COVID Brings No Break in Religious Persecution
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In addition to the challenges presented by COVID-19 during the last six months, many Christians have suffered persecution and discrimination. Along with pandemic-induced restraints on some civil liberties, religious freedom has become more questioned. A number of countries have used new mechanisms of control originally aimed against the pandemic to also hinder and restrict church services, meetings, gatherings and mission activities. Nations across Eurasia and into Africa are in need of increased intercession.
• On April 2, one Eurasian media outlet blamed evangelical Christians and Baptists of spreading the coronavirus in a local city after a visit to Spain. Implied in the report was the claim that international contacts with the West were a form of virus in themselves that the Protestants were not carefully avoiding.
After the report, the “Revival Church” in that city was closed and the pastor received death threats even though he confirmed that none of the accused persons were members of his church. The same week some people tried to burn down the biggest Evangelical church in another city. As well, court cases are mainly directed against evangelical pastors, who have been accused of breaking a law that limits religious extremism and mission work in the country.
During the pandemic many churches have stopped offering in-person services and begun meeting online as one of the few remaining avenues to share their faith, pray and study the Bible together. However, since the internet and streamed services are also available to people outside of these churches, these activities are defined as religious propaganda, which is strictly prohibited.
More than 250 court cases have been organized against Pentecostal, Baptist, and charismatic churches in this nation during the last two years. Some of the biggest churches have been closed in central parts of the country. Legal challenges have continued against Pentecostal churches even as this report was being prepared. In some cases, churches have won their cases but still face new restrictions. For example: 1) Churches must now give a more detailed annual report (the earlier requirement was once every three years) with detailed information about their members. 2) The missions-restricting law severely limits religious discussion outside church buildings and prohibits inviting people to become members or engaging or involving people who are not members. 3) Church buildings can now only be used if they are built on land registered for religious purposes. (Nearly half of Pentecostal church buildings could fail this test.) Authorities have started juridical procedures against churches that do not have the proper registration. If a congregation wants to register a private plot for Christian services, it is usually denied.
• In another Eurasian nation, rumors circulated that Protestants had many contacts abroad and may have brought COVID-19 to the country. Following a contested presidential election, confrontation between demonstrators and authorities led to increased violence. A local Pentecostal fellowship sent an appeal to the administration to ask for 1) a correct presentation of the election results, 2) that authorities address the violence and confiscate weapons and war material from demonstrators, and that 3) leaders would work for peace and reconciliation. Many members from Pentecostal churches have been arrested during the demonstrations. Some because they have been involved, some just because they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Christians have been interrogated and some even abused. Please pray that the violence against the political opposition will not be used to target Pentecostal and evangelical churches. Many members try to be neutral and work for peace and justice.
• In a Central Asian nation, a repressive law on religion is under review. Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin reports that the draft of the law made available on Aug. 19 was disappointing, despite the reformist government indicating willingness to address religious liberty. During the last six months, many positive reports have come from Pentecostal churches concerning religious freedom and church growth. The potential new law presents a new threat which may hinder registrations of new churches. This could seriously affect congregations experiencing an increased community interest in Christianity. Please pray that God will give the government courage to amend the potential law and defend religious freedom, free speech, and security.
• The chairman of one of the biggest Pentecostal churches in Africa is facing difficult times and asks for our prayers. He writes that more than 120 church members’ homes and their properties have been totally destroyed by local extremists, leaving those believers and their families with nothing. Some of them are strong business people who support churches. Thus, those churches are exposed to critical financial crises. “We need your sincere prayer and support to help the victimized members and to run the Great Commission task properly,” reports the pastor.
• The number of internally displaced persons due to violence in a southwestern African nation has doubled since March and now stands at 250,000, according to the latest information from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Islamic insurgents have been active in that nation’s northern region for the past three years. This year the group has pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) and launched repeated, devastating attacks. The thousands displaced by these attacks have fled to other parts of the country where conditions are crowded and resources are stretched. Front-line workers have reported the burning and destruction of churches, schools, clinics, and police stations. As Christian workers provide comfort and food to the displaced, they also offer Bibles and share with hurting people the hope of Jesus Christ. Please pray for Christians delivering aid, as well as for an end to the ongoing violence. Pray also that many who are enduring this trauma will gain hope and eternal life through faith in Christ.
• In the last 10 years, the situation for Christians in a West African nation has changed from subtle persecution to the open destruction of lives and properties. Terrorist groups now attack entire faith communities. Pray that the government takes swift action to protect the lives and property of communities at risk of attack. Pray that the police and army are resourced and given the authority to combat the threat posed by terrorists and other armed groups.
• On June 29, a Southern Asian Christian homeowner, Nadeem Joseph, died from his injuries after being shot several times by his new neighbor. That neighbor simply did not want to live next door to a Christian. Ask God to comfort and protect Joseph’s family and loved ones.
• A Southern Asian parliament has introduced a bill with the purported aim of regulating foreign donations and ensuring that “such contributions do not adversely affect the internal security of the country.” Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) reports that most critics of the bill seem very accepting of the fact that the law’s purpose includes targeting those who have “engaged in religious conversion.”
Please pray that the bill and the attitudes behind it will attract international criticism until it is amended. And may the Lord provide His servants with everything they need as they continue, in the face of escalating violent persecution, to bring light and life to this region.
• At the outset of the pandemic, we raised concerns about the potential deadly impact of a COVID-19 outbreak within one Eurasian nation’s prison system, and we have been working with politicians on the cases of particular individuals, including Pastor N.
In August, we received news of a COVID-19 outbreak where a large number of prisoners of conscience, including many Christians, are detained. Conditions are overcrowded, with inadequate medical care. Social distancing is not possible, and insufficient protective measures have been put in place by prison authorities.
Pray for Pastor N. and more than 10 Christian prisoners who are at great risk during the pandemic. Pray also for Christian converts in a town where intelligence agents raided a home, as well as the homes of other Christian converts, arresting eight people in all. After 17 days, the believers were released on bail of the equivalent of U.S. $25,000 each.
In June 2020, seven of the converts arrested the previous year were sentenced for “propaganda against the regime.” One was given one year in prison plus two years’ exile. His wife, a nurse, was fined and banned from working in a public institution.
These two believers and their friends request prayer during this deeply distressing time for the family. Pray also for the converts, that they will be strong enough to stay faithful in belief and have courage to witness about their faith in Jesus.