Muhammad Karim of Pakistan competes.
Muhammad Karim of Pakistan competes. (REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler)

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The Olympic Games are meant to bring countries together—on a world stage—to promote peace and unity between the nations. Watching the Olympic Games also allows us to broaden our understanding of other cultures—the customs, traditions and beauty of each country is on full display through the participating athletes.

Many countries that have differences put them aside for two weeks as they compete for gold. But of course, there are realities that don't go away during the games. Countries at war don't necessarily have a cease fire; human rights abuses don't disappear; and for Christians in many of the countries participating in the games, religious persecution doesn't end.

In all, there are 13 countries who are participating in the Winter Olympics who are also on the 2018 World Watch List, an authoritative international report on the 50 countries where it's most difficult to be a Christian.

And you don't have to look far from the host country of South Korea to see one of the greatest oppressors of religious freedom. North Korea is No. 1 on the World Watch List and has been for 17 consecutive years. Kim Jong-Un, who enlisted his sister, Kim Yo-Jong, to represent North Korea at the opening ceremony, is well-known for his dictatorial leadership and disdain for any outside free thought or religious expression.

The oppressive regime in North Korea sees Christians as hostile threats to the government and in need of eradication. According to the World Watch Research unit, there are an estimated 300,000 Christians in North Korea who worship Jesus in secret at risk of imprisonment or even death.

North Korean Christians like Hannah*, along with her family, know exactly what it's like to be sent to one of these prison camps. Hannah was arrested, along with her family members, when they tried to escape through China.

"Conditions at the prison were horrific," Hannah says. "Early on, one inmate—a Korean mother who was pregnant by a Chinese man—was ordered to kill her baby upon delivery. When the mother refused, the prison official put the gun to the head of another woman and forced her to strangle the baby while all the other inmates watched."

After this, Hannah's family knew they had come into the hardest trials they had ever faced.

"We were separated by gender. My daughter and I were put in the female wing, and my husband and son—who was just a teenager—in a cell with males. We were all called for interrogation and questions. They'd beat us so harshly. When there was no interrogation, we had to kneel in our cells from 5 a.m to 12 p.m and not speak," she says.

Hannah was eventually released from prison, along with her family, and managed to escape to South Korea, but many Christians don't make it to freedom.

In countries like Pakistan, No. 5 on the World Watch List, persecution toward Christians comes from radical Islamic groups that flourish under the favor of political parties, the army and the government. These radical groups run thousands of Islamic centers where youth are taught and encouraged to persecute religious minorities like Christians.

In a recent report, a Christian boy named Sharoon was beaten to death in his classroom for drinking water out of a cup for Muslims. Crimes like these happen all too often and they're difficult to prosecute in countries where Christians are seen as infidels and an untouchable caste, even if the official stance of the government supposedly protects religious minorities.

And in countries like Eritrea, No. 6 on the World Watch List, Christians are often arrested and detained in infamous shipping container prisons. Believers could spend years in these harsh and inhumane cells for simply proclaiming their faith in Jesus.

Each context is unique, but countries like Iran (10), India (11) and Nigeria (14) are all hotbeds for religious persecution toward Christians as well.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't enjoy the Winter Olympics, but it's important to know the Christian context in some of these countries—to understand what our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing around the world.

And there is some good news.

God is still writing the story for His church and in all of these countries on the 2018 World Watch List, there are communities of believers persevering for the sake of the gospel.

In many of these countries, like Iran, the church is seeing some of its most aggressive growth in history. And in places like India, the church is rapidly expanding through bold believers who refuse to run from persecution, and instead, withstand it for the glory of Jesus.

In fact, we often hear reports of believers returning the very communities and villages where they were attacked to share the gospel with their persecutors. What Satan uses in an attempt to fracture the church, God is using to expand and strengthen it.

During the duration of the Winter Olympics, remember to pray for Christians from countries on the World Watch List. Because in all of these countries there are believers who are running a race for a crown that will never varnish and never fade.

Let's be their crowd of witnesses cheering them on to victory through prayer and unity. Let's remind them they're not alone—and we're running this race together as one church.

David Curry is the president and CEO of Open Doors USA 

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