WASHINGTON—A U.S.-based group tracking persecution around the globe has named North Korea the worst country in the world for Christians.
Open Doors USA on Wednesday gave the hermetic country the dubious designation for the 12th straight year—as many years as it has compiled the annual World Watch List of top 50 offenders. The organization estimates North Korea’s communist regime has between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians imprisoned in labor camps for their faith.
“People can spend their entire lives in prison camps,” said Emily Fuentes, the Open Doors communications director, who compared the country to Nazi Germany. “At least one-fourth of the Christian population is in labor camps for their faith.”
Open Doors unveiled its World Watch List (WWL) during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The group measures how much Christians are able to live out their faith to determine what countries land on the list. It considers spheres of private, family, community, national, and church life, plus a sixth sphere counting violent incidents.
“The 2014 WWL is the most comprehensive study of the systematic persecution of Christians ever done,” said David Curry, president of Open Doors, who appeared at the press conference with Open Doors’ Ronald Boyd-MacMillan and Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute. “Often completely unaddressed in the West is the fact that Christians are the largest persecuted minority in the world.”
Syrian Christians have experienced the most intense increase in persecution—the country jumped from No. 36 two years ago to No. 3 in 2014. The Syrian civil war, now almost three years old, has left more than 100,000 people dead, including many Christians caught in the middle of the fight between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebel fighters composed largely of radical Muslims.
Fuentes said Syria reached its highest-ever ranking on the WWL because fighters are targeting Christians in many areas: “Many of these historically Christian towns are now ghost towns.”
Syria easily had the most martyrs of any country on the list, with 1,213, followed by Nigeria with 612 martyrs, Pakistan with 88, and Egypt with 83. Islamic extremism is the biggest factor fueling oppression and violence in 36 of the 50 countries, according to Open Doors.
Somalia, where the Muslim group al-Shabaab is wreaking havoc, came in at No. 5 last year but moved No. 2 in 2014—its highest ranking ever. Rounding out the top 10: Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Pakistan, Iran, and Yemen. Six of the top 10 countries were designated “failed states,” defined as “a weak state where social and political structures have collapsed to the point where government has little or no control.”
The Central African Republic (CAR), Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh were the only three newcomers to the 2014 list. CAR, another failed state, is a mostly Christian country that has never appeared on the WWL, but rampant persecution—including the murder of at least 13 pastors—at the hands of Muslim extremists catapulted it to No. 16.
Thirty of the 50 countries either stayed at the same rank or dropped lower, but Fuentes said in most cases the situations in those countries didn’t improve, others just got worse comparatively. She said one exception is China, traditionally one of the world’s more notorious human rights violators, which is improving and remained at No. 37 on the list.
“Christians aren’t targeted as much as they were a few years ago,” Fuentes said. “In most parts of China, Christians are left alone.”
Columbia, the only country in the Western Hemisphere on the list, made the biggest jump this year, moving to No. 25 from No. 46 in 2013. Open Doors reported kidnappings and assassinations are frequent in some areas of the country.
The African country of Mali made the biggest drop on the list, moving down to No. 33 after coming in at a surprising No. 7 in 2013.
Boyd-MacMillan said Open Doors hopes the WWL will inspire people and organizations to learn more about persecuted Christians and commit to pray for them.