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Portaits of Yemeni President Saleh (AP/Photo by Nasser Nasser)

Persecution's top 10

Religion | Open Doors' 2010 list of countries persecuting Christians brings a new focus on the terror threat in Yemen

The No. 1 state persecutor of Christians, for the eighth-straight year, is North Korea. That's the conclusion of Open Doors in releasing its 2010 World Watch List of 50 countries considered at-risk locales for Christians.

According to a Jan. 6 statement by Open Doors, the California-based Christian advocacy group founded by Brother Andrew, the regime of Kim Jong Il targeted Christians all over the country in 2009, resulting in arrests, torture, and killings. Of an estimated 200,000 North Koreans in political prisons, said the group, 40,000 to 60,000 are Christians. One veteran North Korean watcher told Open Doors that Christians "are not regarded as human. Last year we had evidence that some were used as guinea pigs to test chemical and biological weapons."

Iran is No. 2 on the World Watch List, moving up from its No. 3 position of recent years behind Saudi Arabia as a result of the political crackdown following the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June. A wave of arrests of Christians that began in 2008 grew in 2009, according to Open Doors, resulting in the detention of at least 85 Christians.

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Rounding out the top 10 are Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Maldives, Afghanistan, Yemen, Mauritania, and Uzbekistan. Eight of the top 10 countries have Islam as their dominant religion; 35 of the 50 countries on the list have Islamic governments.

With new focus on Yemen following the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest flight bound for Detroit by a passenger who received training in that country, its place on the World Watch List is noteworthy. The Yemeni constitution guarantees religious freedom but also declares that Islam is the state religion and that Sharia, or Islamic law, is the source of all legislation. Government authorities there grant expatriates some religious freedom, but Yemeni citizens are not allowed to convert to Christianity (or other religions). Converts from an Islamic background may face the death penalty. Last June nine expatriate Christian health workers in Yemen were kidnapped by armed men. A few days later, the mutilated bodies of three of them were found, but the outcome for the remaining six aid workers remains unknown.

More background on Yemen, courtesy of Elizabeth Kendal, an international religious liberty analyst with the Australian Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission: Yemen has been a unified state only since 1990. Before that, North Yemen (on the Red Sea) was 60 percent Shiite and ruled by a conservative Shiite imamate, while South Yemen (on the Gulf of Aden) was 99 percent Sunni and Communist.

In 1962, Ali Abdallah Saleh, a Northern socialist and nominal Sunni, seized power in North Yemen in a military coup. He was elected president of North Yemen in 1978 and retains power as president of the unitary Republic of Yemen, which today is on the verge of collapse. The Sunnis marginalize the Shiites, a 30 percent minority in the unitary state, while the ruling North marginalizes the oil- rich South. The Shiites want to restore the imamate, while the South wants to secede. Since at least 2005, President Saleh has been using al-Qaeda jihadists (who are fundamentalist Sunnis) in his fight against the al-Houthi rebels (who are Shiites) in the North and more secular (formerly Soviet-backed communist) secessionists in the South. The conflict also has regional dimensions: Saudi Arabia is fighting advancing Iran-backed al-Houthi Shiite rebels, while Somalis have joined the Sunnis and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have joined the Shiites.

Underneath this crumbling structure are vulnerable Jewish and Christian minorities amidst a population of 24 million. In 1949-50, Israel rescued 45,000 of Yemen's Jews from genocide through Operation Magic Carpet. A further 32,000 Jews have left Yemen since then and now less than 400 remain. As sectarian conflict escalated in the North in January 2007, the Shiite rebels forced the 45 remaining Jews in al Haid, a village in Saada province, from their homes under threat of death. Most Christians in Yemen (estimated at 9,000 in Operation World 2000) are expatriate workers or Ethiopian

"In terms of religious liberty and Christian security, 2010 promises to be an even more challenging year than 2009," said Kendal. "Increasingly, states once known for persecution are becoming notorious for sectarian mob violence and ethnic-religious cleansing. States that once courted the world from behind a facade of modernity and prosperity are revealing the darkness of their hearts with impunity. States busily excavating their Christian foundations with a view to cultural renovation are increasingly adopting repressive authoritarian measures to maintain order in the wake of moral erosion and cultural collapse. So may our 'New Year's resolution' for 2010 be that we commit to being intercessors who are participants in and not mere spectators of world events."


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