Global persecution outlook for 2014
Islamist persecution is set to rise in 2014 ahead of elections in Nigeria and Afghanistan. Communism remains a potent oppressor of Christians, with North Korea maintaining its reputation as the worst persecutor of Christianity in the world.
"2014 looks set to be a turbulent year for Christians – especially ahead of elections in Nigeria and Afghanistan," says Colin King, the UK director of Release International, which serves the persecuted Church worldwide.
"Extreme Islam is on the rise, leading to greater persecution and an exodus of Christians from the Middle East. But the heartening news is that this reality is now being acknowledged publicly. It has been recognised in the UK parliament and by Prince Charles.
"2014 is the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, yet today communist and former communist countries remain active in oppressing Christians. The worst persecutor of Christians in the world today continues to be North Korea."
Release's partner in North Korea, who cannot be named for his protection, says: 'Any activity related to Christianity, whether bowing one's head to pray, possessing a Bible or making contact with a missionary while abroad, is punished harshly.
'Sentences to concentration camps without trial are not unusual. These offences are never recorded as religious violations, butrather described as sedition, contact with foreign spies or conduct detrimental to the state.'
2014 is likely to prove harder for Christians and others trying to escape, according to the Release partner: 'Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has cracked down harder on illegal cross-border traffic. This makes it more difficult for North Korean Christians and defectors to cross into China.'
Release is working to provide places of safety and support for North Korean refugees.
Persecution is on the rise in the predominantly Muslim countries that have a history of communism. In the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia, "persecution is still everywhere", says another Release partner.
"In Kazakhstan unregistered churches are not allowed to gather. In Kyrgyzstan new regulations strictly forbid any kind of missionary work. In Tajikistan, Christian parents are not allowed to take their own children to church and in Turkmenistan many Christians have been arrested and beaten, interrogated and threatened. Copies of the Bible and New Testament have been confiscated.
"But the most difficult situation for Christians is in Uzbekistan and its autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. Any gathering is illegal. In some places the only way to meet as a small group is to drive around town in a car."
In 2013, the most dramatic attacks against Christians worldwide have been carried out by Islamic militants. The outlook for 2014 continues to be uncertain, ahead of elections.
2014 and 2015 are election years in Nigeria. Release contacts expect an upsurge in violence by extremists trying to destabilise the country.
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Throughout 2013, Islamist terror group Boko Haram has been resurgent in the centre and the north. Since its armed insurgency began in 2009, the group has killed thousands of civilians in its bid to establish an Islamic state. Targets often include Christians, as well as state institutions.
Many Christians have been driven from the largely Muslim north, and churches and Christians have been targeted by extremists in central Plateau state. Militants consider Plateau to be the front-line with the predominantly Christian south.
In 2014, US and NATO troops are due to leave Afghanistan. Under the Taliban, anyone who converted to Christianity faced execution by the state or being murdered by their relatives. Today, the authorities turn a blind eye to persecution.
"We are uncertain what will happen after the major withdrawal of foreign forces," says a Release partner. "If the Taliban begins to take more control of the country it is likely there will be more persecution of Christians. That will also happen if a fundamentalist government is elected in April 2014."
2014 also looks set to be a difficult year for Christians in Pakistan. 'Persecution of Christians in Pakistan is increasing,' says a Release partner.
In September 2013 suicide bombers attacked All Saints' Church, Peshawar, leaving more than 120 dead and 200 injured.
Release is concerned that moves by the Federal Sharia Court to impose the death penalty for blasphemy could increase intolerance and lead to further attacks against Christians.
In the Middle East, the continuing exodus of Christians from Egypt, Syria and Iraq looks set to continue into 2014. In Iraq, many Christians displaced by violence have gone to the north, and Christians continue to be driven out of Syria.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 Christians have fled Egypt since the revolution. Militants attacked churches and Christians following the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi. Uncertainty looks set to continue ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.
But in Iran, despite continuing discrimination and arrests, the church is growing.
And despite the persecution in 2013 and the forecasts for 2014, the church continues to stand firm. Release partner Canon Andrew White, known by many as the 'vicar of Baghdad', says: "Though the bullets fly and the bombs explode, God is with us and by His grace He will help us to keep moving forward."
Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by: supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.