Hamid (not his real name) fled Afghanistan many years ago and settled in another country, which he perceived as safe for him and his family.
He became a Christian and started evangelizing in refugee camps, where he claimed he was persecuted by Muslims who accused the Afghan refugee of betraying the faith.
Hamid was faced with violent physical attacks both in the camps and in the streets. His Bible was torn apart and those who attacked him also threatened to kidnap, rape, and kill his children.
He took his children out of school and sought help from authorities. He was told, however, that everything that happened to him was his own fault for being a Christian.
Despite the threats and challenges, Hamid continued to share his faith with refugees.
“I allowed myself to see these times as opportunity, for my faith to strengthen and refine like gold through fire,” he shared in a report released by the group Open Doors this week.
“I have even more love to share with the Afghan people and will continue to share the word of God even through these times,” he said.
War, religious intolerance, and political instability are some of the top reasons for the internal displacement of approximately 100 million people in the world.
In its report title “The Church on the Run: 2022 IDP & Refugee Report,” Open Doors noted that Christians from 58 countries have been forcibly displaced due to their religious identity.
Data from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) show that there are currently 20.7 million refugees and 48 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) around the world.
“Religion is part of a complex tapestry of reasons why people flee,” read the Open Doors report.
It said, however, that gaining a complete picture of religious persecution “requires study of both the static and the displaced Church.”
“Religious persecution alone, or the combination of many layers of pressure, can push a person past the tipping point where they feel they have no other option but to flee their home,” said Open Doors.
The report said the unique story of each displaced Christian varies based on their “personal layers of vulnerability,” such as age, gender, belief background, socio- economics, location and ethnicity.
It cited the experience of a female North Korean escapee who became a Christian on the Chinese border after reading the Bible for the first time.
“[It] will be vastly different to that of a young Christian boy fleeing the clutches of gangs in Mexico,” it added.
The report cited Myanmar, where the military took over power in February last year, as one “prime example” of a country whose civilian population have been forced to leave their country.
The report said that in the country’s Christian-majority states — Kayah, Karen, Chin, and Kachin — mass persecution has intensified since the military takeover.
In North Korea, a few Christians have managed to flee to China where they hope to practice their faith, said the report, but added that the pandemic exacerbated the situation of refugees.
The pandemic also meant heightened censorship of Christians residing in China who conduct online worship services using communication platforms such as Zoom.
Church on the run
Through its World Watch List, Open Doors, a Christian rights watchdog, cross-references data on religious freedom with the figures released by the UNHCR.
Among internally displaced people, or IDPs, almost half, or 46 percent, come from five countries that are also on the list of those where Christians suffer persecution the most — Syria, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and Yemen.
Among the 68 percent of refugees — those who have to leave their country because of war and violence — most come from five countries that experience a high level of discrimination and religious persecution: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.
“To get a full picture of religious persecution, we need to look at both the Church at home and the Church on the run,” said Helene Fisher who participated in the research.
She said that dividing religious communities is part of a “deliberate strategy” and displacement is “not just a by-product of persecution, but in many cases a deliberate part of a broader strategy to eradicate Christianity from the community or country.”
Open Doors cited the case of Iraq where 166,000 Christians remain, compared to about one million 20 years ago.
The report noted that even after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in 2017, the return of displaced people was hindered by lack of security and lack of support from authorities.
In the rest of Asia, the main factors that lead people to leave their homes are family and local community, “with strong pressure on those who convert to Christianity from another religion.”
The case in Pakistan, where religious minorities live under the shadow of laws against apostasy and blasphemy, means that even within families a conversion can be seen as a threat to honor.
Political instability and the rise of extremist religious groups are also factors that fuel displacement in places like Myanmar.
In North Korea, where no religion is allowed, those who flee seek greater freedom across the border.
The Open Doors report said “governments and even well-intentioned international organizations can unfortunately be complicit in intensifying discrimination against displaced Christians.”
To address the faith-based harassment, marginalization and vulnerabilities experienced by refugees, Open Doors makes the following recommendations to the International Community:
- Ensure the integration of FoRB principles of “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and “everyone has the right to manifest his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching” in all anti-discrimination programs designed for protecting and promoting refugee rights
- Ensure meaningful participation by refugees who have fled religious persecution in designing, assessment and implementation of targeted programs and aids
- Include religion as a factor of vulnerability in any assessment made in planning and programming for refugees
- Involve local faith-based organizations from both the host countries and the countries of origin to participate in the refugee protection and assistance discussions. Many of them are situated within the affected communities and are well placed to articulate their needs properly. Design strategies on how to best address those needs
- Ensure that asylum providing countries as well as host countries safeguard and uphold the obligation of nonrefoulement as laid down in the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol and do not forcefully return a refugee fleeing religious persecution to the country of origin unless it has been declared safe by the relevant authorities
- Provide training to humanitarian aid workers to assess and identify harassment of refugees based on religion within the larger refugee community for rapid response
- Encourage programs to support evidence generation in relation to the layering of religious persecution with other compounding factors such as ethnic tensions, political involvement and age, ability, or gender vulnerabilities.
To alleviate the conditions of IDPs who have fled their homes because of their Christian faith, Open Doors recommends the following to the International Community:
- Conduct assessment of IDPs from minority religions facing discrimination and marginalization within the larger IDP community in order to protect and provide for those displaced
- Encourage active engagement of IDPs from minority religions in designing and implementing target programs and aids
- Provide financial and technical support to local faith actors working with IDPs from minority religions in their endeavors to access basic public services, documentation and employment and income-generating opportunities, without discrimination.