Unhappy pilgrimage

The Church is on the move as Christians are “strategically driven” from their homes

Artillery Row

By now most people are aware of the awful persecution faced by minority Christian communities across the world. For Christians living in countries that are hostile to their faith, there is a high and growing likelihood of becoming homeless or destitute.

According to a new Open Doors report, “The Church on the Run: IDP and Refugee Report 2022”, Christian minorities are being deliberately driven from their homes and communities to erase the presence of Christianity from their regions.  

Christians are more likely to be forced out of their homes or countries, and more likely to experience psychological and physical violence once displaced on account of their religious identity and activity.  

Astonishingly, the biggest perpetrators of this are the victim’s family.   

Nala Yusuf*, a 22-year-old convert from Islam in Somalia, is one such woman who was forced to leave her family after they discovered she had become a Christian. 

Appalled at her new-found faith, they locked her up and beat her for days until she told them she had renounced Christ and returned to Islam. When they later arranged to have her married to a sheikh, Nala escaped. 

Rather than being married off, a man in the same situation is more likely to be killed by his family, as any conversion to Christianity is regarded as a betrayal of the Somali family and clan. 

While these are some of the most extreme examples, being driven from the family home is a very effective way of ensuring that Christianity does not take hold in the community. 

Christians are a high-value target for al-Shabaab militants

Family units can also withhold basics for survival, such as food and shelter, and threaten a member’s physical safety through violence or death threats. Loss of family and community can be devastating. The rejection and isolation are among the greatest challenges to the resilience of Christians and their sense of identity. Not only do these converts to Christianity lose relationships with their family and the roofs over their heads, but also their practical networks of social or financial support and protection. All safety nets are gone.

In Nala’s case, she had to leave Somalia for her own safety. The population of Somalia is 99 per cent Muslim. In every sphere of life, family life, community life and even national life, being exposed as a convert to Christianity would mean deadly danger.

If that weren’t enough, Christians are regarded as a high-value target by al-Shabaab militants, an insurgency group which wants to establish an Islamic state in Somalia. Christians are often killed on the spot when discovered by al-Shabaab operatives. 

Somalia, which is number three on Open Doors’ World Watch List, an annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution, is just one example.  

What Open Doors’ new report shows is a deliberate strategy by governments, armed extremist groups and communities to weaken, silence or completely eradicate Christian populations. While we know that caliphate-based Islamic ideologies are very much focussed on land and the cleansing of “kaffir” from it, this process is often aided and abetted by converts’ own families. 

Worse still, Christians do not leave persecution behind when they flee. In their new “homes” — which are often IDP camps — they can be singled out, denied basic aid or face renewed attack from other displaced communities. The trauma of persecution-by-displacement is extended, “out of the frying pan and into the fire”.

In countries like Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria and Bangladesh, the level of danger to Christians inside IDP camps is perceived to be so high that some Christians avoid the camps altogether. 

Moreover, there is evidence that the situation is further compounded by a lack of understanding and support from the very people supposedly there to help them: humanitarian actors. The treatment of displaced Christians by aid agencies can range from unintentional neglect to deliberate targeting.  

Given the overlap between countries where refugees are escaping from, and those known to be the world’s worst religious freedom violators, it is vital for governments and NGOs to gain a better understanding of refugee religious identity, so that they can meet the needs of persecuted religious minorities more effectively. 

Hamid was beaten and attacked with knives

Hamid* fled Afghanistan decades ago and spent time in two countries as a refugee. He became a Christian in one of the camps and counts his time there as among the darkest of his life. 

After his conversion from Islam, his wife left him. Hamid was beaten and attacked with knives, while his family was threatened with kidnap, rape and murder. When he went to police, they told him the violence was happening because he was public about his faith.  

He said: “They told me I wasn’t forced to become a Christian, so it’s my problem, it’s my fault.”  

We urgently need to see more attention paid to the role religion plays in the experiences of migrants. Greater awareness of the legitimacy of religious identity, as a UN-validated factor of displacement and ongoing vulnerability, is crucial.  

The Open Doors report recommends that religion should be included as a factor of vulnerability in any assessment made in planning and programming for refugees. It recommends that local faith-based organisations in both countries — of origin and host nations — participate in the refugee protection and assistance discussions. Finally, humanitarian aid workers should be given training on assessing and identifying harassment of refugees based on religion within the larger refugee community in order to respond rapidly to any incidents. 

The world is on the move, and much of this movement is involuntary. It is estimated that the number of people forcibly displaced is now 100 million worldwide.  The question is whether the Christian family in the comfort zone of the West, cares enough to speak up and act for those rejected by their biological families elsewhere.

*Names changed for security reasons

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