The most dangerous place in the world to follow Jesus is North Korea – as it has been for almost two decades, according to the 2020 World Watch List.
However, Afghanistan is not far behind on the annual list of persecution against Christians, released by support organisation Open Doors.
“North Korea has maintained number one again, for the 18th year in a row. But it is not so much on a different scale – in fact, Afghanistan at number two is very close to North Korea,” Murray Noble, a writer/researcher at Open Doors Australia and New Zealand, tells Eternity.
“The big difference is Afghanistan has extreme levels of persecution across the board with violence being one of their major ones.” Violence directed towards Christians in Afghanistan includes beatings, imprisonment and death.
“North Korea doesn’t have as high violence, but in every other category it is higher than Afghanistan,” explains Noble.
“North Korea is about oppression of free thought; it’s about their worship of Kim Jong-un from a young age …
“There’s so few opportunities to hear the gospel or about the gospel that the oppression we get from the post-communist society they live in has meant there’s just no opportunity to live freely or have that free thought.”
The World Watch List is the most authoritative of its kind. It ranks the top 50 countries in the world where Christians experience the most persecution. Though the nature of this persecution varies, there is a common thread: it’s getting worse.
The 2020 report shows that one in eight Christians worldwide experience a high to extreme level of persecution because of their faith. Just two years ago, that number was one in 12 and, in 2019, it had climbed to one in nine.
The World Watch List also reveals Christians in 34 countries experience a very high to extreme level of persecution. In 2019, it was 29 countries.
Persecution is also going digital, with surveillance cameras, facial recognition software and biometric systems used to monitor and target Christians.
Mike Gore, CEO of Open Doors Australia and New Zealand, said: “The 2020 World Watch List once again shows that the cost of following Jesus is increasing the world over, as both violent and non-violent acts of persecution increase.”
Despite not being in the top 50 last year, Burkina Faso ranked at 28 this year. It was the fastest riser on the list, due to increasing Islamic extremism in Burkina Faso.
Sri Lanka also rose significantly, largely because of the church bombings that took place on Easter Sunday last year. The coordinated attacks claimed the lives of hundreds of Christians as they gathered to celebrate Easter.
Noble said Open Doors had been rebuilding churches in Sri Lanka, as well as providing motorcycles to families who lost them in the bombings.
Open Doors partners with local churches in more than 70 countries to strengthen them in the face of persecution and advance the gospel. However, it does not aim to stamp out persecution, believing it is the hallmark of strong Christian faith.
“Open Doors is committed to supporting those who face persecution and the Bible tells us that persecution is going to happen,” said Noble.
“We’re not here to eradicate persecution because to do so is to say this shouldn’t be happening – and the Bible tells us very clearly it is going to be happening.
We’re there to come alongside, to support the body of Christ and say ‘we are one with you, we are part of the people who believe in Christ, believe in your sacrifice for us and we want to say we are aware of your persecution and we want to support you in that.”
Key findings from the 2020 World Watch List
- 260 million Christians in the top 50 countries experience a high to extreme level of persecution.
- North Korea remains #1 on the List, a position it has held since 2002. 50,000-70,000 Christians are in labour camps, according to Open Doors.
- Sri Lanka rose to #30 following the Easter Sunday bombings. It was #46 in 2019.
- Burkina Faso was #28, despite not being ranked in the top 50 last year. Due to increasing Islamic extremism, it was the fastest riser in the list.
- In Iran, 194 Christians were arrested last year – 114 in just one week.
- Christians in 34 countries experience a very high to extreme level of persecution. In 2019, it was 29 countries.
- Persecution is going digital, with surveillance cameras, facial recognition software and biometric systems used to monitor and target Christians.
- In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, who spent eight years on death row on a fabricated blasphemy charge, was freed. However, many others remain imprisoned in similar cases.