BERLIN - Asir’s life was preprogrammed. The North African Muslim was to be trained to be a jihadist in a Palestinian terrorist camp. There he would learn how to build bombs and kill non-believers. But just before he was due to leave, he started to have doubts. 

"I realized that there were several versions of the Koran, and that some texts contradict each other," he says now, four years later. His imam was unable to explain these contradictions satisfactorily. Questioning the dogma underlying his Salafist affinities and the religious fanaticism environment around him, he ended up tearing up his passport – thus making the trip to the camp impossible.

It was during this period of religious confusion that Asir met a Christian, who told him about Jesus. He looked for more information on Christianity on the Internet, called a Christian hotline, came across a Christian TV station, and started reading the Bible. He ended up converting to Christianity – which means that his life is at constant risk in his country. 

Azni from Chechnya is also a Christian, and she’s paying a high price for her beliefs. Her brothers want to kill her. Her husband says she has put a curse on the family. The 40-year-old woman prays fervently for her survival. "I’m tired and I’m scared," she says. 

Saliha’s home is in northern Nigeria, where sharia law prevails. The 20-year-old grew up a Christian. Then one day her father converted to Islam. Her mother refused to do so, so the man threw her and his then eight-year-old daughter out of the house. But he later came after Saliha and forced her to wear the veil and attend an Islamic school.

She ultimately fled, and today lives in a Christian institution where she is considered an excellent student. She must continue to be careful though, because her father is still after her and if he finds her, she faces forced marriage to a Muslim.

Three Christians, three fates. They represent 100 million people that are persecuted around the world for their Christian beliefs, according to the Christian aid organization Open Doors. In the 2013 edition of their World Watch List the organization puts North Korea – for the 11th time – at the head of 50 countries where the persecution of Christians is strongest.

North Korea the worst offender

In North Korea, between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are interned in labor camps, Open Doors reports. Under the dictatorship, just owning a Bible can mean the death penalty or internment of the whole family. An estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians have to live their faith in secret, but despite the persecution the government has yet to eradicate what is in fact a growing network of believers who worship at services in each others’ homes.

Also topping the Open Doors list are Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen and Eritrea. The Arab revolts against dictatorial regimes have apparently done little to change the persecution of Christians. Indications so far point to one autocracy having replaced another.

"Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists used revolutions and democratic elections such as Egypt’s as a stepping stone to power," says Markus Rode, head of Open Doors in Germany. "Unfortunately we see no end to Islamic extremism spreading across country and massive persecution and displacement of Christian minorities."

In Syria, Christians are mostly targeted by foreign Islamists who have joined the Free Syrian Army. The result is that on the 2013 list Syria has moved up from number 36 to 11th place. Libya moved from 26 to 17th place, Tunisia from 35 to 30. Egypt occupies the 25th place.

For the first time, the annual list includes Sub-Saharan countries – Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Niger – because the situation of Christian minorities in those countries has worsened dramatically. Violent attacks on Christians have also been tracked by Open Doors in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Niger and Nigeria.

China has moved down to 37th place from 21st because those conducting services in their homes – as long as they obey set limitations – are generally not persecuted although the regime is ramping up measures to keep home churches under control and at least 100 Christians are in prison because of their beliefs or religious activities. 

According to Open Doors, there has been clear improvement in the position of Christians in Chechnya, Cuba, Turkey, Belarus and Bangladesh, which no longer figure on the 2013 list. This by no means that Christians aren’t persecuted in these countries, just that the countries aren’t among the top 50 worst offenders.