Despite the continued rise of the Islamic State terror group and Islamic extremism across the world, persecution watchdog group Open Doors has again listed North Korea as the greatest oppressor of Christians worldwide.
The North Korean government, now led by Kim Jong Un, was placed at the No. 1 position for the 14th consecutive year when Open Doors released it's 2016 World Watch List on Wednesday.
Open Doors CEO David Curry told The Christian Post in an interview on Thursday that even though Islamic extremism generally stole news headlines throughout 2015, there are very good reasons why North Korea still has not moved from the top spot on persecution.
"Getting information out of North Korea is notoriously difficult. That is what makes the fact that it remains number one on the World Watch List even more amazing. We don't even know how many Christians have been martyred in North Korea. Yet, it remains at the top. That's because it uses all of the powers of its government to suppress Christian faith, to punish even the most basic of things such as owning a Bible," Curry told CP.
"There were over 70,000 Christians that were imprisoned for their faith this year. You have executions — we don't know how many, but we know of enough. There has been no let up in persecution in North Korea," he added.
Human rights groups around the world, including the United Nations, have widely reported on the extreme humanitarian abuses that go on in the country, especially concerning forced slave labor.
Open Doors further notes that Christians are forced to hide their faith as much as possible to avoid arrest and being sent to horrific labor camps, which also leads to parents refraining from introducing their children to the Christian faith "to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked."
Curry noted a contrast in that the persecution in nine of the other top 10 countries on the World Watch List are driven by Islamic extremism, and said that it is possible that North Korea can lose its ranking at the very top in the future.
The Islamic State's mark was heavily felt on many of the countries near the top of the list, with a number of different groups — including the notorious Boko Haram in Nigeria, and factions of Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya — pledging allegiance to the rising terror organization.
The Open Doors CEO said there are no signs that the continued expansion of IS will slow down in 2016.
"The three major caliphates that the Islamic State is associated with — in Iraq and Syria, in Nigeria, and the Somalia-Kenyan Al-Shabaab caliphate — they are all seeking to spread," Curry said.
"It's going to continue, because all of the factors that drove the persecution of Christians into these regions are still in place, and they are gaining power. There are 43 groups around the world who have pledged allegiance to IS, and I think you're going to see an expansion of these splinter cells persecuting Christians, because that is their stated goal," he continued.
He suggested that the moderate Muslim community needs to develop a clear strategy as to how to address rogue extremist groups within their ranks, and warned that persecution of Christians will continue getting worse unless that happens.
While North Korea and Iraq occupy the top two positions on the WWL, the third placed country — Eritrea, has not received as much focus in Western news headlines.
Curry said that what makes Eritrea unique, is that Christians are suffering there under state-level Islamic extremism. He noted that the government practices a very strict version of Shariah law, which punishes Christians both publicly and privately.
"Eritrea has horrific treatment of prisoners. There are many Christians dying in prison. It's one of the places where you have a state actor, and it's the worst place in Africa for Christians. A state actor using Islamic extremist tactics to suppress Christian faith," he described.
Pakistan has also jumped up the list, taking sixth place this year, which Curry attributed to the embedded blasphemy law that is used to persecute Christians.
"Asia Bibi is a notable case, and you have these atrocious crimes happening, like this couple that was thrown into a furnace via mob rule. There are a lot of things going in in Pakistan, but we as a government have a lot of leverage. I think the Obama administration can do a lot to encourage freedom of religion in Pakistan," he said.
Other issues that made 2015 the worst year for Christian persecution in modern history include the ongoing refugee crisis, where forced migration has made 300,000 Christians in Iraq and Syria flee their homes. Curry said that the situation is grim in northern Nigeria as well, where 12 states operate under Shariah law, leading to 27 million Christians in those states being treated like second class citizens.
"You have a lot of Christians that are being pushed to the south, out of their homes, because of this persecution, because they are being discriminated, harassed, and in some cases killed. More Christians were killed in the north of Nigeria than any other particular region — even more than the IS controlled regions," he noted.
"One of the things we can do as Christians here in the West, is support Christians who are refugees to help stay in their homeland," he continued, advocating for indigenous Christian populations being given the right to stay in the homes and practice their faith free of violence and persecution.
Curry referred to a new petition that Open Doors is asking Christians around the world to sign, which will send the 2016 WWL to the White House administration.
The petition focuses on three specific areas of Christian persecution that the U.S. government can directly impact, namely Iraq, Eritrea, and Pakistan.
"One of the things we're trying to do with the 2016 WWL is draw the attention of world leaders that persecution of Christians is escalating. Last year, we said 'this is the most difficult and dangerous year in modern history.' And then yet again this year, it's nearly doubled in the amount of people who have been martyred for their Christian faith," Curry said.
"So I don't feel the world has woken up yet to the reality of what is happening, the scope, the intensity, and the persistence of this persecution of Christian faith."
He argued, however, that the U.S. government can make a difference and actively help the persecuted populations.