The good news from the persecuted church

Click here for an enlarged image. (PHOTO: Mission Network News)

While the Open Doors 2018 World Watch List (WWL), released today highlights the alarming extent of persecution of Christians today Open Doors reports that there is good news from a few countries where the level of persecution has declined.

Tanzania tumbles off the list
Tanzania is the most eye-catching example of a country where the situation for Christians considerably improved. It was Rank 33 on 2017 WWL list with 59 points. For 2018 WWL it dropped six points and did not make the Top 50. (However, 53 points still means there is a high level of persecution occurring in the country.)

The majority of people in Tanzania are Christian, but the percentage of Muslims is growing and especially younger Muslims are susceptible to ‘radical influences’ from groups in neighbouring countries, such as Al-Shabaab (operating in Somalia and also Kenya).

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There is a group called ‘Uamsho’ (literally ‘The Awakening’) that wants autonomy and Islamic law for the island of Zanzibar. They started using violence against Christians to enforce their demands. But late 2015 saw the election of President John Magufuli, which meant a turning point. His administration made serious work of cracking down on radical Islamic groups. Many leaders were caught, others went into hiding. The violence against Christians decreased a lot.

Government turmoil improves scores for Ethiopia and Kenya
Kenya is at Rank 32 on 2018 WWL. It dropped six points to a score of 62. Ethiopia is at Rank 29 and went down two points. It also has a score of 62 points.

The reason for the ‘improvement’ in these two countries is remarkably similar. In both cases, Muslims and Christians found a common cause.

In Kenya the 2017 presidential elections brought a lot of unrest to the country. Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner, but his opponent Raila Odinga contested the results. Later, the opposition boycotted the new elections.

“What happens during the elections is that one’s tribe becomes more important than one’s religion,” explains an Open Doors researcher. “So Muslims and Christians from the same tribe actually get along better.” Kenyan political alliance depends on tribe.

Secondly, the government exerts less pressure on Christians. This is especially true in Ethiopia, where for the last two years many people have been protesting against the government. They want change — an end to corruption, more respect for human rights, more democracy, a fairer distribution of wealth etc. Here too, Christians and Muslims found each other in a common cause. The protests and turmoil forced the government to declare a state of emergency in October 2016 and it has been in place for most of the year 2017. That meant the government had less time to persecute Christians practicing their faith outside church walls.

The bad news is that although the 2018 WWL shows there was less persecution in Ethiopia, the government cracked down violently on the protesters. Scores of people have been injured or killed, but those are not scored during the WWL survey as these are human rights violations, but not persecution for one’s Christian faith.

In Kenya we see a new, alarming phenomenon. Radical Islamic Al-Shabaab killed over 30 Christians, many by beheadings. This seems to be a new tactic to instil fear in the Christian community and get them to flee en masse.

Vietnam turns back to ‘normal’
On 2017 WWL, Vietnam scored 71 points, an increase of five points compared to 2016 WWL. That increase had mainly to do with three killings and other violence. However, the 2018 WWL reporting period did not see as much violence, although pressure did rise and remains at a very high level. While it is good that no Christians died for their faith in Vietnam, the authorities continue to crack down on ethnic minority Christians and will start implementing a new law on religion in 2018 for all Christians.

Less violence in Syria
Syria is a country that makes a big drop too in 2018 WWL. It loses 10 points and is no longer found in the Top 10. The drop is explained by looking at the violence category. There were less reports of violence in which Christians were targeted. This was mainly because the areas held by IS (Islamic State) were recaptured, but another factor is the difficulty of receiving confirmed information from a country in the chaos of civil war. Anti-Christian violence has not disappeared: There were still Syrian Christians being abducted, physically and sexually abused, fleeing their homes and country in the 2018 WWL reporting period.

Countries that seem to have improved, but did not really
Pakistan from 88 to 86: Slight improvement in some areas of Christian life, but violence still at maximum level. It is hardly any improvement.

Nigeria from 78 to 77. Boko Haram has less influence, but unfortunately the Fulani Muslim herdsman ‘compensate’ for that fact by being very violent against Christians, chasing them away from their farms.

Qatar and Bangladesh both have lower scores. For Qatar it does not reflect an improvement of the situation but has to do more with a refinement on how Christians from a Muslim background and their communities were scored. Bangladesh saw less violence and more efforts by the government to crack down on radical Islamic groups, which to a certain extent relieved the pressure on Christians.

The good news the WWL does not tell you
Christina is back! — When she was only three years old, Iraqi Christina was snatched from the arms of her mother by an IS fighter. For three years, she lived with a Muslim family in IS territory. With the liberation of Mosul, also came the liberation of Christina. The Muslim family brought her back to her parents and she is now doing well. It’s just one example of good news from Iraq. Families have begun to return to their home villages now that IS has been defeated on the battlefield (if not in the hearts of many in the population). There is still much uncertainty and fears for the future, but it is a start.

Help for displaced Christians in Cameroon — Boko Haram related violence has killed more than 2 000 people and uprooted at least 155 000 in northern Cameroon since 2014. Though several NGOs were present in this area to assist the displaced, Christians were often not treated fairly during distributions. Thanks to the help of its supporters, Open Doors recently delivered relief aid to close to 300 displaced Christian families in the town of Mora. Pastor Mattieu, a beneficiary, said: “For those who have given their money and are supporting us in prayer, may God bless them. And you who are here, you take your time to converse with us or to even come and see us and speak to us face-to-face. It also encourages us in this work of the Lord because you also share in our suffering. So we are really happy. May God bless you in your service! May God sustain you, and as you go back, may God keep you on the way! It is our joy that you think about us always in prayer. You share in our suffering. We are really happy. Thank you very much!”

Christians in Marawi grateful despite IS terror — “OD is relentless in pursuing us”, one Christian from the Southern Philippino city Marawi recently told Open Doors. We held a gathering with Christians who received aid via us during the time their city had been taken over by a local IS affiliate. “When the war broke, many helped us who were there for the first week, the second week, and then they were gone. But you stayed. You gave us rice, and we have something to eat. God truly never leaves His children, and I praise Him”, says the wife of a pastor. It’s these small acts — like giving food, listening to someone’s story — that help Christians to persevere in hostile environments.

Mexican translator not lost for words — We asked a Mexican translator to work on a Standing Strong Trough the Storm Manual, a Biblical training designed to help Christians withstand persecution. During his three months’ work on the translation, he felt he was being taught by God on a deep level. He needed all those lessons when he was put in prison. Since his release, he continues to prepare others for persecution.

Christians bravely represent Christ in prisons — Their names cannot be mentioned here, because that could lead to more persecution for them. But there are thousands of Christians around the world who serve as Christ’s ambassadors in prisons. That is why they are there. How else are other prisoners going to hear the Good News? That does not make it easy for them to suffer (in fact, it may be traumatic), but hopefully they experience God’s strength and joy as well. They need our daily prayers.

The Secret Church is growing — Again, the exact countries or numbers cannot be published for obvious reasons, but from around the world we receive reports about the growth of underground churches. This is true for North Korea, for India, for many Muslim and Buddhist countries.

One Chinese Open Doors contact who supports North Korean refugees and Christians (who usually go back to North Korea to share the Gospel there), recently told us: “God is answering your prayers. I’ve done this work for many years. But never before have I seen so many North Koreans come to faith as nowadays. What happens when God is changing the country from the inside out? The forces of darkness will resist as hard as they can. If you look with human eyes, then your prayers made the situation worse. But if you look with spiritual eyes and have a love for lost souls like I do, then you should be joyful. Sure, the battle is more intense than ever. But why? Because God is setting His children free.”

In other words, do not let the World Watch List make you depressed. It shows where the resistance against the Gospel is perhaps the fiercest. It is also an indication where God is transforming people from the inside out. It is meant for informing you and guiding/helping your prayer. Look at this message from an underground, North Korean believer:

“We are able to walk in faith even though there are many difficulties. We try to keep our faith pure in Christ in any sufferings. We put our hope in the place that God prepared for us before He even created the world. Until we reach that place, we will keep going forward. Even when there are many barriers and limitations. It is our desire that we will follow our calling to keep the faith and to spread the Gospel. But we always remember your love and concern for us. We are doing well thanks to your prayers.”

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