At least one in nine – or 245 million - Christians around the world face "high", "very high" or "extreme" levels of persecution, according to the latest data from Open Doors.

The persecuted church support organisation this week released its annual World Watch List detailing the 50 countries where persecution of Christians was worst between the period ranging from 1st November, 2017, and 31st October, 2018.

It shows that North Korea topped the list for the 18th year in a row while persecution increased significantly in China, and Nigeria was the location of 90 per cent of the 4,136 Christians killed for their faith in top 50 countries.

Other countries of concern included Algeria – which jumped from 42 to 22 on the list thanks to increasing persecution especially in the Berber region, Indonesia - which has seen an increase in Islamic extremism including the bombing of three churches in a single day in Surabaya, and India - where government-promoted linking of Hinduism and nationalism has seen a rise in attacks on religious freedom including on Christians.

WWL2019 North Korea

Pyongyang, capital of North Korea - the nation which topped the World Watch List for the 18th year in a row. PICTURE: Open Doors.

The research found that of the 150 countries surveyed for the list, 73 recorded "high", "very high" or "extreme" levels of persecution - up from 58 last year. This could include violence but also means Christians face pressure in a range of spheres of life including from government, their community, employers or families.

The figure means that one in nine Christians around the world now face at least "high" levels of persecution - up from one in 12 in 2018. Across Asia and the Middle East this equated to one in three Christians, in Africa it was one in six and, in Latin America, one in 21.

Tim Reid, church engagement manager at Open Doors Australia and one of the researchers involved in compiling this year’s list, says that while the situation in North Korea appears to be on par with last year – it is still “certainly the hardest country in the world to be a Christian” with between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians believed to be held in labour camps, in numerous other nations the situation had worsened for Christians.

THE TOP 10 NATIONS WHERE PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS IS WORST

1. North Korea
2. Afghanistan
3. Somalia
4. Libya
5. Pakistan
6. Sudan
7. Eritrea
8. Yemen
9. Iran
10. India

Source: Open Doors World Watch List

These nations included China – which moved up from 43 to 27 on the list - with persecution of Christians there at its highest intensity for a decade.

“The Chinese Government are following through on a lot of promises which they outlined in religious white papers previously so we did have some indicators this was coming,” notes Reid. “But the full extent of what we’re seeing was probably worse than what we thought.”

Actions targeting Christians have included a ban on sales of Bibles to the general public except through state-sanctioned churches, the closure of some churches and what Reid calls a “real clampdown” on house churches and unregistered churches.

“The other area of concern for China is particularly in western China in Xinjiang where…it’s been well documented that the Uighur people have been put into mass re-education camps which the government has labelled vocational training centres," Reid adds. 'What hasn’t been covered so well is that many Christians have also been caught up in this.”

In Russia – which entered the list at number 41 – the main concern surrounded the rise of Islamic extremism in the Caucasus region and the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan which has targeted Christians. Morocco was also a new entrant this year, coming in at number 35 while both Bahrain and Djibouti, included on last year's list, were not on this year's.

WWL2019 Nigeria

These women are part of an Open Doors trauma counselling program in Nigeria. Women attending this program were mostly pastor’s wives. They are victims of violence, who also give spiritual support to others who have been affected. PICTURE: Open Doors.

Turning to the situation in Nigeria, Reid says that the 3,731 Christians reported as killed for their faith in the country in the past year – double the number reported in the previous year - was probably higher in reality given that “all of our figures are quite conservative”.

He said that while the persecution of Christians there in the past had been primarily driven by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram and taken place in the country’s north, that was not the case in 2018 with most Christians killed by Muslim-majority Fulani cattle-herders in Nigeria’s middle belt.

VOICES OF THE PERSECUTED

“When [my friend] came to faith, he made a decision that one day he would die for Christ. Every Christian in North Korea has made that choice...I am convinced he can take the suffering because he constantly reminds himself of the joy that is set before him.”
– A Christian from North Korea. This Christian’s friend was arrested when the police found a Bible in his home. He was badly beaten and imprisoned for his faith in Jesus.

“I couldn’t renounce Jesus, I couldn’t renounce my faith. I said to my children: ‘I love you, I love you, but I love Jesus more’.”
– Ibrahim (not his real name), a Christian from a Muslim background. When Ibrahim came to faith in Jesus, he was afraid and didn’t tell anyone. When he felt to share his new faith, his parents beat him and took his wife and children. Thankfully, he is now reunited with his wife and children and has a Christian community around him.

“It is true that we all have to face persecution as disciples of Jesus Christ, but it is a choice of how we respond to persecution...Persecution purifies our lives; we gain spiritual strength to witness Christ and extend the Kingdom in a mature and practical way.”
- Pastor Victor works with Chinese Christians from a Muslim background. He is passionate about making disciples, which he does through small groups in order not to draw unwanted attention from authorities.

Source: Open Doors

Other nations of note where persecution of Christians was occurring included Myanmar, which jumped from 24th in 2018 to 18th on the list, Mexico and Colombia, where persecution results mainly from corruption and criminal elements (numbers 39 and 47 respectively), and the Central African Republic, which leapt 14 places to number 21 thanks to persecution driven by Islamic extremism and corruption. Mauretania, a largely Islamic nation which has a Christian population estimated at only 10,000, recorded the largest rise, moving 22 places from 47 last year to 25 this year.

Reid says that while Islamic extremism remains the main factor driving the persecution of Christians around the world, the persecution of Christians in communist or post-communist countries was also a growing factor as it was the rise of religious nationalistic movements such as has been seen in India.

Among the countries that improved their standing on the World Watch List for 2019 - which doesn't necessarily mean the situation is better for Christians but may mean the situation had instead deteriorated in other places - was Iraq which dropped five places to 13 following the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State there, Malaysia which dropped 19 places to number 42, the Palestinian Territories which dropped 13 places to 49 and Brunei which dropped 10 to 36.

Reid says the World Watch List is not only a tool to help Open Doors identify where the persecution of Christians is worst in order to assess its own priorities but also to educate Christians on “where are places that really need your prayer right now?” so they can support their “brothers and sisters”.

Reid says there is no need for Christians to be intimidated by the scale of the problem – “we have a really big God”. For those who may feel overwhelmed, he says, it’s useful to focus on a single person, whether that's a pastor sitting in their bombed out church or a Christian facing the threat of violence from the community in which they live.

“So what is a small prayer I can pray today? I would say ‘God, today, I pray that you would make a gun pointed at a pastor fail.’ It’s a small prayer but with the scale of Christians in Australia - our research points us to 1.4 million Christians that go to church once or more a fortnight in Australia, if every single one of them prays that prayer, then there 1.4 million guns hopefully disabled…And when we start with those small prayers, it adds up and it becomes bigger every time.”

~ www.opendoors.org.au

Clarification: The article was amended to say that one in nine Christians face at leastr "high" levels of persecution.