The battle for the No. 1 persecutor of Christians: North Korea vs Afghanistan

January 15, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

Once again, the countries in the No.1 and No. 2 spots on Open Doors’ World Watch List are within one point of each other, based on their overall persecution score. North Korea scored 94 points, with Afghanistan scoring only one point less. Below, we examine the two persecution hotbeds. Both have maximum scores in all five spheres of life our research surveys: private life, family life, community life, national life and church life. How is that possible, considering these countries are so different?

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What’s happening in North Korea and Afghanistan?

North Korea: Understanding North Korea means understanding its leadership and personality cult. In its early years, from winning its independence in 1945 led by Kim II Sung, the country followed the Communist path and faced an early war against UN troops in the Korean War (1950-1953). Soon after that, it became clear that North Korea would be a Communist country led not by a collective leadership, but rather by one person, the country’s liberator, Kim Il Sung—where the Kim dynasty began.

After Sung’s death in 1994, he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong II, who was in turn succeeded after his death in 2011 by his son and current leader Kim Jong Un. The country has two ideologies as its basis. One is called “Juche,” which basically says that humans are self-reliant. The other is “Kimilsungism,” the worship of the Kim leaders who are the all-powerful entities guiding the closed country. In North Korea, the estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians are seen as traitors of the state because their allegiance is to God, not Kim.

AfghanistanOfficially, there are no Christians in this 99 percent Muslim state, apart from international military staff, diplomats and NGO workers (who, if at all, are worshiping in highly secured military compounds and are not considered for the purposes of the World Watch List). Indigenous Christians (mostly those with a Muslim background) are in hiding as much as possible.

Some 90 percent of Muslims follow Sunni Islam, while a slim 9.7 percent adhere to Shiite Islam. Afghanistan faces a grim security situation due to the influx of radical Islamic militants. The radical Islamic Taliban continues to increase in strength, with more regions and province under its control. In Afghanistan, the few thousands of secret Christians are seen as traitors to Islam and apostates.

Who’s doing the persecuting?

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).

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”—in classic Marxist/Communist terms—but they are also part of the hostile class in the country’s social stratification system called Songbun.

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 anyone 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, incentivized by extra food and electricity rations, and even children are trained from their early years to report their own parents if they note suspicious behavior.

A lethal mix of forces that puts faith in danger

In Afghanistan, we see totally different engines and drivers. At play is a lethal mix of Islamic oppressionethnic 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 deeply 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 or her tribe to embrace something new, pressure comes swiftly. The family and/or tribe will exert extreme pressure and even violence to make a new believer return to traditional norms. If they don’t, the Christian is marked 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 Christianity, 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 are alive and well in Afghanistan, an extremely poor country. One of the main economic problems the country faces is drug trafficking. Illicit narcotics 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 becomes even more volatile as drug barons pressure citizens and make 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.

What are the risks for Christians?

Stand with your brothers and sisters

Around the world, Christians are under attack. In these countries on the World Watch List, simple practices like attending a choir practice, reading a Bible and talking about your faith are risks for kidnapping, arrest, prison, violent attack and even death. Through your gift, you can provide your persecuted family with critical support and emergency relief. Give today and join the largest on-the-ground network of support for persecuted Christians in the world—because we are one Church, one family.

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In North Korea: When a Christian is discovered, the process begins. Police will take them away, as well as their spouse and children. Sometimes even their parents are taken, too. To North Koreans, anyone who knows a Christian is “guilty by association.” If you’re guilty, so are the people who live or even know you. After arrest, a Christian will be locked up in a small, overcrowded cell in a detention center. Ex-prisoners have shared with Open Doors about hours of abusive interrogations. Prisoners receive little 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 is sent to court, they will be sent to a re-education labor camp with their family members. Labor camp prisoners must work 10 to 12 hours a day, surviving on only 500 calories of food or less. Refugees have told stories of working 10 days straight, with only one day of rest. At night, lengthy ideological training sessions test the mental and emotional fortitude of exhausted prisoners.

If someone is not sent to court, they will be transferred to a political labor camp called a kwan-li-so. There, circumstances are even more gruesome than in a re-education camp. Prisoners have no hope of escape or release; they don’t receive ideological training. Survivors of Auschwitz have compared the conditions in these camps to 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. Today, political enemies, such as Christians, are killed in prison or labor camp basements by North Korean soldiers.

In Afghanistan, the process is much simpler. The state is hostile towards Christians. 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 do not show mercy, either.

How can North Korea and Afghanistan score maximum points in 5 categories of the list but be so different?

Our World Watch List methodology measures persecution in five spheres of life: private (your personal space), family, community, national and church. The reasons 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, they 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 South Asian 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 their faith, they are signing their death warrant.

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 and 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 violent incidents against Christians for security reasons—even to disclose attacks or deaths would reveal too much information about believers there. But we need little imagination to know that Afghanistan is a severely violent country for Christians.

Why is North Korea No. 1 and Afghanistan No. 2?

Because the church in North Korea is much larger (an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 compared to several thousand in Afghanistan) and in a way, more visible compared to that of Afghanistan. That means persecution takes place on a larger scale, so it’s easier and more likely outsiders will receive reports. Second, Afghan Christians are able to leave the country more easily than North Korean refugees, who face repatriation if they’re caught in China. However, many Western countries do repatriate Afghan refugees, even when they’re Christians.

What’s the 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.

How can you pray?

  • Pray Open Doors Founder Brother Andrew’s prayer that God will make “seeing eyes blind.”
  • Pray that believers in North Korea and Afghanistan find each other, that together they could grow in faith in secret.
  • Pray for protection as believers discern moments to share their faith.
  • Pray that God would raise up leaders to prepare Christians to share the gospel when He does open up these countries.
  • Pray that Christians around the world would not grow weary in their prayers for North Korea and Afghanistan. North Korean refugees tell us they felt the prayers of the Body of Christ at their darkest times, often in a prison camp.
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