Below, we look at the top 10 countries where Christian persecution is highest. In many of these countries, life is already difficult. Making the decision to follow Jesus and live as a Christian is a choice that puts your life, family’s lives and livelihood in further jeopardy. In certain countries like North Korea, Afghanistan and Somalia, converting to Christianity can be a death warrant. And in 2020, we saw the pandemic crisis reveal the ugliness of persecution in new ways, as Christian families were denied government-assisted COVID-19 relief they desperately needed to survive.
In 2021, modern-day persecution against Christians is at an all-time high—with numbers increasing at an alarming rate. Research for the Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List—the most in-depth investigative research and report on Christian persecution available—shows that today, more than 340 million people worldwide face persecution and discrimination for their faith.
That’s 1 in 8 Christians who are targeted, discriminated against and attacked for following Jesus.
For the 20th consecutive year, North Korea ranks as the No. 1 most dangerous country for Christians. For three generations, everything in this isolated land has focused on idolizing the ruling Kim family. Christians are seen as hostile elements in society that must be eradicated. Thus, being discovered as a Christian is a death sentence. If you aren’t killed instantly, an inhumane labor camp awaits. North Korean President Kim Jong-un is reported to have expanded the system of prison camps, in which an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians are currently imprisoned.
Also in 2020, North Korea did not escape the pandemic—though the regime claims COVID-19 has had little impact. We received reports that North Koreans call coronavirus the “ghost disease”–because people are so malnourished already that they die very quickly from COVID-19. The pandemic has led to tighter security at the Chinese border, and a stranglehold on the black market, which many use to survive.
Yet behind the news headlines, a massive underground church of an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 believers is growing in North Korea. It is a miracle that this underground church in North Korea is able to exist. But more than that, we continue to hear reports that Christians long to share the gospel in the midst of difficult conditions.
North Korean refugee and ex-prisoner Hee-Yoi* shares a sobering request: “I ask those who have been praying for North Korea from all around the world to pray for North Korea to be able to come to the gospel. The North Korean citizens are like slaves. With the light of the Lord, they would be freed.”
Once again, Afghanistan almost tied with North Korea’s No. 1 ranking. An Islamic state by constitution, the country does not permit any faith other than Islam to exist. It is impossible to live openly as a Christian in Afghanistan—Christian converts face dire consequences if their new faith is discovered.
They must flee the country or they will be killed—often by their family. It comes down to honor. If a Christian’s family discovers a family member has converted, their family, clan or tribe must save its “honor” by disowning the believer, or even killing them. Because leaving Islam is considered a sign of insanity, Christians from a Muslim background can even be sent to a psychiatric hospital for life.
In 2020, the Islamic State group and the Taliban continued to have a strong, violent presence in Afghanistan, with the Taliban controlling large regions. Taliban-controlled areas are particularly oppressive. Life is especially difficult for women. Research estimates that 70 to 80 percent of all Afghan women face forced marriage; more than half are married before the legal marriage age of 16. Coerced marriage is often used to ensure a woman stays a Muslim.
“How we survive daily only God knows,” a secret Aghan believer shares. “He knows because He has been kind to dwell with us. But we are tired of all the death around us.”
In Somalia, all minority religions are heavily persecuted, with research suggesting that 99 percent of Somali citizens are Muslims. In the Horn of Africa, COVID-19 revealed religious persecution as we received inside reports that Christians were blamed for bringing the pandemic to their communities.
The tiny population of Christians inside the country is also in danger from al-Shabab, a violent group that advocates Shariah (Islamic law) as the basis for regulating all aspects of life. Christians from a Muslim background are considered a “high-value target” by al-Shabab, who have often executed believers on the spot, when discovered.
Despite the risks, Somali people are coming to faith in Jesus—some in miraculous ways. Momina*, 38, encountered Jesus in her dreams and became a Christian. Her husband abandoned her and her family was ordered not to support her.
“We were all dead, but Jesus came to save us and give us a new life … I leave my life in His hands,” she says. “I am so excited that God is with me wherever I am; I am also glad the Lord listens to my prayers.”
After the ouster of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya plunged into chaos and anarchy. And that situation has not changed. Without a central government, the country is effectively in a state of lawless anarchy.
What does “lawless anarchy” look like? In 2020, violence continued to increase in Libya. There were more verified incidents of attacks and killings. Christians are at risk all over the country, but especially vulnerable in areas where Islamic extremist groups are present. Elements who have pledged allegiance to ISIS still maintain a presence in the wider region around Sirte. Other extremist groups are in control of areas in and around the capital, Tripoli. Expatriate Christians avoid traveling in general, but especially in areas where there might be checkpoints.
In Libya, there is no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion and very limited possibility of public church life. Although there are around 34,500 Christians in the country, only a tiny number (approximately 150) are Libyan—the majority are expatriate and migrant workers. Libyan Christians from a Muslim background face violent and intense pressure from their family and the wider community to renounce their faith.
Christians who are migrating from other areas of Africa, aiming to reach Europe, are often held in overcrowded detention centers around Tripoli. Others are handed directly to criminal officials or groups by their human traffickers and forced into intensive agricultural labor or prostitution.
Still, God continues to move in Libya. Where there is persecution, the gospel is being shared.
“The trouble for new believers really starts when they speak out about Jesus,” says Charley*, an Open Doors partner in the region who coordinates the work of the organization in several countries in North Africa.
Pakistan remains one of the hardest places to live as a Christian, and violent persecution against Christians and church buildings continues to be particularly high. While Christian churches do exist, those that are active in outreach face severe persecution from society.
In Pakistan, believers who have converted from Islam face the greatest levels of persecution, but all Christians are considered second-class citizens in this hardline Islamic country. They are given jobs perceived as low, dirty and dishonorable, and can be victims of bonded labor. While some Christians are middle class, they are still considered inferior to Muslims and often face severe workplace discrimination.
Pakistani Christians also suffer under the country’s notorious blasphemy laws that are misused to target Christians such as Asia Bibi who spent nearly 10 years on death row accused of blasphemy. Islamic extremist groups vehemently “defend” these laws, including attacking or killing those who oppose them.
For Christian girls, life in Pakistan is especially difficult. They are at constant risk of abduction and rape, often forced to marry their attackers and coerced into converting to Islam. There have also been reports of targeted trafficking of Christian girls for both bonded labor and a prostitution ring that smuggles Christian girls into China.
Because of security issues, we are unable to share stories or quotes from within Pakistan.
Since 1993, Eritrean President Afwerki has overseen an authoritarian, brutal regime that rests on massive human rights violations. And the situation has not changed. Violence continues to worsen in Eritrea.
Hope that a peace agreement with Ethiopia would improve human rights in Eritrea has waned as there has been little indication of this—and unrest at the Ethiopia/Eritrea border in fall 2020 has threatened stability. In June 2020, the UN reported that there was “no meaningful progress “toward addressing human rights violations in this country that is often called the “North Korea of Africa.”
Christians from non-traditional denominations face the harshest persecution in Eritrea, both from the government and from the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC)—the only Christian denomination recognized by the government and also tightly controlled by those in power. Non-EOC Christians and Christians from a Muslim background face extreme opposition from their families and communities, as well as from the state, often denied crucial social services and other resources.
But the real threat comes from government security forces that monitor phone calls, scrutinize activity and conduct countless raids that target Christians, seize Christian materials and damage house churches. Christians can be arrested and imprisoned without trial. Many Christians are held in inhumane prisons because of their faith, and their loved ones often don’t know where they are or even if they’re still alive.
But the church in Eritrea, while under duress, is not fading away. Christians are still gathering in secret to worship wherever they are—even a prison cell. Musse (not his name) spent years in an Eritrean prison where he boldly shared the gospel: “In prison, one of my main purposes as a Christian was to evangelize. Of course, it’s forbidden to do it openly, but we did it at night when everybody was asleep. Those people loved what we taught and shared. Some even tried to cover for us. We saw many conversions. The gospel can’t be chained!”
The ongoing civil war, humanitarian crisis and COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen are impacting all citizens, but Christians are especially vulnerable. Emergency relief is mostly distributed through organizations that use local Islamic leaders and local mosques to give aid—believed to discriminate against anybody who is not considered to be a devout Muslim. Yemeni Christians have shared they were refused treatment at under-resourced hospitals.
In almost all areas of Yemeni life, persecution remains extreme. While we have relatively few reports of violence against Christians, we do know that violence has worsened slightly in the past year. However, it’s nearly impossible to research and verify violent attacks due to the war, the secrecy Christians must maintain, and the challenge of communication with underground believers. It’s very likely that there is more violence that goes unreported.
Christians in Yemen usually keep their faith secret, because if they’re discovered, they could face the death penalty. Leaving Islam is forbidden, and all Yemenis are considered Muslims by the state. It’s not just the authorities who persecute Christians. Islamic militant groups threaten Christians from a Muslim background with death, and tribes may kill or banish anybody converting to Christianity. The south of the country, where there is a strong Al Qaeda presence, is particularly dangerous.
Christians from a Muslim background now make up most of the Christian population of Yemen, since the ongoing war and COVID-19 has led many expatriate and migrant Christians to leave the country. We have reports that Yemeni people like Mohammad* are coming to Christ. After finding a Bible in a second-hand shop, Mohammad became a follower of Jesus. Now he and his wife Aima* lead a house church.
“I couldn’t read the Bible at home, that would not be safe,” Mohammad remembers. “I had to hide the book and read it outside the house. When I came to faith, I thought I was the only believer in Yemen. For a long time, I didn’t know any other Yemeni Christians. Now I know many, and there are many more like us.”
In this gateway to the Middle East, Christians are forbidden from sharing their faith with non-Christians, which means church services in Farsi, the national language, are not allowed. Converts from Islam undergo persecution from the government; if they attend an underground house church, they face the constant threat of arrest.
In 2020, persecution has remained extreme, with a small increase in the number of reported incidents of violence. COVID-19 has hit the country hard, and many believers are in desperate need of food and aid. Measures to combat the virus have also made communication between Christians difficult, and they are increasingly exploring online fellowship and discipleship.
Many Iranian prisoners, including some imprisoned for their faith, were released from prison to combat the spread of COVID-19 in packed jails. However, other Christians remained in jail and the sentencing of Christians continued. Throughout 2020, Christians were arrested and imprisoned for house church activities. Few weeks went by when our field wasn’t reporting the arrest or prison summons of house church leaders and participants. Several believers were forced to flee the country only hours or days before they were to report to prison.
What drives the government’s relentless oppression and attack on Christians? The Iranian government sees the conversion of Muslims to Christianity as an attempt by Western countries to undermine the Islamic rule of Iran.
Still, despite persecution, the church in Iran is growing exponentially—last year an independent study estimated that the number of Christians in Iran now numbers 1 million.
Darya* is part of the country’s underground church: “I am very thankful to be able to serve God here in Iran,” she says. “Despite all the difficulties and challenges, God is always with us.”
In Nigeria, especially the northeastern region, Christians are facing what feels like an ongoing attack on their lives, their churches and communities.
Violence against Christians by Boko Haram, Fulani militants and ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province)—as well as other, unidentified armed attackers—has led to tremendous suffering among the Christian community. In fact in 2020, more Christians were murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country, with ISWAP making its presence known through abductions and ISIS-style executions. Men and boys are particularly vulnerable to being killed. The women and children they leave behind are very vulnerable and living testimonies to the power of the attackers. Perpetrators are seldom brought to justice.
Nigeria entered the top 10 of the 2021 World Watch List primarily because this violence has increased and begun to spill out into other parts of Nigeria. President Buhari’s government seems unable or unwilling to protect its Christian citizens. And while the pandemic stifled attacks on Christians in other parts of the world, violence in Nigeria increased.
It’s difficult to talk about Christian persecution in Nigeria without reporting on the prevalenct threat of sexual violence. Rape is often used as a weapon of persecution by Islamic extremists. Open Doors has shared multiple accounts of women abducted and forced into sexual slavery or marriage to a Muslim man. In extreme and heinous circumstances, young girls are forcibly recruited and used as suicide bombers.
“When we go to sleep at night, we are never sure whether we will make it alive to the next day,” says Pastor Jeremiah* whose Nigerian village was attacked by Fulani militants. “Even if we die, we are in the hands of God.”
Over the past five years, persecution in the world’s second-most populous country has increased significantly and in 2020 discrimination and violence against Christians remained relatively unchanged. For the third consecutive year, India has ranked as the 10th most dangerous place for Christians.
The outcome of the country’s national elections in 2019 gave the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even more political power—emboldening ultra-nationalist radicals to spread their message that to be Indian is to be Hindu and that the country should be rid of Christianity and Islam. These nationalists use extensive violence to achieve their goal, particularly targeting Christians from a Hindu background. Christians in certain parts of India, especially house church leaders, face horrific levels of violence from these extremists—thousands of attacks take place every year. And in rural India, Hindu tribes uses water and food as weapons against Christians, cutting them off from access to the village’s water supply and government-subsidized groceries.
Converts to Christianity from a Hindu background are especially vulnerable to persecution and are constantly under pressure to return to Hinduism through campaigns known as Ghar Wapsi (“homecoming”). This year, Indian nationalists led a violent door-to-door Ghar Wapsi campaign aimed at reconverting Christians to Hinduism.
The COVID-19 pandemic offered a new weapon for persecutors, as Christians in many parts of India were often deliberately overlooked for official COVID-19 food and aid. This discrimination turned deadly, leaving many starving believers struggling to survive, particularly since many Indian Christians are part of the Dalit caste and thus very poor.
In 2020, more of India’s 28 states instituted anti-conversion laws, used to abuse, harass and intimidate Christians, and the BJP has made it clear that it wants to impose these laws nationwide. Currently, nine states have voted for these laws with more considering adoption. Such laws are often used as an excuse to disrupt church services and harass Christians, making it incredibly difficult for believers to share their faith with others without fear or legal repercussions.
In much of India, saying “yes” to Jesus has become a risky decision that costs Christians and their families greatly.
One Church, one Family
The facts and numbers are important. They help us frame the big picture of what’s happening. But the World Watch List research offers a bigger vision and story. Behind every statistic and fact is a life, a family, a church that represents deep suffering but also courage and resilient faith. People who know the consequences yet still choose Jesus. Through our Savior, we and every Christian living in North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan and the rest of the top 50 countries on the 2020 World Watch List are one Church, one Family.
To help you pray with our sisters and brothers,, Open Doors has a mobile prayer app that alerts you to prayer requests from believers. Learn more about it and sign up to get regular updates delivered to your phone. You can also download our FREE World Watch List handbook to learn about all 50 countries and get specific prayer points for believers in each nation.
*representative names and photos used for security reasons