Impacting Cities & Communities thru Prayer
A Community of Prayer Champions, Praying Churches, Prayed-for Communities
This discussion will focus on Open Doors' World Watch List countries for 2019. As with 2018, I'll post links to each country's WWL page, the Prayercast page for the country, the Operation World prayer page, and the Open Doors "country card" (pdf).
In Colombia, church leaders often play a dual role as de facto community leaders, especially in small rural communities. This recognition often makes these leaders and their families a target of paramilitary forces, guerrillas and criminal groups wanting to control the region. Open Doors recently met a family who knows this reality all too well.
It was a hot Sunday in the town of El Cedro* in northwestern Colombia, a small town inhabited by fishermen, farmers and the occasional merchant who carries goods for small gasoline boats popularly known as “Johnsons” (the brand of the engine used in most boats).
Like every Sunday afternoon, Pastor Hector Galarza* had boarded his small boat to make his way to the small church he had led for eight years, preparing to preach that weekend’s worship service. Reaching the area, he bent over to tie his boat on the pier when two men approached the dock. They demanded to be taken to the other side of the river.
The men were not completely unknown to the pastor. Weeks ago, they had been bothering the villagers with complaints and demands. They are known for the violence of their words and unkind behavior and are part of illegal armed groups that, for some time, have wanted to regain control of the area Pastor Galarza pastored.
“They were two men, one was known in the area,” said Hector’s wife, Mercedes*. “They were investigating the area for some time and finding out information about everyone.”
Pastor Galarza, like most of the region’s inhabitants, witnessed the violent and bloody actions of illegal armed groups against the civilian population. Fortunately for four or five years, the situation in the region had improved. The population lived in relative peace.
Through the church, Pastor Galarza began to influence the development of the town positively and peacefully. His leadership was so strong that the local community ruler invited him to help make important decisions. Little by little, Pastor Galarza became known as the social and religious leader of the region.
In the last two years, paramilitary groups, guerrillas and criminal gangs have taken on the task of “colonizing” new regions to make them a bastion of armed struggleto control the drug market, arms trafficking and other criminal acts.
Given this strong attack, the rural Christian church has been seriously affected because, in the absence of a public force (such as the police or army), church leaders defended the population peacefully, preventing illegal groups from regaining control of the place.
Pastor Galarza was the only one on the front lines opposing the intrusion of armed groups into the community—a recognition that would become tragic that Sunday afternoon.
In broad daylight in front of onlookers, the men that Pastor Galarza refused to aid took his life with two gunshots. Reportedly, the gunmen slowly walked away, no doubt feeling untouchable. They had murdered a pastor and the outspoken social leader and community defender who stood in their way.
According to Pastor Galarza’s daughter, Angela, the murder of her father was premeditated, carried out to prevent the advancement of the gospel. Pastor Galarza’s influence helped decrease illegal activities in the area. Also, he was killed, Angela says, to counter the growing number of people going to church and their opposition to armed groups.
That same afternoon, the pastor’s wife of 25 years, together with the children and grandchildren, removed her husband’s body. Then they fled to Rio Crecido*, a town near El Cedro, to take refuge.
The small house in a depressed neighborhood is now the new home of the Galarza family. There, hidden from those who murdered her husband, Mercedes struggles to rebuild her home. She cries often. She also has nervous attacks. So do her grandchildren who run to hide whenever they hear a loud noise.
“The children often cry when they remember their grandpa, they do not understand what happened,” Mercedes says.
Angela adds: “Unfortunately, they saw their grandpa dead on the floor. This memory sometimes does not let them sleep.”
Their faith in the God Hector dedicated his life to serving has been the only source of strength and healing for this grieving family who, despite the pain, feel a deep pride for the man the pastor was—a man who served Christ with all his heart and all his might; a pastor who gave his life for the defense of the message of peace he learned from Jesus; and a loving father and a faithful and loyal husband.
Pastor Galarza was a leader whose blood is now the inspiration for young Christians in the region who continue to learn about a man who loved God so deeply he gave his life to serve the people His God loves.
The 2019 World Watch List report is based on comprehensive and investigative research of 150 countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. Each year, our research reveals telling numbers and statistics that give us a glimpse at the depth, prevalence and widespread reach of the persecution believers endure.
Below, we share a quick glance at the numbers during the 2019 reporting period (from Oct. 31, 2017, to November 1, 2018). But by no means do the numbers tell the full story. Each fact and figure represent real people with real lives, families, jobs, churches—fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters—who every day make the dangerous choice to believe in and trust Jesus.
(from October 31, 2017 to November 1, 2018)
245 Million: In the top 50 World Watch List countries alone, 245 million Christians in the world experience high levels of persecution for their choice to follow Christ.
1 in 9: Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution
14%: The rise in the number of Christians in the top 50 countries on the 2019 World Watch List (WWL) who experience high levels of persecution. (from the 2018 reporting period to 2019’s)
4,136: Christians killed for faith-related reasons in the top 50 WWL countries.
2,625: Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned in the top 50 WWL countries.
1,266: churches or Christian buildings attacked in the top 50 WWL countries.
7 out of 9: In seven of the countries in the World Watch List’s top 10, the primary cause of persecution is Islamic oppression.
11: countries scoring in the “extreme” level for their persecution of Christians. Five years ago, North Korea was the only one.
18: Consecutive years North Korea has ranked No. 1 as the world’s most dangerous place for Christians.
Watch the 2019 World Watch List video below:
105: churches attacked, burned or vandalized each month, in the top 50 WWL countries
11: Christians killed every day for their faith, in the top 50 WWL countries.
1 out of 6: Christians in Africa that experience high levels of persecution.
1 out of 3: Christians in Asia that experience high levels of persecution.
1 out of 21: Christians in South America who experience high levels of persecution.
To read more about the World Watch List, click here to see the list and download the full report. To help you pray with these believers, Open Doors has a mobile prayer app that alerts you to prayer requests from believers. Learn more about it and sign up to get regular updates delivered to your phone.
In the reporting period for the 2019 World Watch List, five major Christian persecution trends surfaced in the top 50 countries on the list. By no means are they the only trends affecting believers globally. However, research and reports from our on-the-ground partners and field reps in more than 60 countries indicate these trends are the major forces influencing the persecution of Christians around the world. Below, we have identified and highlighted them to provide insight into the battle the global Church is facing today.
Research for the 2019 World Watch List reporting period reveals devastating details about the persecution experienced by Christian women. In many places, women experience a “double persecution”—one for being a Christian and one for being a woman. This kind of persecution is difficult to assess or quantify because it is complex, violent and hidden. In many cultures where women are specifically targeted, it is difficult, if not impossible, to report accurate numbers.
Far from being gender-blind, persecution exploits all the available vulnerabilities women have in their cultural or social context. This means they are oppressed through factors like: a lack of access to education and healthcare, forced divorce, travel bans, trafficking, widowhood, incarceration in a psychiatric unit, forced abortions or contraception, being denied access to work and lack of choice to marry a person of similar faith. The pressures faced by Christian women are twice as numerous as those experienced by Christian men.
Even in the most restricted circumstances, gender-specific persecution is a key means of destroying the minority Christian community. For instance, the sexual assault of women in Nigeria by Boko Haram, and in Iraq by Islamic State, is typically acknowledged as rape, yet not perceived as a tool of religious persecution. While those assaults have not been confined to Christian populations, a study of both the demographics of victims and of their testimonies of the words used by their attackers leaves no doubt that at least one primary objective of and the Islamic State is to eradicate the Christian population by every means.
Watch the 2019 World Watch List video:
In seven out of the top 10 World Watch List countries, the primary cause of persecution is Islamic oppression. This means, for millions of Christians—particularly those who grew up Muslim or were born into Muslim families—openly following Jesus can have painful consequences. They can be treated as second-class citizens, discriminated against for jobs or even violently attacked.
Often, Islamic oppression is most widely seen and covered by media during events of extreme violence. Despite a lack of a common ideology—and even amidst in-fighting between the various groups—Islamic militants continue to cast their bloody vision around the world. From al-Shabab to Boko Haram to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to ISIS, this kind of militancy continues to grow in Asia (the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia) and Africa (Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia). These militants and other violent radical movements continue to obliterate anyone opposing their extreme interpretation of Islam through acts of terrorism and insurrection. We call this the “smash” factor (violence).
But another force is at play called the “squeeze” factor. While violent terrorist acts receive the majority of media attention, Islamists around the world further their agenda through diplomatic and political action, as well as grassroots social efforts. In many countries, democracy is used to peaceably enact legal changes in accord with Sharia law and Islamic customs. For Christians in these countries, the persecution “squeeze” Christians who left Islam to follow Christ face often far outweighs the violence and is even more difficult to endure. The slow creep of Islamic control in every facet of life becomes unbearable, leading to many Christians practicing their faith underground, out of the public eye, for fear of repercussions should their faith be discovered. In areas where militant Islam is present, this fear is only heightened.
For the first time since the start of the World Watch List, India has entered the top 10 at No. 10. Additionally, China jumped 16 spots, from No. 43 on the 2018 list to No. 27 on the 2019 list. Each of these countries is home to more than a billion people, so these trends are distressing. Hindu nationalists in India continue to attack Christians and churches with what seems like no consequences.
Because the church is growing in India and is establishing a strong presence in the tribal regions, militant Hindus see Christians as a threat to the nation. Discrimination also is very common, based on the age-old caste system. It affects Christians all over India because most converts to Christianity come from the lower and “untouchable” (Dalit) castes.
Since Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, the level of persecution of Christians has gone up dramatically. Every year, more violent incidents are registered, mainly because government authorities such as police and local officials frequently allow a culture of impunity for violence against Christians, especially when a mob is involved. Hindu militants target church leaders, beat them up and try to force them out of their villages. The latest trend is not only to threaten the church leader, but also to threaten or rape his wife, and target even young children. This twisted brutality reflects global trends, which increasingly have identified the direct targeting of women and children as part of the dynamics of persecution.
In the most recent year, solely from documented incidents, at least 12,500 Christians and about 100 churches in India have been attacked. At least 200 people have been arrested solely for their faith, and at least 10 have been killed. However, many incidents go undocumented, so true figures could be much higher.
In China, the increased power of the government and the rule of Xi Jinping, chairman of the Communist Party, continue to make open worship difficult in some parts of the country. The situation continues to escalate for Chinese churches and Christians. Over the last four months, Chinese officials have shuttered three large, well-known churches. In early December, police raided Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, arresting the pastor and 10 elders. A week later, they closed down Ronguilli Church, and in September they shut down Beijing’s largest house church, Zion Church.
In March 2018, Xi Jinping was allowed to rule indefinitely, the first since Mao to hold such power. China also announced its “Principle for the Promotion of Chinese Christianity in China for th... (2018-2022). With these new regulations and the assurance of his place as permanent leader of China, Xi Jinping is quickly making it known that there is little to no room for any religion that challenges the absolute rule of the Chinese state.
While the violent excesses of ISIS and other Islamic militants have mostly disappeared from headlines from the Middle East, their loss of territory there means that fighters have dispersed to a larger number of countries not only in the region but, increasingly, into sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa poses one of the world’s most potent security challenges, as weak governance, poverty and radical Islam increasingly collide. Of those countries that register “high” levels of persecution (scoring 41+ points), but fall outside the top 50, 18 out of the 23 are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Almost 30 violent Islamist groups are known to be active in the region: Most perpetrate violence in more than one country. The radical ideology of Islamic extremist groups like Boko Haram and al-Shabab has inspired, or infiltrated, numerous splinter groups such as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a deadly group that broke away from Nigeria’s Boko Haram that also enslaves Christian women and girls as an integral part of their strategy. In February 2018, ISWAP stormed a girls’ secondary school in Dapchi and kidnapped more than 100 girls. A month later, the group released all but one of the girls, Leah Sharibu, because she refused to say Muslim prayers and renounce her belief and trust in Christ. To date, Leah remains in captivity with another Christian, Alice Ngaddah, an aid worker. The group abducted Alice and two other aid workers (the videos of the other two workers’ brutal murders were released in September and October 2018, respectively).
Across the Christian-Muslim fault line in middle Nigeria, decades of climate change and creeping desertification, combined with rapid population growth, has meant a fight for land and resources. The intensifying conflict between nomadic, predominantly Muslim Hau... and indigenous, predominantly Christian farmers in the Middle Belt means that Christians continue to experience the highest possible levels of violence to be measured by the World Watch research (a score of 16.7 in the ‘violence’ category). In 2018, more than 6,000 Christians were either killed or maimed in this escalating situation. Scored according to “violence” persecution alone, Nigeria would tie for top place with Pakistan at No. 5 this year.
State authoritarianism is increasing in many parts of the world, supported by the ever-spreading availability of personal digital technology, which governments can increasingly track through facial recognition, electronic chips and so on. Places like Vietnam, Myanmar, China and North Korea all saw increases in stricter state control of religious rights.
The trend is most clearly seen in China, where new Regulations for Religious Affairs came into force on February 1, 2018. Since then, a focus on prohibiting children and youth from hearing religious teaching has seen nursery and Sunday schools closed down, summer camps banned, and churches forced to place signs at the entrance forbidding anyone under 18 to enter. This policy has been in place for years, but has rarely been enforced until now.
Churches registered in the state-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement now find themselves bearing the brunt of the regulations, such as having to install closed-circuit (CCTV) cameras. As noted above, in September, Beijing’s largest “house” church, Zion—with 1,500 members—was shut down for refusing to install CCTV cameras facing the congregation. The official reason was “illegal meetings held by an unauthorized church group in an unregistered building.”
The same state authoritarianism also pressures Christians in Vietnam (No. 20). The Law on Belief and Religion—the country’s first-ever law on religions since Vietnam was reunified under Communist rule in 1975—came into force in January 2018. And in Myanmar (No. 18), state authoritarianism combines with nationalism. More than 100,000 members of a majority-Christian ethnic tribe, the Karen, remain in refugee camps just across the border in Thailand. Meanwhile, thousands have been killed and at least 120,000 displaced in majority-Christian Kachin state. Recently, Myanmar’s largest ethnic militia, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), declared almost all churches built after the Communist Party’s 1989 collapse must be destroyed. No new churches will be allowed.
To read more about these countries and the remaining 40 countries on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List, click here to see the list and download the full report. To help you pray with these believers, Open Doors has a mobile prayer app that alerts you to prayer requests from believers. Learn more about it and sign up to get regular updates delivered to your phone.
The Christian persecution we read about in Scripture and history books is not a thing of the past. It still exists. Today, in the 21st century, we are living in a time when persecution against Christian believers is the highest in modern history. According to Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List—an in-depth investigative report focusing on global Christian persecution—persecution is increasing at an alarming rate. Below, we look at the world’s 10 most dangerous places to be a Christian—countries where saying “yes” to following Jesus is truly a life-or-death decision.
For three generations, everything in this isolated country has focused on idolizing the leading Kim family. Christians are seen as hostile elements in society that must be eradicated. There was hope that new diplomatic efforts in 2018—including the 2018 Winter Olympics—would mean a lessening of pressure and violence against Christians. But so far that has not been the case. In fact, reports indicate that local authorities are increasing incentives for anyone who exposes a Christian in their community. If Christians are discovered, not only are they deported to labor camps or even killed on the spot, their families to the fourth generation share their fate as well. Communal worship is non-existent. Daring to meet other Christians for worship is a risky feat that must be done in utmost secrecy. Yet Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in North Korea to be 300,000 strong—believers who are defying the unjust regime and following Jesus.
Afghanistan is once again a close second behind North Korea on the 2019 World Watch List. An Islamic state by constitution, the country does not permit any faith other than Islam to exist. To convert to a faith outside Islam is tantamount to treason because it’s seen as a betrayal of family, tribe and country. Very often, there is only one possible outcome for exposed and caught Christians: death. In Afghanistan converts are considered literally insane to leave Islam. As a result, some may end up in a psychiatric hospital and have their homes destroyed. In addition to communal pressure, the security situation continues to deteriorate due to the influx of foreign militants who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. And the radical Islamic Taliban have also increased in strength; at least half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are either ruled or contested by the Taliban. Afghan Christians (mostly those with a Muslim background) are in hiding as much as possible.
Watch the 2019 World Watch List video
Estimates suggest that 99 percent of Somalis are Muslims, and any minority religions are heavily persecuted. The Christian community is small and under constant threat of attack. In fact, persecution of Christians almost always involves violence. Additionally, in many rural areas, Islamic militant groups like al-Shabab are de facto rulers who regard Christians with a Muslim background as high-value targets—often killed on the spot when discovered. In recent years, the situation appears to have worsened. Islamic militants have intensified their hunt for people who are Christian and in a position of leadership. An attempt to reopen a church in Hargeisa, Somaliland, failed; the government was forced to shut it down due to pressure from the local Islamic population. In the World Watch List 2019 reporting period, Christians in Somalia remained so vulnerable to attacks by Islamic militants that in the interests of security, Open Doors could publish no specific examples of persecution.
After the ouster of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya plunged into chaos and anarchy, which has enabled various Islamic militant groups to control parts of the country. Libyan converts to Christianity face abuse and violence for their decision to follow Christ. The country is also home to many migrant workers who have been attacked, sexually assaulted and detained, which can be even worse if your Christian faith is discovered. Libyan Christians with a Muslim background face extremely violent and intense pressure from their family and the wider community to renounce their faith. Believers from other parts of the continent are also targeted by various Islamic militant groups and organized criminal groups. Few will forget the horrifying video of Egyptian workers martyred by ISIS militants on the coast of Libya. The level of violence against Christians in Libya is very high, and Christians in Libya are subjected to violent, inhumane and degrading treatment.
Under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, Christians continue to live in daily fear they will be accused of blasphemy—which can carry a death sentence. The most well-known example of these laws is the case of Asia Bibi. After sitting on death row for more than 10 years, the Christian wife and mother was acquitted of blasphemy charges in October however her life is still in grave danger from radical Islamists that have gained increasing political power in the world’s sixth-largest country. For that reason, the new ruling government must maintain good diplomatic relationships with some radical groups. Christians are largely regarded as second-class citizens, and conversion to Christianity from Islam carries a great deal of risk. An estimated 700 girls and women abducted each year are often raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men in the community, usually resulting in forced conversions. While traditional, historical churches have relative freedom for worship, they are heavily monitored and have regularly been targeted for bomb attacks (for example, the Quetta attack in December 2017 on Bethel Memorial Methodist Church). In Pakistan, all Christians suffer from institutionalized discrimination. Occupations seen as low, dirty and derogatory are officially reserved for Christians. Many Christians are very poor, and some are victims of bonded labor. On the other hand, many Christians belong to Pakistan’s middle class; however, this does not save them from being marginalized or persecuted.
Sudan has been ruled as an Islamic state by the authoritarian government of President al-Bashir since 1989. Under his charge, the country offers limited rights for religious minorities and places heavy restrictions on freedom of speech or press. The last year has been difficult for Christians in many ways. There have been arrests; many churches have been demolished and others are on an official list awaiting demolition. And many Christians are attacked indiscriminately in areas like the Nuba Mountains where there is an ongoing conflict between government forces and rebel groups. Christian converts from Islam are especially targeted for persecution. So to keep from being discovered, converts will often refrain from raising their children as Christians because this might attract the attention of the government and community leaders (since children might inadvertently reveal their parents’ faith).
Since 1993, President Afwerki has overseen an authoritarian brutal regime that rests on massive human rights violations. During the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, government security forces conducted many house-to-house raids and imprisoned hundreds of Christians in inhumane conditions, including small shipping containers in scorching heat. Protestants, in particular, face serious problems in accessing community resources, especially social services provided by the State. Christians from non-traditional church groups, such as evangelicals, face the harshest persecution. In 2018, Eritrea embraced an end to hostility with both Ethiopia and Somalia. How that agreement will play out for the situation of Christians remains to be seen. This extreme pressure and state-sanctioned violence are forcing some Christians to flee Eritrea–often called “Africa’s North Korea”–and seek asylum.
An ongoing civil war in Yemen has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory, making an already difficult nation for Christians to live in even harder. The chaos of war has enabled radical groups to take control over some regions of Yemen, and they have increased persecution of Christians. Even private worship is risky in some parts of the country. Christians are suffering from the general humanitarian crisis in the country, but Yemeni Christians are additionally vulnerable since emergency relief is mostly distributed through Islamic organizations and local mosques, which are allegedly discriminating against all who are not considered to be pious Muslims. Converts to Christianity from Islam face additional persecution from family and society. In Yemen, the small church is composed mostly of Yemeni Christians with a Muslim background who must live their faith in secret. They face persecution from the authorities (including detention and interrogation), their families, and radical Islamic groups who threaten converts with death if they don’t denounce Christ and re-convert.
In this gateway to the Middle East, Christians are forbidden from sharing their faith with non-Christians. Therefore, church services in Persian, the national language, are not allowed. Converts from Islam undergo persecution from the government; if they attend an underground house church, they face the constant threat of arrest. Iranian society is governed by Islamic law, which means the rights and job possibilities for Christians are heavily restricted. The government sees them as an attempt by Western countries to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime of Iran. Leaders of groups of Christian converts have been arrested, prosecuted and have received long prison sentences for “crimes against the national security.” In December, to crack down on Christians sharing their faith, Iranian police arrested 100 Christians in one week, making a blatant statement to both Christians and Muslims. Iran is also infamous for its prisons and inhumane treatment of Christians in places like Evin Prison where well-known house church pastor Yousef Nardarkhani is serving a 10-year sentence.
In the world’s second most populous country, Christians saw unprecedented persecution on numerous fronts from both the State and general Hindu society. For the first time, India enters the top 10 on the World Watch List, jumping one spot from No. 11 in 2017. Home to more than a billion people, even an incremental rise in persecution yields an exponential impact. Since the current ruling party took power in 2014, Hindu extremists have fueled a crackdown on Christian house churches and have attacked believers with impunity—believing that to be Indian is to be Hindu. So any other faith is viewed as non-Indian. In rural areas, Christians were told that one church would be closed down every week because they have been “destroying” local tradition and culture by “luring” others to convert to Christianity. And it is common for Christians to be cut off from local water supplies and be denied access to government-subsidized groceries. In India, saying “yes” to Jesus has become a risky decision that costs you and your family greatly.
To read more about these countries and the remaining 40 countries on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List, click here to see the list and download the full report. To help you pray with these believers, Open Doors has a mobile prayer app that alerts you to prayer requests from believers. Learn more about it and sign up to get regular updates delivered to your phone.
For the second year, the countries in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the 2019 World Watch List almost tied. Last year, they were within one point. This year, only three-tenths of a point separates them; North Korea scored 10.9 in violence while Afghanistan registered 10.6. In the remaining five categories (private life, family life, community life, national life and church life), both countries have the exact same scores of 16.7. In this article, we examine the two most dangerous countries for Christians. Both have maximum scores in five spheres of life. Considering these countries are so different, how is that possible?
North Korea: Understanding North Korea means understanding its leadership and personality cult. In its early years, from independence in 1945, the country followed the Communist path and faced an early war against UN troops in the Korean War (1950-1953). Soon after that, it became clear that North Korea would not be a Communist country led by a collective leadership, but rather by one person, Kim Il Sung.
After his death in 1994, he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong II, who was in turn succeeded after his death in 2011 by his son, Kim Jong Un. The country has two ideologies as its basis. One is called “Juche,” which basically says that man is self-reliant. The other is “Kimilsungism,” the worship of the leaders who are the all-powerful entities guiding North Korea. The 200,000 to 400,000 Christians in North Korea are seen as traitors and “enemies” of the state. There was hope that new diplomatic efforts in 2018—including the 2018 Winter Olympics—would mean a lessening of pressure and violence against Christians, but so far that has not been the case. Kim Jong Un has maintained his tight control over the populace, and dissent or worshiping anything else is not tolerated.
Afghanistan: Officially, there are no Christians in this 99 percent Muslim state, apart from international military staff, diplomats and NGO workers (who, if at all, are worshipping in highly secured military compounds and are not considered for the purposes of the WWL). Indigenous Christians (mostly those with a Muslim background) are in hiding as much as possible.
Some 90 percent of Muslims follow Sunni Islam, while a slim 9.7 percent adhere to Shiite Islam. Afghanistan faces a grim security situation due to the influx of radical Islamic militants. The radical Islamic Taliban also is increasing in strength and are present in more regions and provinces than in the last few years. The few thousands of secret Christians are seen as traitors to Islam and apostates.
The security situation continues to deteriorate due to the influx of foreign militants who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. The radical Islamic Taliban have also increased in strength and their fighting units are present in more regions than in the last few years. At least half of Afghanistan’s provinces are either ruled or contested by the Taliban.
In North Korea, persecution is driven by Communist and post-Communist oppression. The country is run according to Communist administrative customs. Christians continue to be seen as dangerous and their religion as “opium for the people”–as in classical Communist ideology–but they are also part of the hostile class in the country`s social stratification system.
However, this persecution engine is mixed with dictatorial paranoia. Everyone in North Korea must revere the leadership and because of this personality cult, Kim Jong Un is an irreplaceable figure in society–he rules the Worker’s Party, the army, the country’s administration and all strands of society. Even though his power may not be as absolute as his father’s or grandfather’s, no one can challenge Kim Jong Un’s authority. The godlike worship of the rulers leaves absolutely no room for any other religion. Consequently, anyone daring to revere anything or anybody besides the Kim dynasty is seen as dangerous and a threat to the state.
The obvious persecutor (the persecution driver) is the North Korean state, which uses a variety of national, regional and local institutions–such as the police and “national security services”–to find Christians. These government officials employ spies and informants to help them as well. Neighbors also spy on each other, and even children are trained from their early years to report their own parents if they note suspicious behavior.
In Afghanistan, we see totally different engines and drivers. At play is a lethal mix of Islamic oppression, ethnic antagonism and organized crime and corruption.
Islamic oppression: In this persecution engine, extremists adhere to a strict version of Islam to oppress the people. When it comes to Islamic oppression, Afghanistan is one of the most extreme countries. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan neither allows any Afghan citizens to become Christians nor recognizes converts as such. Conversion is seen as apostasy and brings shame to the family and the community. As a result, converts hide their faith as much and as deep as possible.
Though the state is a driver of persecution, extremist groups, the local community and family members of converts are a much bigger danger in Afghanistan.
Ethnic antagonism (hostilities between different ethnic groups (tribes, etc.). The concept of nation is alien to the Afghan way of thinking. One’s own family comes first, followed by the clan and then the tribe–and all of these are much more important than the country. People are deeply entrenched in caring for their families, villages and tribes. When someone dares to turn from his tribe to embrace something new and maybe even foreign, pressure ensues. The person’s family and/or tribe will exert extreme pressure and even violence to make him return to traditional norms. If he doesn’t, he will be viewed as a traitor to the community, resulting in exclusion from family and society. While this protocol applies to all “deviations,” the pressure and violence intensify if it involves someone turning to Christianity. The Christian religion is considered to be Western and hostile to Afghan culture, society and Islam. In this respect, conversion away from Islam is seen as treason.
Organized crime and corruption are alive and well in Afghanistan, an extremely poor country. One of the main economic problems the country faces is the fact that illicit drugs like opium are much more lucrative than virtually any other crop. Compared to wheat, farmers can earn 11 times the amount of money with poppy production. The Taliban are heavily involved in drug production; estimations indicate that 70 to 80 percent of all drug trafficking gains end up in the Taliban’s pockets.
Everyone who’s in the way of the drug lords will simply be pushed aside, a practice that has intensified. The situation is made additionally volatile by drug barons pressuring citizens and making parts of the country uncontrollable. In most cases, this pressure isn’t relegated to Christians only (they’re not visible anyway). However, believers are affected because they don’t have an alternative or someone to turn to for help.
In North Korea: When a Christian is discovered, he or she will be taken away by the police. Not only the Christian, but also his or her spouse and children. Sometimes even his/her parents too. To North Koreans, anyone who knows a Christian is “guilty by association.” If you’re guilty, so are the people who live or even just know you. After arrest, a Christian will be locked up in a small but overcrowded cell in a detention center. There, he/she will be interrogated for hours and subject to “light” or even heavy torture. Prisoners hardly receive any food and water; many don’t survive their detention.
After a few months, the courts will decide if the Christian will be prosecuted. When someone must go to court, he/she will be sent to a re-education labor camp with his/her family members. Prisoners in these camps receive on average of 500 calories of food a day and must work 10 to 12 hours a day. They will receive one day of rest every 10 days. At night, lengthy ideological training sessions are testing for the exhausted prisoners.
If someone is not sent to court, he/she will be transferred to a political labor camp.There, the circumstances are even more gruesome than re-education camp. Here, the prisoners have no hope of escape or release; they don’t receive ideological training. These camps are like the Nazi death camps of World War II.
A last possible fate for Christians is execution. Until a few years ago, Christians were sometimes publicly executed by a firing squad. But civilians found those executions too upsetting. Nowadays, political enemies, such as Christians, are killed in prison or labor camp basements by North Korean soldiers.
In Afghanistan, the state is hostile towards Christians, as noted above. However, the family, clan, tribe or local extremist group will “take care” of converts. Very often, there’s only one possible outcome for exposed and caught Christians: they will be killed. The family, clan or tribe must save its “honor” by disposing of the Christian. Extremist groups will surely not show mercy either.
There are reports that several converts were killed in the 2019 World Watch List reporting period but for security reasons, no details can be published. Even foreign Christian aid workers have been targeted and killed as recently as May 2017.
Our WWL methodology measures persecution in five spheres of life: private (your personal space), family, community, national and church. The reasons and actors for persecution are different, but North Korea and Afghanistan are simply so extreme in all these categories that they both received maximum points.
For example, Christians in North Korea are not allowed to have a Bible. If a Bible is discovered at someone’s home, the person will be arrested, tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment in a labor camp, which equates to a death sentence.
In Afghanistan, if a Bible of an Afghan Christian is discovered, the government will not take away the person; instead, that work will be done by family or local community. In the Middle Eastern country, torture with the purpose of forcing a believer to renounce Christ is the modus operandi. Again, just like in North Korea, if someone remains true to his/her faith, he/she will be surely killed.
This relates to the violence category. An estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Christians live their lives inside North Korea’s vast prison system, where starvation, physical and mental abuse are part of every day. So there is a lot of violence in this country that we know of.
Because the church in Afghanistan is much smaller (several thousand believers) we cannot give specific details about violence incidents against Christians for security reasons. But we need little imagination to know that Afghanistan is a severely violent country.
However, both countries score zero points for several kinds of violence we measure, such as rapes or forced marriages for North Korea (which are unknown of), and shops and businesses or Christians destroyed in Afghanistan (where we lack reports). Maybe, even most likely, this is happening, but a lack of reports in terms of scores counts in favor of the country.
As mentioned above, the church in North Korea is much larger (200,000-400,000 compared to several thousand in Afghanistan) and in a way, more visible compared to that of Afghanistan. That means persecution takes place on a larger scale; so it’s easier and more likely to receive reports. Second, Afghan Christians are able to leave the country easier than North Korean refugees, who face repatriation if they’re caught in China. However, many (Western) countries do repatriate Afghan refugees, even when they’re Christians.
In both countries, we know that there are faithful believers who will follow Jesus until death. Twenty years ago, the church in North Korea was much smaller. But during the famine in the ’90s, many refugees came to China and heard and brought back the gospel to their own country. This allowed the underground church to grow massively.
Twenty years ago, there were hardly any Afghan believers inside Afghanistan. Today, there’s a relatively small number of them–a miracle in itself.