Christians in an anti-Christian world
Around the world there are many full-time Christian workers faithfully carrying out God's call to share the Gospel and build up the Body of Christ in their own countries or people groups. Living at a very simple level, in places where they face hostility from the authorities and the majority of non-believers in their communities, their ministry can be very lonely, under-resourced and dangerous.
When churches were closed during the pandemic, pastors maintained spiritual and practical care for their members, many of whom had lost their jobs and incomes due to lockdowns, sickness or bereavements. Pastors were struggling to meet their own families' needs because they were no longer receiving donations from Sunday service offerings on which they used to live. Many died, leaving behind a grieving family and a congregation bereft of spiritual care. More than 2,000 pastors and Christian leaders died in the first 14 months of the pandemic in India alone.
With so many disastrous events having occurred or are presently occurring – the war in Ukraine and the flooding of many east coast areas of Australia being two examples – it's easy to lose track of the many perils that Christians in other countries encounter on a daily basis, perils that can cause great suffering and are often life-threatening. Pastors and Christian leaders ministering in areas where Christians are a minority are often singled out for harassment and persecution from government authorities seeking to weaken the church. With these thoughts in mind, now might be a good time to look at five of these countries, three which are well known to Westerners and two that are not.
The rise of Islamic terrorism has devastated this small landlocked West African country, where around 60% of the population are Muslim, 30% Christian and the remainder followers of traditional African religions. Until a few years ago this impoverished country was viewed as a bastion of religious tolerance in which people of different religions lived together in peace, despite political instability and military coups. However, since 2015 Jihadi violence has spread from neighbouring Mali and Niger to affect most of the country's regions, particularly in the north and north-east. Extremist Islamic groups have carried out relentless attacks on civilians, frequently targeting Christians, Christian leaders and places of worship. In one attack Jihadists warned “flee, convert or die.” Most Christians have fled the worst-affected areas, church buildings are closed or destroyed and the few remaining believers worship in secret.
Armed groups also target people's livelihoods, destroying crops and food reserves. This has forced 3.5 million people to rely on humanitarian assistance. In September 2021 it was estimated that more than 1.4 million people had been internally displaced by the escalating violence, representing a 50-fold increase over the previous three years. Violent attacks in 2020 claimed almost 2,300 lives and by late 2021 more than 2,000 schools had been closed, along with around 320 health centres. The Covid pandemic has only added to the country's misery.
In July 2021 pastors in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (the official Protestant Church in China) were ordered to deliver sermons based on a patriotic speech by President Xi Jinping celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Other measures taken that year saw further restrictions on Christian content on social media platforms – including the blocking of Christian search terms and the removal of Christian accounts – while Christian businessmen were jailed for producing and selling audio Bibles. Stringent religious regulations introduced in 2020 were tightened further by creating a database listing all those officially authorised to perform religious ministry. In order to be registered church leaders must “support the leadership of the CCP” and “practice the core values of socialism.” Government action against unofficial congregations – known as house churches – has been intensifying since 2018. Nevertheless, the number of Christians is thought to be around 150 million and growing fast.
The intensity of persecution varies across this vast country, often being instigated at the level of a city or province but in the knowledge that the CCP will approve. Many have been arrested and house churches closed, and the authorities have removed crosses from churches and ordered pastors to replace Biblical Scriptures or paintings with portraits of President Xi or his quotes. In Zhejiang Province local officials ordered Christian fishermen to remove crosses from the masts of their boats, and to paint over the word “Immanuel.” Tens of thousands of Uighurs have been interned in “re-education” camps, and the CCP continues to develop its high-tech surveillance systems to further target religion.
A small, landlocked mountainous country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan (pronounced Keergizstarn) is wedged between the high mountains which form its border with China to the south-east and three other Central Asian republics to its north, west and south. The population of Kyrgyzstan is 86% Muslim and there has been a revival of Islamic practices since the country gained independence from Soviet communist rule in 1991. The Religion Law of 2009 prohibits “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another” and “illegal missionary activity” by any missionary or evangelistic group not registered with the government. As of January 2022 there were 285 evangelical churches registered in Kyrgyzstan, 26 having been added since September 2020. Churches must have 200 members in order to apply for registration, a process which can take several years. Many small church groups are therefore unregistered, so operate illegally. In December 2021 a new Religion Law was drafted that, if adopted, would tighten restrictions even more. All 200 members must live in one region, all must attend one founding meeting and have their personal details officially noted at that meeting.
Christians can be punished for sharing their beliefs in public and religious literature requires state censorship. Most persecution comes not from the authorities but by Muslim clerics, relatives, employers and the general community, especially in rural areas. During the Covid pandemic the economic situation worsened, with many businesses closing and people struggling to find work. It's even harder for those who have left Islam, as the country's Muslim majority often refuse to employ them. Many Christians suffered drought and economic downturn in the Lake Issyk Kul region in eastern Kyrgyzstan, one of the worst areas for anti-Christian discrimination.
In Kyrgyz culture there is a great concern about what happens to the body after death, and converts fear being given Islamic funerals. It's also difficult for religious minorities to arrange for burials in public cemeteries.
North Korea's status as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian is supported by considerable weight of testimony. The closed country is under the despotic rule of Kim Jong-un and strict communist control. The state ideology of Juche (self-reliance) was established by his grandfather Kim Il-sung, yet in 1907 Pyongyang was known as the “Jerusalem of the East” after a Protestant revival, with the north of the peninsula being the powerhouse of Korean Christianity until 1945.
Some Christians have been executed for the 'crime' of owning a Bible and believers have to keep their faith secret. Many parents dare not even let their own children know that they follow Christ, as pupils are encouraged at school to report on their parents if they see them praying or reading the Scriptures. The torture and abuse of tens of thousands of Christians in “re-education” camps have been documented through harrowing testimonies of exiles. One prisoner who endured three years in a camp weighed just 27 kg on release, and has suffered lasting kidney damage. Another was forced to sit curled inside a tiny steel cage measuring 120 cm long by 100 cm high (4 feet by 3 feet) and its bars were heated by an electric current. There is close collusion between the communist authorities in North Korea and China over the arrest, punishment and forced repatriation of Christians who cross North Korea's only active border, which was closed in response to the Covid pandemic. This further exacerbated the shortage of food and medicine in this already hunger-stricken country.
In predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) Christians are found amongst both the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority ethnic groups. The three-decade civil war, which ended in 2009, casts a long shadow for the ethnic minorities, who have been oppressed and disadvantaged by majority-dominated governments since the country's independence in 1948.
The Christian community includes families who have been Christians for generations plus new converts from Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Most Christians are poor. Many have suffered violence at the hands of Buddhist extremists, and church services have been disrupted. Radical Muslims are pressuring both Christian and Hindu Tamils in the east to convert to Islam: at least ten Tamil villages are now 100% Muslim and have new names. Buddhist hardliner Gotabaya Rajapaksa's election as President in 2019 and his landslide victory in the general election in August 2020 opened the door to criminalising religious conversions.