The persecution of Christians reached unprecedented levels in 2015, as over 7,000 believers were killed for their faith worldwide, according to a new report from persecution watchdog Open Doors.
Earlier this week, the California-based ministry released their 2016 World Watch List revealing the world's biggest hot-spots of Christian persecution. This year's list revealed startling statistics proving that violent persecution is on the rise, surpassing 2014 as the most dangerous year for believers.
"The 2016 World Watch List documents an unprecedented escalation of violence against Christians, making this past year the most violent and sustained attack on Christian faith in modern history," Open Doors CEO David Curry explained at a Wednesday press conference introducing the report. "This research has concluded that after the brutal persecution of Christians in 2014, 2015 proved to be even worse with the persecution continuing to increase, intensify and spread across the globe...The martyrdom of Christians and the direct, targeted attack [against] Christians has escalated in a way that I don't think anyone could've seen."
For the 14th year in a row, North Korea was listed at No. 1 on the World Watch List, making it the greatest persecutor of Christians in the world with a persecution rating of 92 out of 100. Under Kim Jong Un's oppressive leadership, an estimated 50,000 - 70,000 Christians are suffering in regime labor camps.
"Christianity is not only seen as 'opium for the people' as is normal for all communist states; it is also seen as deeply Western and despicable. Christians try to hide their faith as far as possible to avoid arrest and being sent to a labor camp," reads the report.
Persecution has seen a dramatic rise in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan due to the growth and expansion of Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab.
"Christians have lived in Iraq for two millennia but are currently on the verge of extinction," reads the report "Iraq has suffered from years of structural uncertainty, conflict and instability under a government incapable of enforcing the rule of law and providing a minimum of security."
However, the report encourages believers to remember that amidst the current crisis, there are also sparks of hope as opportunities arise for churches to reach out to refugees.
Open Doors lists Syria at No. 5 on the list due to ISIS' growing presence in the region. In the past year alone, thousands of Christians living in the region have been forced to renounce their faith or flee under threat of death.
"Islamic extremist caliphates are solidified and expanding," Curry said. "The data shows that the Islamic State caliphate has effectively carried out genocide against Yazidis and Christians in Syria and Iraq, pushing hundreds of thousands of Christians into refugee camps in North Iraq and other countries."
While ISIS gets the majority of media coverage due to its shocking barbarity, the report notes that the Boko Haram terrorist group has killed more Christians in 2015 than any other terrorist group.
"Boko Haram in Nigeria threatened to control large parts of Nigeria, it does control large parts of Nigeria and its extending its territory into Niger and looking into Chad, as well," Curry said.
Eritrea ranks third on the list due to the country's support of the "rise and spread of radical Islam in the Horn of Africa."
The report notes that the Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab --which took credit for last year's attack on Garissa University in Kenya that left 147 Christians dead -- also contributed to the growth of persecution around the world.
In light of these disturbing statistics, Open Doors is urging believers worldwide to use the 2016 World Watch List to fuel their prayers, and to ask the Lord to help our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.