Why do North Korea and Afghanistan rank so high on the list?
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.”
Afghanistan is ranked No. 2 and 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.”
What does the persecution against Christians come from?
In our World Watch Methodology, we make a distinction between persecution engines (what’s driving the persecution) and persecution drivers (who is driving the persecution).
Where communism and violent control over a country martyrs Christians
In North Korea, persecution is driven by Communist and post-communist oppression. The country is run according to communist administrative customs. Christians continue to be seen as dangerous and their religion as “opium for the people”—as in classical Communist ideology—but they are also part of the hostile class in the country’s social stratification system.
However, this persecution engine is mixed with dictatorial paranoia. Everyone in North Korea must revere the leadership. And because of this personality cult, Kim Jong Un is an irreplaceable figure in society—he rules the Worker’s Party, the army, the country’s administration and all strands of society. Even though his power may not be as absolute as his father’s or grandfather’s, no one can challenge Kim Jong Un’s authority. The godlike worship of the rulers leaves absolutely no room for any other religion. Consequently, anyone daring to revere anything or anybody besides the Kim dynasty is seen as dangerous and a threat to the state.
The obvious persecutor (the persecution driver) is the North Korean state, which uses a variety of national, regional and local institutions—such as the police and “national security services”—to find Christians. These government officials employ spies and informants to help them as well. Neighbors also spy on each other, and even children are trained from their early years to report their own parents if they note suspicious behavior.
This mix of persecution means a deadly reality for followers of Jesus
In Afghanistan, we see totally different engines and drivers. At play is a lethal mix of Islamic oppression, ethnic antagonism and organized crime and corruption.
Islamic oppression: In this persecution engine, extremists adhere to a strict version of Islam to oppress the people. When it comes to Islamic oppression, Afghanistan is one of the most extreme countries. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan neither allows any Afghan citizens to become Christians nor recognizes converts as such. Conversion is seen as apostasy and brings shame to the family and the community. As a result, converts hide their faith as much and as deep as possible.
Though the state is a driver of persecution, extremist groups, the local community and family members of converts are a much bigger danger in Afghanistan.
Ethnic antagonism (hostilities between different ethnic groups (tribes, etc.). The concept of nation is alien to the Afghan way of thinking. One’s own family comes first, followed by the clan and then the tribe—and all of these are much more important than the country. People are deeply entrenched in caring for their families, villages and tribes. When someone dares to turn from his tribe to embrace something new and maybe even foreign, pressure ensues. The person’s family and/or tribe will exert extreme pressure and even violence to make him return to traditional norms. If he doesn’t, he will be viewed as a traitor to the community, resulting in exclusion from family and society. While this protocol applies to all “deviations,” the pressure and violence intensify if it involves someone turning to Christianity. The Christian religion is considered to be Western and hostile to Afghan culture, society and Islam. In this respect, conversion away from Islam is seen as treason.
Organized crime and corruption is alive and well in Afghanistan, an extremely poor country. One of the main economic problems the country faces is the fact that illicit drugs like opium are much more lucrative than virtually any other crop. Compared to wheat, farmers can earn 11 times the amount of money with poppy production. The Taliban are heavily involved in drug production; estimations indicate that 70 to 80 percent of all drug trafficking gains end up in the Taliban’s pockets.
Everyone who’s in the way of the drug lords will simply be pushed aside, a practice that has intensified. The situation is made additionally volatile by drug barons pressuring citizens and making parts of the country uncontrollable. In most cases, this pressure isn’t relegated to Christians only (they’re not visible anyway). However, believers are affected because they don’t have an alternative or someone to turn to for help.
Why is it so risky to be a Christian?
In North Korea: When a Christian is discovered, he or she will be taken away by the police. Not only the Christian, but also his or her spouse, children and family to the fourth generation. To North Koreans, anyone who knows a Christian is “guilty by association.” If you’re guilty, so are the people who live or even just know you. After arrest, a Christian will be locked up in a small but overcrowded cell in a detention center. There, he/she will be interrogated for hours and subject to “light” or even heavy torture. Prisoners hardly receive any food and water; many don’t survive their detention.
After a few months, the courts will decide if the Christian will be prosecuted. When someone must go to court, he/she will be sent to a re-education labor camp with his/her family members. Prisoners in these camps receive on average of 500 calories of food a day and must work 10 to 12 hours a day. They will receive one day of rest every 10 days. At night, lengthy ideological training sessions are testing for the exhausted prisoners.
If someone is not sent to court, he/she will be transferred to a political labor camp. There, the circumstances are even more gruesome than re-education camp. Here, the prisoners have no hope of escape or release; they don’t receive ideological training. These camps are like the Nazi death camps of World War II.
A last possible fate for Christians is execution. Until a few years ago, Christians were sometimes publicly executed by a firing squad. But civilians found those executions too upsetting. Nowadays, political enemies, such as Christians, are killed in prison or labor camp basements by North Korean soldiers.
In Afghanistan, the state is hostile towards Christians, as we reported above. However, the family, clan, tribe or local extremist group will “take care” of converts. Very often, there’s only one possible outcome for exposed and caught Christians: they will be killed. The family, clan or tribe must save its “honor” by disposing of the Christian. Extremist groups will surely not show mercy either.
Why do North Korea and Afghanistan seem like they are so similar in score, but are so different in reality?
Our WWL methodology measures persecution in five spheres of life: private (your personal space), family, community, national and church. The reasons and actors for persecution are different, but North Korea and Afghanistan are simply so extreme in all these categories that they both received maximum points.
For example, Christians in North Korea are not allowed to have a Bible. If a Bible is discovered at someone’s home, the person will be arrested, tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment in a labor camp, which equates to a death sentence.
In Afghanistan, if a Bible of an Afghan Christian is discovered, the government will not take away the person; instead, that work will be done by family or local community. In the Middle Eastern country, torture with the purpose of forcing a believer to renounce Christ is the modus operandi. Again, just like in North Korea, if someone remains true to his/her faith, he/she will be surely killed.
If they’re really so bad, why do these countries score 94 and 93 points and not 100?
This relates to the violence category. An estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Christians live their lives inside North Korea’s vast prison system, where starvation, physical and mental abuse are part of every day. So there is a lot of violence in this country that we know of.
Because the church in Afghanistan is much smaller (several thousand believers) we cannot give specific details about violence incidents against Christians for security reasons. But we need little imagination to know that Afghanistan is a severely violent country.
However, both countries score zero points for several kinds of violence we measure, such as rapes or forced marriages for North Korea (which are unknown of), and shops and businesses or Christians destroyed in Afghanistan (where we lack reports.) Maybe, even most likely, this is happening, but a lack of reports in terms of scores counts in favor of the country.
Is there any good news?
In both countries, we know that there are faithful believers who will follow Jesus until death. Twenty years ago, the church in North Korea was much smaller. But during the famine in the ’90s, many refugees came to China, and heard and brought back the gospel to their own country. This allowed the underground Church to grow massively.
Twenty years ago, there were hardly any Afghan believers inside Afghanistan. Today, there’s a relatively small number of them—a miracle in itself.