The 50 Countries Where It’s Hardest to Follow Jesus in 2023
Christian persecution is worst in these 50 countries, according to the Open Doors 2023 World Watch List, now in its 30th year.
More than 5,600 Christians were killed for their faith last year. More than 2,100 churches were attacked or closed.
More than 124,000 Christians were forcibly displaced from their homes because of their faith, and almost 15,000 became refugees.
Sub-Saharan Africa—the epicenter of global Christianity—is now also the epicenter of violence against Christians, as Islamist extremism has spread well beyond Nigeria.
And North Korea is back at No. 1, according to the 2023 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.
The concerning tallies of martyrdoms and church attacks are actually lower than in last year’s report. But Open Doors emphasizes they are “an absolute minimum figure,” and is quick to note the data decline does not suggest real improvements in religious freedom.
For example, the reduction in church closures was “due in large part” to Chinese officials having closed almost 7,000 churches over the prior two years. And the drop of Afghanistan from No. 1 last year to No. 9 this year “offers little cheer” because it’s driven by how most Afghan Christians “went deep into hiding or fled overseas” after the Taliban’s takeover.
Overall, and same as last year, 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.
And for only the third time in three decades of tracking, all 50 nations scored high enough to register “very high” persecution levels on Open Doors’ matrix of more than 80 questions. So did 5 more nations that fell just outside the cutoff.
Islamic extremism continues to cause the most persecution (31 nations), especially in sub-Saharan Africa where Open Doors fears Nigeria will soon trigger “a vast humanitarian catastrophe” across the continent. Researchers also noted how China has increased digital restrictions and surveillance and is “forging a network of nations seeking to redefine human rights—away from universal standards and religious freedoms.” And a third Latin American country, Nicaragua, entered the list as authoritarian governments increasingly view Christians as voices of opposition.
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 2023 version tracks the time period from October 1, 2021, to September 30, 2022, and is compiled from grassroots reports by more than 4,000 Open Doors workers across more than 60 countries.
Today’s report also marks 30 years of the list, first created in 1993 after the Iron Curtain fell. What has Open Doors learned?
First, it’s clear that persecution continues to worsen. The number of countries hitting the WWL threshold to be tracked has risen from 40 in 1993 to 76 today, and the average country score has gone up 25 percent.
Yet the biggest threat to the church is not external but internal, concludes Frans Veerman, Open Doors managing director of research. And 1 Corinthians 12 means no believer should suffer alone.
“The biggest threat to Christianity,” he said, “is that persecution brings isolation, and when it keeps going on incessantly it may cause loss of hope.”
While violence and pressure lead to significant trauma and loss, Veerman noted how “remarkably many respondents to our questionnaires keep on saying that the biggest threat does not come from the outside but from within the church: ‘Will the next generation be prepared for the kind of persecution we are witnessing? Are they strong in their faith and in knowing Christ and the gospel?’”
“This shows that the level of resilience of the church is as defining for the future of the church in a country as is the level of persecution,” he said. “So the biggest threat to the church in countries with persecution is decrease of resilience caused by incessant persecution and the feeling of being forsaken by the rest of the body of Christ.”
After three decades of research, Open Doors has learned that such needed resilience is found by being “anchored in the Word of God and in prayer,” said Veerman. Also by being “courageous,” as the persecuted church is most often “active in spreading the gospel” and “vital and growing against the odds.”
In short, the persecuted church has taught Open Doors the truth of 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
Where are Christians most persecuted today?
Afghanistan does not represent the only substantial change in this year’s rankings. Cuba moved to No. 27, up from No. 37, due to the intensification of repressive tactics against Christian leaders and activists opposing Communist principles. Prior to widespread demonstrations in 2021, it didn’t even rank. Burkina Faso moved to No. 23, up from No. 32, due to increased jihadist activity, exacerbated by similar instability in neighboring Sahel nations. Mozambique moved to No. 32, up from No. 41, due to Islamic militancy in its northern region. And Colombia moved to No. 22, up from No. 30, due to targeted violence against Christians by criminal gangs.
Comoros joined the list at No. 42, rising 11 spots due to increased government paranoia (only foreigners there are allowed religious freedom). And Nicaragua joined the list for the first time, rising 11 spots to No. 50 due to growing dictatorial repression, especially against the Roman Catholic Church.
Overall, other than Afghanistan dropping eight slots, the top 10 nations mostly shuffled positions from last year [see sidebar]. Sudan rejoined the group at No. 10, bumping India which at No. 11 still scores within Open Doors’ “most extreme” level of persecution.
Surprisingly removed in 2021 from the US State Department’s annual listing of Countries of Particular Concern after finally being added in 2020, Nigeria was again given special attention in the Open Doors report, which noted:
Violence against Christians … is most extreme in Nigeria where militants from the Fulani, Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and others conduct raids on Christian communities, killing, maiming, raping and kidnapping for ransom or sexual slavery.
This year has also seen this violence spill over into the Christian-majority south of the nation. … Nigeria’s government continues to deny this is religious persecution, so violations of Christians’ rights are carried out with impunity.
Repeating last year’s performance, Africa’s most populous nation ranked No. 1 in the WWL subcategories of Christians killed, abducted, sexually assaulted or harassed, forcibly married, or physically or mentally abused, as well as ranked No. 1 in homes and businesses attacked for faith-based reasons. It again ranked No. 2 in the subcategories of church attacks and internal displacement.
Violations of religious freedom in Nigeria are emblematic of a rapidly growing Islamist presence in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mali rose to No. 17 from No. 24. Burkina Faso rose to No. 23 from No. 32, and Niger rose to No. 28 from No. 33. Farther south, the Central African Republic (CAR) rose to No. 24 from No. 31; Mozambique rose to No. 32 from No. 41; and DRC rose to No. 37 from No. 40.
Countries with Christian majorities rank relatively low in the top 50, and include Colombia (No. 22), Central African Republic (No. 24), Cuba (No. 27), Ethiopia (No. 39), the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC (No. 37), Mozambique (No. 32), Mexico (No. 38), and Cameroon (No. 45), and Nicaragua (No. 50). (Kenya and Tanzania fall just short of making the 2023 list.)
Regarding Latin America, Open Doors noted:
Direct government oppression against Christians seen as voices of opposition is rife in Nicaragua (No. 50), Venezuela (No. 64), and Cuba (No. 27), where Christian leaders were imprisoned without trial for their part in last year’s demonstrations. In many countries in Latin America, organized crime has taken hold, especially in rural areas for Christians who speak out against the cartels’ activities.
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, Kuwait, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates, and Nepal. (Then OD tracks another 21 with “high” levels. The only nations to rise in level were Nicaragua and Sudan, while Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka were the only nations to drop in level.)
- 19 are in Africa, 27 are in Asia, and 4 are in Latin America.
- 34 have Islam as a main religion, 4 have Buddhism, 1 has Hinduism, 1 has atheism, 1 has agnosticism—and 11 have Christianity. (Nigeria is 50/50 Muslim-Christian.)
The 2023 list included two new countries: Comoros and Nicaragua. Two countries dropped off the list: Kuwait and Nepal.
Other noteworthy increases include Mali at No. 17, up from No. 24, due to threats from jihadist and mercenary fighters in the context of a weak government that links some Christians to Western interests. Similarly, fellow Sahel nation Niger rose to No. 28 from No. 33, due to ongoing attacks by Islamist militants. And in North America, Mexico rose to No. 38 from No. 43, due to criminal violence against Christians perceived to be a threat to illegal activity, as well as social pressures faced by indigenous believers who refuse to follow ancestral customs.
Not all noteworthy movement was negative. Open Doors noted the “promotion of greater tolerance” in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Bahrain and the UAE. Qatar dropped 16 spots from No. 18 to No. 34, due to no churches being closed last year. (However, many previously closed house churches remained shut.) Egypt dropped 15 spots from No. 20 to No. 35, due to fewer reported attacks on Christian properties. Oman dropped for similar reasons from No. 36 to No. 47, and Jordan dropped from No. 39 to No. 49 due to no reports of Christians forced from their homes.
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. Many categories saw decreases this year, though some hit record highs.
When violence is isolated as a category, the top 10 persecutors shift dramatically—only Nigeria, Pakistan, and India remain [see sidebar]. In fact, 15 nations are deadlier for Christians than North Korea. (Uganda saw the highest increase in violence scored, up 3.1 points alongside Honduras, but both were not in top 50. After Afghanistan’s 10 point drop, Qatar saw the biggest decrease in violence, followed by Sri Lanka and Egypt. Among the total nations tracked, 12 saw no change in violence score, 27 lowered, and 37 increased.)
Martyrdoms dropped by more than 275 from the prior year, as Open Doors tallied 5,621 Christians killed for their faith during the reporting period. Representing a decrease of 5 percent, the toll remains the second highest since the 2016 record of 7,106 deaths. Nigeria accounted for 89 percent of the total.
Open Doors is known for favoring a more conservative estimate than other advocacy groups, which 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, Mozambique, and the DRC all follow Nigeria with a symbolic tally of 100 martyrs. Then the CAR with 61 recorded killings, Myanmar with 42, Colombia with 21, and India with 17.
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 2,110 represents a 59 percent decrease from last year, and is only about a fifth of the 2020 report’s high of 9,488.
China (No. 16), which rejoined the top 20 in 2021 for the first time in a decade, led the way with half of reported church attacks—though given a symbolic tally of 1,000. Then Nigeria, Myanmar, Mozambique, DRC, Rwanda, and Angola all were assigned a symbolic 100 attacks. Then India recorded 67 specific incidents, followed by Mexico with 42, Colombia with 37, and Nicaragua with 31.
The category of Christians detained without trial, arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned decreased to 4,542, down a quarter from a record high of 6,175 in last year’s report but still the second-highest total since the category has been tracked.
Open Doors divides this into two subcategories, with 3,154 detained believers representing an decrease of 34 percent. India led with 1,711 cases and accounted for 54 percent of the total. It was followed by Eritrea with 244 cases and Russia with 200; then an unnamed nation, Myanmar, China, and Rwanda with a symbolic 100 each; then Cuba with 80, El Salvador with 63, and Nigeria with 54.
The tally of 1,388 believers imprisoned, however, held steady from the 1,410 reported in the prior period. An unnamed nation, Eritrea, China, and India comprised almost 90 percent of the total.
Another new high was registered in the number of Christians abducted, with the total of 5,259 representing an increase of 37 percent over the prior period. Nigeria accounted for 90 percent of the total, or 4,726 abductions, followed by Mozambique and DRC with a symbolic 100 incidents each, then Iraq with 63, CAR with 35, and Cameroon with 25.
By far the largest category total was displacement, with 124,310 Christians forced to leave their homes or go into hiding for faith-related reasons, down 43 percent from 218,709 last year. An additional 14,997 Christians were forced to leave their countries, down from 25,038 last year. Myanmar comprised 4 out of 5 internal displacements (followed by Nigeria and Burkina Faso) and 2 out of 3 refugees tallied (followed by Iran).
Open Doors stated that several categories were particularly difficult to count accurately, highest of which were the 29,411 cases of physical and mental abuse, including beatings and death threats. (Last year’s tally was 24,678 incidents.) Of the 72 nations assessed, 45 were assigned symbolic numbers. Nigeria and India were the highest (comprising two-thirds of the tally), followed by an unnamed nation, Myanmar, Mozambique, Indonesia, DRC, and Rwanda.
An estimated total of 4,547 Christian homes and properties were attacked in 2022, along with 2,210 shops and businesses. Of the latter, 27 of 42 countries were given symbolic numbers, with Nigeria’s tally of 1,000 exceeding the next nine nations combined (given their tallies of 100 each). Nigeria, Myanmar, and CAR had the highest tallies in the former category (a symbolic 1,000 each), with only Indonesia and India able to record actual cases (211 vs. 180). Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mozambique, DRC, and Cameroon rounded out the top 10 and beyond, each with a symbolic tally of 100 attacks.
Categories specific to women were also difficult for Open Doors researchers to count accurately. Cases of rape and sexual harassment decreased from 3,147 to 2,126 tallied, led by Nigeria with almost half the total, with 34 of 47 countries scored symbolically. Forced marriages to non-Christians decreased from 1,588 to 717 tallied, led by Nigeria as highest of the 22 out of 34 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 (31 countries): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in more than half of the watch list countries, including 8 of the top 10 overall. Most of the 31 are officially Muslim nations or have Muslim majorities; however, 5 actually have Christian majorities: Nigeria, CAR (No. 24), DRC (No. 37), Mozambique (No. 32), and Cameroon (No. 45). (Additionally this is the main driver in 15 nations with enough persecution to be tracked by Open Doors but ranking below the watchlist’s cutoff, including Christian-majority Kenya and Tanzania.)
Dictatorial paranoia (9 countries): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in nine countries, mostly in nations with Muslim majorities—Syria (No. 12), Uzbekistan (No. 21), Turkmenistan (No. 26), Bangladesh (No. 30), Tajikistan (No. 44), and Kazakhstan (No. 48)—but also in Eritrea (No. 4), Cuba (No. 27), and Nicaragua (No. 50). (Also in six nations being tracked: Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burundi, Rwanda, and Venezuela.)
Communist and post-communist oppression (4 countries): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in four countries, all in Asia: North Korea (No. 1), China (No. 16), Vietnam (No. 25), and Laos (No. 31).
Religious nationalism (3 countries): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in three nations, all in Asia. Christians are primarily targeted by Hindu nationalists in India (No. 11) and by Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar (No. 14) and Bhutan (No. 40). (Also in three nations being tracked: Israel, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.)
Organized crime and corruption (2 countries): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in Colombia (No. 22) and Mexico (No. 38). (Also in three nations being tracked: El Salvador, Honduras, and South Sudan.)
Christian denominational protectionism (1 country): This is the main source of persecution that Christians face in Ethiopia (No. 39).
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 2023 list.
How does the World Watch List 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 155 countries in 2020, more than any other religious group. Muslims were harassed in 145 countries, followed by Jews in 94 countries.
The breakdown corresponds to Open Doors’ data. China, Eritrea, and Iran ranked in Pew’s top 10 nations implementing government harassment, while India, Nigeria, and Pakistan rank in the top 10 experiencing social hostility. Afghanistan and Egypt ranked in both.
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. 14 on the 2023 WWL), China (No. 16), Cuba (No. 27), Eritrea (No. 4), Iran (No. 8), North Korea (No. 1), Nicaragua (No. 50), Pakistan (No. 7), Russia (which exited the WWL last year), Saudi Arabia (No. 13), Tajikistan (No. 44), and Turkmenistan (No. 26). Its second-tier Special Watch List includes Algeria (No. 19), the Central African Republic (No. 24), Comoros (No. 42), and Vietnam (No. 25).
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. 6 on the WWL), the Taliban in Afghanistan (No. 9), Al-Shabaab in Somalia (No. 2), Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria (No. 12), the Houthis in Yemen (No. 3), the Wagner Group for its activities in the Central Africa Republic (No. 24), 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 2022 report recommended the same nations for the CPC list, with the addition of Nigeria (No. 6), India (No. 11), Syria (No. 12), and Vietnam (No. 25). For the State Department’s watch list, USCIRF recommended the same nations except for Comoros, with the addition of Azerbaijan (unranked but monitored by Open Doors), Egypt (No. 35), Indonesia (No. 33), Iraq (No. 18), Kazakhstan (No. 48), Malaysia (No. 43), Turkey (No. 41), 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 2022, 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 2023 World Watch List here.