Two young women spending nearly nine months in Iran's notorious Evin Prison became the face of persecuted religious minorities in the Islamic state after authorities arrested the Christians on March 5. Officials charged Maryam Rustampoor, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh, 30, with apostasy against Islam, proselytizing, and "acting against state security." In August, a judge pressured the two Christians to recant their faith and return to Islam. They refused and returned to jail.
A court acquitted the women in October of anti-state crimes, and after a long, international campaign for their freedom led by Christian groups like Open Doors USA, Iranian officials released the women on Nov. 18. The U.K.-based Elam Ministries reported that the women were recovering from health problems suffered during their prison term, but the Christians expressed thankfulness for their freedom in a statement released by Elam: "Words are not enough to express our gratitude to the Lord and to His people who have prayed and worked for our release."
Elam, a ministry to Iranian Christians, asked supporters to continue to pray for the women in a country extremely hostile to religious minorities, and emphasized the pair may still have to fight criminal charges.
As the year approached its end, a court battle continued in the case of Rifqa Bary, a 17-year-old Columbus, Ohio, girl who fled her Muslim family this summer. Bary says her father threatened to kill her after discovering she converted to Christianity. Her father denies the claim.
Bary first fled to Florida, taking shelter with a pastor and his family. Authorities later returned Bary to Ohio, placing her in a foster home. The teen's parents say they will allow her to practice Christianity if she returns home, but Bary's lawyer warns that the family poses an "imminent threat of harm" to the girl: Attorney John Stemberger says the family is actively connected to the Columbus-based Noor Islamic Cultural Center, a group that has been linked to Islamic extremism.
Egypt's Coptic Christians-one of the largest and oldest Christian communities in the Middle East-faced a maddening trend that weakened an already tenuous grasp on religious freedom in the predominantly Muslim nation: Church leaders say local authorities framed Christians for violence against Christians.
When a group of men burned a church building in the Coptic Christian community of Ezbet Basilious on July 11, police accused two of the congregation's members of attacking their own church. Ibrahim Habib, chairman of United Copts of Great Britain, said the arrests marked a broader pattern of authorities allowing persecutors to escape by framing victims, or ignoring altogether violence and crime against Christians.
During President Barack Obama's speech to Muslims in Cairo on June 4, the president mentioned the plight of Egyptian Copts and other religious minorities, but harassment and oppression continued throughout the year.
Harassment and oppression also meant a harrowing year for Christians living in Pakistan. The Islamic nation with some of the most severe blasphemy laws in the region saw Muslim mobs attack and burn whole villages full of Christians. In one case, thousands of militants looted and torched more than 100 homes in a Christian neighborhood, killing at least eight people. The reason: They heard rumors that Christians had blasphemed Islam.
Christians reported a spike in attacks based on rumors, and some government officials said the sectarian violence might stem from militants' attempts to incite fighting in order to destabilize the nation and create extremist strongholds.