By Elizabeth Kendal
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing many Christians in the free world to experience - possibly for the first time in their lives - what many persecuted Christians in the non-free world experience every day of their lives: the menacing reality and uncomfortable closeness of suffering and death. The difference is that Christians in the free world who test positive for COVID-19 will have a supportive state doing everything it can to help them. On the other hand, Christians in the non-free world who are persecuted for their faith rarely receive any support from their state. Despised as infidels, rejected as untouchables, condemned as state enemies, they are routinely denied medical care, even when their lives depend on it. Furthermore, threatened Christian communities now face the prospect that hostile state and non-state actors will exploit security vacuums opened up by COVID-19 to advance their own agendas. As Christians in the free world (like myself) gain insight into what it is like to live under the shadow of suffering and death, may it help us to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters with genuine empathy and unifying, sanctifying love.
'A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another' (John 13:34,35 ESV).
FOR MORE on the subject of how the COVID-19 pandemic might impact the persecuted Church, please see: 'The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Persecuted Church,' Religious Liberty Monitoring (25 March 2020).
MARCH 2020 UPDATE - during this period we prayed concerning
* PAKISTAN [RLPB 539 (3 March)], where Christians continue to suffer crippling discrimination and severe persecution. Christian couple Shafqat Emmanuel Masih and his wife, Shagufta Kausar, were imprisoned for blasphemy in 2013 and sentenced to death in 2014. The couple was found guilty of sending a blasphemous text to an Islamic cleric, though they both are illiterate, and their confession was extracted under torture. After six years in jail, the couple - who have four young children - will finally have their appeal heard in the Lahore High Court on 8 April. Please pray.
UPDATE ON THE CASE OF HUMA YOUNUS [RLPB 538 (26 Feb)] Huma Younus (14) of Karachi, Sindh, was abducted in October 2019, transported some 600 km north into Punjab, forcibly Islamised and married against her will to her Muslim abductor. In a desperate effort to get their daughter back, Huma's parents filed a petition with Sindh High Court seeking annulment of the marriage under the Child Marriage Restraint Act which forbids marriage under the age of 18 years. To their horror, the judge ignored the law of the land and on 3 February ruled the marriage valid on the basis of Islamic Sharia law. The case was adjourned until 4 March. On 4 March, as the case was adjourned yet again, the court ordered investigation officer, Akhtar Hussain to present Huma to the court at its next hearing on Sunday 29 March so that a medical examination can be conducted to determine her age. The family suspects that police are colluding with the abductors to circumvent justice. Please pray.
* SUDAN [RLPB 540 (11 March)], after a failed assassination attempt on new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok exposed the simmering resistance to his government's ground-breaking reforms. The amount of hostility simmering below the surface cannot be underestimated.
UPDATE: SUDAN CONTINUES ON 'THE PATH OF CHANGE'
On 11 March Sudan's new Minister of Religious Affairs, Nasr al-Din Mufreh, signed an order abolishing the committees imposed on churches under former president Omar al-Bashir.
'All government-appointed committees are abolished as of today [11 March],' he announced. Sources told Morning Star News that, while further legal action will be needed to regain control over church properties lost under committees imposed on churches by the old regime, this is a good step forward on the path to restoration. On Friday 20 March Nasr al-Din Mufreh also confirmed that his ministry has formed a committee that will work with the relevant authorities to investigate reports of multiple attacks on the Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) in Jabarona, on the outskirts of Khartoum. He said the government would take all necessary measures to protect the church and arrest all those found responsible, reaffirming his government's keenness to ensure and protect religious freedoms. Praise God! May the Lord protect and bless all the brave Sudanese who are working to bring peace, justice, racial-religious equity and religious liberty to Sudan. Please pray.
* IRAQ [RLPB 541 (18 March)], where tit-for-tat missile strikes between US troops and Iranian proxies were raising fears that Iraq could become a battlefield for a US-Iran proxy war. Conflict would raise the threat level for Northern Iraq's Assyrian Christians, because conflict would provide cover under which the genocide of the Assyrians could be completed. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic could also provide cover for a genocide to take place. One person's crisis can be another's opportunity; and Kurds (Sunnis) and Shabaks (Shi'ites, proxies of Baghdad and Tehran) will no doubt be eager to exploit any opportunity to complete their land grabbing in the Nineveh Plains (the Assyrian homeland for millennia). Please pray.
UPDATE: IRAN PROXY UPS THE ANTE IN IRAQ
On 17 March the newly formed Usbat al-Thayireen (League of the Revolutionaries) released a video in which it threatened US troops in Iraq. Having already claimed responsibility for the deadly 13 March attack on the US base in Taji, the League threatened to strike again, boasting it possessed 'long range weapons'. Everything indicates that the group is aligned with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC routinely creates front groups with new names when undertaking sensitive operations. That way, the front group can perpetrate terror, claim responsibility and issue threats, while the IRGC and its other proxy militias maintain plausible deniability. Iran may be poised to up the ante in Iraq convinced that the COVID-19 crisis presents it with an opportunity to advance its own agenda at reduced risk. Please pray for Iraq's gravely imperilled Christians.
'Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen' (Ephesians 3:20,21 ESV) ------------------
MARCH 2020 ROUND-UP - also this month
* FINLAND: THREAT TO CHRISTIAN WITNESS
In June 2019, after the board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) of Finland announced its official partnership with the LGBT event 'Pride 2019', evangelical church member Paivi Rasanen took to social media to question her church's decision. Her query - 'How can the church's doctrinal foundation, the Bible, be compatible with the lifting up of shame and sin as a subject of pride?' - would probably have gone unremarked except that Rasanen is a Member of Parliament and a former Minister of the Interior. To Rasanen's dismay, the police launched an investigation against her. On 4 November 2019 the Prosecutor-General announced that police would also investigate a pamphlet she had written in 2004 explaining the ELC's teaching on human sexuality. Then, on 5 March 2020, Rasanen was informed that the Prosecutor-General had opened two more investigations: one about comments she made on a TV show in 2018 in which she was asked about her personal beliefs; the other concerning comments she made during a radio interview on 20 December 2019. For her promotion of Biblical morality and wisdom, Rasanen stands accused of 'inciting hatred on the basis of sexuality' - a hate speech crime in Finland. This is a huge case for freedom of religious expression in Finland. Please pray.
* IRAN: PRISONERS RELEASED
The Iranian regime has granted temporary release to some 85,000 prisoners to curb the spread of COVID-19 through the prison system. About 10,000 of those prisoners will be pardoned and will not be required to return to prison. Those granted temporary release include 'security-related' (political) prisoners serving sentences of less than five years. In its persecution of Christians, the regime usually starts with intimidation (raids, fines and threats). If further deterrence is required, the regime will progress to short-term imprisonments. Repeat offenders - committed pastors and evangelists who refuse to be silenced and refuse to retreat underground - face long prison terms (10 years and more) on security-related offences. Please pray for Iran's Christian prisoners; it is highly unlikely that those who remain incarcerated will receive treatment if they get infected with COVID-19. Please pray.
UPDATE ON MARY MOHAMMADI [RLPB 536 (12 Feb)] In answer to the prayers of many, Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi - imprisoned for her faith in the notorious Qarchak Prison - was released on bail on 26 February, pending a court hearing scheduled for 2 March. On 3 March Middle East Concern reported that Mary's hearing was postponed, apparently due to the spread of Coronavirus. Taking to social media, Mary thanked all those who have been praying for her: 'I am grateful for all of you dear friends who have been concerned and followed my situation with concern.' Please pray.
* NIGERIA: DISSOLVING IN INSECURITY
(1) ABDUCTION FOR RANSOM
On 10 March gunmen laid siege to the Christian community of Gidan Mato in Bari, Kano State, where the Anglican Cathedral and Bishop's Court are situated. They looted the church properties and much of the town. The Bishop of Bari Diocese, the Rt Reverend Idris Ado Zubairu, was visiting neighbouring Plateau State at the time. The bishop's wife, Mrs Saratu Zubairu, and a diocesan secretary identified as Deborah were abducted. A large ransom was demanded. On Friday 20 March the Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), The Most Rev. Nicholas D Okoh announced that both women had been freed. Kidnapping for ransom is out of control across Nigeria. Christians in the volatile Middle Belt and Islamic North are especially vulnerable. Please pray.
(2) ABDUCTION FOR ISLAMISATION
In early January Fulani raiders abducted Sadiya Amos (15) from her home in northern Kaduna. Muslims then dragged her father, Amos Chindo, before a Sharia court and accused him of refusing to let his daughter convert to Islam. As Mr Amos reminded the court, his daughter is a minor and he is Christian, therefore not accountable to the Sharia court. The trial was adjourned until 14 January, at which time the judge announced that Sadiya was now a Muslim and married to her abductor. Despite all their efforts, the Hausa Christian Foundation (HACFO) was unable to secure Sadiya's release; there was nothing left to do but pray. On 12 March HACFO announced: 'While praying to God for open doors to speed up her freedom, the Power of our God went ahead and completed the work all to His glory.' As it turned out, the Fulani charged with guarding Sadiya had fallen asleep without locking the door, enabling her to escape and return to her parents.
But as HACFO laments, the abduction of Christian girls for forced Islamisation is endemic in Northern Nigeria. HACFO regards it as 'another form of jihad'. HACFO thanked God for his divine intervention while exhorting believers to persevere in prayer because there are so many 'other Christian girls in Islamic captivity', including Leah Sharibu. 'This fight is becoming intense and the damages are overwhelming,' it said. 'May God have mercy on Nigeria and bring his perfect will to pass in Jesus' Name. Amen.' Please pray.
* TURKEY: ABDUCTION FOR ELIMINATION
Hourmouz (71) and Simoni (65) Diril were the only Assyrians living in the Assyrian village of Mehr in Turkey's south-eastern province of Sırnak. While the Turkish government wanted Mehr abandoned, it was the Dirils' intention and hope that Mehr might yet again be home to a thriving Assyrian community. When their son - Istanbul-based Assyrian priest Remzi Diril - visited Mehr on 12 January, his parents were nowhere to be found. An eyewitness claims to have seen the Dirils being led away from their home on 11 January [see: RLPB 534 (29 Jan)]. On Friday 20 March the body of Mrs Simoni Diril was found in a river not far from Mehr. Mr Hourmouz Diril remains missing. Please pray.
Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. (Isaiah 40:10 ESV)