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The murder of a French priest was tragic, but not rare in places like Africa
The murder of an 85-year-old priest last week at a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France, immediately sent shock waves throughout the world. - photo by Billy Hallowell
The murder of an 85-year-old priest at a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France, stunned many throughout the world who realized even houses of worship aren't off limits to terrorists.

While extremists' targeting of the faithful in many areas of the world is not new, there were some distinguishing elements surrounding the stabbing death of Rev. Jacques Hamel.

Hamel's throat was slit while he was celebrating Mass, distinguishing the event from other assaults, according to Open Doors USA CEO David Curry.

"This attack, though not unlike many others happening daily, is different because it marks the first documented case of ISIS attacking a gathering of Christians during a worship service in a Western country," Curry told Deseret News.

"People are taking notice because, suddenly, they can picture this happening in their own churches."

Curry, whose organization tracks incidents of Christian persecution across the globe, said, "Atrocities against Christians are, unfortunately, a regular part of life for hundreds of thousands around the world." In its 2016 report, which covers incidents that unfolded from Nov. 2014 through Oct. 2015, Open Doors USA found more than 7,000 Christians were killed worldwide due to their faith.

"(That's) an increase of nearly 3,000 compared to the prior year," Curry said. "For the last several years, Open Doors has seen unprecedented increases in the violence perpetrated against Christians around the world."

Similar to Hamel's death, Curry said that his organization has heard reports of churchgoers being attacked in the middle of worship in locations throughout the Middle East and Africa.

More specifically, Open Doors USA found that 2,400 churches were either damaged or attacked in the 2016 alone; that's more than double the number that was found in 2015.

"In Nigeria, an average of five churches are attacked each Sunday," he said.

The Christian Times recently covered the tragic reality that African Christians have come to know full well: "Islamic extremists will not hesitate to end a believer's life even inside a church."

Barnabas Aid, another organization that works to combat Christian persecution, reported on a recent wave of violence in Nigeria where Bridget Agbahime, the wife of a pastor, was beheaded by a radical gang in broad daylight as her husband watched. She was allegedly accused of insulting Muhammad.

Another pastor's wife, who was not named by the organization, was purportedly also killed in her neighborhood while speaking about the Bible.

Those were two of 133 Christians reportedly killed in Nigeria since mid-June by a group known as the Fulani Muslim herdsmen, Barnabas Aid reported. These extremists are not to be confused with Boko Haram, another terrorist group that plagues the region.

Many Americans might not be familiar with other tragedies that mirror what happened to Hamel.

Curry has his theories about why the media don't give as much attention to the plethora of attacks unfolding in regions such as Africa and the Middle East, saying that many have tragically "come to expect to hear of violence in those parts of the world."

But when militants suddenly storm into a French church and slit the throat of a Catholic priest in the middle of Mass, something changes, he argued.

"Suddenly, the atrocities that some Christians have faced regularly for years are becoming more real to those of us in the west because they are coming to our own neighborhoods or, for those of us in the U.S., to the neighborhoods of our friends," he said.

Open Doors USA works with researchers each year to measure the degree of freedom that Christians have in their home countries, and annually ranks nations based on levels of persecution.

While Curry said that he can't predict where countries will fall in the organization's 2017 "World Watch List," he's predicting "that the overall picture of persecution will be disturbing."

The five worst nations on the 2016 list were (from most brutal to least): North Korea, Iraq, Emitrea, Afghanistan and Syria.

These figures and rankings do not account for the scores of faithful who are part of the Islamic and Yezedi traditions, among others, who have also been targeted and slaughtered by the Islamic State and other terror groups.

The nations listed by Open Doors USA mirror those that have been listed by the U.S. State Department as "countries of particular concern," nations that have been found to violate religious freedom on a massive scale.

Current countries of particular concern are Uzbekistan, Burma, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. All of these countries with the exception of Burma are listed relatively high up on Open Doors' World Watch List.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom corroborated the State Department's list in its most recent report, but also listed the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam to the list, most of which rank high on the Open Doors list as well.

The USCIRF also lists countries that are concerning on the religious freedom front. Those countries are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey.
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