North Korea is worst country for Christian persecution again as authoritarian governments exploit Covid crisis

Christians in China have come under increasing surveillance since the start of the pandemic.(Photo: Open Doors)

The persecution of Christians continued to grow in numbers and intensity last year despite lockdowns and restrictions on movement across much of the world during the pandemic.

That's according to the 2021 World Watch List (WWL), the annual report from Open Doors on the top 50 countries where Christians suffer the worst persecution.

In a year marked by the global pandemic, persecution continued unabated and in some places even worsened as governments exploited Covid-19 to impose harsher restrictions and escalate harassment of churches and believers.

Published today, the report says that more than 340 million Christians worldwide are suffering high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. 309 million of them are living in the 50 countries on the WWL. 

Rather than slow down the rate of persecution, the pandemic appears to have exacerbated it, with the total number of Christians killed for their faith rising from 2,983 registered cases in 2019 to 4,761 last year - an increase of 60 per cent. The vast majority of the killings (91%) were in Africa, with 8% taking place in Asia. 

The pandemic has also given rise to a new form of discrimination - the deliberate exclusion of Christians from coronavirus aid because of their faith. 

This is the case in India, where 80 per cent of the more than 100,000 Christians who received food aid from Open Doors partners reported that they had been turned away from distribution points.

There were similar reports from Christians in Myanmar (18th), Nepal (34th), Vietnam (19th), Bangladesh (31st), Pakistan (5th), Central Asia, Malaysia (46th), North Africa, Yemen (7th) and Sudan (13th).

A Myanmar pastor praises God.(Photo: Open Doors UK and Ireland)

Sometimes the discrimination was perpetrated by government officials but more often it was by village heads and committees, with some Christians reporting that they were waved away or had their food ration cards torn up.

In Kaduna, Nigeria (9th), families from several villages said they had received roughly one-sixth of the rations allocated to Muslim families.

An increase in authoritarianism and nationalism has been the hallmark of the pandemic in some countries, like India, Turkey and China.

China, where there are an estimated 90 million believers, ranked 17th in the WWL this year, marking its re-entry to the top 20 for the first time in a decade.

There, the government has used the pandemic as a pretext to increase surveillance and advance the "Chinafication" of the Church.

There are reports that in some counties in Henan and Jiangxi Provinces, virtual church services are being monitored, and facial recognition systems have been installed in all of the state-approved churches.

Across China, there have been reports of increasing state interference, including Chinese Communist Party (CCP) involvement in the selection of church leaders and the "rectifying" of Bible stories in official publications, including one textbook where the story of the woman accused of adultery is retold with Jesus stoning the woman to death.

Some churches have been made to take down their crosses and other Christian imagery and replace them with pictures of President Xi Jinping and national flags.

In some places, pastors have been told to reinterpret the Bible through the lens of Communist values.

The report also accuses China of exporting its security systems to other countries like Myanmar, Laos, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela through companies like Huawei.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Open Doors estimates that violence against Christians has increased by 30 per cent, largely due to Islamist militant groups who have framed the pandemic as punishment from Allah because of the "infidels", and declared jihad against them.

A Christian in China, where the state has increased surveillance of believers.(Photo: Open Doors)

In Nigeria (9th), there have been 3,800 recorded Christian deaths, largely by radicalised Fulani herdsmen and terrorist groups Boko Haram and its offshoot the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). 

They have taken advantage of lockdowns and the weakened governments during the pandemic to gain a stronger foothold. 

Open Doors said the armed Fulani herdsmen appeared to be carrying out a 'scorched earth' strategy by ransacking or occupying hundreds of predominantly Christian villages, and destroying their crops.

Despite this increase in persecution in many parts of the world, North Korea ranks number one on the list for the 20th year in a row.

Out of the estimated 400,000 Christians in the hermit communist country, between 50- and 70,000 of them are believed to be confined to prisons and labour camps.

Christians are forced to practise their faith in total secrecy, and are at constant threat of execution or imprisonment along with their entire family if their faith is discovered.

In the camps they face horrendous conditions and torture. Once imprisoned, very few are ever released.

Christians in North Korea face imprisonment in horrendous conditions.(Photo: Open Doors)

Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK and Ireland, said: "It has been a tough year for billions of people. However, for many of the 340 million Christians worldwide who face persecution and discrimination, things have been worse still.

"My heart breaks when I hear of believers in India and Vietnam being refused food aid and told 'let your God feed you'. Or when I hear of women like a Christian mother-of-three from Egypt who was kidnapped by the Muslim Brotherhood and forced to declare she had 'converted' in a video.

"However, I don't despair; I have seen face-to-face the inspiring strength and bravery of Christians around the world who deal with this persecution.

"At Open Doors we work to support, encourage and advocate for these remarkable men, women and children, who stand firm in their faith in spite of everything."

David Landrum, Head of Advocacy for Open Doors UK & Ireland, said: "The increasing persecution of Christians across the world should disturb us all.

"Freedom of religion is what underpins many other human rights and civil liberties. Oppressive governments know this, and they are exploiting the pandemic crisis to turn the screw on Christians.

"We cannot remain silent. We have a moral obligation to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves."

The 2021 WWL in full: 

1. North Korea

2. Afghanistan

3. Somalia

4. Libya

5. Pakistan

6. Eritrea

7. Yemen

8. Iran

9. Nigeria

10. India

11. Iraq

12. Syria

13. Sudan

14. Saudi Arabia

15. Maldives

16. Egypt

17. China

18. Myanmar

19. Vietnam

20. Mauritania

21. Uzbekistan

22. Laos

23. Turkmenistan

24. Algeria

25. Turkey

26. Tunisia

27. Morocco

28. Mali

29. Qatar

30. Colombia

31. Bangladesh

32. Burkina Faso

33. Tajikistan

34. Nepal

35. Central African Republic

36. Ethiopia

37. Mexico

38. Jordan

39. Brunei

40. Congo DR (DRC)

41. Kazakhstan

42. Cameroon

43. Bhutan

44. Oman

45. Mozambique

46. Malaysia

47. Indonesia

48. Kuwait

49. Kenya

50. Comoros