The week after the U.S. State Department redesignated 10 nations as countries of particular concern (CPCs) over “systemic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations,” the Christian group Open Doors USA released its annual World Watch List of the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians.
Both lists include Myanmar (also known as Burma), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with Open Doors noting all 10 countries had extreme, very high, or high levels of persecution against Christians.
Totalitarian North Korea created the most danger, followed closely by Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan, according to Open Doors’ analysis. India jumped from 15 to 11 on the list due to Hindu nationalists’ increased persecution and the growing power of the nationalist political party.
Overall, 215 million Christians around the world face threats due to their faith. Open Doors called Islamic extremism the “dominant” driver of persecution against Christians in 35 of the 50 countries listed. That included attacks by Islamic extremist groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Open Doors CEO David Curry said his team found a “shocking” escalation in attacks against Christian women. Researchers documented 2,260 separate cases of sexual harassment, rape, or forced marriage of Christian women in 2017—six women per day. Because of underreporting, Open Doors suspects many more cases likely happened.
Pakistan did not make the State Department’s list, but it was the fifth most dangerous country for Christians according to Open Doors, with the most recorded violence.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an advisory body to the State Department, also monitors religious freedom in dozens of countries and publishes findings and recommendations each April.
For many years, it urged the State Department to put Pakistan on the list of CPCs. Although State Department officials didn’t heed that advice, they took a new step in 2018 by placing Pakistan on a “Special Watch List” for severe violations of religious freedom.
USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark applauded the latest State Department redesignations on Jan. 4, but added that they don’t go far enough.
“Secretary [Rex] Tillerson should have also designated the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam,” Mark said. He also called Pakistan’s absence a “surprise and disappointment.”
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, appreciated the State Department’s inclusion of Myanmar, but wanted Vietnam added to the list, VOA News reported.
“The Vietnamese people continue to have their religious freedom and other human rights violated. The United States should never shrink from calling out countries for such abuses,” he said.
In its 2017 report, USCIRF also recommended Tier 2 CPC designations for Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey. Tier 2 status indicates systemic, ongoing, or egregious violations of religious freedom, rather than all three, as covered by a Tier 1 designation.
For the first time, USCIRF named “entities of particular concern” (EPCs) for non-government perpetrators of violations if they exerted a certain level of territorial control. It recommended terror groups Islamic State, the Taliban, and al-Shabaab be named EPCs. So far, the State Department has not followed suit.
USCIRF looks broadly at religious freedom violations for citizens of all religions, including atheists, while Open Doors specifically documents Christian persecution. But their findings are very similar.
All but two countries USCIRF named in 2017 also ranked on the 2018 World Watch List: Russia and Cuba. Curry said Open Doors will watch Russia closely due to the potential negative effects of recent religious laws banning evangelism, among other things.
“As yet, it does not rise to the level of the other countries on the list,” he said. “Likewise, Cuba is a country to watch, but currently is not on the list.”