How has coronavirus and the lockdown affected believers in the Middle East and North Africa?
Much like sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, the impact of coronavirus lockdown in the Middle East and North Africa region is often more widely devastating than the virus itself. While the lockdown is necessary, it has left many families without incomes, and made community even more difficult for Christians in countries where meeting was already risky. Both have added further burdens and obstacles to lives of believers already blighted by persecution, and often also by conflict or the aftermath of conflict. Open Doors partners are focusing their work on getting vital aid to those who need it the most, and using online fellowship and encouragement as face-to-face community is no longer possible. Here’s an update on some of the countries in the region, and how your support is helping Christians in lockdown. In all countries, vital aid is a priority where possible.
Iran has one of the highest number of cases in the world – it is the 10th highest country for cases and fatalities, and the country’s initial apparent success in dealing with the pandemic appears to be in reverse. In response to the virus, Iranian authorities temporarily released 83,000 prisoners, because of the danger of contagion within prisons. This includes some, but not all, of the Christians imprisoned for their faith. At least 3,600 Iranians have been arrested for ‘spreading rumours’ about coronavirus. Read more about prisoners in Iran at this time.
Volunteers preparing to distribute aid in the Middle East
The situation in Syria is quite different in different areas of the country. The worst affected region is in the north, where citizens are still dealing with the aftermath of the crisis last year when Turkish forces invaded. Elsewhere in Syria, many Christians who had been forced to leave their homes have returned, but the economic impacts of lockdown will pose a significant challenge to the rebuilding of livelihoods and communities.
Centres of Hope in the country are continuing to help those in desperate need, and the Relief and Resourcefulness programme has been re-channelled to the emerging urgent needs, adapting the methods of distribution to current official restrictions. While the country is in lockdown, all religious ministers of different faiths are allowed to travel and to visit people.
There have been relatively few reported deaths in Iraq, but measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus have had severe impacts. A two-day curfew was brought in on 13 March, which evolved into a complete lockdown. As well as emergency support, Open Doors partners have run encouragement activities through social media, specifically catering different projects for youth, women and leaders. As with Syria, many Christians have only recently returned to their homes and communities after being forced to flee when so-called Islamic State invaded. The situation in the Nineveh Plain region is unstable because of conflict between the central government and the Kurdistan region – and this is where most of the country’s Christians live. Hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with this pandemic; they already often lack the necessary medical materials and infrastructure.
Open Doors partners have been able to help thousands of desperate Christians who haven’t got access to vital provisions, but many more need help.
While the full impact of coronavirus probably hasn’t hit Africa yet, North Africa is the worst affected part of the continent. In different countries of North Africa, Open Doors partners have moved face-to-face projects online. In Egypt, for example, some ministries are broadcasting their training through online media channels, like a project for women that has moved its teaching and reflection on the Bible, fasting and praying to an app.
As with many countries in this region, many of the Christians whom Open Doors partners were working with are secret believers. With lockdown, they are even more isolated than ever. Our partners are now scaling up online projects and communications.
In other countries in the Middle East, we don’t yet have as much information – but our partners are going online to send encouragement and training, and exploring how best to scale up these programmes. They are particularly going deeper into online discipleship, since it must take the place of face-to-face discipleship for the time being.