Today marks International Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the execution of a group of Quakers – the Boston martyrs – who were executed in the 17th century. Two of them were hanged on October 27, 1659, and the day was chosen to recognise the importance of religious liberty.
A report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) warned that religious freedom had come under "serious and sustained assault" across the world in the past year, highlighting religious freedom violations in more than 30 countries, including China, Sudan, North Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria.
A report released by the US State Department in August then said that a staggering three-quarters of the world's population suffer from severe restrictions on religious freedom through "government policies or the hostile acts of individuals, organizations, or societal groups".
The report placed particular emphasis on blasphemy laws around the world, which ambassador at large for international religious freedom, David Saperstein, said had a "chilling, sometimes deadly effect".
To mark International Religious Freedom Day, here are four countries where Christians suffer significant persecution for their faith.
USCIRF last month said Laos had "myriad human rights challenges", but highlighted "the policies and decrees at the central and local levels of government that restrict religious practices" as of particular concern.
These undermine "not only the Lao constitution but also international human rights standards", chairman Thomas Reese said.
Christianity is one of four religions officially recognised by the Lao government, but just 1.5 per cent of the country's nearly seven million population practise the faith. According to USCIRF, suspicion is directed at Christians by some local officials because of a perceived link with the West and the US, and some in the Christian community believe they are viewed by the government as "enemies of the state".
North Korea continues to be considered the worst place in the world in which to be a Christian. A damning report released by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in September said Christians face rape, torture, enslavement and being killed for their faith. Freedom of religion or belief "is largely non-existent" under dictator Kim Jong Un's leadership, CSW said.
"Religious beliefs are seen as a threat to the loyalty demanded by the Supreme Leader, so anyone holding these beliefs is severely persecuted," the report said, noting: "Christians suffer significantly because of the anti-revolutionary and imperialist labels attached to them by the country's leadership."
Among the documented incidents against Christians are "being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges and trampled underfoot".
USCIRF has accused the Sudanese government of continuing "to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief". Designated by the commission as a 'country of particular concern' since 1999, Sudan's population is over 97 per cent Muslim and the country's criminal code restricts religious freedom for all citizens. It also imposes sharia law on Muslims and Christians, allowing the death penalty for apostasy, stoning for adultery and prison sentences for blasphemy.
This month, six Christians were jailed for refusing to hand over church property to the government, and five other churches – three belonging to the Sudan Church of Christ, one to the Presbyterian Church and the other to the Episcopal Church – have been told their buildings will be demolished.
The Maldives ranks 13th on persecution charity Open Doors' list of countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. It is illegal to "propagate any religion other than Islam" and breaking this law can result in a prison sentence of up to five years.
A law passed in August legalised criminal defamation, a move that was strongly critcised by the UN, rights groups and Western nations. The new legislation criminalised defamatory speech, remarks, writings and other actions including a gesture and targets actions against "any tenet of Islam".
A spokeswoman for the Rule of Law branch at the UN human rights office said the law crippled "freedom of expression including on the basis of defamation of religion, national security and social norms".