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 From China to sub-Saharan Africa, Christians experience high levels of persecution in 73 countries

Five years ago, North Korea (#1) was the only country categorised as ‘extreme’ for its level of persecution of Christians. This year, in the Open Doors World Watch List for 2019, same as in 2018, 11 countries score enough to fit that category.

The 2019 World Watch List (WWL) is the latest annual survey of 150 countries monitoring how difficult it is to live as a Christian. The overall trend in this year’s list is that almost half (73) of the countries showed extreme, very high or high levels of persecution. A year earlier, it was 58 countries.

The WWL is based on extensive surveys from internal and external experts, peers behind the global headlines of cases such as Pakistani, Asia Bibi, and Protestant pastor, Andrew Brunson, now freed from a Turkish prison, to find out how difficult it is to live as an active Christian in daily life.

In these 73 countries, the figures equate to 1 in every 9 Christians globally experiencing ‘high’ levels of persecution. Last year it was the equivalent of 1 in 12. However, across Asia (according to the UN definition, including the Middle East), it drops to 1 in 3, while across Africa, it is 1 in 6, and in Latin America, 1 in 21. In summary, Open Doors International estimates that, in the Top 50 countries of the WWL, around 245 million Christians experience ‘high’ levels of persecution.

The WWL, seen as the most authoritative list of its kind, has been produced since 1993 and is externally audited by the International Institute of Religious Freedom (IIRF). “The results of the Open Doors World Watch List 2019 are accurately presented within the parameters of precision reached in the processing of information. … The documentation mechanisms have been improved and the number of countries examined in-depth and presented has again been substantially increased which leads to better coverage of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Latin America and Europe,” the IRRF audit statement says.

From a global perspective, the 2019 World Watch List shows that persecution comes from different avenues: from a believer’s family, friends, fellow-villagers and work colleagues, community councils, local government officials and from police and legal systems. When looking at gender, the research shows how Christian women and girls face more persecution pressure in family and social spheres, while men and boys are more likely to experience the brunt of pressure from the authorities or militias.

“This statistical evidence and research show that Christians persecution continues to rise. This reiterates the importance of Open Doors’ work in strengthening the persecuted Church globally,” said Jan Gouws, Executive Director of Open Doors Southern Africa. “The yearly World Watch List reveals the new trends in Christian persecution and helps our organisation to know where to focus our work.”

 The top ten countries where Christians currently face the most persecution are:

#1 North Korea (94/100)
#2 Afghanistan (94/100)
#3 Somalia (91/100)
#4 Libya (87/100)
#5 Pakistan (87/100)
#6 Sudan (87/100)
#7 Eritrea (86/100)
#8 Yemen (86/100)
#9 Iran (85/100)
#10 India (83/100)
Source: Open Doors/World Watch Research

 Some Highlights of the 2019 Open Doors World Watch List


New laws in China (#27) and Vietnam (#20) seek to control all expression of religion. Persecution in China is the worst that it has been in more than a decade; some even say since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

India (#10) is at ‘extreme’ and China at ‘very high’ levels of persecution and these countries are home to two of the world’s most numerous Christian populations, one in a secular democracy and the other in a Communist state – both facing unprecedented persecution – albeit expressed in very different ways.

Nationalistic governments such as India and Myanmar (#18) continue to deny freedom of religion to their sizeable Christian minorities, sending the very clear message that to be Indian, one must be Hindu, or to be Burmese one must embrace Buddhism.

Southeast Asia has seen a rise in Islamic extremism where suicide bombers in Indonesia (#30) attacked three churches in one day.


In the northern and Middle Belt of Nigeria (#12), more than 3 700 Christians were killed for their faith – almost double the number of last year (an estimated 2 000) – with villages completely abandoned by Christians who were forced to flee, as their armed attackers then moved in to settle with impunity. Of the 4 136 deaths, directly related to the Christian faith, which the list reports for the Top 50 countries, Nigeria alone accounts for about 90% (3 731).

Middle-East and North Africa

Extreme persecution also comes at the hands of radical Islamic militias, such as in Egypt (#16) – where the Islamic State in Sinai vowed in 2017 to ‘wipe out’ the Coptic Church – as well as in Libya (#4) and many other sub-Saharan countries.

Latin America

Latin America, not considered by many to be a place of Christian persecution, features countries like Mexico (#39) and Colombia (#47) on the 2019 World Watch List, where Christians experience persecution that mainly comes when church leaders or Christians challenge corruption, cartels, and indigenous beliefs.

The Good News

While persecution can hardly constitute “good news,” many Christians in these countries are quick to state that their trials are often turned to good through the providence of God. Indeed, a central ministry of Open Doors is to be present to these suffering communities and find ways of making local believers more resilient so that their persecution becomes an opportunity to spread the Gospel, “good news,” often in a way that would not be possible in more peaceful circumstances. Below is a round-up of some of these “good news” elements.

 North Korea

Despite its ranking in the top slot as in every year since the World Watch List 2002, diplomatic meetings ahead of the Donald Trump – Kim Jong Un summit did free three Korean-American Christians from a North Korean prison. Two were lecturers at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), arrested in 2017, accused of “behaviour against the regime”. PUST has now changed its recruiting policy. The third was a pastor, convicted as a ‘spy’.


The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar – at risk of his own life – kept his promise to hear the Supreme Court appeal of Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi before he retires early in 2019. He and his fellow two judges ruled to acquit her, saying her accuser had been lying, and the blasphemy charge, for which she had spent 8 years on death row, was a fabrication. However, their landmark ruling was challenged by days of mass protest and disruption across Pakistan by radical Islamic groups who called for the judges and Asia Bibi to be killed. While Asia Bibi is technically ‘free’, she is still in fear of her life, and unable to leave Pakistan for asylum in a country where she can live safely with her family.


There are 3 700 churches waiting to be registered under a 2016 law. By the end of August 2018, 220, and by October, another 120 had been registered, making a total of 340, or 9%. However, at this rate, it will take 12 years to complete all registrations.


The World Watch List Prayer Updates focuses on the different countries on the Open Doors World Watch List. The weekly email provides a short overview of a country and relevant prayer points. PowerPoint® slides are also included, which can be used in church services, announcements or presentations. If you would like to receive these weekly emails, please complete below.

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