MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: persecution.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Every year, persecution watchdog Open Doors releases a list of the places where it’s most difficult for Christians to practice their faith. This year’s list includes some familiar names and reveals some disturbing new trends.
WORLD’s Leigh Jones reports.
LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: The global pandemic has disrupted life for just about everyone around the world. But for Christians, that disruption has been especially painful.
CURRY: Governments and extremists are using COVID-19 as a way to justify an increase in the persecution of Christians.
David Curry is CEO of Open Doors. He says in some places, like India, Christians who have lost their jobs during lockdowns can’t get access to government aid.
CURRY: In many cases, those village leaders will not distribute food to Christians because they think they have either, in a religious sense, brought a curse upon themselves, or because they say, you’re not part of our group. You’re not part of our tribe.
In places like Somalia, Islamic militants are using the pandemic to stoke hatred and fear.
CURRY: Al-Shabaab, the terror group within that country, has spread the word and is reporting that the coronavirus is the fault of Christians. And it’s this kind of misinformation in some communities that is driving some of this persecution.
But perhaps the most dangerous trend related to the pandemic involves an increase in government surveillance, starting with the place where the new coronavirus originated.
Chris Meserole is a foreign policy expert with the Brookings Institution. He says that while public surveillance in China is nothing new, Beijing has now honed its ability to track people in private.
MESEROLE: What’s never been possible before, really, is a surveillance technology that enables the regime to ban like private forms of religion. Even kind of the private messages and communications that people have, or what they say in their home. Or banning and effectively enforcing the ability of religious communities to kind of meet in private, maybe not in a public church but in somebody’s house. And on top of that, they’ve also got this incredible array of geolocation data so that if you are trying to meet with certain folks in private, they can actually figure that out and begin to unwind some of those private religious communities, too.
Meserole says when that’s paired with existing systems that track online communication and public movements, the government can build a frightening level of detail about where people have been and what they’ve been doing.
MESEROLE: And it’s a new technology that we haven’t really seen before used in quite this way. And it’s something that, again, if we’re concerned about religious freedom we should really be taking it seriously.
Because what starts in China won’t stay there. Rushan Abbas is a Uighur American activist who advocates for China’s persecuted Muslim minority group. She says Beijing’s campaign against Uighur Muslims is part of a pilot program.
ABBAS: China is already exporting this to other parts of the world, to other countries. So if we don’t stop what the Chinese government is doing to Uighurs right now, just look at the Uighur people today and imagine the future, the tomorrow for the world.
David Curry says that while the United States is in the midst of its own debate about online privacy and censorship, it’s nowhere near China in terms of surveillance.
CURRY: I also think, though, that if it helps you to imagine what it might be like within America, let that motivate you to care deeply about what’s happening to people of faith, Christians, around the world, wherever they may be. Whatever pressure or intolerance you sense, you feel, I can promise you it’s one thousand times worse in every country on the World Watch List.
The top 10 countries on this year’s list are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria, and India.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Leigh Jones.