29 March 2017

Yemen - Baptisms still happening despite two years of war in country where leaving Islam is punishable by death

A vicious civil war has been devastating Yemen for two years. While Yemeni society is still dominated by strict Islamic rule, some Christian pastors baptise new believers regularly. Jamil*, a former Yemeni Muslim now a Christian pastor, shares a unique insight into the body of Christ in Yemen. "Yemeni Christians really long for Jesus to return. We have lost so much; we reach out to the everlasting peace that He will bring one day - hopefully soon!"

Christians before the war

When the war started two years ago, many foreign Christians who had been residing in Yemen were forced to leave the country. Oddly enough, in Jamil's experience, this laid the groundwork for the current development in the church in Yemen as he explained: "Before that most house churches were heavily dependent on foreign Christians. Local Yemeni Christians couldn't match their theological knowledge, abilities and funds and simply didn't need to take responsibility themselves. Now the foreigners are mostly gone, we actually had to take the lead ourselves. At first it seemed the house church movement would fall apart, but gradually, local Christians started taking responsibility and took up leadership positions. They may not have been highly trained, but they share the knowledge they have and support each other."

Dangerous faith

Being a Christian in Yemen is still extremely dangerous, Jamil pointed out. "Before the war, persecution by the government, the community and relatives was the main problem. Now the government control has diminished the main threats for Christians come from Al Qaeda and IS-like terrorist organisations roaming the country. Some time ago one of these groups posted the names and addresses of a group of known Christians online, effectively endangering their lives and forcing many of them to go into hiding."

Christians also suffer from the effects of the war just like every other Yemeni: insecurity, lack of food and the danger of being caught up in fights between the warring parties.

Nevertheless, Jamil is hopeful for the future and commented: "The church in Yemen is still young. The first generation of Christians who converted from Islam were used to fighting for their position. We are now seeing a second generation of Christians growing up - children born in Christian families. They will be the generation that helps the church to grow. My hope and prayer is that the third generation - their children - will keep the faith and will be accepted into society. Yes, that is my dream - that in the next decades Christians in Yemen can worship God freely. I know that people are willing to give their lives to get there."

Yemen is number 9 on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List, the annual ranking of countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. Yemen is a tribal society and leaving Islam is seen as a betrayal of the tribe - leaving Islam is punishable by death. However, it is reported that many Muslims are turning to Christ.

*name changed for security purposes

- ENDS -


Note to editors:

*Task Force for Population Movement figures -https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0bVFxKZ1OnlTVRJc3ZZMFB0dFE/view

History of Christianity in Yemen: For centuries Yemen has been dominated by strict Wahabi Islam, leaving no room for local Christians. The only official churches are just accessible for foreigners; however, they have been closed and sometimes destroyed since the violence erupted. Throughout the country there have been small groups of Yemeni believers, all from a Muslim background.

War and poverty: Yemen is an extremely poor country on the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula. During the Arab uprising of 2011, Yemeni started taking to the streets demonstrating for political reform. The momentum was hijacked by Islamist militants taking over parts of the country. In the resulting chaos, a Shia Houthi group overtook the capital city Sanaa, sparking Sunni Saudi Arabia to wage war against Yemen, trying to fight back the Houthis (whose links to Iran is seen as a possible threat for Saudi Arabia).

Roaming factions of Al Qaeda, IS and other fundamentalist groups are benefiting from the instability to gain ground in Yemen, igniting new fights with the warring parties. They are very aggressive towards Christians.

After two years of war the violence has depleted the limited resources Yemen had. Civilians take the hardest hits—about eighty percent of the country's population needs emergency relief, causing the UN to label the situation in Yemen as "highest level of humanitarian emergency". However, the war prevents most relief efforts from reaching the needy.

Millions displaced: The conflict means that figures for the number of people displaced are hard to pin down. The Task force for Population Movement - co-led by the IOM and UNHCR estimates* that of Yemen's 28.1 M inhabitants, nearly 2M were internally displaced due to the conflict since March 2015 and that during the same period an estimated 1.05M people returned to their region of origin in Yemen.

For more information call the Open Doors press office on 01993 777377, 01993 777346 or 07484 000 441.

Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians in over 60 countries for over 60 years. Last year it raised approximately $70 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised over £11 million.

Every year Open Doors publishes the World Watch List - a ranking of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. This is produced using detailed information provided by Open Doors co-workers in more than 60 countries, as well as independent experts. Data is gathered on five spheres of life - private, family, community, national and church life- plus a sixth sphere measuring the degree of violence impacting Christians. Persecution in each country is recorded by Open Doors using a point system. Open Doors' research methods and results have been independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom. The 2017 World Watch List accounts for the 12 months ending 31 October 2016.