Lela Gilbert is FRC's Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom and a Fellow at the Hudson Institute. Arielle Del Turco is FRC's Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty. This article appeared in Religion Unplugged on April 12, 2020.
Just a year ago on Easter Sunday 2019, at precisely 8:45 a.m., the clock on St. Anthony’s Shrine in Columbo, Sri Lanka stopped keeping time. A terrorist’s bomb struck the church at that precise moment, one of six jihadi attacks targeting Christian worshippers across the city. Reports were grim:
“Suicide bombings hit three Christian churches and three upscale hotels in the Indian Ocean island nation of Sri Lanka…The death toll in the attacks rose to 290, with about 500 people wounded…”
The world has changed profoundly since that terrible Easter morning just a year ago, and not for the better. COVID-19 has descended like a poisonous cloud across the globe, preventing worshippers on every continent from gathering to celebrate the most joyous of all Christian holidays. And the shadow of Christian persecution has intensified even more dramatically in just a year’s time.
Just across the water from Sri Lanka, India’s Christians are regularly targeted for violent attacks by mobs inspired by the Hindu nationalist movement which teaches India is a nation for Hindus and provides not help the justice system. In March, when a group of Christians who were providing food to the poor, they were physically attacked by a Hindu extremist. And it was the Christians, not the perpetrator of the attack, who were taken into custody.
At least one piece of good news came out of Pakistan this year. Asia Bibi, a now-famous Pakistani Christian mother who was sentenced to death row for blasphemy, finally made it to freedom in the West. Yet, the problem of blasphemy laws remain. As of May 2019, more than 200 Christians were imprisoned of charges of insulting Islam or its Prophet.
In the Middle East, some Christians are suffering extreme persecution as well as being endangered in by extreme threats of COVID-19 infections.
Iran continues to be a hotbed of anti-Christian abuses, particularly targeting Evangelicals and – most of all – Muslim-background believers who have converted to Christianity from Islam. These women and men meet in secret, underground house churches. Yet many are deeply motivated to share their faith with others, which too often leads to arrest and, eventually imprisonment. And no one is more at risk of COVID-19 infection than prisoners in Iran’s filthy, overcrowded prisons.
In neighboring Iraq, some Christians who were driven from their homes by ISIS in 2014 are still displaced. And those who have returned to their rebuilt homes in the Nineveh Plains area continue to be threatened and harassed by Iranian-sponsored militias. Before the ISIS invasion Iraq had a population of some 1.4 million. Today, church leader estimate that about 150,000 Christians remain in the country. Like the rest of Iraqis, face increasing COVID-19 dangers.
In recent months, Christians, (along with Kurds and other minorities) along Syria’s northern border have fled by the thousands into emergency evacuation camps, many of them driven out of ancestral homes by Syrian attacks on Islamist groups, and by the onslaught of Turkey-supported jihadi groups. As these war-torn refugees gather in tent cities, hygienic efforts to prevent COVID-19 infection is made far more difficult because of sabotaged water lines. Misery is everywhere.
Meanwhile Africa is facing its own dangers, as persecution of Christians at the hand of groups like Boko Haram, al Qaeda, Fulani jihadis, al Shabaab and Islamic State proxies rages out of control in West Africa, and continues to afflict Christians across the darkening continent. At the same time, COVID-19 is finding its way into the population. Nigeria is particularly victimized, enduring kidnappings of young women, assaults on military defenders, and in Christian villages and towns genocidal bloodbaths. Efforts to prevent or contain Covid-19 are met with “stirring resentment.”
In North Korea, religious persecution is always at an all-time high. An estimated 50,000 Christians continue to languish in brutal hard labor camps just due to their beliefs. Any religious expression at all is subject to severe punishment for individuals and their extended family. It’s likely that the state of religious persecution saw no change in North Korea over the last year, and that’s a devastating fact for believers in the world’s most closed-off country, where they now face the danger of likely COVID-19 infection.
And that brings us to China – the epicenter of COVID-19 is also the planet’s ground zero for the persecution of Christians, Uighur Muslims and other faith communities. On December 30, 2019, new religious regulations stipulated that “religious organizations must adhere to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.” And unregistered churches across the country continue to be shut down and demolished, even during the pandemic. Christians in China are seeing their already fragile religious freedom erode even further—while the threat of the COVID-19 has not slowed that down at all.
In light of such dark, frightening announcements from across the world, is there any good news to be found? Or is Doomsday all that’s left for us?
Yes, in fact – despite a time of great darkness, there is some very good news. And it doesn’t rely on medical reports about curve-flattened coronavirus charts. It isn’t about Pentagon press conferences heralding U.S. military successes somewhere across the sea. Instead, that excellent news has to do with a true story that took place in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years go.
It’s true that on Easter Sunday 2020, thanks to the dark shadows that have spread across our world, many churches will remain empty. But Christians will still be celebrating what really is the greatest story ever told. We will hear it recounted in our homes, on Facetime with our immediate families, and watching video broadcasts from near and far. Together in spirit, we will rejoice in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And because He lives, as a beloved song says, we – and our struggling brothers and sisters around the world – can face tomorrow.