When coronavirus comes to persecuted Christians—and how you can pray

March 26, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Africa

Across the world, nations are fighting the coronavirus outbreak as increasing numbers of countries go on lockdown, closing restaurants, stores, schools and workplaces. But in some countries—where Christians are devalued, discriminated against and even attacked for their faith—this pandemic has hidden consequences.

 

In these places where leaving your family’s religion to follow Jesus is considered betrayal, such as India or North Africa, or is against the law (Iran, Brunei, North Korea), Christians may be denied medical care or have less access to medicines and treatment. This kind of discrimination becomes even more destructive in light of an outbreak of an extremely contagious and potentially fatal respiratory illness.

And the lockdowns that have millions of Americans going stir-crazy right now are actually life-threatening for believers in places like India, where Christians are often persecuted in their homes. A lockdown is suffocating for believers who are no longer able to gather with other believers. Repeatedly, when we talk to persecuted Christians, they tell Open Doors that the Sunday gathering at their church sustains them throughout the week. Many walk miles each weekend just to attend a church gathering.

Our field continues to share region- and country-focused updates. Below, we look at what’s happening right now in 10 of the countries on the 2020 World Watch List as nations mobilize to fight coronavirus. We hope that by understanding the current situations, you’ll feel equipped and empowered to pray for and support believers in these countries who may be fearful, anxious, confused and scared—many of the same emotions you may be feeling. For them, however, the outbreak adds another layer of complexity to their lives and faith—the pandemic is coming to them on top of isolation, trauma, abuse and threats for their decision to follow Jesus.

India mandates 21-day lockdown

In the 10th most dangerous country for Christians, Prime Minister Modi called for “total lockdown” for the nation’s 1.3 billion people and is callously implementing it with reports coming in of police using brutal force to keep people inside their homes. The BBC reports that utter confusion and lack of information over how the government plans to keep essential supplies going has led to fear and panic.

For thousands of Christians who endure persecution in their homes for their faith by a spouse and other family members, the lockdown could mean continuous verbal and physical abuse with no outlet for escape. A new Open Doors report indicates that more than 43,000 Christians in India experienced some form of (severe) persecution for their faith in 2019. Of those, 1,670 were affected by physical attacks because of their faith, including 439 children. Eight Christians were murdered, including a woman who was killed by her brother-in-law because she had left Hinduism to follow Jesus.

For believers like Sarita whose Hindu husband repeatedly beat her because she chose Jesus and was teaching their children to trust Jesus, home is a torture chamber. A lockdown may be necessary to stem the spread of coronavirus, but it may have significant consequences for some believers in India. Pray for Christians in India who face persecution in their homes. Pray for protection and strength to endure these 21 days of lockdown.

Nigeria ill-equipped for mass infections

In Africa’s most populous country—No. 12 on the World Watch List—President Buhari has called for a lockdown in Nigeria states Lagos and Osun. Though Nigeria reported fewer 51 cases (as of March 26), the actual numbers are likely much higher. On March 22, Nigeria’s Center for Disease Control revealed the country had tested only 152 people. Only a few days later, after the country received testing supplies from Chinese businessman Jack Ma, Nigeria reports its testing capacity had increased by 32 percent.  Reportedly, the country’s public health infrastructure  and supplies are still low in the country of 200 million. Nigeria’s minister of health has suggested that it’s likely infected people are currently in hiding.

For Christians in northern Nigeria, where persecution is particularly high and terrorist groups like Boko Haram and militant Fulani herdsmen continue to attack, the pandemic poses a threat to believers who have been displaced by attacks and those who are likely not able to travel for adequate healthcare. In remote areas, such as the Christian village of Dzangola, where residents continue to work through the trauma of repeated Boko Haram attacks, attaining medicine and proper healthcare is difficult. Pray with believers in Nigeria who are fearful of yet another trial in their lives. Pray for those with coronavirus who may be in hiding and ask God to intervene and prevent a mass outbreak in a country so unequipped to handle it.

Help persecuted Christians in the coronavirus crisis!

For many Christians already persecuted for their faith, the global pandemic is making live even more difficult. They have less access to healthcare, medicines and community services. Open Doors is committed to standing with the least of these—to ensure that the vulnerable have what they need too. God’s people need our help urgently—will you give today?

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Iran’s death toll continues to rise

Iran’s has one of the world’s largest concentrations of the coronavirus. As of March 29, 2020, the country (No. 9 on the World Watch List) had reported more than 2,640 deaths caused by the virus and 38,000 infections. However, experts believe the real numbers are much higher. A house church leader tells us: “We are dying here, and no one seems to care. A lot of people around us fall ill and end up in hospitals or are dying.”

Though the country is currently on lockdown, the virus has spread rapidly through communities, including Iran’s prisons where at least 10 Christians jailed for their faith remain. While the country has temporarily released more than 83,000 prisoners, officials have denied furloughs to at least 10 believers. Additionally, many Iranians have lost their jobs as a result of the crisis. The already-weakened economy has been hit hard. In Iran, the Muslim community openly discriminates against Christians, which means that many who lost their jobs in the crisis will be unable to find work. Our field reports that many believers are struggling to provide the basics for their families. Pray that God would calm fears and bring healing and provision. Pray for Christians who remain imprisoned, that they would be released. And ask God to work through the rapidly growing church in Iran to draw Muslims to Himself.

In 10 weeks, over 3,300 people have died in China

Considered the national epicenter of the outbreak, China (No. 23 on the World Watch List), reports 3,304 coronavirus-related deaths and 81,470 cases.

China has ended a two-month lockdown of most of coronavirus-hit Hubei province as domestic cases subside—with the city of Wuhan slated to go off lockdown by April 8. China continues to report a decrease in newly diagnosed cases. But no doubt that Christians and churches are still reeling as families and friends of the coronavirus victims grieve the loss of a mother, a father, grandmother or grandfather, even a child. Pray with churches, like Pastor Huang Lei’s, who are shifting all of their activities to online. Pray with grieving families and that God would use the church to reach into communities to remind people that only He is in control.

Virtually non-existent healthcare in North Korea

North Korea continues to claim it does not have a single coronavirus case, all while privately reaching out to officials in other countries for unspecified medical aid.. One report suggests almost 200 soldiers died after showing symptoms similar to those who suffer from the coronavirus.

In the world’s most dangerous country for Christians (No. 1 on Open Doors’ World Watch List for 19 straight years), the healthcare system is almost non-existent, says a leader of Open Doors’ North Korea team who works with North Korean refugees in China. “Hospitals are barely functioning, there are few doctors and there’s a huge shortage of medicines,” he says. “People who are sick buy unlabeled medicines on the black market from people who don’t have a medical background.”

According to this Open Doors expert, many North Koreans have a weak immune system. “Most people have gone through periods of severe malnourishment,” he notes. “A viral epidemic would be disastrous for them. Even in highly developed countries, the health care system is under tremendous pressure. North Korea doesn’t have the means to help its citizens if there is a major outbreak. The harvest was already bad and now citizens have to provide food for the military first.” Pray with the secret church of North Korea—that God would provide “hidden manna.” Pray that God would work though this outbreak to humble the country’s leaders. May we one day look back and point to this crisis as a key point in the breakthrough for religious freedom in North Korea.

In North Africa, economic crisis severely affecting believers

Currently, as of March 25, countries in North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco and Tunisia) had levied some sort of lockdown. Our field has shared that lack of employment opportunities combined with persecution at home is creating a devastating situation for already-vulnerable Christians in North Africa.

Christian converts from Islam already usually work in low-paying jobs; now they’re at home—which means no income. Lockdown efforts to contain the virus have shut down informal businesses. The International Labor Organization estimates that in Africa, informal workers make up as much as 85 percent of the continent’s labor force. Pray for Open Doors teams and our partners working in North Africa who are assessing the situation of believers during this pandemic. And pray for believers who have run out of money and can’t buy food. Ask God to provide for their immediate and long-term needs in the midst of a buckling economy.

West Africa’s highest death toll in Burkina Faso

In the midst of ongoing Islamic terrorist attacks and the ensuring humanitarian crisis, Burkina Faso (No. 28 on the World Watch List) has reported the most coronavirus-related deaths of any country in sub-Saharan Africa and the most cases in West Africa—180 as of March 29, with 28 new cases confirmed since Friday, March 27..

The Associated Press reports that 130 health centers in the troubled country have closed—a direct result of deadly attacks by Islamic extremists, many of which have specifically targeted Christians. According to a government response plan, emergency teams in the country aren’t trained for a respiratory disease outbreak and don’t have protective gear. Jerry-Jonas Mbasha, cluster coordinator for the World Health Organization in Burkina Faso, said he was “much worried about what might happen in the next one week, two weeks from now.” Pray with believers who feel threatened on multiple fronts. Ask God to walk closely with the church there and empower Burkina Faso’s Christians to stand strong against persecution and the trials they may face as a result of a coronavirus outbreak and militant attacks.

Iraqi believers vulnerable to ISIS

In Iraq (No. 15 on the World Watch List), the lockdown for the country’s 40 million people has been extended until mid-April (it was originally scheduled to end on March 28). The country that survived brutal battles with ISIS is now fighting coronavirus inside a weak healthcare system. Iraqi church leader Father Daniel shares: “The only thing we can do to stay safe is to stay at home. [The coronavirus is] a big crisis here.” As of March 26, Iraq had reported 29 deaths and 346 cases. But there are concerns of many more undetected cases because only 2,000 people of the country’s population has been tested so far.

The pandemic is also leaving the country vulnerable to ISIS. To curb the spread of the virus, both the U.S. and France announced adjustments in their forces stationed in Iraq. France will withdraw ground troops stationed in Iraq until further notice but will continue air operations against ISIS, while the U.S.-led global coalition to defeat ISIS announced that the coronavirus pandemic has forced “temporary adjustments.” Pray for protection for believers who are feeling especially vulnerable to both terrorists and illness. Pray with believers who have little to no access to medical care. And pray for a blessing on the hands of medical staff who are treating patients. Ask God to confuse any plans militants may be plotting.

Decades of war make Syria especially vulnerable

In a country devastated by nine years of war—and ranked No. 11 on the 2020 World Watch List—the spread of coronavirus is especially threatening. Ravaged hospitals and tightly packed internal displacement camps are likely to accelerate infection, doctors and aid workers recently said. Syrians are very likely to be some of the “most vulnerable” to the spread of the virus globally,” says Rachel Sider, policy and advocacy adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “What’s very clear is they’re nowhere near ready for an outbreak.”

Elias*, one of Open Doors’ ministry partners in Syria, explains further how Syria’s history increases vulnerability: “For years, many Syrians were not able to consume healthy food. Doctors in Syria see that many more are vulnerable for the seasonal diseases because of the lack of nourishment.”

Even though these factors impact all segments of society, our field points out that Syria’s Christian communities are at a greater disadvantage. The state of emergency could be used by the state to crack down harder on churches, especially house churches. The lack of technology also factors in. In under-resourced remote areas, Christians are not connected to the internet and cannot hold online meetings. And even for Christians with internet access, many churches are not able to broadcast services—increasing the sense of isolation Christians already feel as followers of Jesus in an Islamic society still plagued by the presence of ISIS fighters. Pray for isolated believers in Syria and against potential government crackdowns on house churches. Pray that Christian communities would not be excluded from any form of government relief or assistance. Pray for wisdom and strength for church leaders, especially leaders of Centers of Hope as they provide ministry and services

Churches as salt and light

While the need is great in these World Watch List countries, we also know that the Church there is also responding to others in crisis and sharing the gospel with others in this unprecedented time—following the historic path of the Church that ministered during epidemics.

As one of our country managers recently shared, “We have the opportunity to strengthen the salt and light role of the persecuted church.”

A recent story from Central Asia shows us how a local church is being salt and light to those around it.

To encourage people who are “blocked in four walls,” local Christians developed a social media channel called “Films for the Soul and Learning.” On it, they show Christian films and short videos. They continue to hear how this channel is helping people both spiritually and emotionally.

A woman living in the city alone and isolated shared with the church: “I was so depressed because I was isolated in my house. The only connection I have with the world is through my cellphone, but the signal is sometimes so poor. I received the link to this Christian channel and started to watch the Christian films.

“They were and are very inspiring for me to trust God more in this situation. Thanks to God for what you’re sharing! I feel much better, and I shared the link also with my friends, relatives and neighbors. It is very helpful! Glory to God! Thank you for this joy and encouragement in such a hard time! God bless you!”

In Iran, Christians are choosing to follow Jesus and serve their country. A house church leader there recently shared: “We are doing all we can to provide food packages for the elderly and vulnerable who are unable to go out these days or for those who have lost their job in these difficult circumstances. Throughout the year, we shared the Good News of Christ with our neighbors and community; now we have a chance to be Good News.”

For these Christians, even in the midst of a pandemic that has changed lives around the world, living out their faith means they continue to follow Jesus, even in the additional challenge of coronavirus. Will we have the courage to follow their examples? Will we stand with them in prayer? Let this extraordinary time drive us to our knees and see how we can walk in the paths already laid out for us by our persecuted brothers and sisters—joyfully and hopefully seeking after Christ and serving our neighbor, no matter the cost.

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