"North Korea used to be a Christian country before the Communists took over," says Yoon Kwon Chae, whose father was one of the first ministers in Korea. Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, once was called the "Jerusalem of Asia."

 

But now the isolated communist nation is a deadly place for Christians. According to AsiaNews/Agencies, the North Korean regime carries out “violent and brutal” persecutions of Christians and all those dedicated to missionary activities. Since the communist government came to power, approximately 300,000 Christians have disappeared. Close to 200,000 now live in labor camps, where they are subject to conditions of hunger, torture and death.

 

It comes as no surprise then that North Korea tops the Open Doors "World Watch List" of countries where Christians are persecuted. The annual list ranks countries according to the intensity of persecution Christians face for actively pursuing their faith.

 

An estimated 200 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest and even death for their faith in Christ, with another 200 to 400 million facing discrimination and alienation. Open Doors, founded almost 50 years ago by Brother Andrew, author of the best-selling book God's Smuggler, serves and strengthens the Persecuted Church in the world's most difficult areas through training, Bible and literature distribution, community development and personal encouragement.

 

The World Watch List is based on evaluations and testimonies obtained by Open Doors' indigenous contacts, field workers and from members of the Persecuted Church.

 

"North Korea is the most repressed and isolated nation in the world … it certainly deserves its hall of shame ranking on the World Watch List," says Dr. Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA. "It breaks my heart to hear some of the atrocities against our brothers and sisters there. Tens of thousands of Christians are among 200,000 prisoners held in politico-labor camps. Yet we hear reports of how the church in North Korea continues to grow Let's continue to lift up the needs of our fellow believers in North Korea and in all the countries on the list."

 

For years, very little information about the church emerged from Kim Il Sung's harsh North Korean regime, which is now ruled by his son, Kim Jong Il. Recent years, however, have seen a relative flood of information coming from North Korean refugees fleeing to China. They report that the church has grown, but to visibly practice the Christian faith in North Korea still can result in imprisonment and death.

 

“What will happen to the North Korean Christians?" asks Yoon Kwon Chae, the minister's son, who himself is a missionary. "No one knows. However, these Christians will keep on meeting and will be increasing in number. Even from North Korean governmental reports, an increase of about 50 every year is apparent. The communistic government may be able to destroy freedom; they may be able to destroy democracy; but God they cannot destroy."

 

The Rest of the List

 

Saudi Arabia retains the second spot on the Open Doors list, although the U.S. State Department in 2003 chose not to add Saudi Arabia to its ranking of the world's worst religious persecutors. According to International Christian Concern, "non-Muslims can be arrested, lashed, or deported for any religious activity that attracts the attention of the government [and] the printing, possession, importing, or distribution of any non-Muslim religious material is banned."

For a Saudi to convert to another religion, reports Open Doors, the consequences can be severe. Even foreign Christian guest workers have been imprisoned and deported for quietly practicing their faith, despite government assurances that foreigners can worship privately.

Laos, the Central Highlands of Vietnam and Iran round out the top five. According to Open Doors, the Lao government continued to put pressure upon Christians in the country. Many were arrested and later released while several churches were closed in 2003. One of their contacts says, “Christians look at prisons as revolving doors, as many leaders were imprisoned several times in the year.” There was also an increase in physical abuse of believers to make them renounce their faith. Several families were evicted from their homes for refusing to give up their beliefs. One Lao believer was even killed for his faith.

 

Other countries listed in the WWL's Top 10 include: Turkmenistan, Maldives, Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma) and China. Myanmar and China are newcomers to the Top 10; Myanmar was ranked 13th last year and China 11th. No. 12 Pakistan (sixth last year) and No. 11 Somalia (ninth last year) fell out of the Top 10.

Iran climbed five places compared to the 2003 list, rising from No. 10 to No 5. The change is primarily due to a considerable increase in the number of Christians being arrested and held without trial for their religious beliefs during the past year. In December, a large number of Christians with an Islamic background were also physically harmed in connection with their newfound faith.

Numbers 11-25 on the World Watch List are: Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Comoros, Sudan, Uzbeistan, Yemen, Eritrea, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Nigeria (North), Libya, Morocco, Cuba and Brunei.

Rounding out the list are numbers 26-50: Colombia (conflict areas), Qatar, Tunisia, Russian Federation (Muslim republics of Chechnya, Kabardino Balkarya, Dagestan and Tatarstan), Mexico (Chiapas), Tajikistan, Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Indonesia, Algeria, Nepal, Turkey, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, Kurdistan, Oman, Kuwait, Belarus, Jordan, Bangladesh, Syria, Bahrain and Malaysia.

The status of religious freedom deteriorated in Eritrea, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. In Eritrea, the government began actively applying a law that prohibits the practice of "new religion," and hundreds of evangelical Christians have been imprisoned. In fact, Eritrea made the biggest jump of any country in the Top 50, going from No. 34 in 2003 to No. 18 this year.

 

In India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, the freedom to evangelize and to change religions is coming under fire. Anti-conversion legislation has already been implemented in several states in India, and attempts are being made to introduce it in Sri Lanka.

 

Open Doors founder Brother Andrew reinforces the importance of praying for our brothers and sisters who are suffering for their faith: “Of course we need to continue to pray for them every day. We need to feel their pain and their joy…many of them have been discriminated against or have spent time in prison or live in terrible poverty. Keep informed about what is happening in these countries thousands of miles away. Too many people are ignorant of what is taking place in the world today. And if the Lord speaks to you and tells you to ‘Go,’ then obey his command.”

To partner with Open Doors call 888-5-BIBLE-5 or go to their U.S. web site at www.odusa.org. To request a complimentary six-month subscription to their monthly newsletter, Frontline Faith, and prayer bulletin, Prayer Force Alert, call 888-5-BIBLE-5 or register on-line.