How the Coronavirus is Making Christian Persecution Even Worse in Africa

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When 22-year-old Yohannes* from Ethiopia’s Tigray region accepted Jesus, he knew he was likely losing his Muslim family, who would see his decision as a betrayal to their family and tribe.  He was right.

But not only was he shunned by his family, Yohannes’ community expelled him. In his part of Ethiopia, Christians are denied access to community resources and are ostracized from society, effectively cutting him off from help or support.

He doesn’t share details, but after Yohannes was shunned, he found refuge with other believers. Now under government-imposed coronavirus restrictions, life has changed once again for Yohannes. His struggle to live has become that much more difficult. Because his own family has turned their backs on him and the Christians he knows are now living hand-to-mouth due to not being able to work, Yohannes is struggling to find enough food to eat.

He is one of hundreds of thousands of believers throughout sub-Saharan Africa who are not only persecuted for their decision to follow Jesus but are now doubly vulnerable to the impact of a global pandemic.

Persecution in COVID-19

While the coronavirus pandemic has hit Asia, Europe and North America with full force, sub-Saharan Africa—home to 1.1 billion people—is only at the beginning of the crisis. By Tuesday, April 14, there were 9,100 reported cases, with a death toll of 195—a death rate of just over two percent of reported cases. There are likely many more cases, but reporting has lagged behind in many places that don’t have adequate healthcare networks or access to testing.

According to Open Doors World Watch Research, data indicates a direct correlation between the countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are most vulnerable to the virus and the countries where Christians face the most pressure for following Jesus. Specifically, four of the five most virus-vulnerable countries—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and Cameroon—also count among the places in sub-Saharan Africa where life is hardest for Christians.

Countries most vulnerable to Christian persecution

Countries most vulnerable to coronavirus.

Though the 54 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are in their early days of the coronavirus pandemic, persecuted Christians like Yohannes are already feeling the effects. For Christians who are already persecuted, the pandemic gives way to even more ways believers can be discriminated against, exploited and attacked for their faith.

Recently, Open Doors met with Rev. John Joseph Hayab in northern Nigeria, who shared how the pandemic is doubling vulnerability for believers: “We are facing persecution because of our faith and we are also facing a global pandemic,” he says. “We run away from our persecution … or we run away from the global sickness that we are facing. We have a double problem.

“But in all this, we still come back to remember the Word of Jesus: ‘Be ye of good cheers, for I have overcome the world.’ But He didn’t start with that; He says: ‘In this world you will have many troubles.’ This is another additional trouble we are facing.”

Six times smaller rations than Muslims

The economic impact of government-directed social distancing and lockdowns is especially difficult for pastors dependent on tithes for their income and serving in the most volatile areas. As these rules and guidelines prevent church members from working and attending church, more pastors will face great difficulty to feed their own families.

Open Doors has received calls from some pastors asking for help with food. And widows and orphans with small incomes due to lockdown are unable to continue trading. Suleiman M*, director for Open Doors’ work in West Africa, comments that requests for food and other vital support are continuous, especially from overcrowded camps for internally displaced persons (IDP).

Specific targeting by Islamic radical groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, Fulani militants and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) across the region has displaced many thousands of Christians. In the Lakes, Sahel and Horn regions, the social and health infrastructure in IDP camps are unable to handle the far-reaching and rapidly spreading impact of a COVID-19 outbreak. Unless humanitarian aid workers get the funds and access to continue their work, believers in these camps will suffer intensely without water, sanitation and hygiene.

“The COVID-19 situation poses a threat and a challenge to us, for many of our widows and other vulnerable believers,” Suleiman says. “Some in the IDP camps are really relying on support from us to be able to continue to live. It’s a challenge at this time, but we trust the Lord as we stand together, that He will help find solutions to these issues. We thank you for your continued prayers and support for the persecuted church here in West Africa.”

Our field also reports that in some Shariah-governed areas, the government is discriminating against Christians. Believers from towns in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna State, including Ungwan Boro, Sabon Tasha, Barnawa and Naraye, report they get six times smaller rations from the state than Muslim families.