North Korea is again atop the list of countries where persecution of Christians is highest, Open Doors said Jan. 17 in the release of its 2023 World Watch List.
North Korea had been in the top position since 2002 until last year, when Afghanistan moved into that position. Afghanistan holds the No. 9 spot on the 2023 list.
“Afghanistan looks like a significant drop, and it is,” said Lisa Pearce, interim CEO of Open Doors US, told The Baptist Paper. “But the reality for the indigenous Christians that remain in Afghanistan is that life is just as dangerous and just as brutal as last year.”
Pearce said that in the aftermath of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, many Christians fled the country. Many others were killed, and the Christians who remained were driven further underground.
“It was dangerous before to meet, but now fewer are getting caught because of the fear they live under,” Pearce said. “The reality is that their situation has not improved, but that’s why the numbers are different.”
‘Front line of attack’
North Korea earned its highest-ever persecution score. The score reflects increased arrests of Christians and the number of underground house churches discovered and closed.
In North Korea, Open Doors reported, arrest usually means execution or life in one of the nation’s “horrifically inhumane” camps for political prisoners, where prisoners face near-starvation, torture and sexual violence.
Timothy Cho, who escaped imprisonment in North Korea, said “Christians have always been in the front line of attack for the regime.”
“Their aim is to wipe out every Christian in the country. There can only be one god in North Korea, and that is the Kim family,” he said.
The country’s new “Anti-Reactionary Thought Law” criminalized any published materials of foreign origin in North Korea. Though used for other purposes, it is being used to track down Bibles and other Christian materials, both printed or electronic, Open Doors explained.
Tracking trends of persecution
The rise of authoritarianism in many countries, especially in China, is one of the major trends Open Doors tracked in the past year. In China, Pearce said, there are 100 million members of the Communist party and an estimated 100 million Christians.
“Christians are contributors to society, but they are seen as a threat because they don’t conform to the party’s authority,” she explained.
Digital platforms have been a blessing to help get Bibles and Christian material into the hands of believers in tightly controlled countries. However, better surveillance tools used by the government now place Christians at greater risk.
“Their online activity is being tracked, one, two even three years after they searched for those materials,” Pearce said.
The Open Doors report noted that both Russia and China have utilized data from tracking apps used to collect COVID-19 data for other purposes.
Rise of surveillance
The rise of surveillance is happening in other authoritarian countries too, Wybo Nicolai, founder of the World Watch List and former Open Doors global field director, told The Baptist Paper. In Iran, for example, officials have been trying to crack down on protesters, locking down access to the internet in their efforts. This action has an impact on Christian ministry, Nicolai said.
“There has been a revival going on in Iran for decades,” he said. “Many Iranians in the past 10 years have gone online and to social media to get access to teaching materials like Bible studies. So by cutting off the internet, the believers are more isolated than they were even six months ago, and ministries are struggling to engage with believers in the country.”
Though the Middle East is an area where persecution remains at high levels, there is positive news, Nicolai said. Christian minorities in some countries, particularly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, are experiencing a bit more freedom, he said.
“Some countries are trying to move away from very extreme forms of Islam,” he explained.
He noted Egypt as another example of a country that has dropped in the rankings, noting there has been a drop in acts of violence against the country’s historic Christian minority while clarifying that the situation for Egyptian converts is “still complicated.”
Another trend noted by this year’s World Watch List is the rise in violence against Christians in sub-Saharan Africa as Islamist militants use force in attempts to destabilize the region. Once again, Nigeria saw the most deaths by a “staggering” 89% majority, Open Doors reported.
30th anniversary of WWL
This year marks the 30th year of the World Watch List. The first list was produced in January 1993. Researchers look at pressure levels on believers’ family life, private life, community life, national life and church life, along with violence levels in each country. The 2023 list covers the period Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30, 2022.
The video below shows the changes in the World Watch List map over the past three decades (press “Play” to see the changes over time).
The World Watch List is released each year by Open Doors International, a global NGO network that has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for 68 years and works in more than 70 countries. Open Doors provides practical support to persecuted Christians, including food, medicines, trauma care, training and resources. For more information, visit opendoorsus.org.