North Korea is for the eighth straight year the world's top persecutor of Christians, according to Open Doors' 2010 World Watch List.
The notoriously restrictive regime bans all religions other than a semi-personality cult centered around the current leader, Kim Jong-Il, and his father, Kim Il-Sung. It is illegal to be a Christian in North Korea and authorities have executed people found to possess a Bible.
An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Christians are currently in prison labor camps because of their faith.
"Christians are the target of fierce government action, and once caught, are not regarded as human," said a veteran North Korean watcher, who is not identified for security reasons, to Open Doors. "Last year we had evidence that some were used as guinea pigs to test chemical and biological weapons."
Carl Moeller, president/CEO of Open Doors USA, commented that it is "certainly not a shock" that North Korea is ranked No. 1 on the list.
"There is no other country in the world where Christians are persecuted in such a horrible and systematic manner," Moeller said. "Three generations of a family are often thrown into prison when one member is incarcerated."
But Moeller noted that despite the intense persecution, the group of Christians in North Korea is "strong" and actually growing in number.
Following North Korea on the World Watch List is Iran, which jumped to the No. 2 spot from No. 3.
Open Doors explained that Iran moved up because of the increased number of arrests of Christians beginning in 2008 and continuing into 2009. At least 85 Christians were arrested in Iran during this time period, the watchdog reported.
Among those arrested were two young women who converted from Islam to Christianity. The case of Maryam Rustampoor and Marzieh Amirzadeh, who were released two months ago, attracted international attention. Open Doors was among the groups that advocated for the release of the two women who were arrested simply for being Christian.
While in prison the converts were pressured to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ but they refused, resulting in them suffering from various forms of psychological torture and health deterioration.
It is suspected, Open Doors noted, that the increase in the number of arrests of Christians by the Iranian government is meant to be a form of distraction from the country's internal problems, such as the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the high rate of unemployment.
In the No. 3 spot this year is Saudi Arabia, which was formerly No. 2. Saudi Arabia dropped a spot not because of improved treatment of Christians but because the situation remained unchanged while Iran's treatment of Christians worsened.
New to this year's top 10 list is the North African country of Mauritania, which holds the No. 8 position. Mauritania jumped ten spots, the biggest increase of any country in this year's list. The situation there deteriorated with the murder of a Christian aid worker in June 2009, the torture of 35 Mauritanian Christians in July, and the arrest of a group of 150 sub-Saharan Christians in August.
The tiny, East African country of Eritrea dropped out of the top 10 list this year, falling from No. 9 to No. 11.
Overall, eight of the top ten countries on the list have Islam as the dominant religion. Among the top 50 countries, 35 of them have Islamic governments.
"Many are coming to Christ in the Muslim world," Moeller commented. "But we need to continue to embrace them in prayer in 2010."
Open Doors recorded fewer reports of persecution of Christians in Algeria, India, Cuba, Jordan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia in 2009. The biggest improvement among the 50 countries on the list was Indonesia, which fell from No. 41 to No. 48.
Since 1991, Open Doors Research Department has released the annual World Watch List to understand the unique persecution of Christians in different countries and to ensure effective intervention on the ministry's part.
The data is derived from a questionnaire containing 53 questions sent to Open Doors co-workers, key church leaders and recognized experts in 70 countries. The questionnaire examines every aspect of persecution, including the degree of legal restriction, state attitudes, how free the church is to organize itself, as well as incidents of persecution, such as church burnings, anti-Christian riots and even martyrdom.
Open Doors works in 46 of the 50 countries on the World Watch List.
Top 10 on World Watch List 2010:
1. North Korea
3. Saudi Arabia
On the Web: http://www.opendoorsusa.org