January 7, 2010
For the eighth year in a row, North Korea again ranked number one on the Open Doors annual World Watch List (WWL). The ongoing crackdown on Christians in Iran bumped that country from the third on the list to second.
Following North Korea and Iran this year are Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Maldives, Afghanistan, Yemen, Mauritania, Laos and Uzbekistan.
In North Korea, every religious activity is recognized as an insurrection to the North Korean socialist principles. In 2009, the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-Il targeted Christians all over the country. That resulted in arrests, torture and killings.
According to reports, North Korean leaders are desperately trying to control society in order to eradicate all Christian activities. There are an estimated 200,000 North Koreans in political prisons, including about 50,000 Christians.
"Christians are the target of fierce government action, and once caught, are not regarded as human. Last year we had evidence that some were used as guinea pigs to test chemical and biological weapons," said a veteran North Korean watcher, who can't be identified due to security reasons.
Obtaining firsthand information about North Korea comes at great risk, and often high cost. The country has virtually no contact with the outside world beyond limited, government-supervised interaction with foreign businessman, and retrieved defectors face years in notorious black prisons and concentration camps.
"North Korea's severity and intensity of persecution far outstrips any country that we are able to measure persecution in," said Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA.
"There are about 50,000 Christians in a forced labor camp. If a Christian is caught with a Bible, for example, not only that person, but his wife, their children and their parents would also be thrown into a labor camp as well. Most likely, they would never come out again. Being underfed, under clothed in the middle of the Korean winter and worked literally to death.
"Every Christian in the country lives in constant fear of being discovered," he added.
Despite the persecution, however, the church continues to grow in North Korea as it does in many of the other countries on the WWL.
"We estimate though that the church is growing in North Korea, that there is a continuing revival in underground and unregistered churches and this reality as not escaped the notice of the authorities. They are continuing to root out the underground churches in North Korea," Moeller said.
Like other countries on the WWL, North Korea shows two important trends for Christians, Moeller said.
"The first thing that the watch list tells us is that things are definitely getting worse around the world for Christians," he said. "Literally, hundreds of millions of Christians face—if not outright and intense persecution—they may face harassment, oppression or restriction. As the study indicates, 70 percent of the world lives in places without religious liberties. We are talking about billions of people who live in a place where freedom of conscience and freedom of belief is not a given."
Moeller continued, "The second thing that it tells us is that in the very places where persecution is the hottest and growing stronger almost daily, the church is also growing. It is growing numerically as well as in its depth and strength. We hear repeated stories of individuals coming to faith in Christ through miraculous means, but also through ordinary means of people boldly witnessing in their neighborhoods or apartment complexes."
Iran, now ranked at number two on the list, moves up one position this year. Iran was previously at the number three spot on the World Watch List for many years, behind Saudi Arabia.
The wave of arrests of Christians in Iran, which started in 2008 continued even stronger during 2009, resulting in the arrest of at least 85 Christians. It is suspected that the arrests are a way for the Iranian government to distract attention from internal problems, including the domestic turmoil after the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Reports indicated that most of those arrested were mistreated in prison and that the turmoil and rioting continued throughout 2009.
"Iran jumping to number two is noteworthy. Iranian Muslim Background Believers Maryam Rustampoor and Marzieh Amirzadeh were arrested simply for being Christians and refusing to recant their faith in Jesus Christ. They were released almost two months ago, helped by an advocacy campaign by Open Doors and other Christian organizations. But these two brave women along with hundreds of other believers still remain at risk inside Iran," Moeller said.
Saudi Arabia at number three remains unchanged in the situation of religious freedom for Christians. However, there were no reports of Christians being killed or physically harmed for their faith and only one report of a Christian being arrested was received.
Somalia moved up one spot to the number four position, as religious freedom for Christians became worse. In April, the Parliament voted unanimously to institute Islamic law.
Rounding out the top ten are Maldives at number five, followed by Afghanistan, Yemen, Mauritania, Laos and Uzbekistan.
New to the top ten this year is the North African country of Mauritania, holding the number eight position. Mauritania jumped ten spots, which is the biggest increase of any country in the poll. The situation deteriorated due to the murder of a Christian aid worker in June 2009, the arrest and torture of 35 Mauritanian Christians in July and the arrest of a group of 150 of sub-Saharan Christians in August.
Of the countries on the top 10 list, eight have Islam as their dominant religion - Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Maldives, Afghanistan, Yemen, Mauritania and Uzbekistan. North Korea and Laos are communist countries. Also, 35 of the 50 countries on the list have Islamic governments.
The lone country to drop out of the top 10 list is the tiny African country of Eritrea, which fell from number nine to number eleven. Open Doors recorded fewer reports on persecution of Christians in Algeria, India, Cuba, Jordan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, which dropped from No. 41 to No. 48 - the biggest improvement of any country in 2009.
An estimated 100 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest and even death for their faith in Christ, with millions more facing discrimination and alienation. Open Doors ministers to the persecuted church in more than 60 countries worldwide, including their work in 46 of the countries on the WWL.
The World Watch List (WWL) ranks countries by the intensity of persecution that Christians face for demonstrating their faith. It brings attention to the world's top 50 persecutors. For the complete World Watch List 2010, visit http://www.opendoorsusa.org/.
The WWL has been compiled for 19 years by Open Doors. The data for the list is derived from a questionnaire containing 53 questions sent to Open Doors co-workers, key church leaders and recognized experts in 70 countries. The questionnaire examines every aspect of persecution, including the degree of legal restriction, state attitudes, and how free the church is to organize itself. The list also notes incidents of persecution, such as church burnings, anti-Christian riots and even martyrdom.