DENIED!—8 places where starving Christians are refused government relief

August 23, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Africa

When Rose, a widow with three children caught in the global pandemic, learned that government-provided COVID-19 aid was coming to their village in northern Nigeria, she believed this was the answer she’d been praying for. Maybe this would be the beginning of being able to feed and take care of her family again.

 

“We were happy when the government announced food aid for the poor,” Rose says.

 

But on the day of the aid distribution, Rose received nothing. “We were left out. We received none of that food. All our hopes were dashed,” she says.

Rose and her three children were denied support because they follow Jesus in a Muslim area.

Rose isn’t the only one who has been denied relief from their country’s government because they have left the village’s religion and refused to participate in local rituals. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantines, persecution against Christians has not decreased. For Christians who are mostly day laborers and are already unable to access local services because they have been “boycotted” by their village, the pandemic has given way to another layer of persecution.

Our field continues to share stories and reports from believers like Rose who tell us they have been excluded from any such support. In rural areas, the government gives the food and supplies to the village leaders to distribute. The local leaders will then decide whom they will or will not help.

Open Doors CEO David Curry explains that the pandemic has become a “catalyst for faith-based discrimination internationally.” He points out that in many of these countries, Christians are consistently treated as second-class citizens, traitors and infidels.

“Christians and other religious minorities are facing a new punishment: discriminatory distribution of emergency relief and medical care,” Curry says.

In some cases, Christians have even been blackmailed as Muslim and Hindu leaders attempt to coerce them to return to their former religion for food. Sam*, one of Open Doors’ local partners in Southeast Asia, shared: “Christians aren’t getting the support that people who follow the majority religion get. In fact, sometimes it’s even worse. For example, in Bangladesh extremist Muslims may tell them: ‘We will give you food if you come back to Islam.’”

Here’s what’s happening in seven places where Christians are denied government help—simply because they have chosen to walk with Jesus.

1. India: Social boycott in crisis

Open Doors partners responded to believers’ cries for help who were denied government support in their Indian villages.

For Christians in Hindu villages, the pandemic has exacerbated an already difficult situation. Open Doors staff workers Samuel* and Heena* detail the scenario:

“Imagine you’re a Christian family in a Hindu village. It’s very likely the villagers are socially boycotting you. They don’t allow you to buy from the local shop or draw water from the well. To live, you must go to nearby Christians’ homes or travel to villages where Christian opposition isn’t so strong. Now your village is in lockdown. You’ve lost your income. Government aid is being distributed to the local village committee who’s already boycotting you. So they won’t give you the food, even with a food ration card.”

Our India team and local partners have encountered many examples of Indian Christians being left out of aid efforts. They share a few below:

  • Since Nathan*, a Christian man living with a disability, and his family of six became Christians, the local people won’t give them any food. The family told Open Doors field workers they were also bypassed for COVID-19 relief.
  • Another Christian, Gerard*, was expelled from his village for leaving Hinduism; months later, he tried to return to his home. While everyone in the village received emergency food rations, Gerard says he was excluded.
  • A day laborer, Adrian, shares a similar situation. Everyone around him received food to survive except Adrian—because of his faith in Jesus.
  • The same story for Davina*, an older Christian widow with nine family members.

The stream of stories from Indian believers saying they were left out of aid relief continue to pour in.

2. Malaysia: A matter of life and death

Also in Southeast Asia, numerous reports indicate that Christians in Muslim-majority Malaysia are suffering a double layer of persecution in remote areas as Muslim villagers exploit the pandemic crisis. Already suffering for converting from Islam, Malays are struggling to survive and stand strong in their faith. Sam tells a particularly heartbreaking story of youth in eastern Malaysia who had recently become Christians.

“To serve them, our partners had been traveling four hours by boat and another two hours walking through the jungle to their villages,” he says. “But the COVID-19 lockdown shut down all transportation to their villages. When transportation opened last month, our local partners once again went to their villages to encourage them and bring them food. When they arrived, they learned that some of the youth had gone back to Islam.

“The only place in the area providing food relief was the local mosque. When the youth went to the mosque to get food for their families, they were asked to convert back to Islam.”

Sam adds that our partners on the ground continue to meet with the youth, in hopes of bringing them back to Christ.

These kinds of things are happening, Sam says, because there’s “a matter of life and death. They don’t have food to eat. The only food supply is with[in] a mosque, and Christians could not go to the village. It was a very difficult situation and some of these Christians had to compromise on their faith to live and help their families survive.”

3. Bangladesh: ‘You are not part of this support’

Amid severe flooding and damage caused by super cyclone Amphan, Bangladeshi believers didn’t receive government support—creating a perfect storm of persecution.

In this Muslim-majority nation bordering India and Myanmar, the government is offering widespread assistance to its citizens. But some Christians, especially those coming from a Muslim or Buddhist background in rural areas, aren’t receiving that support. Sam explains: “They are not able to receive the support because when it goes to the villages, the village head normally discriminates against the Christians. They say, ‘Well, you’re Christian. You became a Christian so you are not part of this support.’”

For new believers struggling to feed their families, especially in these rural areas, the deprivation of food and other resources can be a critical factor in the growth of the church.

“In tribal societies, community is the lifeline. No one can survive without it,” Sam explains. “The faith of many new believers in these areas is fragile. They need to become stronger in the Lord.”

Sam delivers a sobering bottom line: “If they don’t have the means to survive, they may die or convert back to Islam.”

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4. Vietnam: ‘You are not on the list’

Quarantines have also created difficult situations in the northern and Central Highlands regions of Vietnam, especially in rural areas where Christians are striving to put food on their tables. “They consume their rice little by little every day,” says Nguyen Van Quan*, one of our on-the-ground partners in north Vietnam.

Although the country has already lifted its nationwide lockdown, the government still distributes food aid through the local villages to families with meager incomes or those who lost their jobs during the lockdown. But when 18 Christian families in north Vietnam—a total of 107 people including senior citizens and children—went to gather their portion, local authorities told them, “You are not the list.”

“When they learned support was coming to their district, they were so happy,” Nguyen shares. “Instead, the authorities said: ‘You are Christians, and your God shall take care of your family! The government is not responsible for your families!’”

The persecution didn’t stop there.

When our partners learned about this injustice, they responded, delivering sacks of rice (55 pounds for each household) to these believers—but even this wasn’t easy. Local authorities soon found out about the distribution at a church member’s home and showed up, demanding they stop and immediately leave the village. Nguyen paints the scene:

“One of our partners, Pastor Foom*, bravely faced the authorities. He stood up to them and said, ‘Our church donated these sacks of rice to help them in this difficult time. Since you could not provide food for them and discriminated against them from receiving aid because they are Christians, our church decided to help them. Why are you stopping us from helping them?’”

Compelled to deliver the aid to the families, Open Doors partners took the sacks of rice to a different village where a believer willingly opened his house to store the aid, despite the risk of interrogation. Representatives of the 18 families discreetly went to the designated home where they finally received the aid.

5. Philippines: No support for Christians

Reports like these have come in throughout Asia. One partner reports in Southern Philippines, a village received government aid during the lockdown, but the only Christian family in the village didn’t get the support.

“When our team came to bring aid, the village head really wanted to attack our team, as well as tell the village that because this family had become Christians, the pandemic had come,” Sam shares. “This kind of situation happens all the time.”

Adds one Open Doors field worker in Asia: “The stream of messages we get, in which Christians tell us they are starving and don’t receive help because of their faith, is simply endless.”

6. Ethiopia: ‘The church is in great trouble’

Pastor Adane* says the “church in eastern Ethiopia is in great trouble.”

COVID-19 and the increasingly difficult living conditions created by the pandemic and the coinciding plague of crop-destroying locusts that have swept across East Africa have wreaked havoc on an already bad situation.

Despite registering with the government for help, Ethiopian Christians have been deliberately left out of any aid, says Adane, a pastor in eastern Ethiopia. “There were different kinds of support in our area from the government. They gave oil, rice and dough to some people. When people register, they exclude the Protestant community. Especially if they are believers from a Muslim background … we have not seen them give to Protestants. We asked our church members, both in the rural and urban areas, but they have not received any of the government support.”

The pandemic has severely affected the church’s ministry, Adane explains. Churches in this area are not only dependent on tithes and offerings to support ministers, but also to aid persecuted believers who have lost their jobs and community support due to their conversion. The local Muslim leaders make the community disassociate from believers by ordering shop owners to refuse to sell them any goods, including food and medicine, Adane explains.

This lack of aid causes distress for believers like Ebrahim*, a believer in Adane’s church, who usually provides for his wife and son through farming. But the locust plague has destroyed this year’s harvest. When Ebrahim went to register for relief aid, the officials chased him away saying, “You are infidels!”

The only way they would allow him to register for government assistance, Adane says, was if Ebrahim and his family returned to Islam.

Ebrahim’s family also pressured him to come back to Islam in return for their help; his wife’s family pressured her to move back home with them instead of suffering as a Christian with Ebrahim.

“He has nothing to feed his family, and the people are pressuring him to return to Islam to receive help,” Adane says.

The local government often excludes believers because they believe Christians receive support from outside Ethiopia. Adane shares about Girma*, a father of three. “Girma does not have a farm … he has nothing. At first, the [government] registered him for support but removed his name from the list because they found out he had become a Christian. He is in great trouble and the church has nothing to give him.”

“The church in Ethiopia is in great trouble,” Adane says.

7. Gulf region: ‘This food has been paid for by Islamic taxes’

In the eyes of the majority of the citizens in the Gulf region where Open Doors worker Hana serves (we cannot disclose the specific country or area for safety reasons), Christians are seen as waste. Hana herself has received her fair share of discrimination and contempt. She shared with our team:

“I contacted an agency that’s responsible for distribution and asked them to supply Christians with rations as well. I was as friendly as one could be,” she says. “But the man on the phone blatantly refused, saying, ‘This food has been paid for by Islamic taxes. Besides, we hire Christians to do the distribution.’”

But when Hana investigated how much money Christians made, she says it was a “pitifully low amount.” And when she challenged the organization, they acted as if she was making a big deal out of nothing.

“For the Christian employees, however, it is a big deal. They are thankful they have jobs, but they know they could get the disease anytime and die. They are constantly at risk,” she says.

Hana remembers what one young believer told her: “But this marginalization has been the story of our lives; why should we think it would change today? We give so many people rations, but for ourselves the take-home is miserable.”

Hana drives home what she has seen repeatedly in the pandemic: “There is one thing you should know about this crisis. Here, in this country and area, we’re not suffering because of a virus, because of a lockdown or even because of hunger.

“We are suffering for the sake of Jesus. This has nothing to do with social or cast differences. This is religious persecution.”

8. Nigeria: Six times smaller rations than Muslims

Some 5,000 miles away in Nigeria, our Africa teams are reporting the same kinds of injustices against Christians—that Christians are getting the leftovers of government aid while Muslims receive greater relief support, especially in areas governed by Shariah law.

The economic situation for Christians in Nigeria mirrors southeast Asia. More than half of Nigeria’s population works as day laborers, unable to provide basic living essentials for their families. The lockdowns have created dire conditions for sub-Saharan Africa—and situations that expose the discrimination and persecution of Christians.

Believers from towns in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna State, including Ungwan Boro, Sabon Tasha, Barnawa and Naraye, report they received six times smaller rations from the state than Muslim families.

Pastor Sulu* from Kaduna State shared what he saw and heard both firsthand and in talking with area Christians at the distribution site of government-provided COVID-19 food relief in Kaduna.

“The highest [amount of food aid] most Christians got is about two packets of noodles, a small bowl of rice and one cup of oil—that’s what we’ve seen in the Christian-dominated areas,” he says, adding that he was privy to the documents showing aid allocation.

“The more Muslim-dominated local governments get more bags of rice, more cartons of noodles and more other things than the Christian-dominated governments,” he says. “Christians really don’t have food.

In the video below, he captured the chaos of the distribution site as people scrambled for the small portions of food, often flung recklessly into the air.

“We’ve had Christians faint and collapse in the struggles of trying to get food to their families,” the pastor says. “It is not just a marginalization. This is persecution of Christians. We’re praying to God that anyone who hears this could feel the pain in our hearts … to pray with us and also do something about this.

How is Open Doors responding?

Through our on-the-ground partners, Open Doors has delivered food aid to Christians in these areas where they’re denied support because they follow Jesus. Above photo: Christians in Bangladesh.

Wherever possible, Open Doors has responded to believers in these areas with tangible help. Our partners know about these stories because they have served as first responders, bringing Christians the food and supplies they needed when they faced discrimination or were left out of relief efforts in their villages because of their faith.

Despite all the restrictions, increased monitoring, threats from groups hostile to Christians and the health risks, God has opened the way for Open Doors workers and partners to give aid in many places where Christians experience persecution.

In Asia alone, more than 100,000 persecuted Christians have received urgent aid and relief through Open Doors’ local teams and partner networks. Approximately 18,500 Christian families received an emergency relief kit full of food, sanitation materials and other daily necessities. Sometimes the kit is enough to sustain a family for two months, and sometimes it’s smaller and the family is visited every few weeks.

“Without your prayers and support, the persecuted church would look a lot different in Asia,” Sam says. “Many Christians would certainly die of malnutrition and starvation, or decide that following Jesus is too hard.

“The reason we are called ‘Open Doors’ is because for God, no door is shut,” Open Doors’ Asia director says, “and the global Body of Christ came through as well. The response in prayer and giving from supporters around the world is amazing. God has used them. Thanks to Open Doors’ supporters, there will still be a church after corona in many places where its existence was threatened.”

When our Africa team learned that Christians were receiving six times smaller food rations, we set up an orderly distribution system for villages to bring them aid. Our teams are currently working to bring support to 9,000 families in Africa.

When Open Doors saw starving families in the Gulf, our partners brought them bags of rice—and also dignity and hope.

“Every bag of rice says that there is hope,” Hana says. “Everywhere we go to distribute supplies, people invite us in. Sometimes we can accept and spend some time with the families. People long for this being together. And what’s even more important: If the husband is out working and cannot come home, he knows his family has food in the house.

“The Christian families know we are standing with them. This makes a massive difference. Even when people receive food and vitamins, they function better and make better decisions. We are building their dignity too.”

‘We cannot stop now’

Around the world, the need continues. Open Doors aims to help an additional 25,000 to 50,000 Christians in the coming months.

“Thanks to the gracious support of donors, we were able to scale up quickly and double the number of people [we’ve been able to help],” says Open Doors’ Asia director. “We cannot stop now. We have identified thousands more families whose lives are in danger because they don’t have food or income.”

Yasin A*, Open Doors’ East Africa director, underscores the importance and impact of bringing food and critical support to believers: “If the persecuted church is not strengthened and supported at this time, then the enemy will not sleep to dismantle and take advantage against believers … For many new, weak and troubled believers, it would be difficult to stand strong.”

He asks for continued and fervent prayer: “We know that you are praying already for persecuted believers. I would like to encourage you to keep up your fervent prayer. The Word of God in James 5:16 says: ‘Therefore, pray for each other, so that you may be healed.’ The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

*representative names used for security reasons

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