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By Benjamin Harbaugh

We are living in the midst of a geopolitical event the likes of which has not been seen in the modern era. It has affected every facet of life, from grocery shopping to international travel. At some point, whether it be in months or years, the threat from COVID-19 will subside.

As the threat of COVID-19 dies down, International Religious Freedom (IRF) watchdogs should be prepared for oppressive governments to take three actions that target religious minorities. First, they will likely throw released religious prisoners of conscience (RPOCs) back into prison. Second, persecution under the guise of public health will persist. Lastly, key resources will continue to be unequally distributed to religious minorities.

One positive byproduct of the global pandemic has been the release of RPOCs.[1] From Afghanistan to Tunisia, calls for the release of RPOCs have been met with varying levels of success.[2] Iran, an egregious persecutor of many religious minorities, has “furloughed” 100,000 prisoners since last February.[3]

Unfortunately, most of these releases are temporary in nature. As suggested by the term furlough, Tehran can and may end the practice as international pressure subsides. On the other hand, over 1,000 prisoners in Tunisia—some RPOCs—were granted amnesty.[4]

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for IRF, Sam Brownback, recently acknowledged the disparate conditions of release for RPOCs.[5] Unfortunately, a crackdown on dissidents is likely once the initial wave of the virus has come under some level of control. As their legitimacy is questioned, oppressive governments will likely be less tolerant of dissent and more fearful of popular rebellion as their legitimacy is questioned.

Second, authoritarian regimes have already shown a knack for taking advantage of crises and will continue to do so under the guise of public health measures. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) provides one such example. The CCP has torn down Christian crosses and forced Muslim Uyghurs to work factory jobs made vacant by the virus.[6]

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Bahrain’s Sunni-dominated government denied over 1,000 of its Shi’a citizens reentry after a trip to a holy site in Iraq.[7] An article from the Brookings Institute on the effect of coronavirus on religion in the Middle East concluded that the impact of the coronavirus will negatively affect religious practices for years to come. Bahrain and China are only two examples of a group of countries that will utilize public safety to suffocate minority beliefs.

Lastly, two specific resources will be difficult for disadvantaged religious communities to obtain: vaccines and economic relief. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has noted that Christians and Hindus in Pakistan have been denied food and other resources amidst the pandemic.[8] A Christian worker in Pakistan said that discriminatory practices weren’t necessarily stipulated by the government, but that they were not stopping distributers from pressuring minorities to convert to Islam if they wanted food.[9]

If resources are denied at this point, the chance of minorities having access to a hypothetical vaccine are even worse. Discriminatory distribution trends will only become exacerbated once a vaccine becomes available. Because of this, COVID-19 will continue to disproportionally affect Christians and Hindus in Pakistan even as the country recovers.

Religious communities will also have trouble accessing economic relief. In most countries, stimulus packages have thus far been distributed to legal citizens of said country. This poses a problem for countries like India which are in the process of denying citizenship to millions of Muslims.[10] According to the World Bank, the economic disaster caused by the coronavirus has created a one-two punch in most countries disproportionally affecting the poor.[11] As India restricts citizenship further and further, economic aid will be more difficult for all minorities to obtain as the fallout could last years after reopening.

Current trends show that religious persecution will only get worse after the pandemic has peaked. Bad actors around the world will detain RPOCs again after international goodwill has dissipated. Persecution will be instigated in the name of public health and important resources will be denied to those most in need. The U.S. government and other IRF watchdogs should look for these trends and call out discrimination in the coming years and months.

COVID-19 is bad enough; for those experiencing persecution, it may get worse.

Benjamin Harbaugh is a former intern in the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State and a graduate student at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between government action and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for Christians around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.