The plight of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a pregnant Sudanese woman sentenced to death for refusing to recant her Christian faith, has drawn worldwide media attention.

While the persecution of believers rarely merits much attention in the mainstream media, this case has shocked the conscience of the world.

Earlier this month, a court in Khartoum sentenced Ibrahim, who is eight months pregnant, to death by hanging after she was convicted of apostasy. She was also sentenced to receive 100 lashes for adultery, a charge levied because her husband, Daniel Wani, is a Christian. She is now jailed in the African country along with her 20-month-old son.

Wani, a U.S. citizen, has rushed to Sudan in an attempt to save his wife’s life. Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s Sen. Kelly Ayotte and fellow Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri have written to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to grant her political asylum.

Faith leaders say the tragic case is helping bring attention to the plight of the 100 million Christians who suffer persecution, imprisonment and even death for their faith in Jesus Christ each year.      The issue was highlighted during a civil forum entitled “The Persecuted Church” at Saddleback Church and in a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report entitled “Global Restrictions on Religion.”

“Of all the religions and of all the different groups in the world that are being persecuted, the single largest persecution is of the church – Christianity – far more than of Islam, of Buddhism, of Hinduism or any other religion,” Pastor Rick Warren told those who gathered at the forum at the Lake Forest, California church. “Persecution affects over 100 million believers in the world today. And the Bible tells us we are to care about them. The Bible tells us when one part of the body hurts, the other parts of the body are to hurt with it.”

The Pew Forum released a study in 2009 that found two in three people on the planet live in nations with high or very high levels of restrictions on religion. These 64 nations, while comprising only one-third of the world’s countries, contain nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people.

It’s the first quantitative study to gauge the level of restrictions involving governments and acts of violence and intimidation by individuals, organizations and social groups.

“This is shocking and it should shock the conscience of the world,” says Thomas F. Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and visiting Associate Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University. Farr also served as the former director of the Office of International Religious Freedom in the U.S. State Department. “What this means is that millions, perhaps scores of millions of people, are suffering because of their religious beliefs.”

In the last century, unprecedented numbers of Christians have died for their faith in Jesus. Each year, about 100 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest and even death for their faith in Jesus, and millions more face discrimination and alienation.

“More people have died for the faith in Christ in the last 100 years than in all of time before that,” says Todd Nettleton, spokesman for The Voice of the Martyrs, a Bartlesville, Oklahoma-based ministry dedicated to assisting the persecuted church worldwide. “But the exciting thing is that when we hear of people giving their lives and being arrested, the reality behind those stories is that the church in these nations is growing, sometimes at a phenomenal rate. The church is growing so fast that the government doesn’t know how to stop it. That’s why they are arresting people. That’s why there is persecution.”

Based on analysis of information from 16 governmental and nongovernmental sources – including the United Nations, the State Department and Human Rights Watch – the study assessed restrictions in 198 countries representing more than 99.5 percent of the world’s population. The authors looked at publicly reported incidents of religious violence, intolerance, intimidation and discrimination from mid-2006 through mid-2008.

Among all regions, the Middle East and North Africa have the highest government and social restrictions on religion while the Americas are the least restrictive region on both measures.

Surprisingly, although the U.S. has relatively few government restrictions on religion, it falls into the moderate category in terms of social hostilities. In 2012, of the 5,796 single bias criminal incidents reported by the FBI, 19 percent were motivated by religious bias.

“Certainly, in the sources we looked at, we found Christians were facing abuse and hostilities just as minorities were too in the U.S.,” says Brian Grim, the primary investigator of the report and a senior researcher at the Pew Forum. “So it’s not a case in the U.S. where it’s only minorities that are facing abuses, but it’s true that even majority faiths, such as Catholics and Protestants, also face these problems.”

Of the nations analyzed 75, or 38 percent, limit efforts by religious groups or individuals to persuade others to join their faith. In 126 countries, or 64 percent, the tensions between religious groups resulted in physical violence. And in 49 nations, or 25 percent, people or groups used force or intimidation to compel adherence to religious norms.

During the two-year study period, more than 18 million people were displaced from their homes by conflicts related to religion.

“This report is a confirmation of what our organization has determined over 50-plus years of working with Christians in a lot of these restrictive countries,” says Carl Moeller, president and chief executive officer of Open Doors USA, a Santa Ana, California-based ministry that serves persecuted Christians. “Nevertheless, it is still remarkably troubling and sobering to realize that nearly three-quarters – or 5 billion – of the nearly 7 billion people living on planet Earth don’t have the kind of freedom of religious beliefs that we would understand as fundamental human rights.”

Open Doors released its 2013 World Watch List of 50 nations that are the worst persecutors of Christians. North Korea – a nation where every religious activity is recognized as an insurrection to its socialist principles – remains No. 1. The nation has placed an estimated 200,000 people in political prisons, including 40,000 to 60,000 Christians. A veteran North Korea watcher, who can’t be identified for security reasons, told Open Doors that some of the prisoners are “used as guinea pigs to test chemical and biological weapons.”

This year, Saudi Arabia displaced Iran as number 2 on the list, followed by Afghanistan and Iraq.

“If this were any other issue, perhaps world hunger, there would be amazing attention placed on this,” Moeller says. “We might consider the right of having food, water and shelter a basic human right, but it is no less a human right of having religious beliefs and the freedom of conscience.”

The U.S. government has long overlooked the national security threats posed by increasing religious persecution and oppression, Farr says. By promoting religious freedom worldwide, the U.S. – which has spent billions of dollars in recent decades to spread democracy – could bolster its fight against religious-based terrorism.

“The data shows you cannot have stable democracies, especially in highly religious societies, without religious freedom,” Farr says. “Advancing religious freedom is the peaceful means of combating religious-based terrorism, such as the kind we have seen with al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups.”

Christian leaders say the Pew Forum report should serve as a wake-up call in the U.S., a nation whose founders came to America seeking religious freedom.

“Persecution and martyrdom are happening throughout the world – just as Christ said they would,” Nettleton says. “We here in the U.S. are really the minority of Christ’s followers who have the freedom to go to church on Sunday, stand on the street corner, hand out tracts and preach the Gospel. We sort of have the idea that everyone has it as good as we do and we are shocked and appalled to learn that people are sometimes beaten and killed for doing those things. But that’s the reality for most of the world’s Christians. This is not a surprise to the Lord and he is using the persecuted to purify the church and to spread the Gospel, just as he did in New Testament times.”

As persecution of Christians continues to worsen, Farr says President Obama should appoint the next ambassador at large for religious freedom. This ambassador should not only focus on helping prisoners of conscience get out of jail, but integrate religious freedom policies into national security policies.

“It’s very troubling that the U.S. is willing to sacrifice and cut off concerns about religious liberties,” Moeller says. “If we don’t integrate religious freedom into our dealings with China, Iran or Saudi Arabia, we will be in danger of really denying the first freedoms that our ancestors came to this country to fight for.”

Meanwhile, Nettleton says Christians should pray for their persecuted brothers and sisters, asking the Lord to give them the strength to remain faithful to the call he has placed on their lives.

“After prayer, there are some very practical things we encourage people to do, such as writing letters to Christians who are in prison in restrictive nations,” Nettleton says. “It’s a very simple thing, but it really does make a difference to those believers. We have set up a Web site called www.prisoneralert.com that allows people to write letters to them and it actually translates the letters into their language.”