2,000 years ago that we read about in the Bible," said U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., who spoke at the Washington press conference at which the 2017 World Watch List, was released.

The list is 50 countries long, with the most problematic concentrated in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Aderholt was joined by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who has tried to push persecuted religious minorities higher on the agenda of both Congress and presidential administrations during his 37 years in the House. Smith said he hadn't talked to Trump about the issue, but had given a copy of a bill he is sponsoring to strengthen protections for Christians abroad to Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

Knox Thames, the special advisor for religious minorities in Near East and South Central Asia at the State Department, said the U.S. relies on the work of Open Doors and must continue to speak out against blasphemy laws around the world – statutes that punish people for speech and acts deemed offensive to the government's view of religion.

"The stakes could not be higher for religious minorities," Thames said, and included atheists, members of Muslim minorities, Yazidis, Baha'is and others among those who are suffering. He also urged the next administration to appoint an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

The position, now held by Rabbi David Saperstein, in the past it has taken months or longer for the president and Senate to fill.

"Pastor Edward," a Syrian Christian who works with Open Doors and who has had the opportunity to flee his country but opted to stay and minister to his flock, came to the release of the watch list to describe Christians' plight in the Syrian civil war.

"We thank God for the opportunity that we are there," he said.

© 2017 Religion News Service. All rights reserved.

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