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North Korea retains top spot as worst persecutor of Christians

Christians in Pakistan protest vandalism

RIZWAN TABASSUM | AFP

John Burger - published on 01/19/24

World Watch List is once again topped by communist country, but China and Russia present concerns for Africa.

North Korea has once again attained the top spot on an annual rating of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a Christian.

The communist country dominated Open Doors’ World Watch List for 20 years until it was dislodged by Afghanistan in 2022.

But the 2023 edition of the World Watch List found North Korea to be the most dangerous place to be a Christian in the world today. And the pattern continues with the release of Open Doors’ 2024 report, released Wednesday.

“Being discovered to be a Christian in North Korea is effectively a death sentence,” says the report. “Believers will either be deported to labor camps or killed on the spot. And it’s not just them: their whole family gets the same fate. It’s impossible for Christians to live freely in North Korea. Meeting for worship is extremely dangerous and must be done in utmost secrecy. Even being found to own a Bible could mean death.”

The Top 10

North Korea is followed by Somalia, Libya, Eritrea, Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Iran and Afghanistan as the 10 most dangerous countries in which to be a Christian, Open Doors has assessed.

Some of the main reasons are persecution from Islamic jihadist groups, such as al-Shabab in Somalia; official government policy, such as Pakistan’s blasphemy laws [photo above] or Iran’s anti-conversion legislation, and banditry and lawlessness. 

Open Doors also is critical of certain governments’ official recognition of a few churches to the exclusion of evangelical Christians. Open Doors itself is an evangelical organization. Thus, it notes, Eritrea – number 4 on its list – recognizes only the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (in addition to Sunni Islam) and says that they are “heavily monitored.”

“Anyone who follows Jesus outside of these denominations – such as evangelicals or Pentecostals – is at constant risk,” the group says, claiming that around 1,000 Eritrean Christians are in prison without formal charges. 

Sub-Saharan Africa

Overall, Open Doors estimates that one in seven Christians worldwide face high levels of persecution, but one important area of concern is sub-Saharan Africa, where Open Doors finds growing violence. 

“The region accounts for some 90% of the estimated 5,000 believers killed for their faith worldwide, with the highest number of Christians killed being in Nigeria (4,118),” the group says. “The last year has seen a sharp rise in attacks on churches and Christian homes and buildings in places like Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. This explains why the number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa with extremely high levels of violence has risen from 13 to 15.”

At the same time, sub-Saharan Africa is an area of keen interest from China and Russia, and that spells trouble. “African governments are spending more than $1 billion per year on surveillance technology, mostly to strengthen the capabilities of governments led by rulers with absolute power,” Open Doors points out. “The main exporter is China, a country whose use of sophisticated surveillance technology is synonymous with repression of religious freedom (and one of the main reasons it’s No. 19 on the World Watch List).”

“Meanwhile, the Wagner Group — a private military contractor with reported connections to Russia’s government — has been gaining a foothold in the African region,” it continues. “The group is known for its ruthless activities in countering Islamic extremism, with civilians often deemed expendable. It has been increasingly active in countries including Burkina Faso and Mali, where speaking out against their activities is near impossible and even life-threatening. Given Christianity’s links to the West, believers in the region fear the repercussions of being associated with any Western opposition to this group’s actions. The other crucial issue here is the Wagner Group’s manipulation of key economic sectors in the region, notably mining. This threatens to bring yet more instability to sub-Saharan Africa — the last thing Christians need.”

But Open Doors does find a bright spot in that the Church is growing around the world, even in places where Christians face the most persecution. 

“In the most hostile of environments, it continues to thrive,” Open Doors concludes. “More than anything, it’s a testament to the power of the gospel and the eternal truth that ‘God’s word is not chained’ (2 Timothy 2:9). But it’s also because the global Church is standing with its most vulnerable members. It’s what family does.”

Tags:
AfricaNorth KoreaPersecution of Christians
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