World Watch List map

North Korea ranks number one for the 14th consecutive year in the Open Doors World Watch List, ranking the top 50 countries that persecute Christians. The 'Hermit Kingdom' has ranked number one again as leader Kim Jong-un continues to try and stamp out organised religion in what he views as a challenge to his power.

Although North Korea tops the list, the major source of persecution identified in 36 of the 50 countries on the list, is Islamic extremism. For this reason Iraq has been ranked second in the World Watch List. Since the late 1990’s the Christian population in Iraq has shrunk from over 1.5 million to less than 220,000. Of the Christians who remain most are displaced in the north east of the country, as a result of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The group has executed many for refusing to convert to their brand of Islam and forced many others to flee. The group still hold large swathes of territory in both Iraq and neighbouring Syria, also appearing in the list and ranked at number five.

NATIONS OF PERSECUTION: Top - A watch tower in North Korea - the country which topped the World Watch List for the 14th year in a row; Middle - A church in Iraq which smoke rising in the distance from the frontline of the conflict; Bottom - Women and children in Nigeria, rescued from Boko Haram.

"Although North Korea tops the list, the major source of persecution identified in 39 of the 50 countries on the list, is Islamic extremism. For this reason Iraq has been ranked second in the World Watch List."

While much attention has been given to the self-styled caliphate of the Islamic State, the world’s most dangerous terrorist organisation, Boko Haram, has also impacted rankings. Gaining notoriety after the kidnapping of over 200 school girls in Chibok, the group is responsible for more murders over the last 12 months than the Islamic State. Boko Haram’s insurgency has resulted in a rank at number 12 for Nigeria, where the group is based and a rank of 49 in Niger due to cross-border attacks.

Number three on the World Watch List is Eritrea. Labelled by many as ‘the North Korea of Africa’ the small nation broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 in a bloody civil war. Since this time President Afewerki has maintained a brutal and oppressive reign imprisoning anyone considered to be a dissenter. Eritrea saw the largest score increase in this year’s list. Afghanistan appears at number four and has been battling a continued insurgency from the Taliban. Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Libya round out the top 10.

While much attention is given to Islamic extremism in the media, other forms of persecution, such as Hindu extremism in India, have also risen sharply. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticised for largely ignoring violence towards religious minorities. Christians have suffered particularly through forced conversion ceremonies. In some circumstances, ceremonies in areas near the city of Varanasi have reportedly involved up to 400 people at a time. India this year ranks at number 17.

Also of notable inclusion in the list is one of Australia’s closest neighbours, Indonesia. Rising in the list this year to 43, up from 47 last year, Indonesia saw a spate of attacks on churches in October. One church was burned down while several others were closed due to a lack of proper registration. This registration can often be held up by local authorities in an attempt to curb the growing number of Christians in the country.

The 2016 World Watch List has also revealed a continued escalation of hostility towards Christians worldwide. Analysts working for Open Doors who compile the list have said that scores have increased on average by two and a half points while the entry score for the list has increased by three points.

They have also pointed out that while the top of the list is dominated by North African and Middle Eastern countries, persecution is rising rapidly in Central Asia. Many former communist countries who now have issues with extremists fighting abroad in countries likes Syria and Iraq, have started aggressively monitoring all religious activity.

This has meant increased scrutiny of Christian gatherings and a crackdown of freedom of religious expression.

The full World Watch List of 50 countries is available for free on the Open Doors website (www.opendoors.org.au). Open Doors is a charity that provides support to Christians facing persecution in over 60 countries worldwide. It was started more than 60 years ago when organisation's founder, Brother Andrew, author of God’s Smuggler, smuggled Bibles into the then Soviet Union.

~ www.opendoors.org.au

Tim Wilson is the media and communications coordinator at Open Doors Australia.

Correction: This article originally stated that the major source of persecution identified in 39 of the 50 countries on the list is Islamic extremism. That figure has been corrected to 36 of the 50 countries.