Ten challenges facing the global persecuted Church in a post-Covid-19 era
The global tide of persecution against the Lord’s people is rising higher and higher, but so is their eternal hope in Christ! Persecuted Christians around the world have endured a huge added burden to their suffering this year as multiple disasters of locusts, coronavirus and devastating floods have swept the globe in 2020. But, before these disasters, so many of our brothers and sisters were already marginalised, violently attacked, kidnapped, raped and even killed simply because they follow Jesus Christ. Yet in the midst of this are glimpses of the marvellous hope we have in our Saviour and the inspiring resilience of the suffering Church.
The threat of the coronavirus pandemic is beginning to recede in many regions; some drugs are proving effective, a vaccine may be found or humans may gradually build immunity to the virus. But the global impact of the Covid-19 crisis looks set to change our world forever. In this article we explore ten significant geopolitical and social changes likely to have a major impact on the global Church and especially on persecuted Christians.
1 The rise of authoritarian governments
Coronavirus is an emerging disaster on a fully-global scale we have not seen before. Some governments have responded by imposing harsh regimes on their citizens. Many of these restrictions were necessary in the short term to control the virus. However, will governments be ready to relinquish the extra powers they have enjoyed in recent months? Or will they seek to consolidate these far-reaching controls over our daily lives and even enshrine them in permanent laws? If so, there is the risk that such powers could be used against religious minorities, and particularly Christians.
Around the world, Christians are often at the sharpest end of pressure and persecution in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes and governments. Under the dictatorial rule of Kim Jong Un, North Korea is routinely ranked as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. Believers have been executed just for owning a Bible, or face a life sentence in a harsh labour camp if they gather to worship together.
Christians are under increasing pressure in China, where the communist government has been cracking down on Christians, and other groups, under Xi Jinping’s increasingly totalitarian presidency. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, governed under strict sharia (Islamic law), Christians, and especially converts from Islam, face harsh restrictions and punishments.
Emergency situations give a reason, or excuse, to governments to assume greater powers than in normal times. This often happens in wartime and also in times of natural disaster. The twenty-first century opened with world-altering cataclysm when the World Trade Centre was obliterated and the Pentagon devastated in a coordinated national-level terror attack, on the USA, unprecedented in modern times. This and subsequent Islamist totalitarian terror attacks brought security restrictions that have encroached on travel and other aspects of life ever since.
2 Growing nationalism, leading to racism and even xenophobia
As the stress of prolonged lockdown continues, we are seeing societies turning in on themselves. National identities, shaped by religion, culture and history, are reasserting themselves leading
to nationalism. This is “worship of nation” that takes the view: “My nation right or wrong. My nation exists at the expense of all others.” Patriotism is a love of one’s country, which all people should have. But to worship one’s country leads to destructive nationalism.
Since the times of the early Church, Christians have been like a “third race”, neither Jew nor Gentile, but God’s new creation. Nationalism is based on an idolatry that makes each nation its own god. But as Christians, we believe there is only one God, the universal Triune God who has created all humanity.
We have seen in many countries state-sponsored suppression of Christians, who are viewed with suspicion by governments for following a “foreign” religion and perceived to be a threat to stability in their homeland. This rising tide of nationalism could place Christian minorities in greater danger of being seen as not belonging to their societies and therefore being marginalised, discriminated against and persecuted more widely.
3 Electronic surveillance
Outbreak containment measures to “test and trace” the contacts of someone suffering from Covid-19 led to the rapid deployment of new systems of digital surveillance. In the UK, for example, a special app was rolled out that everyone was urged to put on their phones. These systems are increasingly being used, not just to control the virus, but also to control the populations of certain countries, particularly in China and India.
Intrusive technologies that monitor who meets whom pose a clear risk to underground churches and Christians living in places of extreme persecution. Even in countries where Christians enjoy freedom of worship at the moment, there is the concern that such systems, if not kept in check, could be misused to target Christians and other minority groups in the future.
4 Rise in religious extremism
Many people have interpreted the Covid-19 world event through the prism of their own religious objectives. Some Islamist militant organisations, such as the Somalia-based terror group Al-Shabaab, declared Covid-19 to be Allah’s punishment to unbelievers. Their spokesman called on Muslims to rejoice in the “painful torment” inflicted on non-Muslims by Covid-19. He mocked the Somali government’s lockdown measures, which included closing mosques and Islamic seminaries. Islamic State and Al-Qaeda also celebrated the virus, describing it as a “small soldier of Allah” sent to attack his enemies. According to reports, some even believe that fighting jihad will guarantee protection from becoming infected with the virus.
Attacks on Christians in Nigeria’s Middle Belt soared during lockdown, as extremists exploited the fact that the authorities had diverted security resources to combatting the virus and Christians locked down in their homes were a sitting target.
“You are the answer from God”
Pastor Jeton spent a sleepless night outside because his house was left uninhabitable by the terrible earthquake that shook Albania in November 2019. Despite his own struggle, the pastor had continued to support his flock of believers through the disaster, giving them courage and strength. But that day he was tired and his own hope was gone. That is the moment when a Barnabas partner met with him and told the battle-weary pastor, “We will help you”. “In those moments God gave me a new strength,” said Pastor Jeton. “I was praying for an answer and you are the answer from God.” Jeton’s hope was revived and he became “stronger in heart” after they prayed together. He was ready to encourage others once again. He told us, “When I saw you, my eyes were opened. I thank Barnabas for the help. I am thankful to God for you!”
Barnabas provided four months of food aid for 99 Christian families suffering in the aftermath of the November 2019 earthquake in Albania
Albanian Christians were only just beginning to recover from the devastation of the earthquake when the coronavirus pandemic struck early in 2020. Around 76% of the population were left struggling to feed their families, as employment leapt by 10%. Christian leaders called for prayer for Christian communities, especially for the emotional recovery of many younger children who are stressed after being doubly impacted by the earthquake and the pandemic.
5 Conspiracy theories
As Christians, we follow One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. It is very sad when Christians naïvely believe falsehood and then disseminate
it to others. As Jason Mandryk, of Operation World, writes:
Having faith in the unseen does not excuse us from the responsibility to be mature in our thinking. Anticipating a new heaven and new earth does not give us license to endorse the destruction and suffering of this one. Understanding that the world system and the powers and principalities operate beyond the mundane does not mean that every wild speculation is true!
Current events can be interpreted from a spiritual and eternal perspective, but Christians must maintain their testimony as people of truth and love. Christians believing and circulating unfounded conspiracy theories can damage the reputation of the Church.
We must remember, too, that minorities are often scapegoated in conspiracy theories, just as Christians were falsely blamed by Emperor Nero for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, which he may have actually started himself. Ultimately, what is important is what Jesus calls Christians to be and do. And the wildest of conspiracy theories make no difference to that, whether they turn out to be true or not.
6 Rising conflict and fading civility
With the great stress of lockdown, deadly illness and the related pressures, cracks can occur in societies, leading to internal conflict and even violence. When people turn in on themselves, under extreme pressure, overreactions make small issues seem to take on gigantic proportions. Anger can erupt and unrest can rise in communities. Where societies are under pressure, historic ethno-religious loyalties and values can come to the surface. Then minorities, such as Christians, are vulnerable to blame and attack. Even if they are not directly targeted, Christians can be caught in the middle of a conflict between others.
7 Weaponising aid
Sadly, withholding humanitarian aid as a form of geopolitical control is not new. But global crises give considerable scope for this. While it is normal and expected in many parts of the world that each religion will care for its own, governments should help all their citizens. Barnabas Fund received many reports of Christians being discriminated against and excluded from covid-related food aid. This often takes place at a local level at the point of distribution.
In certain Indian states where the BJP party holds power, for example, distributors refused to give food to Christians and especially pastors. There have been similar incidents in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nigeria with some Christians unable to access food aid meant for everyone.
8 Growing mental health issues
Many are predicting a significant rise in mental health issues due to the stress of lockdown. Most Westerners are not suffering the existential difficulties of being locked down with no food in the house, but huge numbers are facing economic crises, loss of jobs, domestic abuse, depression, anxiety and even panic attacks about the virus or about the future in general. For many, bereavement has been made worse by being unable to say goodbye to dying loved ones in hospital or attend their funeral. Home-schooling their children for months has been an added stress for many, and can easily lead to family tensions.
The World Health Organisation has drawn attention to the psychological impact of Covid-19 across the world in terms of elevated levels of stress and anxiety. This stress is leading to an increase in suicides.
In many countries, Christians and others have been experiencing the trauma of making life-or-death decisions about whether to stay at home and starve or go out and seek food but risk death from Covid-19; in some countries going out also involved a risk of being shot by the police for breaking the lockdown or curfew.
Furthermore, many Christians are struggling to make sense of what is happening to them at this time, whether it be Covid-19, natural disaster, hunger or violence.
For Christians who might normally look to their local church for love, care and acceptance when struggling to cope, this support may be unavailable due to lockdown.
9 Transition fatigue
A particular kind of mental health issue known as transition fatigue has become an increasing concern. This comes when the rapid pace of change or disruption in our lives becomes more than we can easily process or adapt to. This affects, for example, people who have been violently displaced multiple times, from villages and then even from the camps they end up in. Basic levels of social stability become very difficult and people tend to become passive and hopeless.
The rate of technological progress in the past 20 years has rightly been described as “dizzying”. But in 2020, in just a couple of months – not a couple of decades – our lives suddenly changed out of all recognition, socially, culturally, financially and in many other ways. We were told to await a “new normal” in post-covid times. In other words, our present routines will soon change yet again. The accelerating rate of change we have lived with for a generation has suddenly gone supersonic.
Most of us are suffering from transition fatigue to some degree, often without even realising why we are struggling to cope. Many leaders of churches, ministries and Christian institutions are perplexed by the rapidly changing situation and are concerned about how their work and ministry will survive, especially given the complexity of the multitude of pressures that they face.
10 Economic crisis
Covid-19 has created a devastating setback to economic growth across the globe. The financial impact is likely to be far greater than the 2008-9 recession. Although some predict a “V-shaped recession”, with economies quickly bouncing back, others estimate that trillions of dollars will be lost and it may take decades for the world to recover. Some industries may be irreparably damaged. As this disaster plays out, the rich are getting richer and the rest are being left behind.
In lockdown situations, where people are out of work and congregations cannot meet together in person, whether in the UK or other countries, church incomes have rapidly dwindled. This has had a knock-on effect on giving to Christian organisations and institutions. Christians in very vulnerable situations will be doubly impacted, not only by a drop in their own incomes but also by the dramatic fall of economies in the West who will no longer be able to send support at the same levels.
We do not know how many churches and Christian institutions may have to close in the coming months because of lack of funding due to lockdown. But we do know this possibility is most marked in places where Christians are being discriminated against and persecuted.
“Faithful until death”
Jihadists killed 58 people in three separate attacks in Burkina Faso on 29 and 30 May. One attack was on a convoy taking food to a camp of displaced villagers, mainly Christians, who had fled previous jihadi violence. A survivor, who had been travelling in an ambulance, recalled how the attackers had left that particular vehicle alone, not because it was an ambulance but because the driver had shouted: “Forgive, forgive, we are also followers of the prophet Muhammad.” One of the gunmen turned to his fellows saying, “They have the same religion as us,” and the ambulance was left unharmed.
“I send my thanks to Barnabas Fund who hurried to our aid; although they do not know us physically, but they know us by the compassion of God.”
Extremist anti-Christian violence has escalated in the past several years and has been especially vicious in West Africa. The UN described an “unprecedented” rise in terrorist violence across the Sahel and West Africa with, with more than 4,000 deaths reported in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in 2019, compared to 770 three years earlier. Burkina Faso, which is about 30% Christian, emerged as one of the worst-affected with the number of deaths jumping from about 80 in 2016 to over 1,800 in 2019. Around half a million people were internally displaced by violence in an escalating humanitarian crisis.
A new era of global persecution?
Five future trends for the persecuted Church
Are the post-covid challenges affecting Christians, and the rising tide of pressure on the Church, converging toward a new era of persecution? The following highlights five key future trends emerging for the global persecuted Church.
1. An emerging era of growing global persecution
The increasing pressure from scarcity alongside tensions from growing nationalism in many regions is polarising and dividing formerly peacefully co-existing communities. Racism, and even xenophobia, look set to rise in post-covid times. In societies, we are seeing more general intolerance and incivility, which breeds an increase in persecution of Christians, so often seen as strangers and distrusted outsiders in their own countries.
2. Interacting disasters and complex crises
The way we have seen coronavirus, locusts and floods overlapping and coinciding in 2020 to generate complex crises is likely to become a more frequent scenario. In East Africa in April and May, two tragedies landed on top of the coronavirus crisis, making three simultaneous disasters, impacting each other. The huge numbers of displaced people complicated the Kenyan government’s efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus. At the same time, borders closed in the fight against coronavirus delayed the delivery of pesticides to locust-affected areas in the region.
In the future, plagues of various kinds and other natural disasters will increasingly intersect, bringing multiple pressures on already marginalised Christians.
3. Increase in anti-Christian violence
Several Islamist militant organisations have seen Covid-19 as a green light, both theologically and practically, to intensify their persecution of non-Muslims. Christian communities in Nigeria, for example, left vulnerable by absent security and stay-at-home curfews faced a spike of merciless attacks by Boko Haram and other terror groups. In India, where the lockdown suffering has been perhaps the worst in the world, it is likely that militant Hindus will become more violent towards Christians. The violent backlash against a minority seen as “non-Indian” seems likely to continue and worsen.
China’s “brave new world”: chilling scope of “Skynet” surveillance system emerges
The Chinese government is obtaining blood samples from up to 70 million – 10% of all men and boys – as the high-tech surveillance state builds a “DNA Skynet” of the country’s 700 million males. Any individual who refuses to give blood samples risks their family being barred from benefits such as travel, fast internet connection and hospital treatment.
The powerful genetic mapping tool, which is being compiled from samples collected since 2017, will join up with China’s existing countrywide video-surveillance network. The system will be capable of tracking every male relative of any individual man just from a sample of his genetic material, such as skin or hair. Only 5-10% of the male population needs to be sampled in order to build a complete genetic map, because one sample unlocks the identity of all related males.
4. Diminishing religious freedoms in the coming surveillance age
The surveillance technology that has been rolled out for Covid-19 “test and trace” measures will not be rolled up again and put away when the virus is under control or even if it is eliminated. States will continue to have these powerful technological tools at their disposal to monitor anyone and anything with pinpoint precision if they so wish. Countries like China and India already have a head start in the targeted surveillance of their citizens. Their current governments are very keen to suppress Christians, as well as other minorities. It is not difficult to imagine that Christians will be one of the main targets in post-covid monitoring, which is heading towards increasing use of biological, and even genetic data, for profiling. Artificial intelligence and biometric technology will become commonplace in what is being called a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, with one billion cameras expected to be installed globally by 2021.
5. Increasing numbers of “fatherless and widows”
In a world of increasing persecution, and life-threatening disaster, the most vulnerable within our Christian family will be in even greater need than before: those displaced by violence, those who have lost everything in a natural disaster, those trapped generation after generation in grinding poverty.Widows, and their children, face great hardship and are extremely vulnerable in many societies. In Pakistan they are triply despised for being women, widows and Christians. God especially commands us to care for “the fatherless and widows” and uphold them which, as He has given us in His Word, must be a priority.
“My children were becoming weaker and weaker day by day,” said Kanwal, a widowed mother-of-three in Pakistan. Their growing weakness was because the family had so little to eat. Kanwal’s job as a restaurant cleaner had stopped when lockdown began. Her church gave the family a small amount of cooked food each day until lockdown grew stricter and this was no longer possible.
“I tried my best to register myself in the different schemes of relief and support but for unknown reasons I was never selected or qualified for receiving any relief through the government’s schemes,” Kanwal explained. Then she received a package of food and hygiene products, funded by Barnabas. “I feel myself so loved and blessed by God for receiving such timely support … in the ongoing most difficult time in my life,” she said.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” - James 1:27
“They know us by the compassion of God”
“There are people who are far away from us and who heard the news of our plight. And this news touched them to the point where they reacted quickly by helping us with the food that is here,” said Pastor Yonli, National President of the Evangelical Church in Burkina Faso, at the distribution of food aid from Barnabas to Christian victims of violence in early 2020.
“I send my thanks to Barnabas Fund who hurried to our aid,” he said. “Although they do not know us physically, but they know us by the compassion of God. They sympathised with our pain, in prayer and in financial support. The bags of corn and rice you see are a sign of this compassion.”
Christians became sitting targets
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic left Christian communities even more vulnerable to extremist attack in West Africa, as countries’ limited security resources were deployed to battle the virus and lockdown restrictions meant Christians became sitting targets. These factors were exploited ruthlessly by jihadists, who even celebrated the suffering caused by Covid-19. In June 2020, the UN reported that more than 30,000 refugees, many of them Christian, fled extreme violence in north-eastern Nigeria since April, during Covid-19 lockdown in the region.
Violent persecution is rising in India
India has also seen a troubling rise in anti-Christian attacks and mob violence in recent years.
“If anything happens to my pastor, I will not fear. I will take charge of pastor’s work and serve the Lord!” This brave declaration was made by Samaru Madkami, aged 14, from Odisha State, India. He had good reason to expect his pastor to die, as Christians in their area face hostility and violence from extremists in the Hindu majority. Samaru’s father, a church elder and convert to Christianity, had received death threats.
But it was Samaru himself who was abducted and brutally murdered by the extremists, not long after he had made his courageous pledge. He went missing on 4 June and his body was found two days later. The gang who killed him also tried to seize a cousin of Samaru’s but, being older and stronger, the cousin managed to get away.
“Samaru was a passionate Christian,” said his pastor, recalling how the boy had energetically shared the Gospel with other young people and children in the village.
Crackdown on Christians becoming like Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”
In June 2020, a widowed Chinese Christian in her 60s had her government support subsidy terminated after she refused to remove Christian pictures from her home and to “stop believing in God”. She was told by government officials that her only means of support would be removed if the images were not taken down. “Because the Communist Party feeds you, you must only believe in it, not God,” said the official. Two months later the woman’s benefits were cancelled because she refused to remove the images.
A believer who was facing similar threats from officials in in Henan said, “What should I do without my income? How can I reason with them? It’s just like the Cultural Revolution.”
Under sinicisation (making Chinese) rules introduced since 2018, religious symbols and Scriptural texts have been removed from display in church buildings by authorities and replaced with the Chinese flag, portraits of president Xi Jinping and Chinese Communist Party slogans.
The continuing nationwide crackdown on the Church by authorities in China has seen hundreds of “house churches” (i.e. unregistered congregations) and “three-self” (i.e. state-registered) churches forcibly shut down. Increasingly repressive measures have included violent police raids, thousands of arrests and detentions, imprisonment of pastors and forced installation of surveillance cameras inside some churches.
Praying to God, “the husband to the widow and the father of the fatherless”
Alice used to work on a flower farm in Kenya, earning £1.90 ($2.35; €2.10) a day but all the employees lost their jobs when the Covid-19 lockdown came. Widowed Alice had four school-aged daughters to support, some of them sick. She was in desperate need when the help from Barnabas arrived.
“I have received support from the church in the form of maize and wheat flour, fresh maize, beans, vegetables, cooking oil … and pray to God to bless the hand that gave support for us the needy,” said Alice.