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Explainer: Open Doors releases 2023 World Watch List

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January 24, 2023

Every year for the last three decades, Open Doors has released the annual World Watch List, a report ranking the top “50 countries where Christians suffer very high or extreme levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith.” In a country like the United States where the free exercise of religion is enshrined in its Constitution, the World Watch List (WWL) is a sobering reminder that our brothers and sisters around the world face real and present danger for their faith in Christ

What does the 2023 World Watch List reveal?

During its 30 year history, the WWL has revealed an alarming and consistent trend: the persecution of Christians across the globe has grown exponentially, which proved true again this year. Today, more than 360 million Christians suffer at least ‘high’ levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. Here are some of this year’s takeaways:

  1. North Korea tops the list: With 2022 as the lone exception, North Korea has topped the World Watch List every year since 2002. And this year, with the introduction of a new “anti-reactionary thought law,” there was an increase in the number of Christians arrested and the number of house churches discovered and closed, earning North Korea its highest-ever persecution score. Tragically, those who are discovered and arrested “are either sent to labour camps as political prisoners where the conditions are atrocious“—they face starvation, torture, and sexual violence, for instance—”or killed on the spot.” Often, their families will share their fate.
  1. Sub-Saharan Africa in catastrophe: Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa face the threat of violence every day. The epicenter of the violence is Nigeria, where militants from the Fulani, Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and others “inflict murder, physical injury, abduction and sexual violence on their victims,” scores of whom are Christians. In the last year, there have been more than five thousand religiously motivated killings in Nigeria, which accounts for 89% of the international total. Conditions in the region have also led to a refugee crisis, as many Christians have been displaced while fleeing persecution.
  1. China’s campaign to redefine human rights: Another development has been the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) campaign to redefine international human rights away from universal standards, leading countries like Russia, India, and others to follow suit. Christians in these countries who are seen to oppose these new rights “by refusing to support the ruling part[ies]” are often labeled “disturbers of the peace” and even “terrorists,” and face arrest and the demolition of church buildings.
  1. Afghanistan’s descent: Afghanistan, who topped the 2022 WWL, fell eight spots to land at number nine this year. While that’s a significant drop, the situation for Christians there remains dire. After the Taliban assumed power in 2021, they went door-to-door rooting out and executing many Christians. Of those who survived, many went deep into hiding or fled the country. The Taliban remains committed to eliminating not only Christians but those with ties to the old regime. 
  1. Top 10 (last year’s rankings in parenthesis): North Korea (2), Somalia (3), Yemen (5), Eritrea (6), Libya (4), Nigeria (7), Pakistan (8), Iran (9), Afghanistan (1), Sudan (13).

While there have been some positive developments, like a decrease in the total number of Christians killed for their faith (from 5,898 to 5,621) and a growing tolerance in several Middle Eastern countries such as Bahrain and the UAE, discrimination and persecution against Christians on the basis of their faith continues to grow around the world. 

What can we do?

As Christians, no matter how many miles separate us from the people represented in the World Watch List, they are our brothers and sisters. While we may feel helpless, we do have the opportunity to “stand with them in solidarity, and remind them they are not alone.” 

Here are several ways we can support and stand with our brothers and sisters who face these significant threats everyday:

Because Christians believe that God works providentially through our prayers, we can all commit to using the World Watch List to remind and motivate us to pray for believers around the world who endure such unimaginable terror. By doing so, we can be certain that God will use our prayers to encourage and minister to Christians in these countries.

What is Open Doors?

Open Doors began in the mid-1950’s when a man known as Brother Andrew “started smuggling Bibles to the persecuted Christians in Communist Europe.” After a visit to Warsaw, Poland, Brother Andrew’s encounter with an “oppressed, isolated, and apparently forgotten church” compelled him to travel throughout Eastern Europe for the next twelve years, “delivering Bibles, encouraging those he met, and recruiting others to help him.” After the publication of God’s Smuggler in 1967 — an account of Brother Andrew’s work in Eastern Europe — his ministry became known worldwide, and “an entire generation caught the vision of supporting Christians who faced persecution and discrimination for their faith.”

Nearly 70 years later, Open Doors has steadily expanded its reach, “serving persecuted Christians in more than 70 countries, working with churches and local partners to provide Bibles, Christian materials, training, livelihood skills and advocacy.” The aim of Open Doors “is to encourage and raise up people in every nation to pray, support and speak up for Christians around the world who suffer for their faith.”

What is the World Watch List?

Beyond its ranking system, the World Watch List is an interactive tool that enables users to “explore the country profiles to find information, stories and prayers for each of the countries, along with ways that [Christians] can stand with [their] persecuted church family in prayer and action.” The list apprises readers of information such as the percentage of Christians persecuted worldwide (along with each specific region), the number of churches attacked and Christians detained or murdered annually, and country-specific information like its dominant religion and system of government. 

Truly, the World Watch List is a tool of immense value, informing Christians like us of how we can pray for and serve those who find themselves in locations hostile to Christianity. For information on the WWL methodology, visit this site.

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author