SANTA ANA, Calif. North Korea and Iran, among the most notorious and restrictive regimes in the world, top the Open Doors 2010 World Watch List of 50 countries that are the worst persecutors of Christians.
For the eighth straight year North Korea topped the list, with an estimated 200,000 North Koreans in political prisons, including 40,000 to 60,000 Christians.
Thanks to the socialist agenda of President Kim Jong-Il, which seeks to eradicate all Christian activities, officials are known to arrest, torture and kill followers of Jesus, according to Open Doors, which released its report Jan. 6.
"It is certainly not a shock that North Korea is No. 1 on the list of countries where Christians face the worst persecution," said Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA. "There is no other country in the world where Christians are persecuted in such a horrible and systematic manner. Three generations of a family are often thrown into prison when one member is incarcerated."
One veteran North Korean watcher, who can't be identified because of security concerns, called the treatment of Christians inhumane.
"Christians are the target of fierce government action, and once caught, are not regarded as human," said "Last year we had evidence that some were used as guinea pigs to test chemical and biological weapons."
Iran, which for years rested at the No. 3 spot, has replaced Saudi Arabia as No. 2 on the list after a wave of Christian arrests beginning in 2008. The trend continued even stronger last year, resulting in the arrest of at least 85 Christians. Persecution experts believe the Iranian government is using the arrests in an attempt to distract attention from its own internal problems, including the domestic turmoil after the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"Iran jumping to No. 2 is noteworthy," said Moeller, who cited the arrest of Muslim converts Maryam Rustampoor and Marzieh Amirzadeh, who were arrested simply for being Christians. The women made international headlines by refusing to recant their faith in Jesus Christ.
After months in captivity, the Iranian government released the women late last year after a persistent advocacy campaign by Open Doors and other Christian organizations.
"But these two brave women, along with hundreds of other believers, still remain at risk inside Iran," he said.
Of the countries on the top 10 list, eight have Islam as their dominant religionIran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Maldives, Afghanistan, Yemen, Mauritania and Uzbekistan. North Korea and Laos are communist countries. Also, 35 of the 50 countries on the list have Islamic governments.
Saudi Arabia at No. 3 remains unchanged in the situation of religious freedom for Christians. However, no reports of Christians killed or physically harmed for their faith were received, and only one report of a Christian arrested was noted. Somalia, however, moved up one spot to the No. 4 position, as religious freedom for Christians became worse. In April the parliament voted unanimously to institute Islamic law.
Rounding out the top 10 are Maldives No. 5, followed by Afghanistan, Yemen, Mauritania, Laos and Uzbekistan.
Activity in Yemen
Yemen, recently in the headlines after the would-be Christmas Day airline bomber boarded the aircraft in the Middle Eastern county, was cited for numerous incidents against Christian. Although the Yemeni Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it also declares that Islam is the state religion and that Sharia law is the source of all legislation. And while the Yemeni government allows expatriates some freedom to live out their faith, Yemeni citizens are not allowed to convert to Christianity (or other religions). Converts from Islamic background may face the death penalty if their new faith is discovered.
Last June nine expatriate Christian health workers were kidnapped by armed men. A few days later the mutilated bodies of three of them were found. The fate of the remaining six aid workers remains unknown.
New to the top 10 this year is the North African country of Mauritania, holding the No. 8 position. Mauritania jumped 10 spots, the biggest increase of any country in the poll. The situation deteriorated due to the murder of a Christian aid worker in June 2009, the arrest and torture of 35 Mauritanian Christians in July and the arrest of a group of 150 of sub-Saharan Christians in August.
The lone country to drop out of the top 10 list was the tiny African country of Eritrea, which fell from No. 9 to No. 11. Open Doors recorded fewer reports of persecution against Christians in Algeria, India, Cuba, Jordan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, which dropped from No. 41 to No. 48the biggest improvement of any country in 2009.
Despite the widespread cases of persecution in many regions of the world, Moeller said that Christianity continues to flourish.
"There is a strong group of Christians in North Korea and actually the number of Christians in North Korea has grown in the last 10 years," he said. "Many are coming to Christ in the Muslim World. But we need to continue to embrace them in prayer in 2010."
The World Watch List, started by the Open Doors Research Department in 1991, develops the list through a 53-question survey sent to Open Doors co-workers, key church leaders and recognized experts in 70 countries. The questionnaire examines every aspect of persecution, including the degree of legal restriction, state attitudes, how free the church is to organize itself, as well as noting incidents of persecution, such as church burnings, anti-Christian riots and even martyrdom.
The list was created as one tool to help the ministry, which ministers in 45 nations, understand the unique persecution fingerprint of each country.
For more information, including a list of all 50 countries, go to www.OpenDoorsUSA.org.