The new coronavirus pandemic has aggravated the situation of persecuted Christians around the world, claimed a report released by the Aid to the Church in Need International (ACN).
“The devastating and unprecedented impact of COVID-19 all over the world … had a direct bearing on trends concerning unjust detention,” the group said in a report titled “Set Your Captors Free” released Nov. 25.
Even as incidents of state arrests of Christians were notably low during the early weeks of the pandemic, the report noted that persecutions increased in severity as the new coronavirus spread.
“It seems that, early on in the crisis, authoritarian regimes, with a track record of repression of religious practice, ‘relaxed a crackdown on unofficial religious groups,'” read the report.
It added, however, that it was “not out of choice, but because of the need to prioritize response to the coronavirus emergency.”
In April 2020, the United States called for the release of prisoners of conscience in countries like Myanmar, China, and Iran to prevent the spread of the disease among the prison population.
The report noted that as the health emergency went on, “evidence suggests the systems of control were reinforced.”
It cited Iran, which reportedly showed a relaxation in restrictions on the practice of religion early on in the pandemic, but “reimposed its system of surveillance and arrest of Christians” later.
The report said “three key factors” caused the situation to worsen for Christians: The closure of courts, online religious services, and an opportunity to intensify persecutions.
The pandemic caused the partial or complete closure of courts, causing delays in the hearing of cases of Christians whose cases have been on appeal.
Online church services also provided governments an opportunity to have increased surveillance and crackdowns on those found to be participating in allegedly illegal activities.
Christian persecution watchdog ChinaAid has reported evidence of increased targeting of Christians as a result of pandemic-related surveillance, including the raid of a religious service in China’s Fujian province in May.
The report said China can also be cited as an example of a “third factor,” that is, “the crisis has provided persecutors with the opportunity to strike while others’ backs are turned.”
In China, the coronavirus emergency became an opportunity for the government to go after church groups that refuse to cooperate with its campaign of “sinicisation”.
The report also noted that around the world, “militants … including extremists from other faith traditions, target religious minorities with alarming regularity.”
“There exists the disturbing trend of state actors unjustly detaining members of faith minorities,” read the ACN report.
It said that an average of 309 Christians are “unjustly imprisoned” each month in the 50 worst-offending countries, and more than 1,000 are abducted.
The report said Christians face widespread kidnapping by militants in Nigeria, with more than 220 Christian captives per year.
There has also been a “surge” in kidnappings of priests and religious, added the report.
In countries such as Pakistan and Egypt, Christian women are kidnapped and subject to forced conversions and forced marriages.
In one Pakistani province, there were 1,000 cases of forced marriages of Christian and Hindu women in 2018 alone.
North Korea is also known to be one of the worst persecutors of Christians, with more than 50,000 Christians imprisoned in harsh labor camps.
The report also highlights individual Christian cases, such as those of Asia Bibi who faced the death penalty in Pakistan for false blasphemy charges, and Eritrea’s Patriarch Antonios, under house arrest since 2007.
The Aid to the Church in Need International is a pontifical aid foundation with sectors in 23 countries.