The situation in the region around the city of Mosul in northern Iraq is especially dramatic. The town of Alqosh lies high in the mountains above Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Bassam Bashir, 41, can see his old hometown when he looks out his window there. Mosul is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, but inaccessible. The city is more dangerous than Baghdad, especially for men like Bassam Bashir, a Chaldean Catholic, teacher and fugitive within his own country.
Since the day in August 2008 when a militia abducted his father from his shop, Bashir has had to fear for his and his family's lives. Police found his father's corpse two days later in the Sinaa neighborhood on the Tigris River, the body perforated with bullet holes. There was no demand for ransom. Bashir's father died for the simple reason that he was Christian.
And no one claims to have seen anything. "Of course they saw something," Bashir says. "But people in Mosul are scared out of their minds."
One week later, militiamen slit the throat of Bashir's brother Tarik like a sacrificial lamb. "I buried my brother myself," Bashir explains. Together with his wife Nafa and their two daughters, he fled to Alqosh the same day. The city is surrounded by vineyards and an armed Christian militia guards the entrance.
Bashir's family members aren't the only ones who came to Alqosh as the series of murders in Mosul continued. Sixteen Christians were killed the next week, and bombs exploded in front of churches. Men in passing cars shouted at Christians that they had a choice -- leave Mosul or convert to Islam. Out of over 1,500 Christian families in the city, only 50 stayed. Bassam Bashir says he won't return until he can mourn for his father and brother in peace. Others who gave up hope entirely fled to neighboring countries like Jordan and even more to Syria.
In many Islamic countries, Christians are persecuted less brutally than in Iraq, but often no less effectively. In many cases, the persecution has the tacit approval of the government. In Algeria, for example, it takes the form of newspapers reporting that a priest tried to convert Muslims or insulted the Prophet Mohammed -- and publishing the cleric's address, in a clear call to vigilante justice. Or a public television station might broadcast programs with titles like "In the Clutches of Ignorance," which describe Christians as Satanists who convert Muslims with the help of drugs. This happened in Uzbekistan, which ranks tenth on Open Doors' "persecution index."
Blasphemy is another frequently used allegation. Insulting the core values of Islam is a punishable offense in many Islamic countries. The allegation is often used against the opposition, whether that means journalists, dissidents or Christians. Imran Masih, for example, a Christian shopkeeper in Faisalabad, Pakistan, was given a life sentence on Jan. 11, according to sections 295 A and B of Pakistan's legal code, which covers the crime of outraging religious feelings by desecrating the Koran. A neighboring shopkeeper had accused him of burning pages from the Koran. Masih says that he only burned old business records.
It's a typical case for Pakistan, where the law against blasphemy seems to invite abuse -- it's an easy way for anyone to get rid of an enemy. Last year, 125 Christians were charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. Dozens of those already sentenced are on death row.