25 YEARS OF THE OPEN DOORS WORLD WATCH LIST

2017 represents the 25th year of the Open Doors World Watch List.

The World Watch List is not just a collection of facts and figures; for Open Doors it has always been a strategic tool, which helps to determine the areas where we need to be active. Only three countries have ever topped the list: Saudi Arabia (1993- 1995, 1998-2001), Somalia (1996-1997), and North Korea (2002 onwards). In other ways the List reflects seven significant changes.

LIBERALISATION IN CHINA

In 1978 Deng Xiaoping decided to modernise the Chinese economy. In succeeding decades, as Chinese society gradually opened up, the largest persecuted church in the world emerged into the light. From 1993 to 2008 China was regularly in the top 10, but since 2008 it has fallen into the 30s. Despite recent crackdowns, it is unlikely China will return to the top 20 in the foreseeable future.

THE FALL OF THE SOVIET UNION

If the World Watch List had been calculated in the mid-1980s, the USSR and the Eastern European nations would have dominated the top 20. But the fall of the Berlin Wall meant that Eastern European countries never featured on the List (except Russia, once, joint number 50 in 2011). However, the Central Asian states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union - places like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan - have featured prominently in the top 50. Uzbekistan entered the top 10 in 2008, and has remained in the top 20 ever since. Turkmenistan - which at one point was dubbed the North Korea of Central Asia - was a top 10 country from 2001 to 2004, and has remained a top 20 country since. Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have virtually been permanent residents of the top 50.

THE RISE OF RADICAL ISLAM

Perhaps the most significant trend has been the rise of radical Islam. Experts point to two perennial sources of Islamic radicalisation - Saudi money, and Pakistani training. Many people have been radicalised in Wahhabi mosques around the world which have been built and staffed using Saudi money. For military training, though, they head to northern Pakistan, where they learn from former Mujahedeen and Taliban operatives. Pakistan is currently at its highest ever ranking (4). Of course there are other factors. Iran has been exporting Shia-based extremism since 1979. It is often forgotten that in the mid-1990s Sudan was a global hub of extremist ideology and many groups such as al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah were trained there at this time. (Sudan was number 3 in the first list; today it has returned to the top 5.) From this country in Africa some of the most deadly and violent Islamic insurgencies have taken their lead, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

THE REBIRTH OF HINDU AND BUDDHIST NATIONALISM

From the late nineties onwards, but particularly in recent years, Hindu and Buddhist nationalism has gathered pace in Asia. In the very first list, India was in the low 30s, but it has risen steadily to this year's highest-ever ranking of 15. Buddhist nationalism has grown in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

ANTI-CHRISTIAN VIOLENCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Following the 9/11 attacks on New York in September 2001, Islamic extremism was viewed as the main threat to the West. But the chaos following the Allied withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq resulted in significant anti-Christian violence in the Middle East. Iraq entered the top 10 in 2011, peaking at number 3 in 2015 during the worst atrocities of the so-called Islamic State. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has always been a place where it was virtually impossible to live as a free Christian. In 1993 it was second only to Saudi Arabia.

THE ARAB SPRING TURNS INTO A CHRISTIAN 'WINTER'

Initially a pro-democracy, anti-corruption movement, the Arab Spring turned into a Christian 'winter' when it was hijacked by militant Islamist groups. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to rapidly Islamise the country, only to be deposed by the military in July 2013. Elsewhere, Syria, Libya and Iraq descended into civil war, displacing hundreds of thousands of Christians from their ancient homelands. Syria has been in the top 10 since 2014; before 2012 it wasn't even in the top 20.

THE GROWTH OF RADICAL ISLAM IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

One of the most worrying trends is the growth of radical Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. North Africa, of course, had been Islamic for centuries, but from the turn of the millennium it started to extend south. Islamist militias have killed thousands in northern Nigeria, Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic. In northern Nigeria alone the death rate routinely took in an average of 2,000-3,000 Christians a year, especially from the fierce Islamic movement called Boko Haram and the Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen. In a significant new development, their violence has even spread to Christian-majority countries such as Kenya, Cameroon, Tanzania and the Ivory Coast.

THE ALL-TIME TOP TEN

The World Watch List works by allocating points for various aspects of persecution. If we were to add up the total number of points gathered over the whole period, the 'top ten' 1993-2017 is:

  1. North Korea
  2. Saudi Arabia
  3. Iran
  4. Somalia
  5. Afghanistan
  6. Maldives
  7. Yemen
  8. Sudan
  9. Vietnam
  10. China

Six of these countries are still in the WWL 2017 top ten.

Read about the persecution trends behind this year's World Watch List.