Experts testifying before U.S. lawmakers warned that many Christians around the world are facing serious persecution that often goes unreported and undeterred.

"Flagrant and widespread persecution of Christians rages in the Middle East even as we meet," said Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, permanent observer of the Holy See Mission at the United Nations.

Religious disputes, prejudices against minorities, and political conflicts heighten the persecution, he said, leaving Christians "caught in the crossfire and they are becoming the most vulnerable group."

Archbishop Chullikatt spoke at a Feb. 11 congressional subcommittee hearing on the global persecution of Christians.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of congressional panel that oversees international human rights issues, emphasized that the hearing's focus "on anti-Christian persecution is not meant to minimize the suffering of other religious minorities who are imprisoned or killed for their beliefs."

Rather, he said, the event was intended to highlight that Christians "remain the most persecuted religious group the world over," even amid the persecution faced by adherents to other faiths.

Archbishop Chullikatt explained that religious freedom "is rooted in the dignity of the person." It is the most basic human right and freedom "by which other rights necessarily follow, and must always be protected, defended and promoted."

However, religious liberty is often overlooked by governments and societies around the globe, "even in the great democracies of the world," he said.

Christians in the Middle East, he continued, face particularly challenging situations, finding themselves "the target of constant harassment for no reason other than their religious faith."

"This tragedy is all the more egregious," the archbishop said, given that these Christians are full citizens of their countries, such as Egypt, "in which they have been living at peace with their neighbors and fellow citizens for untold generations."

Elliott Abrams, commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, warned that religious liberty "serves as the proverbial canary in the coal mine," as it "often is the first right taken away," warning "that denial of other liberties almost surely will follow."

Examining the plight of Christians in oppressive regimes and societies, Abrams noted that persecution is carried out through both official government policies and the actions of private individuals and groups. Examples of oppression across the globe include violent attacks on churches and pressure to abandon the Christian faith, as well as trafficking, murder and rape based upon religious views of the victim.

The commissioner said the U.S. should bolster its support of religious freedom by appointing a new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The ambassador position has been vacant since October 2013, when Suzan Johnson Cook, who had held the position since 2011, resigned in order to return to work in the private sector.

In addition to filling the ambassador role, Abrams continued, the U.S. should consider its overall importance. The ambassador position was created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which made protection of global religious liberty a key tenet of America's foreign policy.

However, the commissioner said, pointing to a report by the Government Accountability Office, "the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor dramatically reduced the rank of the Ambassador-at-Large."

"This reduction in rank constitutes a major change in the structure [the International Religious Freedom Act] established and a thwarting of congressional intent."

He also encouraged the United States to be clear in advancing religious freedom in national foreign policy and business ventures.

"There are many way of sending a message," Abrams explained, encouraging diplomats to discuss human rights issues at the outset of international meetings.

He also warned against engaging in business with countries that are strong violators of religious freedom without strong pressures to call for change.

Business alone, Abrams said, "has had no positive impact" in improving religious freedom conditions. "What has worked," he continued, "is pressure."

"It's up to the U.S. Government to keep the pressure on."

John Allen Jr., associate editor at the Boston Globe and author of the recent book "The Global War on Christians," also testified, saying that Western countries "have a problem of narrative" in addressing the persecution of Christians around the world.

In Western countries such as the United States, people tend to think of Christianity as an "all-powerful" institution, Allen said. People often associate the religion either with "an affluent American male pulling up to church" in a fancy car or with "chapters of history in which Christianity is cast as the villain," such as religious wars or the Salem Witch Trials.

But in reality, he said, a majority of the world's estimated 2.3 billion Christians are poor and suffering.

The Vatican analyst observes in his recent book that throughout the first decade of the 21st century, 100,000 Christians were killed per year – 11 new martyrs every hour – and secular human rights groups estimate that 80 percent of religious freedom violations are current directed against Christians.

"These Christians often carry a double or triple stigma, representing not only a faith that arouses suspicion but also an oppressed ethnic group or social class," treated as "targets of convenience" for people who are angry at Western foreign policies, he explained at the hearing.

This widespread persecution and treatment of Christian communities as a scapegoat "ought to concern everyone" of all faiths, Allen stated, because it is "a menace to human rights."