While Islamic extremism is the major culprit behind Christian persecution, North Korea – dominated by secularism and atheism – continues to be the world's worst offender.
Open Doors USA has released its "2017 World Watch List" for Christian persecution. The annual report from the persecution watchdog ranks the top 50 countries where it's most dangerous and difficult to be a Christian.
For the 16th year in a row, North Korea is #1 on the list – because it is illegal to be a Christian there, and because Christians are often sent to labor camps or killed if they are discovered. Meanwhile, 35 of the top 50 countries on the list have Islamic extremism as the main driver of Christian persecution.
Open Doors USA president and CEO Dr. David Curry says 2016 was the worst year for Christian persecution.
"[There are] over 215 million believers living in regions or countries where their faith is under a high degree of pressure or oppression," he explains. "What that means in a practical level is one of every 12 Christians on the face of the earth today lives under persecution."
Curry knows such persecution is hard for those in the Western world to fathom. "[Still], it's a fact; and that varies in the kinds of persecution people face," he continues. "But we've got to begin to address it – pray about it, take action – so that our brothers and sisters and people around the world are free to choose."
And that's really what it's about, he adds: freedom to choose if they want to be religious, if at all. "[It's] the idea that everybody should have freedom of conscience," he shares. "The ability to decide for themselves if they want to have a faith – [and] what faith that would be."
While Open Doors' list comprises 50 countries, the organization says there are more than 65 countries worldwide where Christians are persecuted – some of which actually have a rather large Christian population that faces persecution from rebel groups that see the Church as a threat.