Discrimination, Persecution, and Pandemic: How COVID19 is Effecting the Persecuted Church

“Discrimination, Persecution, and Pandemic:
How COVID19 is Effecting the Persecuted Church”

We are currently in a time where the world is on edge, lockdowns are the norm, and many are struggling financially due to lost jobs, lost businesses, and lost income.  However, targeted for their faith, Christians in the persecuted areas of the world are also facing starvation, facing erroneous arrest, and dying from lack of healthcare.  They are unable to access resources and aid.  Some are told to lockdown but have nowhere to stay.  Others live in places that don’t even have the medical resources to handle a normal COVID19 case, much less a complicated one with a ventilator.  Open Doors USA, a Christian watchdog group, reported that at least 25 countries with positive cases are among the world’s worst persecutors of Christians.  While much of the world is struggling with the deaths of COVID19 patients, Christians who were persecuted before the pandemic are now experiencing new forms of cruelty and oppression because of their faith in Jesus Christ.


STARVATION

Many Christians in persecuted countries are already facing malnutrition due to lack of food.  In places like Pakistan and India, it is because they are low on social status and work the jobs that are paid the least.  They are often exploited when an emergency arises and find themselves in debt that they never can repay, much like loan sharks in the US.  Others are facing malnutrition because they are internally displaced and the camps have little food.  In many countries, Christians are short on food.  However, during the COVID19 pandemic, things have gotten exponentially worse.

In Pakistan, where over 45% of the population is below the poverty line, the lockdown has caused many families of all religions to be without food.  One report states that 26 pastors and 140 Christian families at a brick kiln in Punjab are now without access to food and water.  This is one instance that portrays the plight of many Christians in Pakistan during this lockdown.  The state government has offered much needed aid to families in these types of situations.  This is quite a job considering almost half of the population is in these dire circumstances.  However, there has been quite a few instances of the local governments denying Christians the aid, and the state government seems to be doing little about it.

  • Denying food aid and discriminating among citizens is a crime,” Aftab Hayat, a Pakistani NGO leader, told ICC.Christians often face discrimination and are victims of religious hatred. However, the situation for Christians in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis is alarming and becoming worse. Therefore, the authorities must take note of the developing situation.
  • A neighborhood in Lahore made an announcement for everyone to come and get the government food aid that was being provided due to the COVID19 pandemic. Whenever a Christian presented their ID card, they were told to leave because the food was for Muslims only.
  • Christians in Karachi are being told they must say the “Kalma,” a tenet of the Muslim faith that all converts must recite, in order to receive their food aid. Because they refused, they were not given any food.
  • A woman in Pakistan is believed to have committed suicide because she was denied aid during the COVID19 pandemic. An investigation is underway.
  • Christians in Pakistan are used to receiving aid from Christians around the world. During the pandemic, that source of revenue is drying up.  Christians in Pakistan are banding together to try and support one another, however their resources are incredibly limited to begin with, many barely able to sustain their own families.

It is so bad that a Muslim within the country has been reporting on the incidents and has banded other like-minded Muslims together in order to provide the food that the government won’t.

  • A local Muslim activist in the Punjab province has been reporting on the discrimination the Christians are receiving from the Muslims in the area. Over 100 Christian families have been denied food aid in that area. The Muslim activist is working with other liberal Muslims to circumvent the discrimination and provide food aid to these Christian families.

It has received so much media attention that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has issued a statement condemning the actions inside the country.

These actions are simply reprehensible,” stated USCIRF Commissioner Anurima Bhargava. “As COVID-19 continues to spread, vulnerable communities within Pakistan are fighting hunger and to keep their families safe and healthy.  Food aid must not be denied because of one’s faith. We urge the Pakistani government to ensure that food aid from distributing organizations is shared equally with Hindus, Christians, and other religions minorities.”

But Pakistan is not the only place where starvation is an issue.  In Nigeria, Christians are facing starvation because of their local government, Boko Haram/ISWAP, and the Fulani.  Nigeria has become a battleground for genocide for the past 6 years (see Nigerian Genocide: Christian Persecution in 2014).  The rise of Boko Haram, which later led to Islamic State in the Western African Province, and the Fulani tribes have been attacking Christians incessantly, forcing many from their homes into IDP camps.  Their goal is to eradicate and/or subjugate Christians in the country.  The government, with President Buhari at the helm, has done little to help and, at best, has been apathetic to the situation.  The situation grows in intensity each year, with more and more NGO’s, charities, and journalists calling for it to be labeled “genocide.”  With all of this, they are now facing even more problems as their country also goes on lockdown.

  • In Kaduna State, Christians are reporting that they get six times smaller rations from the state than their Muslim neighbors.
  • Boko Haram is taking the opportunity to attack more and grain supplies, running off with many necessities.
  • IDP requests for food and supplies has increased dramatically, which is likely due to the increase of attacks by the Fulani. The more attacks on villages lead to more people being displaced within their own country.  This influx of IDPs into the camps will naturally raise the need for food.
  • The Fulani are increasing their attacks on Christian communities, knowing that all the Christians are home. While attacking, they make sure to raze the food storage areas as well as the farmland, in order to starve the Christians to death.  In one instance, four Christians were killed, many injured, 320 displaced, and their stores of food and grain were burnt to the ground.  It is becoming evident that the Fulani are taking full advantage of the pandemic.
  • After a Fulani attack that killed preschool children and a pregnant woman, and burnt down houses and food storages, a regional chief called on the government to act. “With this coronavirus people are suffering, but this killing is more dangerous than the coronavirus. How many people have the coronavirus killed in this country? But this incessant killings is getting too much.”
    • As of April 26th, the WHO reports 893 deaths for the whole African continent, and John Hopkins reports 35 deaths for the country of Nigeria. Yet the Nigerian government will take drastic actions for the virus and almost no action for terrorism and genocide.

In IDP camps across the world, Christians are having to decide whether to risk their health and feed their families, or stay home as ordered and risk starvation.  In Nigeria, the IDP camps are requesting more and more food and supplies.  In other places, Christians are choosing to go out to work in order to earn money and buy the food they need.

  • In Burma/Myanmar, the Kachins (many Christians) have been internally displaced. Kachin IDPs are leaving their camps everyday, sometimes twice a day, to go to work.  Despite the lockdown, these people are in desperate need of money and food.  They must work in order to provide food to their families.  Because of the situation within the IDP camps, if COVID19 gets into the camp, it would spread like wildfire, and these people would have limited, if any, medical aid.  Some PPE has been given to the camps, but it is insufficient in numbers in a population highly vulnerable.
  • In Iraq, Catholic charities are complaining that they are unable to reach the Christian IDPs in the country due to the restriction placed by the government during the pandemic. Because they are unable to travel, they cannot reach the IDPs that are in desperate need of their help.  These Christians have been displaced due to war and persecution, they have little money and few have jobs.  Now that the country is in lockdown, they have very little, if any, access to resources in a country where many want them dead.

JUSTICE (OR LACK THEREOF)

During this pandemic, Christians are finding that justice is being abused and misused quite a bit.  In some instances, it is just a consequence of the pandemic, but in other cases, the government is outright abusing the system.  In many places that engage in persecuting Christians, the effects of the pandemic are just compounded on to their normal sub-par conditions.  These Christians have been put in jail because of their faith.  They have already endured the injustice of their convictions, often times they are tortured and abused, the conditions of the prisons are filthy, and healthcare is laughable even without COVID19.  This pandemic has endangered them even more.

Christians around the world that are in crowded jails are facing a high risk of infection, and likely death.  Many countries that persecute Christians have jail systems that are overcrowded, offer little nutrition to prisoners, infrequently deal with health issues, and will likely give little aid to a prisoner that is infected.  These prisoners are at high risk for infection and death.  Because of this problem, some countries have opted to release prisoners conditionally.  However, in places like Iran, not all is as it seems.

Despite having a released 1/3 Christian prisoners, Iran is keeping most Christians within the prison system.  This is due, in large part, to the requirements for furlough.  One of these requirements is that the prisoner’s sentence must be for less than 5 years.  The average sentence given to a Christian is 10 years, automatically disqualifying them from being released.  So although it appears as if Iran is being reasonable, they have set the conditions in such a manner as to keep most Christians in the prison system.  Whether this is intentional or not remains a subject of debate.  However, ICCreminds the world that although it may seem like Iran is improving because they are releasing prisoners due to the pandemic, their human rights and religious freedom violations are still as stark as ever.

It isn’t just the risk of contracting COVID19 that has the prisoners in a larger state of vulnerability.  The lockdowns that many countries have put into place cause the justice system to slow down as well.  Those that were due for their appeals, or their sentencing, have also been delayed.  In systems that are already set against them, with false evidence and false accusations, a lack of transparency is detrimental.  In systems where Christians are falsely accused and have been waiting years for their appeals (which are intentionally delayed in normal circumstances), the timelines have been pushed even further.

  • Because of COVID19, Mary Mohammadi’s court hearing was delayed. She had been arrested for her human rights activism regarding the downed plane in Iran. For a month, she disappeared and we later found out that she had been tortured.  This month, she received her sentence of three months and a flogging of 10 lashes.  Many political prisoners in Iran are complaining that during this pandemic, judges are absent, information about prisoners is non-existent, and the unfair judicial system is even worse.
  • Because of COVID19 pandemic, the High Court has delayed the appeal of a couple on death row for blasphemy. The couple was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws after they were accused of sending text messages deemed blasphemous.  They were tortured into a false confession.  The evidence against them were the text messages, written in English, a language that neither person knows.  They have been jailed separately since 2014.  Pakistan is known to be slow in hearing appeals of Christians and the delay has made that even longer for this couple.  Sitting on death row for six years, they will continue to wait.

In addition to the prisoners that have already been put in jail, many citizens are finding themselves accused, arrested, and sometimes jailed.  Governments and local authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to ramp up acts of persecution.

They are using COVID19 laws to erroneously arrest people or clamp down on religious activities/people.  China and Nepal have seen the bulk of these incidents.  China is known for its persecution of Christians, but during this pandemic it has ramped up its activities.  Listed below are incidents due solely to COVID19.

  • China continues to monitor churches and its pastors. However, under COVID19 restrictions, the guards are now refusing people entrance to the properties.  Instead of observing, they are now restricting.
  • Online services have been banned in China. Online preaching has also been banned in Shandong Province.
  • A Chinese pastor has been detained for sharing a post on social media about the virus.
  • Sun Feng, a Chinese Christian, was seized by security officers after she asked friends to pray and fast during the outbreak.
  • Christians in Wuhan, China have been arrested for handing out face masks.
  • Authorities in Nepal are using COVID19 laws to falsely accuse and arrest pastors.
    • Authorities in Nepal used the COVID19 laws to falsely accuse and arrest a pastor. A few worshippers had shown up at the church and the pastor told them they would have to leave because services had been cancelled.  Nevertheless, he was arrested.  While in custody, Pastor Prem Bahadur was harassed and then released on bail.  He will have to continue to fight the false charges once the lockdown in the country is lifted.
    • Another pastor, Mohan Gurung, was arrested for going against the country’s COVID19 lockdown laws. The police jumped over the locked gate and arrested him, despite the fact that there were less than 10 people, it was a private meeting, all attendees were people who lived on the premises, services had been suspended, and all laws had been followed.  He has been released on bail but will have to fight the system when the country reopens.
    • Pastor Keshab Acharya was arrested as he was praying over sick people. The officers feigned being Christians in need of prayer, and surrounded him for arrest.  The official charges were that he was spreading false information about COVID19.  The evidence against him was a social media video where he rebuked the virus as he preached.
  • A Christian woman, in Nepal, was arrested for praying for the sick. Officials charged her with creating misleading information about COVID19.  Local pastors say that she always prayed for the sick and the community did not like it.  Because of the pandemic, authorities have been allowed to arrest and harass Christians.
  • In India, a Priest was arrested for walking 30 yards within the church’s compound, supposedly breaking the COVID19 lockdown policies.

Authorities are using the pandemic to locate people for arrest or to take over or demolish church property.  They are also unequally applying the law in order to discriminate against Christians.

  • Government in China is using the pandemic to ramp up its anti-religious activities.Many churches, now unoccupied are becoming targets for cross removal and other demolitions.
  • A church in Shanxiwas forced to watch the government tear up its property on Easter Sunday.  The government destroyed the exterior staircase and the fireman’s elevator, leaving damage on the hutch building itself.
  • Throughout the pandemic, China has continued demolishing churches, tearing down crosses, inspecting homes to remove religious symbols, and raid churches that meet in private.
  • Two house churches raided during an online worship service because they were practicing “folk religion” during the pandemic.
  • In Egypt, authorities put a lockdown into place for the health of its citizens. This lockdown went through Easter, forcing Christians in Egypt, like many other places, to worship at home and not congregate.  However, as Ramadan approached, the orders were relaxed in order to allow Muslims to congregate.

HEALTHCARE ISSUES

Many Christians are facing issues within the health care system.  This is especially the case for Christians that have been displaced or are in countries with fragile healthcare systems.  In north and east Syria, Christians not only face physical violence as Turkey, Syria, proxy countries, and jihadist groups fight over the territory, they face squalor conditions and a healthcare system that cannot support COVID19.

The population is having a hard time actually following guidelines to protect themselves from the pandemic.  Because the water supply is now controlled by Turkish-backed forces, the people in the area are finding it hard to get clean water for cooking, much less hand washing.  In addition, the medical and health care system in the area is completely depleted because of all of the military conflicts in the area.  The doctors have left and there is no capacity for those that need ventilators.  Even if the hospitals only dealt with those that don’t need ventilators, they still do not have enough room to support those that need treatment.

Any place on the globe that has IDP and/or refugee camps suffers these types of burdens.  Syria may provide us with an extreme case, but other countries are dealing with these issues to slightly lesser degrees.

In a twist, Christian healthcare workers in India are also dealing with complications and difficulties with the healthcare system.  However, it isn’t because they can’t access care.  In India, Christian medical personnel are being sent to handle COVID19 patients because they are considered “expendable.”  They are being sent into high risk situations with little support and equipment.  On top of that, the Christian healthcare workers are being told to evacuate their residences because their landlords don’t want to be dirty or infected.  These Christian healthcare workers are happy to help, sharing Jesus’ love for others by stepping up and helping save people.  However, this pandemic has caused the discrimination they already felt to be amplified as governments and landlords are abusing the system.


GOVERNMENT OVERREACH

In addition to the injustices the governments perpetrate on their citizenry (see above), governments are also seizing the opportunity to gain more power.  Many governments are taking the opportunity to pass laws that will restrict Christians in the future.  For instance, Turkey tried passing several COVID19 laws that would’ve restricted free speech even more than it already is, specifically targeting social media platforms.  Christians in persecuted countries rely on social media platforms.  Christians organizations are raising the alarm.

In China, officials are calling for the ‘complete eradication’ of fellowships that avoid coming under state control.  Because these religious organizations refuse to swear allegiance to the communist party, the government is looking for ways to arrest the people and shut down their churches.  However, officials are using this pandemic as an excuse to push the Sinicization even further.

The United States is experiencing conflict as many Christians feel their religious freedom is being encroached upon.  Each state is enacting different types of lockdowns on churches, some even allowing for church services to continue. However, most states have limited gatherings or banned gathering all together.  Some state authorities are fining and/or arresting people who congregate for church.  Court battles are ensuing over the rights of the worshippers vs the authority of the government.  In some instances, worshippers have been observing the policies put forth by the state but are still being fined/arrested: Maryland, Florida.  Several states have court cases: Kentucky, Mississippi, and Florida(Florida has been rescinded due to government changing policy).  Currently, state and federal governments are trying to balance religious freedom with the need to be safe/healthy.  Because of this, many court cases are being brought then dropped and policies are made and then rescinded.  It remains unclear if the religious freedom issue will be a concern post-pandemic.  However, many within the citizenry are raising the alarm.

Aside from freedom of speech and freedom of religion, governments are also pushing for more military action.  They see the weaknesses of their foes and are seizing the opportunity to defeat them.  Turkey is using the pandemic as an excuse to ram up its military efforts in Northern Syria, where the majority of Christians, IDPs, and refugees are located.  The SDC region is facing increasingly horrific circumstances.  On March 31, AANES Health Committee reported that Turkey is “using the distraction caused by the pandemic to once again threaten military strikes and a subsequent invasion further into north and east Syria.  (They are already occupying a large part of the region.)  Their threats are disrupting the region’s ability to respond to the pandemic


HOPE

Despite all that they face, Christians across the globe are holding on to the hope of Jesus.

Speaking on social media, Pastor Huang Lei said, 'Everything presents an opportunity to glorify God.'

His statement, which has been widely reported worldwide, continued: 'If Christians are more afraid of death than the world during a disaster, then the suffering they have endured would be in vain.  God wants us to overcome difficulties through Him.  This epidemic provides an opportunity for us to reflect, strengthen our spiritual life and to depend on God.'

And speaking as someone who recently came to know Christ during the pandemic, an anonymous North Korean stated, “I think we will all die from starvation or being infected.  Both are deadly and cause despair, but after knowing Him [Jesus], my fear has vanished.  Thank you.”

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Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash and modified by the author using canva


 

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