(CNSNews.com) – North Korea tops a list of the world’s worst religious persecutors for the tenth consecutive year, but Islamic states dominate the rankings, accounting for nine of the top ten and 38 of the full 50-country list released Wednesday.
Going back nine years, that is the highest number of Islamic countries making the top ten in Open Doors’ annual world watch list, which ranks countries based on questionnaires completed by the Christian ministry’s personnel on the ground and cross-checked by independent experts.
In 2011 and 2010, Islamic states accounted for eight of the top ten, in 2009 for seven of the top ten, in 2008 and 2007 for six, in 2006 and 2005 for five, and in 2004 for four of the top ten.
In most cases the non-Muslim countries rounding out each year’s top ten since 2003 have been communist (North Korea, China, Laos, Vietnam). The exceptions were military-ruled Burma; Bhutan, a Buddhist monarchy in south-east Asia; and Eritrea, a small country in north-east Africa ruled by an autocratic regime that mistreats Jehovah‘s Witnesses, evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and Muslims.
Pakistan enters the top ten of the Open Doors’ list this year for the first time, after a year marked by the assassination of two politicians who took a public stand against the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Also of note is the fact Afghanistan moves up to its highest-ever placing – No. 2 – pushing Saudi Arabia and Iran further down the list.
This year’s top ten, in order, are: North Korea, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Iran, Maldives, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan.
Moving up the top ten list in 2012 (that is, becoming worse) are Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Uzbekistan. Moving down the list are Iran, Yemen, Iraq and Laos (which has appeared every year since 2005 but drops off the top ten in the 2012 list, down to 12th place).
Maldives retains its position in this year’s list, and Pakistan is the only newcomer.
On the overall list of 50 countries, Sudan accounts for the biggest move upwards, jumping 19 places to number 16. Nigeria moves up ten places to 13th, while Egypt rises four positions to No. 15.
Countries moving downward include China, which drops from No. 16 in 2011 to 21. Open Doors noted Wednesday that China still has the world’s largest persecuted church, some 80 million-strong. It attributed its movement down the list “in large part to the house church pastors learning how to play ‘cat and mouse’ with the government.”
Of the eight countries currently designated by the State Department as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for religious freedom violations, only four make the Open Doors top ten – North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Uzbekistan.
The other four CPCs are Burma (33rd on the Open Doors list), China (21st), Eritrea (11th) and Sudan (16th).
Conversely the Open Doors top ten countries that are not CPCs are Afghanistan, Somalia, Maldives, Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan. In the case of Iraq and Pakistan, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body that advises the U.S. government on the issue, has pushed for them to be added to the CPC list, but the State Department has repeatedly overruled the recommendation.
Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, said in a statement that Christians in Islamic countries face huge challenges.
“Christians often face persecution from extremists, the government, their community and even their own families,” he said. “While many thought the Arab Spring would bring increased freedom, including religious freedom for minorities, that certainly has not been the case so far.”
Open Doors USA said that although persecution by Muslim extremists has worsened, North Korea deserved its No. 1 ranking again this year.
“Defiantly Communist, North Korea has built a bizarre quasi-religion around the founder of the country, Kim Il-sung,” it said. “Anyone with ‘another god’ is automatically persecuted.”
Moeller said it was difficult to determine yet how the dynastic succession following Kim Jong-il’s recent death will affect Christians.
“Certainly the situation for believers remains perilous,” he said. “Please pray with me that the Lord will open up North Korea and there will be religious freedom to worship the One, true God, not the gods of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.”
The USCIRF has urged the Obama administration to put religious freedom and other human rights at the center of its relationship with North Korea in the new era, saying in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the U.S. should make clear that any “future political, diplomatic, or economic inducements” would require improvements in human rights and nuclear security.