Just possessing a Bible still can be cause for a death penalty in North Korea, so it’s no surprise that the hermit kingdom remains No. 1 on this year’s World Watch List of the world’s most notorious persecutors of Christians, a project assembled by Open Doors USA.
Persecution of believers also increased sharply across Africa, eight out of 10 worst offenders are ruled by Muslim theocracy and Egypt, under the Muslim Brotherhood, actually saw its ranking lowered, but not because of any improvement there. It was because of worsening conditions elsewhere, the report said.
In North Korea, a possible lesser penalty for someone having a Bible would be for the offender, and three generations of his or her family, to be sent to prison camps, where at estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people are held.
“North Korea doesn’t allow Christians any freedom in any of the five spheres used in the process,” Estabrook said.
“We use five spheres, the private, family, community, congregational, and public. … North Korea doesn’t allow Christians any freedom,” Estabrook said.
In addition, the dictatorship maintains a gulag, he noted.
“North Korea is known to have somewhere between 50,000 to 70,000 Christians in forced labor camps. And they’re there for doing nothing except trying to worship the Lord,” Estabrook said.
That aligns with what WND reported in July, that under newly installed leader Kim Jong-un, the enigmatic nation of North Korea still has about 70,000 people in work camps.
Sources confirmed North Korea has eased or lifted a number of restrictions for citizens since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il. Bans have been lifted on Western foods such as pizza and french fries, and restrictions on the number of cell phones have been loosened, for example, according to Ryan Morgan, an analyst with International Christian Concern Asia.
However, whatever secular benefits may have trickled down to residents of the isolated nation, there is no evidence of any improvement in the condition of the persecuted church there, he said.
“We have not heard any reports of improvement for Christians in the country and have no reason to believe anything has changed,” Morgan said. “The regime still has up to 70,000 Christians locked away in virtual concentration camps.”
The rest of the top 12 nations on the Open Doors World Watch list, in order, are Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Syria, and Sudan.
Estabrook said Saudi Arabia moved up one to No. 2, but not because they did anything differently.
“Saudi Arabia is at No. 2 this year because, based on the rating spheres, conditions improved slightly in Afghanistan,” Estabrook said.
One surprise on the list is Egypt. Even with a Muslim Brotherhood regime and Christians emigrating away, Egypt dropped from 15 to 25.
“Egypt is still a notorious persecutor of Christians. The government’s policies, the new Shariah constitution, and church burnings make it bad for Christians,” Estabrook said.
“The only reason they dropped is because of the other countries that saw huge increases in persecution in the rating spheres,” Estabrook said.
In an article in AllAfrica.com, Morsi said, “Persecution does not exist on Egyptian soil. We are all people of the homeland.”
An Egyptian citizen who lives in Cairo who asked not to be named for security purposes says the denial is because of how Morsi defines persecution.
“Morsi denies outright the Copts are persecuted in Egypt,” the Cairo resident said. “Morsi is not lying because he sincerely believes what he is saying.
“The Western definition of persecution differs to Morsi’s understanding of persecution because Morsi is following the Islamic meaning,” he explained.
Open Doors said said a number of African countries moved into the upper half of the list this year.
“The number of countries on the African continent sharply increased on the annual list due to the increasing influence of Islam,” its report said.
“Mali is a newcomer on the list and holds the No. 7 position. Tanzania is 24, Kenya is 40, Uganda at 47, and Niger at 50 also moved onto the World Watch List and Ethiopia is one of the strongest risers, from number 38 to number 15 on the list,” the report said.
“In addition, the small African country of Eritrea made the Top Ten for the first time at No. 10. Libya climbed from No. 26 to No. 17,” Open Doors said.
Sudan moved up the list from 16 to 12.
“Sudan went up because of what they did. They’ve had actual attacks against Christians,” Estabrook said.
“Their dictator, Omar al-Bashir, says he wants the country to have one language, Arabic, one culture, and one religion, Islam,” Estabrook said.
“The south is mostly Christian and many Christians have fled to the south, but there are those Christians in Sudan who speak Arabic and feel pressure. They don’t want to move because they believe God has called them to stay,” Estabrook said.
The Second Century Church Father Tertulian is reported to have said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Estabrook agrees and says persecution is a “paradox.”
“It seems to grow the church in those lands where it is the heaviest. We can protest against it, but we can celebrate it at the same time,” Estabrook said.
“However, the church grows and I think it’s because of what Jesus said. Jesus said that we are blessed when people persecute us for His name’s sake. If this is true, then Jesus puts His blessing on people who are persecuted,” Estabrook said.
Finishing the top 25 on the World Watch List: Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Libya, Laos, Turkmenistan, Qatar, Vietnam, Oman, Mauritania, Tanzania, and Egypt.