Editor’s note: Open Doors has now released the 2023 World Watch List of Christian persecution.

A thousand more Christians were killed for their faith last year than the year before.

A thousand more Christians were detained.

Six hundred more churches were attacked or closed.

And Afghanistan is the new No. 1, according to the 2022 World Watch List (WWL), the latest annual accounting from Open Doors of the top 50 countries where it is most dangerous and difficult to be a Christian.

“This year’s findings indicate seismic changes in the persecution landscape,” said David Curry, president of Open Doors USA.

Since Open Doors began its tally in 1992, North Korea has led the ranking. But since Afghanistan’s takeover by the Taliban last August, Afghan believers have had to leave their country or relocate internally. Many lost everything they had, notes the report, while house churches were closed in their wake.

“Before the Taliban, it was not great, but it was good,” said one evacuated Afghan, requesting anonymity in hopes that he may one day return. “[Now] Christians are living in fear, in secret, totally underground.”

Open Doors is quick to note the displacement of North Korea to No. 2 does not reflect an improvement in religious freedom there. On the contrary, a new anti–reactionary thought law has resulted in an increase of Christian arrests and house church closures.

Overall, 360 million Christians live in nations with high levels of persecution or discrimination. That’s 1 in 7 Christians worldwide, including 1 in 5 believers in Africa, 2 in 5 in Asia, and 1 in 15 in Latin America.

Last year, for the first time in 29 years of tracking, all 50 nations scored high enough to register “very high” persecution levels on Open Doors’ 84-question matrix. This year, all 50 again qualified—as did 5 more nations that fell just outside the cutoff.

While Islamic extremism continues to create the most persecution, Open Doors noted that COVID-19 restrictions “have become an easy way to tighten control and surveillance over religious minorities and worship services” in China and other nations. Researchers also found that persecution is increasingly displacing Christians from their communities, with tens of thousands—especially from Myanmar—becoming refugees in other nations.

The purpose of the annual WWL rankings—which have chronicled how North Korea has competition as persecution gets worse and worse—is to guide prayers and to aim for more effective anger while showing persecuted believers that they are not forgotten.

The 2022 version tracks the time period from October 1, 2020, to September 20, 2021, and is compiled from grassroots reports by Open Doors workers in more than 60 countries.

Where are Christians most persecuted today?

Afghanistan does not represent the only substantial change in this year’s rankings. Myanmar moved up to No. 12 from No. 18, due to increased violence after its coup and discrimination in health care. Qatar climbed to No. 18 from No. 29, as previously tolerated house churches were not permitted to reopen after COVID-19 closures, despite permission given to mosques and the few officially registered church buildings. Indonesia rose to No. 28 from No. 47, driven by two deadly Islamist attacks on churches despite a government crackdown against terrorists. And Cuba jumped to No. 37 from No. 51, due to intensified action against Christian leaders and activists opposing Communist principles.

Overall, the top 10 nations only shuffled positions from last year. Somalia held steady at No. 3, as did Libya at No. 4, Eritrea at No. 6, and India at No. 10. Yemen rose two spots to No. 5, replacing Pakistan which fell three spots to No. 8. Iran fell one spot to No. 9, and Nigeria rose two spots to No. 7, completing the group.

Surprisingly removed in November from the US State Department’s annual listing of Countries of Particular Concern after finally being added in 2020, Nigeria was given special attention in the Open Doors report.

“Once you are Christian in Nigeria, your life is always at stake,” said a Nigerian believer identified as Manga, whose father was beheaded by Boko Haram. “[But] it's not like we have anyplace [else] to go; we have no option.”

Africa’s most populous nation ranked first in the WWL subcategories of Christians killed, abducted, sexually harassed, or physically or mentally abused, and in homes and businesses attacked for faith-based reasons. It ranked second in the subcategories of church attacks and internal displacement.

“It has … become increasingly clear that Christians (and minority groups) cannot count on the security apparatus for their protection,” stated the report.

Violations of religious freedom in Nigeria are tied to a rapidly growing Islamist presence in the African Sahel. Mali rose to No. 24 from No. 28, and Open Doors fears it may increase further next year. Burkina Faso held steady at No. 32, and Niger jumped to No. 33 from No. 54. Nearby, the Central African Republic (CAR) rose to No. 31 from No. 35.

“The epicenter of international jihadism is now [in] the Sahel area,” said Illia Djadi, Open Doors senior analyst for freedom of religion and belief for sub-Saharan Africa. “This terrorism is moving south … and predominantly Christian countries like Benin, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast are now affected.” (None rank on the watch list.)

Countries with Christian majorities rank relatively low in the top 50, and include Colombia (No. 30), Cuba (No. 37), Ethiopia (No. 38), the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC (No. 40), Mozambique (No. 41), Mexico (No. 43), and Cameroon (No. 44).

Of the top 50 nations:

  • 11 have “extreme” levels of persecution and 39 have “very high” levels. Another five nations outside the top 50 also qualify as “very high”: Kenya, Sri Lanka, Comoros, United Arab Emirates, and Tanzania.
  • 18 are in Africa (6 in North Africa), 29 are in Asia, 10 are in the Middle East, 4 are in Central Asia, and 3 are in Latin America.
  • 34 have Islam as a main religion, 4 have Buddhism, 2 have Hinduism, 1 has atheism, 1 has agnosticism—and 10 have Christianity.

The 2022 list included two new countries: Cuba and Niger. Two countries dropped off the list: Kenya and Comoros.

Other noteworthy increases include Saudi Arabia at No. 11, up from No. 14, due to the availability of more specific information on the situation of migrant converts. Similarly, fellow Gulf nation Oman rose to No. 36 from No. 44, following an increase of surveillance against Christians, especially converts, with several forced to leave the country. And in Asia, Bhutan rose to No. 34 from No. 43, due to a rise in violence against Christians in the traditionally nonviolent Buddhist nation.

Not all noteworthy movement was negative. Iraq and Syria each dropped three slots to No. 14 and No. 15, respectively, due to decreases in their number of churches attacked and Christians killed. Tunisia dropped to No. 35 from No. 25, as fewer Christians were detained, while a decrease in violence against Christians caused Tajikistan to fall to No. 45 from No. 43. Meanwhile, fewer attacks by radical Hindu groups in the Himalayan nation of Nepal led its rank to sink to No. 48, down from No. 34.

Open Doors suggested that some declines may be superficial, however, caused by decreases in Christian activity due to COVID-19. Egypt dropped to No. 20 from No. 16, and Turkey fell to No. 42 from No. 35, as attacks on churches lessened. Yet in Egypt, violence against individual Christians remained high, with eight believers killed, while Turkey witnessed increasingly aggressive government rhetoric against Christians, who suffered from growing social distrust.

Other nations canceled out positive developments with negative ones. Sudan remained at No. 13, given that religious freedom reforms at the national level have not yet been enacted at the local level. Colombia held steady at No. 30 as fewer Christians were killed yet criminal activity and social hostility rose—especially in indigenous communities. And Ethiopia, which dropped two spots to No. 38, saw a drop in violence against Christians offset by community pressures amid civil war conditions that make it difficult to discern religious versus ethnic persecution.

How are Christians persecuted in these countries?

Open Doors tracks persecution across six categories—including both social and governmental pressure on individuals, families, and congregations—and has a special focus on women. Nearly all categories saw increases this year, and some hit record highs.

When violence is isolated as a category, the top 10 persecutors shift dramatically—only Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and India remain. In fact, 16 nations are deadlier for Christians than North Korea.

Martyrdoms rose by more than 1,000 from the prior year, as Open Doors tallied 5,898 Christians killed for their faith during the reporting period. Representing an increase of 24 percent, the toll remains an improvement over the 2016 high of 7,106 deaths. Nigeria accounted for 79 percent of the total, followed by Pakistan at 11 percent.

Open Doors is known for favoring a more conservative estimate than other groups, who often tally martyrdoms at 100,000 a year.

Where numbers cannot be verified, estimates are given in round numbers of 10, 100, 1,000, or 10,000, assumed to be higher in reality. And some national tabulations may not be provided due to security reasons, resulting in an “NN” designation for Afghanistan, Maldives, North Korea, Somalia, and Yemen.

Under this rubric, an unnamed nation, Burkina Faso, the DRC, and Mozambique all follow with a symbolic tally of 100 martyrs.

A second category tracks attacks on churches and other Christian buildings such as hospitals, schools, and cemeteries, whether destroyed, shut down, or confiscated. The tally of 5,110 represents a 14 percent increase from last year, but is only about half of the 2020 report’s high of 9,488.

China (No. 17), which rejoined the top 20 last year for the first time in a decade, led the way with 59 percent of recorded church attacks. Nigeria was second with 470 incidents, followed by Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Qatar. Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Burundi, Angola, and Rwanda all were assigned a symbolic 100 attacks.

The category of Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned set a new high in 2021, with a total of 6,175, about 1,000 more cases than the previous reporting period. Open Doors divides this into two subcategories, with 4,765 detained believers representing an increase of 69 percent. India led with 1,310 cases, and along with an unnamed nation, Pakistan, and China, made up 90 percent of the total.

The tally of 1,410 believers imprisoned, however, represented a decrease of 4 percent from the prior period. An unnamed nation, Eritrea, China, and Bangladesh comprised 91 percent of the total.

Another new high was registered in the number of Christians abducted, with the total of 3,829 representing an increase of 124 percent over the prior period. Nigeria accounted for 66 percent of the total, followed by Pakistan at 26 percent.

By far the largest category total was displacement, with 218,709 Christians forced to leave their homes or go into hiding for faith-related reasons. An additional 25,038 Christians were forced to leave their countries. Myanmar represented 9 in 10 internal displacements and 8 in 10 refugees tallied.

Open Doors stated that several categories were particularly difficult to count accurately, highest of which were the 24,678 cases of physical and mental abuse, including beatings and death threats. Of the 74 nations surveyed, 36 were assigned symbolic numbers. Nigeria was the highest, followed by India, two unnamed nations, Eritrea, Pakistan, Myanmar, China, CAR, Mozambique, and Malaysia.

An estimated total of 4,543 Christian homes and properties were attacked in 2021, along with 1,906 shops and businesses. Of the latter, 18 of 36 countries were given symbolic numbers, with Nigeria first.

Nigeria, Pakistan, and Mozambique had the most in the former category, with only Cameroon and Bangladesh able to record actual cases. Iraq, Syria, China, Burkina Faso, and the DRC rounded out the top 10, each with a symbolic score of 100 attacks.

Categories specific to women were also difficult for Open Doors researchers to count accurately. There were a total of 3,147 cases of rape and sexual harassment, led by Nigeria and Pakistan as the highest, with 36 of 48 countries scored symbolically. For forced marriages to non-Christians there were a total of 1,588, led by Pakistan as the highest of the 25 out of 37 countries scored symbolically.

Why are Christians persecuted in these countries?

The main motivation varies by country, and better understanding the differences can help Christians in other nations pray and advocate more effectively for their beleaguered brothers and sisters in Christ.

Open Doors categorizes the primary sources of Christian persecution into eight groups:

Islamic oppression (33 countries): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in more than half of the watch list countries, including 7 of the top 10 overall: Afghanistan (No. 1), Somalia (No. 3), Libya (No. 4), Yemen (No. 5), Nigeria (No. 7), Pakistan (No. 8), and Iran (No. 9). Most of the 33 are officially Muslim nations or have Muslim majorities; however, 6 actually have Christian majorities: Nigeria, CAR (No. 31), Ethiopia (No. 38), DRC (No. 40), Mozambique (No. 41), and Cameroon (No. 44).

Dictatorial paranoia (5 countries): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in five countries, mostly in Central Asia, with Muslim majorities: Uzbekistan (No. 21), Turkmenistan (No. 25), Bangladesh (No. 29), Tajikistan (No. 45), and Kazakhstan (No. 47).

Communist and post-communist oppression (5 countries): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in five countries, primarily in Asia: North Korea (No. 2), China (No. 17), Vietnam (No. 19), Laos (No. 26), and Cuba (No. 37).

Religious nationalism (4 countries): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in four Asian nations. Christians are primarily targeted by Hindu nationalists in India (No. 10) and Nepal (No. 48), and by Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar (No. 12) and Bhutan (No. 34).

Organized crime and corruption (2 countries): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in Colombia (No. 30) and Mexico (No. 43).

Christian denominational protectionism (1 country): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in Eritrea (No. 6).

Secular intolerance (0 countries) and clan oppression (0 countries): Open Doors tracks these sources of persecution, but neither is the main source in any of the 50 countries on the 2022 list. However, last year clan oppression was the primary driver in Afghanistan, Somalia, Laos, Qatar, Nepal, and Oman.

How does the WWL compare to other reports on religious persecution?

Open Doors believes it is reasonable to call Christianity the world’s most severely persecuted religion. At the same time, it notes there is no comparable documentation for the world’s Muslim population.

Other assessments of religious freedom worldwide corroborate many of Open Doors’ findings. For example, the latest Pew Research Center analysis of governmental and societal hostilities toward religion found that Christians were harassed in 153 countries in 2019, more than any other religious group. Muslims were harassed in 147 countries, followed by Jews in 89 countries.

When examining only hostility by governments, Muslims were harassed in 135 countries and Christians in 128 countries, according to Pew. When examining only hostility within society, Muslims were harassed in 115 countries and Christians in 107 countries.

The breakdown corresponds to Open Doors’ data. China, Myanmar, Sudan, and Syria tallied over 10,000 incidents of government harassment each. Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Egypt were noted for high levels of social hostility.

Most of the nations on Open Doors’ list also appear on the US State Department’s annual list that names and shames governments that have “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Its top-tier Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list includes Myanmar (No. 12 on the 2022 WWL), China (No. 17), Eritrea (No. 6), Iran (No. 9), North Korea (No. 2), Pakistan (No. 8), Russia (which exited the WWL last year), Saudi Arabia (No. 11), Tajikistan (No. 45), and Turkmenistan (No. 25). Its second-tier Special Watch List includes Algeria (No. 22), Comoros (which exited the WWL this year), Cuba (No. 37), and Nicaragua (unranked but monitored by Open Doors).

The State Department also lists Entities of Particular Concern, or nongovernmental actors producing persecution, which are all active in countries on Open Doors’ list. These include Boko Haram and ISWAP in Nigeria (No. 7 on the WWL), the Taliban in Afghanistan (No. 1), Al-Shabaab in Somalia (No. 4), ISIS in primarily Iraq (No. 14), Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria (No. 15), the Houthis in Yemen (No. 5), and ISIS-Greater Sahara and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin in the Sahel.

Meanwhile, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2021 report recommended the same nations for the CPC list, with the addition of Nigeria, India (No. 10), Syria, and Vietnam (No. 19). For the State Department’s watch list, USCIRF recommended the same nations except for Comoros, with the addition of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan (unranked but monitored by Open Doors), Egypt (No. 20), Indonesia (No. 28), Iraq, Kazakhstan (No. 47), Malaysia (No. 50), Turkey (No. 42), and Uzbekistan (No. 21).

All nations of the world are monitored by Open Doors researchers and field staff, but in-depth attention is given to 100 nations and special focus on the 76 which record “high” levels of persecution (scores of more than 40 on Open Doors’ 100-point scale).

CT previously reported the WWL rankings for 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012, including a spotlight on where it's hardest to believe. CT also asked experts whether the United States belongs on persecution lists, and compiled the most-read stories of the persecuted church in 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.

Read Open Doors’ full report on the 2022 World Watch List here.