Communist North Korea is the world’s worst persecutor of Christians, according to an annual ranking by the evangelical mission group Open Doors International.

The group’s World Watch List places Saudi Arabia in the second spot, followed in order by Vietnam, Laos, Iran, Maldives, Somalia, Bhutan, China and Afghanistan.

Open Doors said Somalia moved up four places to seventh in the rankings, primarily because “Christian converts from Islam are paying a high price for their new faith, especially in rural parts of this most lawless country in the world.”

North Korea, where “Christianity is observed as one of the greatest threats to the regime’s power,” topped the list for the third straight year.

While exact figures are hard to obtain, it is believed tens of thousands of Christians are suffering in North Korean prison camps and at least 20 Christians were shot or beaten to death in 2004 while in detention, Open Doors said.

Open Doors USA President Carl Moeller said the regime, led by dictator Kim Jong Il, tends to arrest not only a suspected dissident but also three generations of his family to root out the “bad” influence.

“Yet we hear reports of how the church in North Korea continues to grow,” he said.

In Saudi Arabia, all religions are banned except for the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Conversions to another religion are punishable by death under sharia law. Despite government assurances that foreigners can practice their faith, expatriate Christians who work in the country have been imprisoned and deported. In 2004, for example, Indian citizen Brian O’Connor was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment and 300 lashes.

Communist Vietnam moved up one place on the list after introducing a new law on religion that bans any religious activity deemed a threat to national security, public order or national unity. The new ordinance is used to prohibit unregistered church services in private houses.

Over the past year, the situation for Christians in No. 16 Eritrea deteriorated. More than 400 Christians in the East African nation are in prison for their faith. Some have been subjected to harsh conditions, including being locked in metal shipping containers in severe heat.

Christians in Iraq, No. 21, have enjoyed more liberty since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but they suffer from increased pressure from radical Islamic groups.

The Open Doors report says, “Written threats, kidnappings, bombings and murder by Muslim extremists continued to drive tens of thousands of the minority Christian population out of the country.”

Christians in Sudan, No. 19, hope a new peace accord with the Islamist regime in Khartoum will lead to greater access to goods and services. Khartoum declared a jihad against the mostly Christian and animist south in the 1980s, seeking to make the entire country Islamic. The agreement allows the mainly Christian and animist south to remain autonomous for six years. More than 2 million people have died from the war and war-related famine.

Nos. 11-25 on the World Watch List are: Yemen, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Comoros, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Burma, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Brunei and Nigeria [north].

Rounding out the list are Nos. 26-50: Cuba, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Mexico [Chiapas], Tunisia, Qatar, India, Nepal, Colombia [conflict areas], Indonesia, Algeria, Turkey, Mauritania, Kuwait, Belarus, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Syria, Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya [northeast], Ethiopia and Bahrain.

The World Watch List is based on evaluation and testimonies obtained by Open Doors’ field workers and local contacts.

The group estimates 200 million Christians worldwide suffer persecution for their faith, including interrogation, arrest and death, and another 200 to 400 million face discrimination and alienation.

Open Doors was founded 50 years ago by the famed Bible smuggler known as Brother Andrew.

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