North Korea is still the most dangerous place to be a Christian

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army (KPA).Reuters/KCNA

North Korea has retained its unbroken record as the country ranked the most dangerous place to be a Christian by human rights charity Open Doors.

In its 2020 World Watch List of the top 50 countries where Christians suffer the worst persecution, North Korea once again ranks number one - a position it has held since Open Doors first started publishing the list in 2002.

"Something as simple as owning a Bible can mean a person is arrested and taken to one of the country's infamous labour camps, never to return," Open Doors said.

However, the report reveals an overall increase in both the reach and intensity of persecution towards Christians.

Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK & Ireland, writing in the introduction to the report, said: "In 2020, 260 million Christians live in World Watch List (WWL) top 50 countries where they are at risk of high, very high or extreme levels of persecution, a 6% increase from 2019.

"And as the number of persecuted Christians increases, so does the severity of the oppression they suffer.

"The persecutors' ultimate aim is to eradicate Christianity. And their primary tactic is to stoke fear within the wider Christian community, grinding down its resilience, hope and positive impact."

Acording to Open Doors, an average of eight Christians were killed for their faith and 23 Christians raped or sexually harassed for faith-related reasons every day last year.

Every week, an average of 182 churches or Christian buildings were attacked, and 276 Christian homes burned or destroyed, while every month, an average of 309 Christians were imprisoned for their faith.

Rounding out the top 10 countries on the list are Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran and India.

In one of the most dramatic increases, though, China has soared from 43 in 2018 to 23 this year as more churches report harassment at the hands of the state.

China, it warns, has seen a growth in digital persecution, with the state starting to utilise AI and biometric measurement to increase surveillance and control of religous believers, with facial recognition cameras now installed in at least one major church to record who is attending the services.

Open Doors anticipates that India is going to follow increasingly in China's footsteps and utilise similar technologies to monitor Christians.

In another dramatic change, Burkina Faso has entered the World Watch List top 50 for the first time, jumping 33 places from number 61 to number 28 after "relentless violence" in the last year. Explaining the "extraordinary" deterioration, it said that "Islamic militancy has taken hold within the country".

The report warns that Islamic extremism is growing rapidly in the sub-Saharan region of Africa, with radical Islamist jihadist groups exploiting instability and poverty. In addition to Burkina Faso, they have been able to establish bases in Mali (ranked 29th) and Niger (50th).

In the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, the human rights organisation echoes the warning of senior leaders in the area "that there may be no Christians left in the region in a few years' time".

Although the Islamic State was pushed back, it said there are signs that it is regrouping. At the same time, threats remain from Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

"People often suggest that the world has become a less tolerant place - especially for those who don't 'fit in': who aren't the 'right' race or creed," said Blyth.

"And you can see that trend in these latest figures too: yet again this year the number of Christians facing persecution has gone up as the trend continues upwards.

"Persecution can come in many forms: from discrimination at work, to forced marriage, to imprisonment and execution.

"It can come from governments and militant terrorist groups. However, it can also come from a family member killing you for converting and bringing dishonour on the family in Malaysia (40th) or reporting you to the authorities for owning a Bible in North Korea (1st).

"Hundreds of millions of Christians are affected by this intolerance and they simply don't feel safe practising their faith."

The report was launched today in the House of Commons and spans a year in which Christian persecution made international headlines.

On Easter Sunday 2019, over 250 people were killed in a series of suicide bomb attacks on hotels and churches in Sri Lanka. Many of the victims were Christians attending Easter Sunday services.

In May last year, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who spent eight years on death row on trumped up blasphemy charges, left Pakistan for a new life in Canada with her family after being granted asylum.

Then on Christmas Day 2019, 11 Christian hostages were beheaded in Nigeria by the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP).

The persecution of Christians was under the spotlight over the summer with the release of the Bishop of Truro's review on behalf of the Foreign Office.

It found that Christian persecution was reaching genocidal levels, and made a number of recommendations to the UK Government, including that it initiate a UN resolution urging all governments in the Middle East and North Africa to protect Christians and other minorities, and impose sanctions on the worst offenders.

Blyth called on the Government and parliamentarians to ensure that the protection of Christians and other religious minorities does not slip down the agenda because of Brexit.

"If we want the world to be a more tolerant, inclusive place, we simply can't ignore the plight of these men, women and children," she said.

"Whether we have a faith or not, this is about a fundamental human right being restricted. Ultimately, erosion of rights like these affects all of us."