Africa, where Christianity spread fastest during the past century, now is the region where oppression of Christians is spreading fastest, a new report says.

The two-year-old Arab Spring has toppled autocrats across Northern Africa, but it also has energized militant Islamist movements that have killed hundreds of Christians and endanger thousands more, according to the annual World Watch List, released Tuesday. The list, published by Open Doors International, a ministry to persecuted Christians, ranks the 50 countries it considers to be most hostile to believers during the year that ended Oct. 31. The countries on the list are home to about a quarter of the world’s 2.2 billion believers.

For the 11th straight year, North Korea tops the list, and Open Doors says it figures to stay there as long as its combination of “communist oppression” and “dictatorial paranoia” remains in place. The ministry estimates between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians live in the country, where they face arrest, torture and even execution if exposed. It is the only country where the list says “absolute persecution” reigns.

Interactive map of World Watch List countires. Darker red equals more severe persecution. Zoom out to see all 50 countires. Click on individual countries for details.

But down the list, the story is Africa.

Mali, a west-African country never before included in World Watch List, was No. 7 in the 2013 rankings. Predominantly Muslim, Mali had long accommodated Christians peacefully until March 2012 when groups linked to Al-Qaeda seized power in the northern half of the country and imposed a regime based on sharia, or Islamic law. Open Doors said its contacts in the country reported that most Christians fled the north, abandoning homes and churches that later were confiscated or destroyed.

“If you stayed, you were killed,” said Ronald Boyd-MacMIllan, who directs Open Doors strategy and research. “All the churches were closed. There were house-to-house searches. It was pretty clear they were looking for Christians to kill.”

Two other African nations, Somalia and Eritrea, are included among the World Watch List top 10. In all, 18 African countries are included on the list of 50 nations. Five are ranked closer to the top than they were in 2012. Five others — Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Niger — are on the list for the first time.

The addition of new African countries, and the ascension of several already on the list, can be traced to Islamist parties gaining power in places where regimes had fallen, or where a hard-line, Wahabi version of Islam made inroads against more tolerant, Sufi forms, according to Open Doors. In some cases it was linked with gradual expansion of Islamist influences in local governments or societies; or plain terrorist violence; or a combination.

The trend isn’t confined to Africa. In Syria, rebel forces ignited by the Arab Spring in early 2011 already considered Christians as aligned with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Christians fled Homs, the city where many were concentrated, and the 2012 arrival of foreign jihadists only intensified the pressure on those who remained in the country. Result: Syria made the biggest jump up the World Watch List, from No. 36 to No. 11.

One country that didn’t move up on the list was Egypt, even though Islamist political parties have made deep inroads there as well. They won the presidency in 2012 and produced enough votes to pass a constitution built partly on the principles of Islam. Yet about one of every nine Egyptians is Christian, and at about 10 million, they comprise the largest Christian community in the Arab world. The new constitution, nearly unanimously opposed by Christians and liberal allies, was approved by voters in December, and its effect on Christian life has yet to be seen.

Various private and government agencies monitor persecution, but Open Doors claims its World Watch List is the only annual survey of Christian religious liberty around the world. Based on a mix of face-to-face interviews with underground Christians, surveys of church leaders, opinions of Open Doors field workers and external experts, and review of publicly available data, it claims to measure “the degree of freedom of a Christian to live out their faith in five spheres of life: private, family, community, congregation and national life.”

It also measures the degree of violence experienced by Christians, a category that thrust Nigeria to No. 13. Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria was ranked No. 27 as recently as 2010, but has ascended partly because it has become, by the World Watch List measure, the most violent place on Earth for Christians.

The militant Islamic group Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for numerous mass killings of Christians and other Nigerians in an attempt to impose an Islamic system over Nigeria’s north. Two churches in northeastern Nigeria were attacked on Christmas Day, leaving eight worshippers dead. Authorities openly suspect Boko Haram.

Taken as a whole, Boyd-MacMillan said, the 2013 list describes a world where persecution of Christians has intensified overall, mostly because of the rise of militant sectarian movements, not only in Africa but in some of the world’s most populous countries, such as India, where Open Doors says Hindu extremists routinely assault Christian worshippers.

Other monitors of reglious freedom have documented a similar global pattern. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion & Public Life concluded that government restrictions on religion rose worldwide during the year. Sub-Saharan Africa was one of three regions where the report said both government restrictions and social hostilities toward religion increased. The Pew forum is concerned with all religions, not only Christianity.

“Our study found, for instance, that in Nigeria, violence between Christian and Muslim communities, including a series of deadly attacks, escalated throughout the period,” said Brian Grim, senior researcher and director of cross-national data for the Pew forum.

Even so, the World Watch List did detect a decline in persecution in some areas.

China fell furthest in the rankings, down 16 spots to No. 37. Its Christian population is growing faster than anywhere, and the government’s direct suppression of the Mao era has evolved into a wary watchfulness, according to Open Doors.

“There does seem to be the possibility of greater rapprochement,” Boyd-MacMillan said, as Communist Party leaders begin to regard the church’s ability to moderate social tensions as an asset during and age of rapid economic and societal change.

Go deeper

2013 World Watch List

In-depth report

Brief country-by-country analyses

Global persecution trends in 2012

World Watch List methodology