At least 2,100 Christians died in 2013 according to a report by a group monitoring persecution of Christians worldwide. Most of the dead were in Syria, where radical Islamist groups have clamped down on a long-established religious minority.
Open Doors, a US-based non-denominational group that first formed in the 1950s smuggling Bibles into Communist Eastern Europe, conducts an annual survey of 50 countries where Christians suffer the worst discrimination.
“Overwhelmingly, the main engine driving persecution of Christians in 36 of the top 50 countries is Islamic extremism,” write the authors.
North Korea, which is officially atheist but is dominated by the Kims’ personality cult, and where merely owning a Bible is reportedly grounds enough for a life sentence or execution, remains the worst country in the world for Christians. Open Doors claims that as many as 70,000 believers are in North Korean labor camps and prisons.
But the rest of the top five is made up of Muslim states suffering from internal instability, with Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan all earning a place.
Of these, the situation has worsened “least surprisingly” in Syria, which had a Christian population of more than 1.7 million prior to the start of the internal conflict nearly three years ago.
“The Syrian opposition is increasingly ‘Islamizing’, and Christians are becoming more vulnerable in all spheres of life. Many Christians were reported to have been abducted, physically harmed or killed, and many churches damaged or destroyed,” write the authors.
The situation has deteriorated fundamentally since professional foreign jihadists, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), joined the fray.
The most notable recent attacks have been on centuries-old Aramaic-speaking communities, such as Maaloula and Sadad.
Open Doors, which says that it uses conservative estimates sourced from the news media and believers on the ground, claims that at a “minimal count”, 1,213 Christians were “martyred” in the country last year. The figure is higher than the world total for 2012.
Nigeria, which has a roughly equal split between Christians and Muslims, is next on the list with 612 deaths, mostly at the hands of newly-active militias in the north, such as Boko Haram, which frequently bombs Christian schools and churches.
In Somalia, “retreating al-Shabaab rebels vent their anger by imposing an even more restrictive form of Sharia law” and while the Christian minority is small, anyone who is found out to follow the faith risks execution.
Open Doors predicts that Central African Republic, which erupted into a civil war at the end of last year, could be the hotspot to watch out for in 2014.
“The country has been torn apart by warlords and especially foreign mercenaries from Chad and Sudan who target Christians for rape, robbery and murder,” write the authors.
“Like Mali last year, Central African Republic shows how rapidly a seemingly stable state can disintegrate and a Christian minority or even majority can come to the brink of extinction.”