WASHINGTON—For the 11th straight year, Christians in North Korea suffered the most persecution in the world, according to 2012 rankings released Tuesday by Open Doors International, a U.S.-based group that keeps track of worldwide persecution of believers.
Its annual World Watch List revealed persecution is on the rise worldwide, especially in Arab Spring countries and areas around the Sahel belt of Africa.
“All of the Arab Spring countries are going to get worse for the church for the next five to 10 years,” Ron Boyd-MacMillan, Open Doors’ chief strategy officer, told me after announcing the report at a press conference Tuesday at the National Press Club. Boyd-MacMillan said the one exception is Egypt, which dropped from No. 15 to No. 25 on the list of 50 because “while the [Muslim] Brotherhood is still maneuvering, the church is fairly free.”
The reporting period ended in October, so rankings do not include violence sparked by Egypt’s new constitution.
North Korea’s No. 1 ranking came as no surprise, since between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians continue to suffer in brutal labor camps. Not only has the situation not improved under new leader Kim Jong Un, Boyd-McMillan said the conditions for Christians may have even worsened.
The African country of Mali presented the biggest surprise of the list, jumping from unranked last year to No. 7—one of 11 countries where Open Doors reports “extreme persecution.” Islamic extremism accounts for the deteriorating conditions after Sharia law was instituted last year in the northern part of the country.
In Syria, where 40,000 people have reportedly died, civil war has pushed the country from No. 36 to No. 11 on the list. Ethiopia jumped from No 38 to No. 15 after members of the Muslim group al-Shabaab came from neighboring Somalia to establish “enclaves of Islam” that wreak havoc on Christians.
Clashes are increasingly occurring around the Sahel belt of Africa as Christianity pushes up from the south, and Islam pushes down from the north. One of those battlegrounds is northern Nigeria, which, despite sustained violence against Christians, remained at No. 13 because conditions also deteriorated in other countries.
Christians are technically free to practice their religion in Nigeria, although attacks from the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram have killed tens of thousands over the last decade. Boyd-McMillan said the Nigerian city of Jos is the “taproot of evangelization” in Africa, leading him to wonder if extremists have strategically targeted the area because they realize its significance to the rest of the continent. Nigerians “are good at taking the gospel around the world,” he said. “But if the taproot gets turned off in northern Nigeria, that would be very significant for world evangelization.”
China, ranked in the top 10 five years ago, represented the most significant improved country in the rankings, dropping from No. 21 to No. 37. The fall is due primarily to intensifying persecution elsewhere, but conditions are also improving for Christians in the world’s most populous country.
Other countries making big drops were Bhutan (No. 17 to No. 28) and Comoros (No. 24 to No. 41).