Christian mission organization Open Doors USA released its World Watch List for 2011 today, with no surprise as to the top entry and a reflection of growing concerns about fundamentalism and extremism in Muslim countries.
For the ninth straight year, North Korea topped the list for its systematic oppression of religion as well as opposition to the totalitarian Communist regime of dictator Kim Jong-Il.
North Korea has been in the news most recently for the November shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in a disputed border area between North and South Korea, plus the official announcement of Kim Jong-Un as the hand-picked successor to his father to control the regime.
For one, Paul Estabrooks is familiar with the ins and outs of the lives of persecuted Christians in North Korea. A senior communications specialist for Open Doors, he has been affiliated with the ministry for the past 32 years and has traveled extensively in countries which Open Doors served.
While visiting North Korea last August, Estabrooks saw evidence of the planned power transfer even before it was officially announced as the titles officials referred to Kim Jong-Il and his long-deceased father had been changed.
“When totalitarian regimes change nomenclature, it’s usually quite significant,” Estabrooks explained.
What likely won’t be significant, however, is how Christians whose faith comes out in the open will be treated when succession takes place.
Estabrooks said Open Doors personnel are aware of three executions which happened in 2010 to North Koreans for their Christian beliefs, although he added that historical behaviors make it likely more executions took place which were undetected. Long or lifetime sentences to forced labor camps are also routine outcomes for Christians in North Korea.
“(North Korean Christians) don’t see any significant hope with the leadership change,” he said. “Those of us from the outside are always hoping and looking for some sort of bright light on the horizon. The fact that (Kim Jong-Un) was educated in Switzerland, gives some people hope that he was exposed to a little bit more of a Western orientation. It’s very hard to say.”
The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island is more of North Korea shaking its fist at its neighbors than a prelude to war or major changes in the country.
“They are constantly positioning,” Estabrooks said. “The whole time we were there in August they wanted to talk about peace and reunification. We talked to a colonel in a private room for 45 minutes and asked us our opinion on how they could achieve peace and reunification, which we found rather amazing.
“Our perspective is that they want reunification from a North Korean perspective. When you buy a map of North Korea in the country it includes South Korea. When you are at the demilitarized zone on the 38th Parallel, they will say, ‘You are now standing on the Korean side, and on the other side of this is the American side. … There is a lot of positioning which goes on, and North Korea really is paranoid about the United States. They honestly believe the U.S. wants to wipe them out and that they’re the big enemy. … The challenge of a closed society like this, it’s hard to know what is really going on.”
Much of the rest of the top 12 countries on the list are Muslim nations, including Iran (No. 2), Afghanistan (No. 3), Saudi Arabia (No. 4), Yemen (No. 7) and Pakistan (No. 11). The most significant jump belongs to Iraq, which went from 17th in 2010 to eighth now.
Violence against Christians in Iraq has been on the upswing ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and has spiked further as American troops continue their withdrawal from the country which began last year.
“Our perspective is that what is happening in Iraq is just one more example of Islamic extremism that can be seen in Pakistan right through the Middle East to Morocco,” Estabrooks said. “Much of it is the perception that America is leading another crusade against them. The interesting thing is there is in-fighting between their groups as well. The targeting of Christians has been really heightened since the Iraq war and it’s continuing on.
“It’s almost like an ethnic cleansing or a religious cleansing that’s going on. It’s like they want to get rid of them because they remind them too much of the decadent West.”
In a press release, Open Doors estimates that 334,000 Christians have left Iraq since 2003, halving the nation’s Christian population. Estabrooks added that those Iraqis with the most financial resources emigrate to the West by way of Jordan or Syria or stay in those two neighboring countries. Many others will shift to northern Iraq, in areas governed by ethnic Kurds, where the ministry will help provided them with cattle and supplies for agricultural development to try and maintain Christian communities.
Estabrooks pointed to the New Year’s Eve church bombing which killed 27 people in Alexandria, Egypt, as further evidence of the pattern, yet he and the ministry recognize the importance of helping maintain a Christian presence in these oppressed areas.
“We see the Iraq situation as just the tip of the iceberg for Islamic extremism,” Estabrooks said.