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War, Disaster, Famine, Disease, Presecution:
The suffering Church around the world

In chapter 21 of Luke’s Gospel we read of the Lord Jesus Christ warning His disciples of the events that will take place before the end comes: wars, famines, diseases and disasters (Luke 21:9-11). Each of these is taking place before our very eyes, causing great suffering to the Church and the world as a whole.

The Lord also warns of persecution, in which Christians will face imprisonment, betrayal and death (Luke 21:12,16-17). This prophecy is being fulfilled today, as it has been in every age since it was given.

Here we use these five categories – war, disaster, famine, disease and persecution – to give an overview of how the Church across the Earth is suffering. Sometimes the Church suffers with the world; sometimes the Church suffers from the world. Whatever the case, our brothers and sisters desperately need your continued, prayerful support.


War

At the time of writing, the Global Conflict Tracker managed by the Council on Foreign Relations lists 26 wars, armed conflicts or areas of instability across the world. By some definitions the total could be more than twice as high as this.

War is an area in which Christians share in the general suffering of all humanity. In Ukraine many believers are among the civilian dead and wounded, the more than five million who have sought refuge overseas, and the approximately seven million displaced from their homes in Ukraine itself. The conflict is also having a disastrous effect on food supplies around the world (see Famine, below).

The tiny Christian population of Yemen is caught in one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters as armed struggle between Houthi rebel forces and Saudi-backed pro-government forces continues to destabilise the country. Similarly, armed conflict between pro- and anti-government forces in Ethiopia has, according to figures from Ghent University, killed 50-100,000 people, many of them Christians.

In the ongoing Myanmar conflict, which has worsened since the military coup of February 2021, ethnic-minority Christians are deliberately targeted. The Buddhist-nationalist military (Tatmadaw) – infamous for their brutal and murderous treatment of Rohingya Muslims - has attacked Christian communities in Chin, Kachin, Karen and Kayah states for many years, killing and injuring untold thousands. 

Barnabas Aid has distributed food and other essentials to displaced believers in several regions of Myanmar  

In late 2021 and early 2022, for example, repeated attacks on the town of Thantlang, Chin State, displaced 10,000 people and destroyed or damaged at least six church buildings. Pastor Cung Biak Hum was shot and killed as he tried to put out a fire. Soldiers then hacked off his finger and stole his wedding ring. 

Thousands of believers are in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, but even these are not safe. In January 2022 a seven-year-old girl was killed in a strike on an IDP camp. Adults are now teaching young children to dig makeshift bomb shelters. Some seek refuge in the jungle, others have fled into India or Thailand. Return home is often impossible as the Tatamadaw lay mines around abandoned villages.

"This prophecy is being fulfilled today, as it has been in every age since it was given"


 

The aggression of Azerbaijan – supported politically and militarily by Turkey – towards the Armenian Christian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in late 2020 brought back memories of the Armenian Genocide a century ago. 

In the beleaguered Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a rebel force known as M23 has renewed fighting with the DRC army in the north-eastern province of North Kivu. The DRC alleges that Rwanda is supporting the rebel movement. Christians in north-eastern DRC are already suffering an Islamist insurgency. Armed Islamist groups are the driving force behind armed conflict in much of sub-Saharan Africa (see Persecution, below).   

Christians have suffered immensely in Afghanistan, the result of Western foreign policy choices and Islamist terror (see Persecution, below). Today they share in the desperate poverty of Afghanistan that has led to people making the awful decision to sell organs or even their own children.   

In the South China Sea, China is increasing the number of military flights into Taiwan’s air defence zone. China claims the island of Taiwan as part of its own territory. In several statements United States President Joe Biden has said that the US will act to defend Taiwan. The consequences of a US-China war are unthinkable: not only fighting across the face of the Earth, including the possibility of nuclear or chemical warfare, but famine, disease and poverty – and throughout the global Church, division, suspicion and hostility among the brothers and sisters of Christ.   

Practical supplies funded by Barnabas Aid are distributed to victims of jihadi violence in Plateau State, Nigeria 

Famine  

The present global food crisis is shaping up to be one of the worst disasters ever to face humanity. Around a billion people are without sufficient food to maintain their health and physical wellbeing. Of that billion, the World Food Programme (WFP) says that 49 million are already facing famine – already nearing the point of death.

The conflict in Eastern Europe has exacerbated a situation that was already on its way to becoming a worldwide catastrophe. Russia exports more wheat than any other country in the world, while Ukraine is also one of the world’s largest exporters. Together the two countries export on average 59 million tonnes of wheat, estimated at between 23% and 33% of the global total.

The two countries are also leading exporters of other grains, seeds and vegetable oils, as well as much-needed fertilisers. Planting and harvesting has been severely disrupted. A deal has been struck to allow wheat to be exported from Ukraine by sea, but distribution of wheat and grain will likely continue to face disruption.  

Extreme weather events – drought or floods, cyclones, plagues of locusts – have also crippled agriculture in many parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The shock to the global economy caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has driven up the price of food, fertiliser and transport. Falling wages and soaring interest is leading to food poverty, even for some in the Western world.

The WFP has said that 20 million people are at risk of malnutrition in the Horn of Africa and neighbouring East African countries, where persistent drought has led to crop failure and the death of livestock.  Northern Kenya has experienced the failure of four rainy seasons in a row – its worst drought in 40 years. Other badly affected countries in this region include Djibouti, Ethiopia and Sudan, while Somalia is the land most affected by hunger and malnutrition according to the Global Hunger Index (GHI).

Just across the Red Sea, environmental disasters have combined with the ongoing civil war to leave thousands at risk of malnutrition in Yemen – second in the GHI’s list of the worst affected. Drought and other environmental disasters have also hit countries in southern Africa, including Madagascar, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

"The present global food crisis is shaping up to be one of the worst disasters ever to face humanity"


 

 

Hunger is not discriminatory – it affects people of all religions, creeds and beliefs. Yet in many parts of the world, Christians suffer extra deprivation because of their faith in Jesus. Already among the most impoverished and vulnerable to disaster, they are often pushed to the bottom of the list when it comes to receiving aid, or excluded altogether. 

A family of starving Christian converts in Sri Lanka were deliberately given food contaminated with rat droppings. A desperately hungry pastor in India was denied food aid, the authorities telling him to pray to Jesus if he wanted something to eat. Displaced Chin Christians in Myanmar have been left out of plans made by that country’s military government to distribute internationally funded aid.

Not only is food insecurity caused by economic downturns, diseases and conflict, it can also lead to further economic downturns, diseases and conflict – a ratchet effect that we are already seeing across the Global South. Humanly speaking, this crisis will get worse before it gets better.

Christians in Lebanon queue patiently to receive food and other essential aid provided by Barnabas

Disease

Disease is another ever-present danger that faces humanity, including the Church. The Covid-19 pandemic – to take only the most obvious example – has led to millions of deaths, and millions more being hospitalised. The psychological and financial impact of lockdowns and other restrictions remains incalculable. The virus is still present – at the time of writing the number of cases globally is rising, not falling.

The Church in India has suffered the loss of more than 2,000 pastors and Christian leaders to Covid-19. To compound the grief of their family and friends, many churches and ministries were left leaderless. Some have been forced to close. Christians in Nepal suffered a similar desperate situation. 

Like famine, disease does not discriminate on the basis of religion. Yet statistically Christians are likely to be among the poorest in society, and therefore the least able to pay for medical care, medicines or treatments. This is the case in India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, to give just four examples of where Barnabas Aid has funded Covid-related medical projects. Medicines were provided to believers in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, and oxygen concentrators in Uzbekistan. Through our medical.gives initiative we have also transported 50 million pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) to Christian hospitals in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Impoverished Christians earning their living by casual labour were also among those to suffer most from lockdowns and other restrictions on activity. Barnabas funded programmes to help Christians affected by the pandemic in more than 40 countries, including Albania, Angola, Armenia, Bangladesh, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, D.R. Congo, Egypt, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Georgia, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as countries in Central Asia. 

China’s introduction of restrictions on online religious content has created severe difficulties for churches unable to hold in-person services owing to the virus, as many are no longer able to use livestreaming as an alternative. 

In secretive North Korea, the unwillingness of the government to admit the scale of the problem and the lack of medicines and other treatments are transforming a difficult situation into a catastrophe. In June 2022 the communist authorities also admitted the existence of another widespread illness, an intestinal problem thought by international health experts to be typhoid or cholera. Here there are no churches able to provide or to seek help.

Statistically, Africa has fared better than other regions of the world in terms of known Covid infections and fatalities. Nevertheless, there have been a quarter of a million Covid deaths reported across Africa – and this figure may not give the full total. In early 2022 Barnabas Aid contacts at a Christian hospital in Uganda told us that at one point every doctor on staff was infected with the virus simultaneously. 

Furthermore, there are many other infectious diseases – malaria and tuberculosis to name just two – that have killed many and in turn held back the development of sub-Saharan Africa. Diseases associated with malnutrition are also likely to increase across the Global South. The increasing urbanisation and connectedness of our globalised world increases the risk of further epidemics or pandemics in the years ahead.

Barnabas Aid has funded Covid-related medical projects in India

Disaster 

Natural disasters are deadly in and of themselves, but can also create further health problems and economic shocks that continue for years after the event. 

In August 2021 a 7.2 magnitude earthquake killed more than 2,000 and destroyed 37,000 homes in Haiti. Two days later a tropical storm wreaked further havoc. Many church buildings lay in ruins, a disaster in itself for a nation where the churches are vital centres of local communities. 

In December 2021 Typhoon Rai swept across the Philippines, damaging 1.4 million homes including 400,000 destroyed, the country described “as if bombed worse than World War Two”. A 6.2 magnitude earthquake along with a tsunami devastated Tonga in January 2022. Crops were destroyed, and water polluted, affecting more than 80% of the population. 

The following month Cyclone Batsirai battered south-eastern Madagascar, the second cyclone to hit the country in two weeks. At least 111 people died, mainly drowned or crushed when their houses collapsed. Already underdeveloped, much of the country’s infrastructure was wrecked, with schools, hospitals and at least 6,000 homes destroyed. “Cyclone Batsirai has gone,” said a church leader, “leaving Madagascar with disasters.”

The situation in Lebanon is similar, though the catastrophe here was a man-made accident rather than a natural disaster. In August 2020 a massive explosion at the Port of Beirut killed at least 218 people and injured around 7,000 others, as well as causing US$15 billion in damage. The exact cause of the explosion is unknown, but somehow around 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse was ignited, causing a devastating blast which demolished thousands of homes, completely destroyed three hospitals, and damaged homes as far as six miles (ten kilometres) away.  Several Christian neighbourhoods near to the port were severely affected.

Covid-19 had already devastated the Lebanese economy, with Christians among those suffering from low wages, inflation and unemployment. Many were struggling to pay for rent, medicine or food – those struggles have increased. More than two years on, Lebanon has yet to recover.

Selling cactus leaves in Androy, Madagascar. In their desperate hunger, people buy and eat the slightly poisonous leaves because there is nothing else  

Persecution 

Christians remain the most persecuted people in the world, owing to their commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Persecution comes from many sources: governments and authorities, terrorists and religious extremists, communities and neighbours, even family and friends. It is meted out by different ideologies and belief systems: Islamism, communism, religious nationalism, and increasingly secular humanism. 

Islamism is a cause of anti-Christian persecution in many countries. Since the Western withdrawal and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the country – never safe – has reverted to being one of the most dangerous in the world for our brothers and sisters.

The estimated 5,000 to 8,000 Christians in Afghanistan were all converts from Islam or the young children of converts – as such they faced the death penalty for apostasy. Many fled into neighbouring countries, but these Muslim-majority lands are themselves dangerous for Muslim-background believers.  The Taliban are reported to have gone door to door searching for Christians. Converts are also at risk of violence and death at the hands of their own families; this risk has increased since the Taliban takeover. 

Iran is another repressive Muslim-majority land. The constitution recognises Christianity as the religion of historic Assyrian and Armenian minorities, and these are permitted to worship in their own languages. However, worship in Farsi (Persian), the national language, is forbidden and Farsi-language churches are closed down. Farsi-speaking Christians, being converts from Islam, are the main target of persecution. In separate incidents in 2022 two Tehran-based Armenian-Iranian pastors received ten-year prison sentences for running illegal Farsi-language “house churches”.

Saudi Arabia has taken some steps towards liberalisation in the past couple of years, but all religions other than Sunni Islam remain illegal, conversion from Islam can still be punished with death, and Saudi Christians are compelled to be secret believers. Conversion from Islam is also a crime in Iran, the Maldives, Mauritania, and Somaliland – though no known executions have taken place in Saudi Arabia or any of these countries in recent years except Iran. Promotion of any religion other than Islam is illegal in Somalia and Comoros, and evangelising a Muslim can result in a five-year prison sentence in Algeria.

In Azerbaijan June 2021 amendments to both the Religion Law and the Administrative Code of Azerbaijan barred churches from appointing leaders without state approval. Restrictions on churches are a feature of life in the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

"Christians remain the most persecuted people in the world"


 

Believers in Pakistan face direct persecution more from Muslim extremists within society than from government. This most notably includes false accusations of “blasphemy”, often made as a means of settling personal grudges. Angry mobs can easily be persuaded to attack Christians and other non-Muslims, even on the basis of highly spurious allegations. Christian and Hindu girls and young women are often kidnapped, forcibly converted and forcibly married to Muslim men. Police and courts are usually reluctant to act. Christians are generally treated as second-class citizens, with many consigned to dirty, low-status jobs.

Similarly, in Egypt, where the government is now much more supportive of the rights of Christians, opposition to the Church from extremists within society continues. In April 2022 a church minister in Alexandria was stabbed to death by a Muslim, a former member of an Islamist terrorist group. In June a Christian in Sohag was hacked to death by a Muslim man known to have Islamist views. 

In June 2022 the world’s attention was drawn to an attack on a church service in Owo, Ondo State, southern Nigeria, in which 40 worshippers were shot and killed. Yet while anti-Christian violence is rare in the south, in northern and Middle Belt Nigeria such violence at the hands of Fulani Islamist extremists, Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province remains a sad fact of life. As many as 10,000 Christians have lost their lives to jihadists since 2015. Christians are also often targeted by Islamist groups for abduction.

While community violence against Christians in Nigeria is comparatively rare, in May 2022 Deborah Samuel, a Christian student, was beaten and stoned to death by a mob of Muslims after being accused of blasphemy against Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. 

Terrorist groups affiliated to IS and al-Qaeda also operate in the Western Sahel states of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, as well as northern Cameroon. The situation is likely to worsen owing to the ongoing French withdrawal from Mali and general instability of the region. 

In Kenya Christians are targeted by the Somalia-based al-Shabaab. Islamist group the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) are active in the DRC. In April and May 2022 at least 36 people were killed in attacks on mainly Christian north-east DRC. A church leader in neighbouring Uganda, where many Congolese were forced to flee, described ADF as “mercilessly killing Christians”. 

Northern Mozambique has earned the title “land of fear” after brutal Islamist violence. At least 2,658 people were killed between 2017 and 2021, and in the first quarter of 2022 at least 24,000 people were displaced by ongoing conflict.

Islamist terrorism remains a threat to Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, including in Libya, Iraq and Syria. Christians in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan face the additional threat of military strikes by Turkey, purportedly part of an anti-terrorist campaign but seemingly targeting Christians along with Kurdish and Yazidi minorities.

In the twentieth century communism was responsible for most anti-Christian persecution, especially in the form of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Opposition to the Church persists in today’s China

China’s Measures for the Administration of Religious Personnel, which came into effect in May 2021, require that pastors and church ministers in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (China’s official Protestant church) to be those who “love the motherland, support the leadership of the Communist Party of China, support the socialist system, [and] practise the core values ​​of socialism”. Further regulations require churches and individuals to obtain permission before posting religious content online, while believers have spoken of greater difficulty in finding Bibles and Christian resources in shops or through online retailers. 

"Christians need to be spiritually ready for the suffering"


 

One of the Afghan Christian families who fled into a neighbouring country, now helped by Barnabas Aid to re-settle in a safe location 

North Korea is perhaps the most dangerous place on earth to be a Christian. Tens of thousands of believers have been starved, tortured and worked to death, often for “crimes” as simple as meeting for worship, praying, or owning a Bible. The harshest and most inhumane punishments in prison camps are often reserved for Christians.

Persecution also takes place in communist Vietnam and Laos. Church leaders in Vietnam say that they face difficulties in registering to conduct religious activities, while ethnic-minority Christians – more than half of Vietnamese believers – face systematic discrimination. Churches in Laos also find it difficult to register owing to the suspicion of local officials, despite tolerance from central government. Christians in these countries usually face oppression more from their neighbours and local authorities than from central government, but central government is often unwilling to help.

Eritrea is a highly authoritarian, one-party state, governed by the communist People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. There are estimated to be around 160 Christians imprisoned for their faith. Jailed believers report being beaten, denied food and water, and blocked from receiving medical attention. They may be in prison for many years without being tried or even charged. In the first half of 2021 more than 100 Christians were released, but by the end of that year at least 15 had been re-arrested.

Buddhist nationalism is the cause of anti-Christian persecution in Myanmar (see Conflict, above), as well as in Sri Lanka. Religious nationalism in the form of Hindutva is also the main source of anti-Christian persecution in India. Extremists often attack and denounce Christians and Muslims  for fear that they pose a threat to India’s own religious identity. 

Eleven Indian states have anti-conversion laws that prohibit seeking converts through force, fraud or allurement. Ten of these are permanent, while one – Karnataka – is a temporary ordinance that, at the time of writing, has yet to become a permanent measure. There are two major issues with such laws: firstly, that all evangelism or sharing of Christian testimony may be criminalised; secondly, that such laws encourage extremists within Indian society.

The Church in the West does not in general experience persecution, though opposition from the dominant ideology of secular humanism could yet turn into fully fledged persecution. Christians need to be spiritually ready for the suffering and opposition that may appear in years to come, looking to our suffering brothers and sisters around the world for encouragement. 

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