Covid-19’s worst victims will be the persecuted Christians of Africa

Jim Shannon MP – Article in today’s Sunday Telegraph

Over my ten years as an MP, the Covid-19 crisis is surely one of the most difficult and surreal I have experienced. Constituents have told me of their physical suffering, of job losses, and the pain of not being able to visit their loved ones.

For Christians the world over, this time celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead carries with it great joy. Yet the public celebration of this joy will be somewhat muted here in the UK this Easter.

But for many Christians living under some of the harshest political regimes, this is nothing new. Millions of Christians face not being able to celebrate Easter openly each year, under pain of discrimination, abuse or even death. That we now share some of their heartfelt suffering is perhaps a wake-up call to each of us living in the more shielded West.

It is those Christians who, particularly over the holiest periods of their religious calendar such as the coming Easter weekend, will suffer most from the new coronavirus outbreak. For Christians living in twelve of Nigeria’s northern states under Sharia (Islamic law), where they face horrendous discrimination, they will be the last to receive appropriate medical aid as the virus spreads, and the first to lose any jobs they have or crops they possess as food shortages increase. For such Christians, the Easter weekend may feel like a prolonged Good Friday.

In the disintegrating region of West Africa, the militant group Boko Haram frequently abduct and kill those who refuse to conform to their extremist brand of Islam. Attacks by armed groups of Muslim Fulani herdsmen have resulted in the killing, maiming, dispossession and eviction of thousands of Christians.

These hardened Christians of Africa are COVID-19’s most vulnerable victims, not directly because of infection, but because of the forced isolation and desolation they already live in, which will cut them off from the critical attention they need, including from UN and WHO programmes. Humanitarian organisation PSJ UK warns that the virus is spreading rapidly in Africa, with almost 10,000 confirmed cases and nearly 500 deaths as of Monday, although the true numbers are feared to be much higher.

Of particular concern are the vulnerable majority of women and children living in internal displacement camps, such as those in Nigeria’s Borno state, where the UN warns a quarter of refugees are under age five. Given Africa’s generally heavily under-resourced healthcare and economic system, a widespread continental pandemic will fast become a humanitarian catastrophe. I was recently made aware that Central African Republic has only three ventilators for a population of almost 5 million people.

Combined with this pre-existing crisis, to help the most vulnerable and isolated, international medics would face too much risk heading into Sharia zones, most notably the now Isil-controlled Chad border region, and any medical supplies delivered under the cover of dark await quick confiscation by roaming Islamist herdsmen. Africa’s persecuted Christians, and those on other continents, have been in a deadly quarantine for years.

Attacks are often intentionally timed to coincide with the Christian religious calendar. Open Doors estimated that 40 Nigerian Christians were slaughtered in the week leading up to last Easter. Shockingly for a Commonwealth country, Nigeria ranks twelfth on Open Doors World Watch List 2020 of the countries in which Christians are most persecuted. By comparison, Syria ranks eleventh and Saudi Arabia ranks thirteenth, with Iraq fifteenth and Egypt sixteenth. Nigeria is currently just one rank below ‘extreme’. By comparison Sri Lanka, where last Easter Sunday terrorist bombings on worshipping Christians killed 259 and injured over 500, ranks thirtieth.

A sign of African Christians’ acute vulnerability to both terrorism – and now the exacerbation of its effects by an erupting pandemic – came over the latest Christmas period. On 22 December in Borno state, Boko Haram jihadists attacked two passenger buses and released the Muslim passengers. They then held back the Christians, separating the men and women. A pastor from Deeper Life Bible Church and two other men were killed on the spot, while the pastor’s relative and two humanitarian workers were abducted.

Then on Christmas Eve another horrific report came from a Christian village near the town of Chibok in Borno. Numerous Boko Haram jihadists driving trucks and motorcycles stormed into Kwarangulum, firing at residents, looting all they could and burning their homes.

The saddest account of all emerged on Boxing Day, when a Christian bride-to-be and her entire bridal party were massacred while traveling in Adamawa state to prepare for her New Years’ Eve wedding. Father Francis Arinse, a diocesan communications director of Nigeria’s Catholic Church, reported that Martha Bulus, her sister Zainab and five others were ritually slaughtered. He told Catholic News Service that “they were beheaded by suspected Boko Haram insurgents at Gwoza on their way to her country home”.

One also has to spare a thought and a prayer for the captive Christian girl Leah Sharibu, whose mother I was honoured to meet on a recent London visit, who has been in ISIS enslavement for over two years now, and will spend this Easter in unknown conditions separated from her grieving family. There are thousands of Leahs held all over Nigeria, and across the world. It pains me to think that her two-year captivity still pales in comparison to the almost ten-year trial undergone by Pakistan’s Asia Bibi.

As the Human Rights Spokesman for the DUP, I will do everything in my power to help all those affected by the raging crisis, particularly the most vulnerable. Among all the injustices for the UK to help correct in the near future, the widespread and growing persecution of Christians is top of the list. These Christians, and other persecuted minorities, must be our priority in the aftermath of a pandemic that may annihilate communities already threatened with extinction.

So as the UK faces lockdown and mass quarantine for the first time in living memory, I ask you to please spare a thought for those Christians whose Easter celebration will be just as muted this year as it has always been, but which nevertheless finds its meaning in the good things to come.

Jim Shannon is the Democratic Unionist Party MP for Strangford. He is currently the DUP Health Spokesperson, and DUP Human Rights Spokesperson and Chair of the All-Party Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief