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World Watch List 2019 Press Release

From China to sub-Saharan Africa, Open Doors estimates that 245 million Christians experience high levels of persecution in 73 countries - up from 215 million in 58 countries last year.

Asia is the new hotbed of persecution for Christians according to figures published today (16 January 2019) in the Open Doors World Watch List 2019. These figures show that persecution in Asia has risen sharply over the last five years with one in three Asian Christians now suffering high levels of persecution. New laws in China (up 16 places to 27) seek to control all expression of religion. Open Doors UK and Ireland CEO Henrietta Blyth said: “Our research uncovers a shocking increase in the persecution of Christians globally. In China our figures indicate persecution is the worst it's been in more than a decade – alarmingly, some church leaders are saying it’s the worst since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. Worldwide, our data reveals that 13.9 per cent more Christians are experiencing high levels of persecution than last year. That’s 30 million more people.”

India, the world’s largest democracy, has entered the World Watch List top ten for the first time as Hindu extremists act with impunity and violent attacks on Christians and churches rise. This is driven by growing ultra-nationalism, which has brought waves of violence against India’s significant non-Hindu religious minorities.  Rising nationalism is leading to similar persecution in other countries such as Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal where national identity is tied to religion. Suddenly, to be Indian or Nepali is to be exclusively Hindu and to be Burmese or Bhutanese one must be Buddhist, so those from minority faiths are considered outcasts. This impacts Christians most significantly in remote rural areas.  Henrietta Blyth comments: “It’s shocking that India – the country which taught the world the way of ‘non-violence’ – now sits alongside the likes of Iran on our World Watch List. For many Christians in India, daily life is now full of fear – totally different from just four or five years ago.”

In South East Asia there was a worrying rise in Islamic extremism: suicide bombers in Indonesia attacked three churches in one day. Pockets of Islamic State affiliate groups in places like Mindanao in the Philippines and Aceh in Indonesia are gaining ground and expanding their territory.


Persecution in North Korea is worse than any other country in the world and has been for the last 18 years. Five years ago only North Korea was in the extreme category for the level of persecution suffered by Christians there. This year Christians in the World Watch List’s top 11 countries live where persecution is extreme (81+ points out of a possible maximum score of 100). These are:  North Korea (1), Afghanistan (2), Somalia (3), Libya (4), Pakistan (5), Sudan (6), Eritrea (7), Yemen (8), Iran (9), India (10) and Syria (11).  Open Doors’ persecution experts monitor the situation in 150 countries – this year the situation has become so much worse that countries need 21 per cent more points to make it into the World Watch List top 50 than they did in 2014.  Over 4,305 Christians were killed simply because of their beliefs during 2018. Many deaths go unreported because friends and relatives of the dead are afraid to report the killings. This is especially true for Christian converts in rural areas.

In the North and Middle Belt of Nigeria, at least 3,700 Christians were killed for their faith – almost double the number of a year ago (an estimated 2,000) – with villages completely abandoned by Christians forced to flee, as their armed attackers then moved in to settle with impunity. Deaths were highest in Plateau State (1,885) where Christian deaths at the hands of Muslim Fulani herdsmen were declared ‘genocide’ by the Nigerian House of Representatives. This violence has seen increased use of AK-47s and heavier munitions as well as the murder of entire Christian families in their homes. Open Doors’ research shows that these targeted murders in Nigeria account for about 90 per cent of all faith driven killings of Christians worldwide.


In Africa, extreme persecution also comes at the hands of radical Islamic militias, such as in Egypt – where the Islamic State in Sinai vowed in 2017 to ‘wipe out’ the Coptic Church – as well as in Libya, Somalia and many other sub-Saharan countries.

In every country on Open Doors’ World Watch List, persecution also comes from family and friends, from fellow-villagers and work colleagues, from community councils and local government officials and from the police and legal systems.

Gender-specific persecution

Gender-specific persecution is found to be a key means of undermining the Christian community, so the differing areas of vulnerability for men and women are systematically exploited. In the top five most difficult countries to live as a Christian, the female experience of persecution is characterised by sexual violence, rape and forced marriage. This means that Christian women and girls face more persecution pressure in family and social spheres, whereas Christian men are more likely to be detained without trial or summarily killed by the authorities or militias.

The 2019 trends reinforce the findings of 2018: that the persecution of men is, by and large, “focused, severe and visible” and that of women is “complex, violent and hidden”. The hidden nature of women’s experiences makes it challenging to report; however, the past two years have begun to unearth a growing understanding as more women are surveyed and new questions asked.  As well as exploiting gender vulnerabilities, persecution is also found to exploit other existing vulnerabilities such as age, disability, class and ethnicity. Religious persecution remains the ‘canary in the coal mine’ often pointing to wider human rights abuses.

Freedom of Religion or Belief

Freedom of Religion or Belief is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  However, many countries on Open Doors’ World Watch List encourage or turn a blind eye to human rights abuses despite being members of the UN and signatories to multiple human rights treaties. Henrietta Blyth comments:  “People need to wake up to the fact that the persecution of religious minorities is increasing. These figures show we’re going backwards not forwards. This is the issue of our time – governments must act to reverse this change. That’s why we will be engaging actively with the independent review into the persecution of Christians, recently announced by Jeremy Hunt. This is a positive first step from the UK government and we look forward to seeing concrete policy change.”

One glimmer of hope emerged in Iraq as Islamic State was driven out of many areas, resulting in a drop to number 13, down from number 8 in 2018. There was generally less violence towards Christians but the number killed did go up slightly.

The World Watch List

The World Watch List is a ranking of the 50 countries where the persecution of Christians is most extreme. It is produced using detailed information from 150 countries. Data is gathered on five spheres of life – private, family, community, national and church life. A sixth block, ‘violence’, cuts across all five, and measures serious ‘violence’ (including deprivation of freedom) to people or property. Persecution in each country is recorded by Open Doors using a points system. Open Doors' research methods and results are independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom. The 2019 World Watch List accounts for the 12 months ending 31 October 2018.

Setting aside the ‘violence’ category, the median score for the top 50 in 2014 was 52.9. In 2019 it is 61.4 – an increase of 16 percent in the scores of the first five categories. This shows that persecution is not only related to outright violence but also to increasing pressure in one’s daily life.

11 countries (ranked 1-11) have an ‘extreme’ level of persecution (scoring 81+ points out of 100)

29 countries (ranked 12-40) have a ‘very high’ level of persecution (scoring 61+ points out of 100).

33 countries (ranked 41-73) scored a ‘high’ level of persecution (41+ points).

While the organisation publishes the top 50, this year, an extra 23 countries scored enough to be listed as ‘Persecution Watch’ countries (also a ‘high’ level of persecution, but outside the top 50).

Including these 23 countries, the persecution figures equate to one in every nine Christians globally experiencing ‘high’ levels of persecution: last year it was the equivalent of one in 12. However, across Asia (according to the UN definition, this includes the Middle East), it drops to one in three, while across Africa, it’s one in six, and in Latin America, one in 21.


North Korea

North Korea remains no. 1, as it has done every year since 2002. Christianity is forbidden and is a political crime. Despite the thawing of relations with North Korea after the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-Un summit in June, local sources have told Open Doors that there are many signs that the persecution will get worse. These are: 

  • The increased number of arrests and abductions of (South Korean and Chinese Korean) Christians and missionaries in China.
  • The strengthened border control and harsher punishment of North Korean citizens who are repatriated from China.
  • The increased number of South Korean missionaries being expelled by China.
  • The increased activities of the North Korean government in its attempts to eliminate all channels for spreading the Christian faith.


Libya rises to 4 (7 in 2018) Continues as a ‘fragile state’. In July, the National Army regained control of the last Islamist stronghold in the east, but in September, the UN-backed government had to declare a state of emergency in the capital, Tripoli, after rival militias clashed. There have been no high-profile ‘foreigner’ deaths this year, but since the European Union made it harder for migrants to arrive via the Mediterranean, an estimated 20,000 Christians from sub-Saharan Africa are stranded in Libya, making them extra-vulnerable to pressure or violence. Trusted sources report at least ten killed for their faith. There are also credible reports of rape, slavery and abuse. A tiny number of Libyan nationals identify as Christians; it is incredibly dangerous to convert from Islam.

Pakistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen and Iran (nos. 5-9): all at ‘extreme’ and have not moved much since 2018.


India rises to no. 10 (11 in 2018,28 in 2014) The Hindu nationalist BJP government, ahead of national elections in 2019, has introduced an ‘anti-conversion’ law in Uttarakhand this year, bringing the total with this law to eight states out of 29 (two do not implement it). Militant Hindu nationalists’ stance is that Christianity is a foreign, alien religion and that to be Indian, one must be Hindu. Mobs act with impunity to destroy churches and attack church leaders, killing and injuring them and even sometimes raping their wives and children. If Christians dare to report incidents to the police, they instead find themselves falsely accused of carrying out ‘forced’ conversions of Hindus, which India’s mass media frequently misreport.


Myanmar (Burma) rises to 18 (24 in 2018) More than 4 million Christians comprise 8 per cent of the total population. Most live in Kachin, where 85 per cent are estimated to be Christians, and northern Shan State; both border China. While world attention has focused in 2018 on the persecution of the Rohingya, ethnic and tribal conflicts involving Christian majorities -- the Karen, Chin, Kachin -- continue. At least 150,000 have been displaced since 2011 due to fighting, but international aid shipments are blocked by the Myanmar army, and UN agencies are constantly denied access. Visitors who did get in report that the Army has bombed churches, which are replaced by Buddhist pagodas, since ‘to be Burmese is to be Buddhist’. A campaign by China-backed rebels, the United Wa State Army in northern Shan State, closed dozens of churches and detained and expelled dozens of Christians in September 2018.

Central African Republic

Central African Republic rises to 21 (35 in 2018) The situation in CAR is still precarious. Around 80 per cent of the country is occupied by nine or ten armed militia groups, responsible for myriad human rights abuses; it borders other fragile and volatile countries, which makes its conflict more challenging. Three million are in need of assistance and protection and it’s one of the most dangerous places to be an aid worker. Despite the joint award-winning efforts of CAR’s Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders, who consistently deny that the conflict is rooted in religious differences, numerous acts of violence are committed in which individuals and communities are targeted in ways linked to their faith. In August, Russia was the broker of the latest of a number of peace agreements which so far have not worked.


Algeria rises to 22 (42 in 2018) No country had a greater increase in overall score from 2018 to 2019 than Algeria - where the church is growing, especially in the Berber region in the country’s north. It mostly consists of first-generation Christians who face many pressures from the state and family members; it’s thought that increased boldness has brought a backlash from friends and society. At least six Protestant churches have been forcibly closed; dozens of others have been told to close. The Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), although recognised since 1974, still lacks official status despite meeting all legal requirements. The EPA seeks de-regulation of places of worship, an end to anti-proselytism laws, and freedom to import Christian materials: “Some Algerians continue to be victims of bullying and prosecution for the mere fact of being in possession of a Bible,” it says.

Mali rises to 24 (37 in 2018), Mauritania to 25 (47 in 2018); both mainly due to more data and/or better processing


Turkey rises to number 26 (31 in 2018) In Turkey, most Christians report that they have to be careful, amidst a backlash against Christians in the wake of the Pastor Andrew Brunson case. Turkish converts to Christianity from a Muslim background face particular persecution.


China rises to 27 (43 in 2018) With about 100 million Christians, the church is the largest social force not controlled by the Communist Party (89 million members). Official data shows Christians as comprising ten per cent of the population in some areas. Around half of them experience some form of persecution: last year it was around 20 per cent. New Regulations for Religious Affairs came into force on 1 February 2018 as President Xi Jinping tightened control of religious affairs. These define the administration around religious activities with the stated aim of ‘protect[ing] citizens’ freedom of religious belief’. However, the rules are the most restrictive in 13 years – some say since the Cultural Revolution which ended in 1976 – with new restrictions on online religious expression and proselytism. Since the Party, not the government, controls implementation of the new law, restrictions are much harsher, especially for youths and children.


Indonesia rises to 30 (38 in 2018) 212 million people form the world’s largest Muslim population. Ahead of Presidential/national elections in 2019, Christians (32 million of total Indonesian population) saw the high-profile trial of former Jakarta Governor ‘Ahok’ and his two-year prison sentence for a faked-up, false charge of blasphemy (he’s due to be freed in January 2019) as evidence of rising religious intolerance. The triple-suicide attack against churches in Surabaya in May 2018, committed by one Islamist family, including girls as young as nine, shocked the country, until recently known for its ‘moderate’ Islam.

For more information please contact the Open Doors press team on 01993 777332, 07484000441, ErinJ@opendoorsuk.org

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