Asia is “the new hotbed of persecution of Christians,” a report has found, with one in three in the region – or nearly 140 million people – facing high levels of persecution.
The annual report of the Open Doors World Watch List, a global monitoring body, ranked North Korea the most anti-Christian country in the world for the 18th consecutive year.
The atheist dictatorship was followed by Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan.
India entered the top-10 for the first time in the report’s history after its researchers found “extreme” levels of Christian persecution under the Hindu-nationalist government.
The harshest criticism in the report released on Wednesday was reserved for China, which rose to 27th place from 43rd. The repression of Christianity, it said, was at its worst since the Cultural Revolution.
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About 20 million faced persecution last year in China and an estimated 50 million are expected to experience some form of repression this year as the ruling Communist Party continues a severe crackdown on religion.
“The heightened power of the Chinese government is being wielded to remove any challenges to the absolute authority of President Xi Jinping, even if those challenges are related to personal faith in a god other than the State,” Open Doors said in a statement.
“New regulations and government crackdowns have made open worship for unregistered churches increasingly risky, particularly in certain regions of the country.”
The officially atheist Communist Party does allow religion to be practiced at state-sanctioned institutions, which has over the years led to a rise of two churches – a government-approved one, and an underground one.
A wave of independent church closures have rocked China this year after Mr Xi vowed to “sinicise” religion. He has presided over a massive crackdown on organised religion, affecting Christians, Buddhists and Muslims.
In September the Vatican signed a provisional deal with Beijing on the appointment of Catholic bishops, though critics have said the deal will only lead to greater repression and government control over worshippers.
Before the deal China refused to recognise bishops appointed by the Vatican and instead named its own.
Open Doors, a UK charity, has long been involved in pushing religious freedoms in China, smuggling one million outlawed Bibles into the country in 1981.
The report also said Christian women are subject to sexual violence, rape and forced marriage – particularly in the top five countries called out as the worst offenders.
The release of the annual report comes three weeks after UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt ordered an independent review of the persecution of Christians around the world.