It is, of course, the story of the year 2020. A global pandemic, hospitalising and killing millions. But there is another story to be told about the Covid crisis – and that is the way the virus is being used against the persecuted church.
Christians in Myanmar receive Covid-19 aid provided by you; in Asia alone during the pandemic, your support has directly helped 283,000 Christians
It’s been one trial after another for Aarti – and, as with many Christians across the world, Covid-19 has brought another.
Aarti – whose name we’ve changed – gave her life to Jesus a few years ago, along with the rest of her family. At the time they were one of four families in the village to become Christians, much to the anger of fellow villagers. In India (10 on the World Watch List), everyone is expected to be Hindu.
“The other villagers were furious and together tried to force all the families to convert back,” Aarti recalls. “Due to the constant pressure and threats, the other three families could not resist.” Thankfully, Aarti and her family stood firm by strengthening and comforting each other.
“God showed His favour through you, and our needs were met." 'Aarti'
But tragedy was not far around the corner. Within a short space of time, Aarti lost her husband and two sons. The grief for Aarti – and her daughter and four grandchildren – was immense. And this on top of ongoing hostility from villagers. “With continuous taunts, struggles and opposition, life was a misery.”
When Covid-19 reared its head, and the family were denied government aid, things seemed to go from bad to worse. But it’s here that you came alongside Aarti and her family, providing vital food aid.
“God showed His favour through you, and our needs were met,” Aarti shares. “I thank the brothers for travelling this far and blessing us with groceries in our hour of need. God showed mercy to Naomi in the Old Testament and He has done the same for my family. All glory to God.”
Sadly, Aarti’s story is not unusual. In India, about 80,000 of more than 100,000 Christians receiving aid, with your help, reported to World Watch List researchers that they were dismissed from food distribution points. Some were told that ‘your church or your God should feed you’.
Unemployment is high amongst Christians in India, more so than any other religious group. Christians are often from the Dalit caste, which is among the lowest in India’s caste hierarchy. Many of those who do work are daily wage labourers, but this industry largely ground to a halt due to lockdown. Consequently, aid discrimination has left whole Christian families destitute and in desperate need of help.
It’s a problem not confined to India. Far from it. In southern Kaduna, Nigeria (9 on the World Watch List), families from several villages said they received one sixth of the rations allocated to Muslim families. “We were happy when the government announced food aid for the poor,” said Rose, whose husband, a pastor, was killed by Fulani militants. “But we were left out. We received none of that food.”
Elsewhere, in places like Sudan (13 on the World Watch List), Myanmar (18), Vietnam (19), Bangladesh (31), Nepal (34), and across Central Asia and North Africa, Christians in rural areas have been denied aid. Sometimes this is by government officials, but often it’s by village heads and committees. There have been reports of food ration cards being torn up or waved away.
These startling reports reinforce how costly following Jesus is in many countries. Converting to Christianity from a majority faith not only alienates believers relationally from spouses, families, tribes and communities, it gives them little to fall back on when income suddenly stops. Last year, Open Doors sought to raise awareness of this issue through our #LastInLine campaign.
You’ll likely have been affected by the closure of churches. For many church leaders across the world, who don’t receive salaries but rely on donations, closures have been especially worrying, threatening their very livelihoods. Leaders from places including Egypt and Latin America have, because of stopped services, reported a drop in donations of some 40 per cent. This inevitably also impacts the humanitarian assistance churches can offer people, both inside and outside the church.
"This pandemic made our situation challenging, as we have no church gathering and no income." 'Rohan'
One affected leader is Rohan from India. His name – which we’ve changed for security reasons – might be familiar to you. After Rohan’s church building was burnt by Hindu extremists, you helped fund its rebuilding. And your support has again been vital in the wake of Covid-19.
“This pandemic made our situation challenging, as we have no church gathering and no income,” Rohan shares. “But praise be to God because you called us and asked about our condition. We are thankful for the groceries. Indeed, I am grateful to God for the team for standing with pastors like me in our hour of need and strengthening us with your presence.”
Another impact of the pandemic is the increase in intimidation towards Christians. Many converts, without the respite of work, education and outside interests, have been locked down with family antagonistic, even extremely hostile, to their faith. Among the Top 10 countries, the number of women reporting psychological violence has increased. To worsen matters, contact with other believers has reduced. There’s also been a rise in the kidnapping, forcible conversion and forced marriages of women and girls.
"Covid, in effect, has put another weapon into the hands of persecutors." Henrietta Blyth, CEO Open Doors UK & Ireland
Christians have even been accused of causing the virus. In Colombia (30), the traditional animist beliefs held by some indigenous communities means they believe that converts to Christianity are the source of all plagues and diseases. Leaders of such groups believe that expelling Christian converts from their communities will help to put an end to the coronavirus. This has increased persecution, in some cases leading to Christians being imprisoned as way of expelling them from the community.
It’s a similar story in Somalia (3), where the violent Islamist group al-Shabaab said coronavirus was spread ‘by the crusader forces who have invaded the country and disbelieving countries that support them’.
There have also been cases of Christian health workers facing discrimination in the distribution of protective equipment (PPE). Thankfully, your support has stepped in to provide this essential equipment.
And sometimes, such as in an incident in Sri Lanka, coronavirus was the pretext for police to visit Christians’ homes to investigate church members and activities.
It’s not all bad news, however. Some Christians in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America have said that the pandemic has meant there’s been less pressure to engage in local rituals and festivals.
It’s also given opportunity for Christ’s light to shine in the darkness. In India, one family who received aid from you said, “Seeing our neighbour struggling, we plan to share some with them too.” And in Sri Lanka, your generosity enabled one church leader to reach out to his local community. It’s softened hearts – including the police who have previously opposed the church’s work. Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, your help meant a church could give aid to those who just a few months earlier had attacked them. They were deeply touched and asked, “Why did we do so much against them?”
And of course, your remarkable generosity has fed and supported thousands of Christians, in many cases saving them from starvation. In Asia alone, 283,000 believers have been helped and reminded that their global church family is standing with them.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Open Doors UK and Ireland CEO Henrietta Blyth summarised how the pandemic had exacerbated persecution against Christians: “Covid, in effect, has put another weapon into the hands of persecutors, so it has made life infinitely more difficult for Christians suffering already.”
With the virus continuing to wreak havoc across the world, your prayers and support for our persecuted family during this time remain as vital as ever.
Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus.
Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.