Persecution of Christians has reached the highest levels since the World Watch List began nearly 30 years ago. Since 2002, North Korea has been the most dangerous country in the world to be a Christian. This year it recorded its highest ever score – yet dropped to number two, with Afghanistan taking its place. Why is this?
North Korea has dropped to number two in the World Watch List, despite worsening persecution of Christians
Imagine that, as a Christian seeking to follow Jesus, you are regarded as evil, a betrayer, dangerous, hostile, even a terrorist.
For North Korean Christians, such associations are not unusual. To the country’s authoritarian regime, Christianity is seen as a dangerous foreign religion that must be fought against. Consequently, according to the country’s social classification system songbun – which categorises citizens as ‘core’, ‘wavering’ or ‘hostile’ – Christians and their descendants are regarded as hostile.
It’s a hostility so extreme that, if discovered, Christians and their families are deported to labour camps as political criminals or killed on the spot. Gathering with other Christians is therefore almost impossible and must only be attempted in utmost secrecy. This extends to parents not telling their children about Jesus, at least not overtly, which demonstrates just how dangerous it is to be a Christian in North Korea.
It’s been this way for years and it perhaps seems improbable that life for Christians could get any worse. And yet it has, according to the latest World Watch List. Why is this?
A key factor is a new ‘anti-reactionary thought law’. This involves stronger control of the import and distribution of information and materials from outside the country, as well as tighter oversight of the outflow of internal information. What this means in practice includes a ban on ‘foreign published materials’, including the Bible, and tougher restrictions on foreign radio broadcasts. The introduction of this law coincides with an increase in the number of Christians arrested and number of house churches closed. There has also been a rise in reported incidents of violence against believers.
Despite worsening persecution, North Korea has still dropped to number two in the World Watch List. This in itself reveals what the Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan – which is number one on the list for the first time – means for the country’s tiny pocket of Christians.
When the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan last year, culminating in the capture of Kabul on 15 August, many Afghans fled the country, and there was wide expectation that freedoms would be swiftly curtailed.
"It’s just not an option to follow Jesus in public." secret believer from afghanistan
However, for Christians, there were basically no freedoms to lose: Afghanistan had been number two on the Open Doors World Watch List for several years. This is because it is impossible to live openly as a Christian in in the country. Leaving Islam is considered shameful, and Christian converts face dire consequences if their new faith is discovered. Either they have to flee the country or they will be killed.
The Taliban’s seizure of power makes the risk of discovery even greater. The Taliban controls every aspect of government, which extends to owning documentation – including paperwork from international troops – that may help identify Christians.
Since the takeover, many Christians have either tried to leave the country or relocate within the country – if escape is even possible. Consequently, many house churches have closed and Christians have been forced to leave behind everything they own.
“Some of us have been killed,” shares Saad*, a secret believer. “Some have been kidnapped, some have disappeared.” Another secret believer, Fatimah*, adds, “It’s just not an option to follow Jesus in public.”
These factors do not imply that every Christian in Afghanistan is fleeing the country, nor that church life in the country is impossible – but it’s certainly harder than it’s ever been and it may yet get worse.
“We will make sure the world hears the gospel through every breath we take,” shares Sharifullah*, a craftsman who has bravely decided to remain in the country. “And we know you will help us by living the gospel, using your freedom and sharing Jesus. Please continue to stand with us.”
The latest World Watch List reports worsening situations for Christians living in North Korea and Afghanistan. That the latter has replaced the former as number one on the list does not imply that the situation in North Korea has improved. It simply means that the increase in persecution in Afghanistan has been more acute in the last year than it has been in North Korea.
These sobering findings reinforce your pivotal role in helping our brothers and sisters in both countries to stand firm in their faith. “If you love me – if you love Jesus – pray for us,” says Saad.
*Name changed for security reasons
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