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Christian persecution rapidly rising across Middle East and Africa

Life for Christians across northern Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf is deteriorating rapidly according to anti-persecition charity Open Door's 2014 World Watch List.

The annual list ranks the world's 50 countries most hostile to believers over the last year. So called 'failed' states where militant Islamic movements are 'flourishing' are some of the hardest places for Christians to live, according to a new annual report on Christian religious freedom. Open Doors says the situation has deteriorated most rapidly across northern Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf, in countries where sectarian violence has advanced unchecked by central governments.

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.  Syria is number three, up from number 11 a year ago.

The continuing civil war has afflicted all segments of society, but Open Doors says Christians have paid an especially high price, often at the hands of imported jihadists.

Lisa Pearce from the charity told Premier's Marcus Jones on the News Hour why she would like to see more being done by the international community to protect the country's remaining believers:

Open Doors says it has carried out the research globally on five spheres of life - private, family, community, national and church life, plus a sixth sphere measuring the degree of violence, which has been audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom.

Among the top 10 on the list are five countries where the government has little or no control: Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.  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, according to Open Doors.

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 joined the list for the first time at number 16, having spiralled 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 UN 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. Beyond Africa and the Middle East, several Asian countries climbed the list. In India, which rose from number 31 in 2013 to number 28 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 number 29, due largely to increased violence and the emergence of a Buddhist extremist movement that has targeted Christians and Muslims.

Bangladesh is number 48, 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 than Colombia, which ranked 46th a year ago and is number 25 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.

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