ReligionReligious Freedom and Persecution

Open Doors World watch list 2020: 260 Million Christians face persecution in top 50 countries


The persecution of Christians is getting more severe than ever, affecting increasing numbers of believers around the world. That’s one of the findings of the newly published World Watch List, which reveals the 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution.

A staggering 260 million Christians in the top 50 countries on the World Watch List face high or extreme levels of persecution for their faith. That’s 15 million more people than the previous year. Open Doors estimates that there are another 50 million Christians facing high levels of persecution in a further 23 countries outside the top 50. Persecution comes in many forms, from the Easter Sunday church attacks by Islamic extremists in Sri Lanka, to a believer being denied their rights or ostracised by their family and community.

North Korea remains the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, having been at number one since 2002. Owning a Bible could mean that you and your whole family are put in horrific concentration camps, or killed.

Each year, the publication of the World Watch List is an opportunity to pray for and support Christians around the world. The 50 country profiles include background information, recent developments, testimonies from courageous Christians and ways that supporters can respond through prayer and gifts.

How does Open Doors produce the World Watch List?

The World Watch List is an annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution. It’s a unique, in-depth record of the places where Christians are following Jesus no matter the cost. The data for the World Watch List 2020 covers period 1 November 2018 to 31 October 2019.

Open Doors understands persecution as ‘any hostility experienced as a result of one’s identification with Christ’. But measuring persecution is a complex task, and measuring faith-based persecution is even more complex. In many countries, persecution is multidimensional – gender and ethnicity will also play a role, for instance.

To create a comprehensive list, the World Watch Research Unit works closely with researchers in the field to collect survey data and secondary data in the following six areas:

  • Private life. What freedom does a Christian have to worship and own religious material? Is conversion to Christianity allowed? Is freedom of thought permitted?
  • Family life. How free are Christians to express their faith within their family? Is it possible to hold Christian family milestones, such as Christian marriages and funerals?
  • Community life. Can Christians live without harassment and discrimination in their local communities? How does their faith affect their education or employment?
  • National life. Does the government allow Christians to express their faith? Can converts call themselves Christians on official documents? Do the police target Christians?
  • Church life. Are Christians allowed to meet together? Can they build churches? And if they can, are they heavily monitored? Are Bibles freely available?
  • Violence. Are Christians attacked mentally or physically? Are they arrested, abducted, tortured, imprisoned or even killed? Do they face sexual harassment?

Each of these areas is scored, and each of the 150 countries assessed is then given a score out of a hundred for the severity of persecution. A score of 81-100 equates to ‘extreme’ persecution; 61-80 is ‘very high’ and 41-60 is ‘high’.

Research methods and results have been independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF).

How many Christians are there in North Korea?

Open Doors estimates that there are approximately 300,000 Christians in North Korea, from a population of 25.7 million. It’s very difficult to know exactly how many believers live in North Korea because they must keep their faith completely secret.

From that 300,000, Open Doors estimates that 50,000-70,000 Christians are currently imprisoned in terrible labour camps for their faith. It is unlikely that they will ever be able to leave.

Why are Christians persecuted in North Korea?

Anybody who believes in a higher authority than the dictatorial Kim family is considered an enemy of the state. Kim Jong-un and his family are worshipped as gods, and posters of Kim Jong-Un must be hung in all homes and schools. Followers of any faith are at great risk of being killed or imprisoned as political criminals – and, if discovered, their families are imprisoned too.

Meet Sang-Hwa*

“Thanks to your support, the secret believers experience that God loves them and provides in everything they need. What you do is so important for their survival.”KIM SANG-HWA, NORTH KOREA

What’s life like for Christians in North Korea?

North Korea has been at the top of the World Watch List since 2002. It’s still the most dangerous place in the world to follow Jesus. Many believers have to keep their faith secret even from their own families – Kim Sang-Hwa didn’t realise her parents were Christians until she found their hidden Bible when she was 12.

“I threw the book across the room. I had shivers throughout my body. And I was so very afraid. I thought: ‘Wow, we’re all dead now.’”

Terrified, she put the Bible back where she’d found it. Sang-Hwa was left with a tremendously difficult choice. Should she do her ‘patriotic duty’ and tell the police, or should she find out more about Christianity from her parents – and risk her own life? Thankfully she chose the latter, and made the courageous decision to follow Christ. Now she lives in a neighbouring country, but there is evidence that North Korean spies are sent into these countries to kidnap and kill refugees and those working with them, particularly Christians.

It’s difficult to overstate the reach of North Korean authorities and the obedience and leader-worship they demand. Police raids to identify and arrest citizens with ‘deviating thoughts’ have increased, and the whole country is deliberately controlled through an atmosphere of intense fear. And yet, despite all this, the church in North Korea is not only surviving but growing! One Christian has shared: “One day the borders will open and we will unite with the South Korean and the Chinese church to bring the gospel to some of the darkest places on this earth.”

*Name changed for security reasons

How can I help Christians in North Korea?

The scale of the persecution in North Korea can make those of us in the West feel hopeless. How can it possibly change? But we have a powerful and sovereign God, and we know that He uses all the gifts and prayers that Open Doors supporters offer. So please keep praying and supporting our brothers and sisters in the world’s most dangerous country to be a Christian. They know that choosing Jesus is worth the cost. And together we can help carry the burden.


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