‘Die of hunger or convert to Islam’—a life-or-death choice for Christians in COVID-19

June 30, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Africa

Starve to death or convert.

Throughout the globe, this is the choice of persecuted Christians struggling to survive in the midst of the COVID-19 global crisis.

In parts of the world like Southeast Asia, West Africa and the Gulf region, many believers are day laborers, living hand-to-mouth. Others in full-time ministry rely on church donations to survive.

“When the pandemic began to hit country after country, we started to receive phone calls and other pleas for help,” Open Doors’ Asia team director says. “We quickly realized that in many places, Christians were in a very vulnerable position. No income for the day often means no meal that day. Starvation became a real threat.”

Layered on top of the economic impact is the persecution that Christians, especially converts, say they are encountering from the state, as well as local leaders in tribal areas.

Sam*, an Open Doors local partner in Southeast Asia, explains that the economic impact of the lockdowns have paved a way for persecution.

“Christians aren’t getting the support that people who follow the majority religion get,” he says. “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.’”

A pandemic of persecution

This is not an isolated situation. Open Doors has learned that thousands of Christians throughout the world have been left out of government relief efforts and marginalized because of their religious choice. We have reports from Christians In Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Nigeria, Southeast Asia and  the Gulf region where believers are facing these types of injustices.

Most of the affected Christians come from a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist background, Sam says. “Their families and communities don’t agree with their new faith and won’t provide any help in these circumstances.”

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.

“Now as the coronavirus ravages the health and livelihoods of all people, Christians and other religious minorities are facing a new punishment: discriminatory distribution of emergency relief and medical care,” Curry says.

Below, we share stories and details from areas throughout the world to help you get a big-picture view of the injustices happening right now to our brothers and sisters during this global crisis—and how Open Doors teams are working tirelessly to help them survive and strengthen the Church.

Bangladesh: ‘You are not part of this support’

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.”

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

Southeast Asia: A matter of life and death

In another country in Southeast Asia we can’t name for security reasons, numerous reports indicate that Christians in a Muslim-majority area are suffering a double layer of persecution in remote areas as Muslim villagers exploit the pandemic crisis. Already suffering for converting from Islam, these believers are struggling to survive and stand strong in their faith. Sam tells a particularly heartbreaking story of youth in this region 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, Samuel 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.”

India: Social boycott in crisis

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 believers saying they were left out of aid relief continue to pour in.

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—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.

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.”

We have more to do

Christians around the world—in places like Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Syria and more—are desperate for help in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. We’re hoping to send 50,000 additional food kits to help thousands of Christians. $30 can provide a single aid kit—will you help?

Give a food kit now!

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.”

Exploitation of new believers is also a concern in Nigeria—with some of the same situations in Asia emerging in Africa. Our teams have witnessed how Islamic extremist groups in Africa work to deliver food and services to recruit members and build credibility even in normal times. There is serious concern that these groups will exploit this crisis and lack of resources and work to provide people with resources the state is failing to provide—creating a dependency on, and even affinity for, extremist groups.

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.”

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

In the eyes of the majority of the citizens in Open Doors worker Hana’s Gulf region (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.”

In the same region, Christian nurses tell Open Doors that they are the last to receive safety gear and are the first to be assigned dangerous cases that put their lives at risk, especially without proper medical supplies.

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.”

100,000 persecuted believers helped in Asia alone

Wherever possible, Open Doors has responded with tangible help. Our partners know about these stories because they have served as first responders, bringing believers 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. Since then, Nigeria’s borders have closed. Our teams are currently working hard to find ways to deliver food.

When nurses in the Gulf shared their stories and plight, Open Doors partners supplied gowns, gloves and masks to equip them to safely do their job and care for patients. When we saw starving families in this region, 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 in West Africa 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 5:6 says: ‘Therefore, pray for each other, so that you may be healed.’ The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

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