The concept of Christian martyrdom may seem like something from a bygone, uncivilized era when believers were mercilessly thrown to the lions. Not so. This week, Open Doors, a non-denominational group supporting persecuted Christians worldwide, reported that Christian martyrdom has grown into a pervasive and horrifying human rights crisis.
In their annual report of the worst 50 countries for Christian persecution, Open Doors found that Christian martyr deaths around the globe doubled in 2013. Their report documented 2,123 killings, compared with 1,201 in 2012. In Syria alone, there were 1,213 such deaths last year. In addition to losing their lives, Christians around the world continue to suffer discrimination, imprisonment, harassment, sexual assaults, and expulsion from countries merely for practicing their faith.
Once again, the worst persecutor of Christians is North Korea, where an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 followers of Jesus are suffering in prison camps for “crimes” such as owning a Bible, going to church, or sharing their faith. In November 2013, it was reported that 80 prisoners were publicly executed, many for possessing Bibles. Last year, North Korea sentenced an American missionary, Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor in a prison camp. The U.S. State Department has lobbied unsuccessfully for his release.
Christians are obviously not the only North Koreans in prison camps. But former captives have reported that they often attract the worst treatment because the regime is particularly enraged by the worship of any other being than the Supreme Leader, who forces North Koreans to treat him as a deity.
It’s chilling to imagine worse treatment than what the average North Korean prisoner has reported, including a mother forced to drown her own baby in a bucket, and tales of subsisting on nothing more than rats and insects. According to first-hand accounts from former prisoners reported by Amnesty International, “every former inmate at one camp had witnessed a public execution, one child was held for eight months in a cube-like cell so small he couldn’t move his body and an estimated 40% of inmates die from malnutrition.”
Syria, ranked as the third-worst country by Open Doors, has devolved in the last year to a horror show for Christians. The Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea noted in December 2013 a message she received from a contact in Syria who reported, “Kidnapping, killings, ransom, rape . . . 2013 is a tragedy for Christians in Syria. All Syrians have endured great suffering and distress. The Christians, however, often had to pay with their lives for their faith. Our bishops and nuns have been kidnapped, our political leader killed by torture. After our Christian villages have been occupied, our churches have been destroyed and even mass graves were found in Saddad. [T]he Islamists have put [to] the Christians the alternative: Islam or death. Why [is] the West just watching?”
Some of the most harrowing stories about how Christians are persecuted have come from the African country of Eritrea, which Open Doors lists as the twelfth worst country in the world for Christian persecution. In his 2013 book, The Global War on Christians, reporter John L. Allen Jr., writes that in Eritrea, Christians are sent to the Me’eter military camp and prison, which he describes as a “concentration camp for Christians.” It is believed to house thousands being punished for their religious beliefs.
Prisoners are packed into 40’x38’ metal shipping containers, normally used for transporting cargo. It is so cramped that it’s impossible to lie down and difficult even to find a place to sit. “The metal exacerbates the desert temperatures, which means bone chilling cold at night and wilting heat during the day….believed to reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit or higher,” Allen writes. One former inmate…described [it] as “giant ovens baking people alive.” Prisoners are given next to nothing to drink so “they sometimes end up drinking their own scant sweat and urine to stay alive.” The prisoners are tortured, sexually abused, and have no contact with the outside world. One survivor of the prison described witnessing a fellow female inmate “who had been beaten so badly her uterus was actually hanging outside her body. The survivor desperately tried to push the uterus back in” but couldn’t prevent the inmate’s excruciating death.
At a December 2013 speech to a conference organized by Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project, Allen told the audience, “I always ask Christians in countries [where persecution occurs], what can we do for you? The number one thing they say is, “Don’t forget about us.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article referred to the Georgetown project as the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.