WASHINGTON, D.C. — President-elect Donald Trump must help persecuted religious groups around the world or his administration will fail, said the leader of a nonprofit at the release Wednesday of its annual list of the most dangerous countries for Christians.

Religious liberty “is the central issue that they’re going to have to deal with, whether you’re looking at it through the lens of immigration, whether you’re looking at it through the lens of terrorism,” said David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which aids Christians threatened by hostile governments and extremist groups.

“We’re hopeful that they take it seriously. If they don’t I think we will see this administration fail,” said Curry, who met with aides to Trump in October and on Tuesday.

Unveiling the list, Open Doors and its supporters in Congress pointed to Islamic extremists as the most deadly force around the world for Christians, followed by governments hostile to Christianity, led by North Korea. Curry said the plight of repressed Christians has deteriorated in the past several years.

“2016 was the worst year of persecution of Christians on record, with a shocking 215 million Christians experiencing high levels of persecution for their faith,” he said. “Nearly 1 in every 12 Christians in the world today lives in an area or in a culture in which Christianity is illegal, forbidden or punished.

“And yet today the world is largely silent on the shocking wave of religious intolerance,” he added.

Open Doors World WatchList 2017. (Credit: Open Doors.)
Open Doors World WatchList 2017. (Credit: Open Doors.)

For the 15th consecutive year, North Korea tops the list, which is tabulated with an equation that takes into account crimes against Christians and restrictions on practice. Somalia, where the Islamic militia al-Shabab terrorizes Christians, came in second.

The rest of the top 10 resembles a scrambled version of last year’s list, but with the addition of Yemen and the dropping of Libya from 10th to 11th place.

The persecution of Christians is not just “something that happened 2,000 years ago that we read about in the Bible,” said U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., who spoke at the Washington news conference at which the 2017 World Watch List was released.

Aderholt was joined by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who has tried to push persecuted religious minorities higher on the agenda of both Congress and presidential administrations since being elected to the House in 1980. Smith said he hadn’t talked to Trump about the issue but had given a copy of a bill he is sponsoring to strengthen protections for Christians abroad to Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

Knox Thames, the special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia at the State Department, said the U.S. relies on the work of Open Doors and must continue to speak out against blasphemy laws around the world — statutes that punish people for speech and acts deemed offensive to the government’s view of religion.

The position, now held by Rabbi David Saperstein, has in the past taken months or longer for the president and Senate to fill.

Edward Awabdeh, a Syrian pastor who works with Open Doors and who has had the opportunity to flee his country but opted to stay and minister to his flock, came to the release of the watch list to describe Christians’ plight in the Syrian civil war.

“We thank God for the opportunity that we are there,” he said.