A rare report from Yemen’s secret church—‘We are turning our fears into prayers’

June 4, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

A former Muslim from Yemen—now a believer  living under quarantine outside his native land—shared this rare glimpse inside the troubled country and how Christians are responding in the growing COVID-19 crisis.

A growing deadly crisis

Last week, the United Nations reported that in Yemen,  the health system has “in effect” collapsed, Since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Yemen on April 10, the UN and relief organizations have warned that the spread of the virus will have a catastrophic impact if the cases are not identified, treated, isolated, and properly tracked. However, in Yemen following through with these measures seems impossible when conflict continues to rage in hotspots around the country.

Three weeks after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in my native country, additional cases were verified in Aden, the temporary capital of Yemen’s Saudi- and Emirates-backed authorities. By May 27, the Supreme National Emergency Committee announced that 256 total cases had been recorded, along with 53 deaths, in areas under the control of authorities based in the south. Reportedly, only 10 cases recovered. Alongside the confirmed numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, city officials in Aden reported that more than 500 people died between May 8 and May 16 alone, many with breathing difficulties. Government burial statistics reveal a current death rate of 80 people per day in the city, up from a pre-outbreak average of 10.

A recent Associated Press article paints an accurate picture. The article quotes a gravedigger saying he’d never seen “such a constant flow of dead”— he points out that this is happening in a city that has seen multiple bouts of bloody street battles during more than five years of war.

Yemeni citizens are fearing the terrifying scenarios now projected by international agencies, including the infection of half our population and the deaths of more than 40,000 Yemenis, due to the unmitigated spread of COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and frustration dominating my neighborhood and social network,” says Shoki, a secret believer who lives in the country’s northern region. “Many of the people around me are fearful, and there is talk about the tragic way a person with this virus can die, and the suffering of the victim and his family.”

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A decision not to seek treatment

Recent reports from experts explain that the rise in the overall number of deaths suggests that the COVID-19 figures announced so far may not reflect the reality on the ground—due to extremely limited capacity to test for the virus, combined with the parallel spread of other fever-producing illnesses including malaria, cholera and Dengue fever.

With very limited resources, many Yemenis are only seeking medical care in the latest stages of an illness, making treatment and recovery even more difficult. Others don’t seek treatment at all and die in their homes; they’re buried before being examined for cause of death.

Unable to afford medical care, Yemenis with symptoms may also choose not to seek testing or treatment out of fear of the stigma that comes with having COVID-19 in the country.

“We’ve seen videos of health authorities in the northern areas dealing with the suspected cases that are reported to them, and they are arresting the people as if they are criminals,” says Ali, a Christian living in the north.

Many people are not reporting suspected cases out of fear of these security measures, Ali says.

“We’ve also heard stories of people traveling from the southern governorates to the north and how they were quarantined along the way. The quarantine conditions were terrible; there weren’t enough bathrooms and not enough space for the number of people.”

Without the minimum resources needed to properly treat COVID-19 patients, many medical facilities in Yemen are refusing to admit suspected cases of COVID-19 at all. There are even stories circulating about Yemenis dying at hospital doors after being refused treatment.

I have personally lost two of my own family members living in Yemen in the last two weeks to undiagnosed illnesses that included breathing difficulties. Meanwhile, some of my neighbors there tell me they were thrown out of a hospital after they started experiencing severe difficulty breathing. They went from one hospital to another and were repeatedly turned away because they were presenting symptoms consistent with a COVID-19 infection. Finally, they returned home to die since the life-saving treatment they needed was simply not offered.

 ‘It has brought us closer to Jesus’

However, amidst this pain I’m encouraged and strengthened by the reports of my brothers and sisters inside our country.

They say there’s a different conversation from the area’s secret Christians: “I’ve noticed how believers are a blessing, as they talk about how to deal with this pandemic in a spirit of hope, encouragement and prayer,” Shoki tells me, adding that Christians are following prevention measures and safe health practices.

Lack of awareness about the seriousness of COVID-19 and about the importance of personal protective measures like social distancing are contributing to the rapid spread of coronavirus in Yemen, so believers are trying to model these practices to those around them. This has not been easy in Yemen’s communal culture.

“We’ve stopped giving a kiss of greeting as we’re accustomed to doing,” a believing mother said, “and I feel embarrassed because the women I would normally exchange visits with don’t understand the importance of social distancing.”

In this environment, believers in the hardest hit areas of Yemen shared they are overcoming their sadness and fears by turning them into a driving force to pray and to encourage one another to follow reliable advice about treatment and prevention.

“We pray for each other that the Lord Jesus will deliver us from this pandemic,” a believing woman said. “It has brought us closer to Him and brought us closer to each other as His children in Yemen. We’re trying to spend more time with our children, teaching them and praying together and praying for the salvation of our people.”

‘We feel the Lord Jesus with us’

All across Yemen, COVID-19 is deepening the economic crisis as prices of food, masks, soap, and other basic supplies rise, in an economy already devastated by five years of war.

“My work as a home goods vendor was affected by the spread of this virus,” said Hasan, a believer living in the north. “Despite this pressure, I feel that God is with me and my family, and I’m confident that His doors won’t close even when others’ do.”

Like Hasan, believers around the country have affirmed their confidence in God as they do their best to follow the measures recommended for slowing the spread of the virus.

“Even in light of the difficult conditions we’re facing, we feel that the Lord Jesus is with us,” a believing sister told me. “We feel His mercy and closeness to us. A lot of people complain about emptiness and boredom because of the need to stay at home more, but I’ve found it to be a valuable opportunity to pray, draw closer to God, and feel the affection of His hand outstretched to His children.”

Although believers in Yemen face the same desperate conditions and lack of resources as the society around them, they do have one resource—a relationship with the Author of Life—that sets them apart.

“I and many others are feeling the great pressure that the spread of this virus has added to our lives,” says a believer named Naser. “But when I search, I find that we, the believers, carry hope that helps us with the certainty that tomorrow will be better and that by the will of our Lord we will pass through this and all the anxieties and fears surrounding us.”

When I hear from my brothers and sisters inside Yemen, it gives me courage and strength to face the ongoing quarantine in the country where I’m living now. I also feel a strong burden to pray for them as I know they will fight the battle against COVID-19 with far fewer earthly resources than most countries around the world.

Let us stand in prayer with our brothers and sisters in Yemen in these days—even as they stand with us.

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