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Digital persecution is on the rise, the WWL 2020 shows. Asia Bibi’s release was one of the the good news.
Read the first part of this article here.
We continue with the trends of the 2020 Open Doors World Watch List.
4. The risk of persecution going digital: The rise of the surveillance state
A case can be made that today there are more Christians in China (no. 23, up from 27 in WWL 2019) than members of the Communist Party.
They appear to threaten President Xi Jinping’s government because they worship a higher power than him and the Party, as do other religious groups.
There are estimates that more than a million Uighur Muslims may have been in detention centers in Xinjiang, where there is evidence of ‘systematic brainwashing’ and coercive control. But it would be impossible to imprison at least 90 million Christians.
It is somewhat more possible to monitor them. China and other authoritarian states, which already heavily restrict ‘religious freedom’, are stepping up their use of biometric technology and artificial intelligence.
The Chairman of the state-controlled Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM, the state-sanctioned Protestant Church) in March accused “anti-China forces in the West” of “trying to influence China’s social stability and even subverting China’s political power through the use of Christianity”.
Despite such pro-Party comments, some TSPM congregations do face severe difficulties with the authorities.
The impact of the Regulations for Religious Affairs, now in force for almost two years, continues to spread. It is strictly forbidden for children under 18 to attend churches; this ban has been implemented country-wide, especially strictly in Henan (where the percentage of Christians is among the highest) and Gansu provinces.
The fact that churches are registered in the TSPM does not protect them from harassment or even closure. They sometimes not only have to take down their crosses and submit to endless bureaucratic monitoring, but increasingly have to install cameras and facial-recognition technology.
In Xinjiang, at least one TSPM church is known to require congregants to queue for facial-recognition checks. This procedure has also now been reported in the central province of Hubei.
In test-runs of a Social Credit System (SCS), by which authorities plan to rate everyone to reward good citizenship and punish bad, one community (Rongcheng in Shandong Province) is reported to have decided to add penalties for those who “illegally spread Christianity”.
With a new law for mandatory facial recognition to buy a phone, and Internet use to be linked to the SCS, Christians will find it increasingly hard to keep a low profile if necessary.
The authorities drafted new guidelines to curb “chaotic” online information on religion in September 2018. Online resources are a major source of encouragement for Christians, especially in remote areas. Online sharing will be allowed only when the provincial religious affairs department has issued a license for it.
In India (no. 10, same as WWL 2019) too, biometric-based systems continue to make progress. Under a second-term BJP-led government, an ultra-nationalistic Hindutva ideology (in which to be an Indian, you must be a Hindu) continues to spread.
The BJP’s strategic advance is seen not only in the recent Supreme Court decision to allow the rebuilding of the Hindu temple at Ayodhya, but in the repeated proposal to widen a ban on “forced conversions”, currently in force in nine states.
This month, January 2020, the Indian government is due to introduce a national facial-recognition system, which it says will do no more than facilitate police work. But the technology has been shown to be inaccurate in identifying darker-skinned people and those from ethnic minorities, and so risks institutionalizing systemic discrimination.
With at least 447 verified incidents of violence and hate crimes against them this year (amidst a climate of impunity due to police inaction and even collusion), Christians are concerned about further targeting. In addition, the mass media continue to mischaracterize Christians as ‘agents of the West’ and foreign funding for Indian NGOs is closely scrutinized.
5. Christianity continues to disappear from Iraq and Syria due to conflict and instability
Almost nine years of civil war in Syria (no. 11, same as WWL 2019) and years of conflict in Iraq (no. 15, 13 in WWL 2019) continue to devastate Christian communities. In Iraq, where Christians had numbered 1.5 million before 2003, they are now around 202,000 - an 87% reduction within one generation.
Some have trickled back to rebuild their homes, mainly in the Nineveh Plain, but their return is complicated by security, education, health and employment difficulties. Iranian-backed Shiite militias continue to threaten, harass and intimidate Christians.
In summer 2019, there were thought to be only 50-75 Christians living in Mosul, two years after the city had been recaptured from the Islamic State group, though other Christians travel in and out to work or study.
The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako has warned that Shiite groups are again trying to achieve a "demographic shift" in the Nineveh Plain.
Meanwhile, demonstrations against the Iraqi ruling elite’s corruption ensure ongoing general instability, deterring refugees from possible return.
Syria is a more complex picture. Of the pre-conflict Christian population of 2.2 million, it is estimated that around 744,000 remain. Many of the young have left. The Maronite Bishop of Damascus, Samir Nassar, says the profile of the Church is now “ageing - with an uncertain status” — but in government-controlled areas, life amongst the devastation shows some semblance of normality.
However, there are fuel, water and food shortages, as well as meager medical facilities, education and employment opportunities. The Syrian Christian population remains either largely displaced inside the country, or refugees outside it.
In Aleppo, the community has dwindled by 10% to fewer than 30,000 in the past year alone, according to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. Of Christian refugees who choose to remain in Lebanon and Jordan, the men do not want to return for fear of military conscription.
In addition, the Turkish incursion into north-eastern Syria has directly affected 40,000 or more Christians in the principally Kurdish region; they fear that Turkey’s Syrian refugee repatriation plan also constitutes a demographic shift, intended to boost the Arab Sunni presence to the detriment of Kurds and others such as Christians.
6. Any good news?
Asia Bibi, who spent 8 years on death row on a fabricated blasphemy charge, finally flew to freedom in Canada, where she was reunited with her family, although they all still live ‘under the radar’ for their own safety.
Delayed for six months after nationwide protests following her acquittal by the Supreme Court, her departure from Pakistan was a much-needed encouragement to the country’s beleaguered Christian community that, finally, justice had been done. Many of them never thought they would see her alive and free.
Pakistan’s new Chief Justice said that, had her case not been so sensitive, Bibi’s accusers should have been jailed for life because of perjury. When she finally spoke from Canada, she said she forgave her captors and asked that people do not forget others “lying in jail for years and their decision should also be done on merit”.
In Mandera, on the border with Somalia, a number of Christians (including teachers and others who move there from other parts of Kenya) have been killed by al-Shabaab. However, sometimes things go differently. In July 2019, word came that gunmen were on their way to a construction site to kidnap or kill about 20 Christians.
Other workers warned the 20 to leave quickly before confronting the three gunmen and telling them no non-locals were there. The gunmen fired shots before escaping, but no-one was hurt.
See the full 2020 World Watch List.
Learn more about the World Watch List by visiting Open Doors' website.