Violence and COVID-19 turn African Christians into ‘endangered species’

July 28, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Africa

Our Africa services team is sounding an alarm as persecution against Christians continue in the midst of COVID-19 food shortages. As extremists target Christians and exploit the pandemic to recruit youth into their ranks, believers are struggling to survive the severe food shortages, denial of government relief and lack of medical care—all combining for a potentially disastrous powder keg-situation on the world’s second-largest continent.

‘Sometimes we go to sleep without any food’: Rose’s story

Nigerian widow Rose and her two daughters

Just three months ago, Rose was a pastor’s wife and expecting mother of two girls in the town of Nbra Zongo in northern Nigeria’s Plateau State. That was before April 7, 2020 when her husband Matthew was shot and butchered by Muslim Fulani extremists. Today, she is a widow and mother of three daughters living in the midst of COVID-19 lockdowns and severe food shortages.

“Severe hunger came, and we had no food,” she says. “There was no money to buy any food. We couldn’t trade anything for money, because the markets were closed. I don’t even have the strength to do rigorous work to feed my children.

“We have just been managing ourselves. It was mango season, so we fed on the mangoes, but the season is now finished … Sometimes we go to sleep without any food. I only put my trust in God to see me through. And today we are amongst the living ones. It’s a miracle”

Rose was able to get a little help from local churches, but many of those Christian communities have been devastated by the effects of COVID-19 and quarantine. The lockdown has greatly impacted their ability to help people who are needy, and due to the loss of income, so many more needy people need help.

Rose and her family represent the heart-wrenching situation our Africa team is seeing firsthand as attacks on Christians converge with COVID-19 in Nigeria and throughout Africa. A powder keg of persecution. She is one of thousands of believers who is not only suffering for her and her family’s decision to follow Jesus—but is now doubly vulnerable to the impact of the global pandemic.

Watch Rose’s story here.


In the throes of COVID-19

While the coronavirus pandemic continues to assault Asia, Europe and North America with full force, Africa—home to 1.3 billion people—is in the throes of the crisis. As of July 24, there were more than 700,000 reported cases, with a death toll nearing 15,000. There are likely many more cases, but reporting has lagged behind in many places that don’t have adequate healthcare networks or access to testing.

According to Open Doors World Watch Research, data indicates a direct correlation between the countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are most vulnerable to the virus and the countries where Christians face the most pressure for following Jesus. Specifically, four of the five most virus-vulnerable countries—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and Cameroon—also count among the places in sub-Saharan Africa where life is hardest for Christians.

Recently, Open Doors met with Rev. John Joseph Hayab in northern Nigeria, who shared how the pandemic is doubling vulnerability for believers: “We are facing persecution because of our faith and we are also facing a global pandemic,” he says. “We run away from our persecution … or we run away from the global sickness that we are facing. We have a double problem.

“But in all this, we still come back to remember the Word of Jesus: ‘Be ye of good cheers, for I have overcome the world.’ But He didn’t start with that; He says: ‘In this world you will have many troubles.’ This is another additional trouble we are facing.”

Six times smaller rations than Muslims

The economic impact of government-directed social distancing and lockdowns is especially difficult for pastors dependent on tithes for their income and serving in the most volatile areas—pastors like Rose’s husband. As quarantine rules and guidelines prevent church members from working and attending church, pastors are facing great difficulty to feed their own families.

Open Doors has received calls from some pastors asking for help with food. And widows and orphans with small incomes due to lockdown are unable to continue trading. Suleiman M*, director for Open Doors’ work in West Africa, comments that requests for food and other vital support are continuous, especially from overcrowded camps for internally displaced persons (IDP).

Specific targeting by Islamic radical groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, Fulani militants and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) across the region has displaced an estimated 19 million people, including a myriad of Christians. In the Lakes, Sahel and Horn regions, the social and health infrastructure in IDP camps are unable to handle the far-reaching and rapidly spreading impact of a COVID-19 outbreak. Unless humanitarian aid workers get the funds and access to continue their work, believers in these camps will suffer intensely without water, sanitation and hygiene.

In an IDP camp in Maiduguri, overcrowding is extensive. Social and health infrastructure in IDP camps are unable to handle the effect of a Covid-19 outbreak.

“The COVID-19 situation poses a threat and a challenge to us, for many of our widows and other vulnerable believers,” Suleiman says. “Some in the IDP camps are really relying on support from us to be able to continue to live. It’s a challenge at this time, but we trust the Lord as we stand together, that He will help find solutions to these issues. We thank you for your continued prayers and support for the persecuted church here in West Africa.”

Our field also reports that in some Sharia-governed areas, the government is discriminating against Christians. Believers from towns in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna State, including Ungwan Boro, Sabon Tasha, Barnawa and Naraye, report they get six times smaller rations from the state than Muslim families.

Believers we talked to shared that a Christian family of four receives a grossly inadequate ration of a single packet of noodles and one small plate of uncooked rice.

Rose echoed their stories, telling our team that when government aid came to her town, she and the other Christians were left out. “We were happy when the government announced food aid for the poor,” Rose says. “But we were left out. We received none of that food. All our hopes were dashed.”

The same is happening in Ethiopia. Adane*, a pastor in rural Ethiopia, told us: “There were different kinds of support in our area from the government. But when people register, they exclude the Protestant community. Especially if they are believers from a Muslim background … We asked our church members, both in the rural and urban areas, but they have not received any of the support given by the government.”

Watch as a pastor from northern Nigeria’s Kaduna State captures the persecution of Christians during a government relief distribution.

Help Christians survive COVID-19 lockdowns

Right now, Christians lare in desperate need of help to survive. In places like northern Nigeria, India, Vietnam and Malaysia, we’ve heard story after story of believers being denied help, just because they follow Jesus. And in the midst of the pandemic, persecution continues. Will you help these Christians today?

Help now!

Christians vulnerable to extremists’ ploys and attacks

Even in a pandemic, violent persecution continues. In some areas, such as Nigeria’s Middle Belt, Christians are living in a survival culture.

One pastor in the area shared: “We lie down at night, not knowing if we’ll wake.”

Between the end of March and July, Christian communities in both Kaduna and Plateau States suffered numerous attacks by extremists that killed x people and left homes destroyed.

“In the midst of this coronavirus challenges and situation, the attacks on Christians have not stopped,” Suleiman says. “Therefore, we want to ask you to stand with us in prayer and support that we can continue to serve the persecuted Body of Christ, even in these very difficult times we are all passing through.”

A retired pastor in the Bassa community in northern Nigeria’s Plateau State told media: “I am losing many of my people every day. The government keeps making promises to secure our communities, but we still see them (assailants) coming and carrying out attacks unchallenged…We are asked to stay at home to be safe from Coronavirus but we are still being killed by herdsmen.

“This makes us endangered species in every respect.”

In some areas, extremists are exploiting the opportunity to blame Christians for causing the pandemic. Our team has received such reports from Somalia, Uganda and Niger. The BBC reports that extremist group al-Shabab (linked with al-Qaeda) has warned Muslims to beware of infectious diseases such as coronavirus, which the group says are spread “by the crusader forces (Christians) who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them.”

Bulama Bukarti, a sub-Saharan Africa analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, explains that if the pandemic grows in Muslim-majority areas, extremists will spread conspiracy theories about its origins, blaming the West, Jews and Zionists—whom these extremist groups call the “enemies of Islam.” If the spread of the pandemic is controlled and does not reach Muslim-majority areas, particularly those controlled by extremist groups, they will frame it as divine punishment against those areas.

A breeding ground for recruitment

Experts warn that extremist groups will also exploit the pandemic to recruit members. “We are already seeing indications that this has started happening,” writes Bukarti.

“Either way, groups claiming to fight for Islam in Africa will use the virus outbreak to recruit and radicalize fighters and justify their narratives of hate, division and enmity,” Bukarti says, adding that they have already seen examples of this from ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in other parts of the world in their coronavirus messaging.

Open Doors has witnessed how extremist groups in Africa work to deliver services such as health and infrastructure to recruit members and build credibility even in normal times. There is serious concern that these groups will exploit the pandemic 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.

“If persecuted believers are not supported now in their spiritual, economical and emergency needs, it would be a discouragement for them in many ways. For many new, weak and troubled believers, it would be difficult to stand strong.”

For new believers, like Yohannes, an Ethiopian young man, who have left the religion of their larger family to become Christians and are struggling to eat, critical support means the difference between reverting back to Islam and even basic survival.

A former Muslim in West Africa candidly writes: “We went into hiding and avoid Muslims, especially our relatives. However, our problems have multiplied because of the pandemic which has kept Christians away and prevented them from supporting us. I know I will die soon from hunger because I have not eaten any reasonable food for days.”

We have had similar cries for help from Sudan and several other of our operational countries. When we strengthen believers in crisis, we equip and empower them to share their story of faith with others. Essentially, we help build the Kingdom.

“Your help is important to provide the basic economic and livelihood needs, and emergency needs of persecuted believers,” Yasin explains. “For some of the underground believers and Christian converts from Islam, it will also be helpful to minister, encourage and pastor them online and through any other available digital media or in person.”

9,000 families least likely to receive government help

After Rose gave birth to her third daughter, Open Doors local partners quickly put together a relief package and visited Rose. “Nagode, Allah ya yi muku Albarka,” meaning “Thank you, may God bless you,” she said after unpacking the food and other essentials we brought.

“I have never imagined that I would receive such gifts, but today, my faith in Christ has been strengthened,” Rose told our partners. “Indeed, He who watches over the widows neither sleeps nor slumbers. This support will enable me to care for family. God in Heaven will richly reward you.”

Rose is just one of the thousands of believers in desperate need of help. In Nigeria alone, Open Doors has identified more than 9,000 families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

The simple truth is that if we do not help them, no one probably will, explains a spokesperson for our Africa team. “These believers are the least likely to receive help from their governments or agencies like the World Health Organization. In situations like COVID-19, authorities usually prioritize areas where they can save the most lives in the shortest time.”

Open Doors’ calling is to stand with our brothers and sisters who face blatant sidelining because of their faith. Our vision is to see a prepared and resilient persecuted church in Africa that’s faithfully engaged in fulfilling the Great Commission. One objective towards that vision is. to care for the severely persecuted church in the form of crisis relief, presence ministry and spiritual encouragement as well as trauma care. Most of these believers have no other source of help. Relief aid distribution is happening as we speak across the region.

Please pray for the Lord’s provision in their lives and if you are able, continue to help us bring urgent relief and hope to Rose, Yohannes, Adane and many others like her across Africa. With your help, Open Doors can provide things like food, soap, rent assistance and spiritual support to widows and their children, Muslim-background believers, and lay leaders. Every $65 provides relief to one family for one month.

Praying with the persecuted church in sub-Saharan Africa

Open Doors East Africa Director Yasin asks for continued and fervent prayer. “We know that you are praying already for the persecuted believers in Africa. 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. Therefore, I would really like to encourage you with this word, to do that more and more.”

  • Pray for the Lord’s protection, for spiritual and physical nourishment and for guidance in every step during this uncertain time.
  • Pray for church leaders who serve the persecuted church. Pray that they receive godly wisdom and insight for how to best assist, serve and encourage believers. May God also strengthen these leaders to run this race with confidence and perseverance.
  • Many countries have failing health systems. Please pray for the protection of health workers who must work under extremely stressful and challenging circumstances. Pray also they may receive the wisdom and insight to navigate the various challenges they face, such as not necessarily having enough equipment and medicine to treat the sick.
  • We know Jesus is the healer of the sick and ultimate champion over death. We pray if it is in His will, that He will heal and breathe new life into those affected by virus so they may testify to His power and glory.
  • Pray for African leaders and governments on all levels. We pray these leaders and governments use their power and voices to assist all citizens of all religions. We pray they make decisions that protect and serve everyone in their country.
  • Pray for transparency and press freedom so we can assist and advocate for the persecuted church to the best of our abilities.
  • We have already seen and heard how God has worked in the hearts of people around the world. We pray the Lord will also work in the hearts of rebels and terrorists that operate in sub-Saharan Africa. May they cease fighting and attacking vulnerable communities, and may they release believers that they hold captive.
  • We ask that you also pray for Open Doors, as every person in the ministry requires exceptional wisdom for how to best help and serve the persecuted church.


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