Each year when the World Watch List releases, there are many countries that you probably expect to see on the list, simply because you follow the news. You know Kim Jong Un is a dictator, so you’re not surprised to see North Korea. You prayed about the Asia Bibi case, so it might make sense to see Pakistan on the list. You joined millions of Christians in prayer for Pastor Andrew Brunson’s release, so seeing Turkey on the World Watch List isn’t a shock.
But then there are other countries that might make you do a double take. Maybe the country is a tourist destination, known more for its sparkling beaches or incredible natural wonders than its treatment of believers. Or maybe the country is made up of Christians as its majority religion—how could such a place have a problem with Christian persecution?
And yet, these are countries that are oppressing God’s people, on the World Watch List for important reasons. Here are some of the places that might surprise you—and drive you to pray for them:
World Watch List Rank: 14
Why its rank might surprise you: This small island nation in the Indian Ocean boasts some of the most beautiful beach fronts and resorts in the world. Crystal-clear, turquoise water and a year-round summer temperature make this a desirable tourist destination for more than a million tourists each year. The Maldives’ islands are so beautiful they were even used to create a beach planet in a Star Wars movie!
Why it’s on the list: Behind the incredible resorts and tourist paradise lies a dark reality: a society and government run by a restrictive and dangerous form of Islamic extremism. Christians who live in the nation must be completely secret, or they risk having their citizenship stripped and being prosecuted under Shariah Law. Even foreign workers must be careful about practicing their faith, and must do so behind closed doors since there are no public churches in the Maldives. The country is so closed that there isn’t even a fully translated Bible into the official language of the Maldives.
How you can pray: Lord, I pray you would open the hearts of the leaders of the Maldives. Let secret Christians worship freely, and help them to feel the prayers of their brothers and sisters around the world. Amen.
World Watch List Rank: 27
Why its rank might surprise you: Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world, with vast amounts of natural gas and petroleum fueling their economy. It’s an economic powerhouse, crowned by the sparkling capital city of Doha, and has become a leading financial center in the Middle East. The country also made a splash by winning their bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, pledging to build numerous stadiums and hotels to put on the biggest sporting event in the world.
Why it’s on the list: While foreign workers can worship publicly in designated zones, anyone who converts from Islam is at risk of being charged with apostasy and convicted of a crime. Additionally, conversion to Christianity in Qatar can mean a risk of violence and expulsion from both family and community. Islam is viewed as the only legitimate faith, so the pressure is high for people to continue in their Muslim beliefs.
How you can pray: God, we ask that you would be with Christians in Qatar who must hide their faith. Help Christians who convert from Islam to find a community and to know You have them in Your hand.
World Watch List Rank: 32
Why its rank might surprise you: Nepal is known throughout the world for its incredible natural scenery. Eight of the ten highest mountains in the world are in Nepal, including Mount Everest. It’s long been seen as a backpacker’s paradise, with natural beauty and hiking providing incredible sights and experiences for outdoor enthusiasts.
Why it’s on the list: In the last five years, Hindu nationalists have risen in the government, passing numerous laws that have upheld Hinduism as the official religion of Nepal, and making it increasingly difficult for Christians and other religious minorities to freely worship. A new constitution passed in 2015 limits freedom of religion, and an anti-conversion law makes it possible for Christians to be falsely accused of converting someone. Christians have also been beaten and driven from their homes and villages in Nepal.
How you can pray: Dear Lord, we ask you to help Christians in Nepal stand strong even as their community oppresses and discriminates against them. Ease their burdens and give them peace.
World Watch List Rank: 39
Why its rank might surprise you: Ethiopia is one of the oldest predominantly Christian countries in the world. It made Christianity the official state religion in the fourth century, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remains the largest faith group in the country. Millions of Ethiopians belong to this church and it is still a major factor in Ethiopian culture and society.
Why it’s on the list: The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is so prominent in Ethiopia that in some parts of the country, people who leave the Orthodox Church for Protestant denominations can be persecuted by their families. Additionally, Islam is the second-largest religion in the country. This means in areas that are predominantly Muslim, Christians can be targeted for persecution, particularly people who convert from Islam. Islamic extremists also operate in some of these places, increasing the risk for believers.
How you can pray: Almighty God, we pray for unity among your people. Help Christians of all backgrounds in Ethiopia to love one another, as you commanded. Amen.
World Watch List Rank: 41
Why its rank might surprise you: Colombia is another country that is predominantly Christian—the Roman Catholic Church has long been the faith home for millions of Colombians. Christians have been a vital part of the peace process to help ease Colombia’s civil war. And in popular culture, Colombia is probably more famous for its coffee and arepas than for its persecution of Christians.
Why it’s on the list: Ongoing violence from rebel groups targets Christians in some areas—ministers of the gospel are viewed as enemies for rebels. Organized criminals also see the church in Colombia as a threat, and targets them for violence. Additionally, some rural parts of Colombia are semi-autonomous and governed by smaller tribes with their own belief systems. In these places, people who find Jesus are viewed as turning their backs on their culture and community, and are persecuted or even expelled from their homes.
How you can pray: Lord, we ask you to watch over the Christians in Colombia who are bravely living for You, even though it means speaking truth to those in power. Please keep them safe and help them to see You are in control.
World Watch List Rank: 44
Why its rank might surprise you: Kenya is a majority Christian nation. More than 80% of the population say they are Christians. It’s known for its many natural wonders and wildlife reservations—safaris in Kenya see an incredible variety of wildlife and even the “Great Migration,” ranked as one of the Wonders of the World.
Why it’s on the list: Kenya also shares a border with Somalia, and the infamous Islamic militant group, al-Shabab, that operates in Somalia also comes across into the border regions of Kenya. They have targeted Christians in other parts of the country. Additionally, in regions that are dominated by Islam, Christians can experience persecution, particularly people who find Jesus out of Islam.
How you can pray: God our Father, please be with the Christians in Kenya who are attacked or persecuted because they cling to Your name. Make Your promises obvious and tangible to them today. Amen.
The Russian Federation
World Watch List Rank: 46
Why its rank might surprise you: The majority of Russians say they are Christians—and the Russian Orthodox Church has a long and important part in the history of Christianity. During the decades of communist rule by the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church continued to support Russian Christians—in fact, in the late 1980s, Brother Andrew personally presented the first batch of 1 million Bibles to leaders in the Orthodox Church!
Why it’s on the list: The Russian Federation encompasses a huge amount of area and territories—and some of these places are dominated by Islam. In these places, Christians who convert from Islam to Christianity face pressure and persecution from family and community. Additionally, throughout Russia, anti-terrorist laws are used to monitor non-Orthodox churches, especially those that are active in evangelism. Christian services can be raided or face surveillance because of these laws.
How you can pray: Lord, You ask your followers to be known by their love and unity for one another (John 13:35). We ask that you would make this a reality across Russia, and that you would also protect believers in areas where they are in danger because they worship You.
—This article first appeared on Open Doors’ website.