(By Elizabeth Lane Miller and Helene Fisher)
The faces of persecuted Christian women tell a deeply personal story. Fear, sometimes. Pain, too. But, most of all, they tell you about their hope, their joy and their peace. When you meet someone such as Precious*, Aina*, or Mansuri*, it is not immediately obvious what struggles or doubts she may have. The joy or, perhaps, the calm in her face could lead you to assume that everything is going reasonably well for her. However, listening to her story in the context of the commonly used means of persecution in her region, we gain a new perspective for what it’s like for her to live as a Christian woman in a hostile area.
Precious’ declaration of Christian faith resulted in death threats from her family as well as from her tribe, and persecution from her own sister; for some time, she was forced to flee from her community, a former place of safety, in order to survive.
Even Aina, a courageous Malaysian woman who describes herself as ‘rebellious’ chooses to keep her faith a secret from many of her friends and family. In her situation, Muslims who convert to Christianity get into severe trouble with their families and may be forcibly divorced, beaten, locked up, or banished from their communities. In a society where the family is considered the center of the social structure, families are often the first to exert pressure on a believer to try to force her return to Islam. Such measures are largely hidden from outside observers; without explanation, she could suddenly vanish behind the walls of the family home, isolated until she chooses to recant. In addition, women in her situation also fear that their families will turn them over to the government. The religious authorities have set up ‘Purification Centres’ to ‘re-educate’ them back to the Islamic faith.
With darker skin which is considered “inferior” in that region, Mansuri would not have enjoyed the benefits of the one piece of value a woman could hold in her culture: beauty. Without Mansuri’s marriage to a loving, believing husband from a Muslim background like her own, Mansuri also would have been subject to the usual enforced isolation, shunning and domestic violence as a truly powerless member living amongst her husband’s extended family. If this had happened, we wouldn’t ever be able to report on her story for one very good reason: we wouldn’t know what had happened.
While each woman’s story is individual to her religious and cultural background, women and girls who have chosen to follow Jesus despite the dangers typically have three characteristics common to their experience of persecution: it’s violent, hidden and complex.
Precious’ family’s response is shockingly violent; before killing her, the family waits to see if she will respond while her own sister persecutes her. Statistically speaking, this persecution was more than humiliating shaming, or even ongoing verbal abuse; a family that threatens death will first try to persuade by severe physical violence. How can her family get away with abusing her and threatening her in this way?
Unfortunately, much of the persecution Christian women and girls goes unnoticed and therefore undocumented; it is hidden. Sometimes it is hidden behind the walls of the family compound. Women put under house arrest by their upset families might be chained to the walls of their homes; alternatively, they might walk freely within the four walls their prison, but be ignored as if they were dead. All these awful forms of persecution facing Christian women are hidden from view.
Furthermore, the situations are complex. Often persecutors require no physical walls. For instance, Christian women who might also have been forced into despicable variations of slavery stay in terrible situations because the options awaiting her outside her family’s ‘protection’ are the same forms of slavery within. Without an education, or legal rights to property or her own children, the only difference on the streets is that she will also be denied access to her children while she suffers.
There is a more basic reason for why Christian women and girls are persecuted in these violent and hidden ways: it is the easiest means of religious persecution. Precious’ family is simply taking advantage of her vulnerability as a woman in her culture, and her vulnerability as member of a minority faith. No great strategy needed to be devised in order to target this overlap of dual vulnerabilities. Taking advantage of their double vulnerability is simply the easiest means of religious persecution.
This type of gender-specific religious persecution is easiest because it blends in. In contexts where women lack social protection in general, the use of pressures such as sexual touching in the streets by strangers blends in to the general harassment of women. However, this common form of harassment is targeted on a Christian woman especially, because her head is not covered by a hijab.
In addition, gender-specific religious persecution is easy because it is low risk to the one carrying out the persecution. The legal and social structure constructing the circumstances of Precious and Aina’s lives create impunity for those pressuring her to give up her chosen faith.
Finally, taking advantage of a Christian woman’s double vulnerability is efficient at causing extensive damage. Religious persecution exploits all individual vulnerabilities to create the maximum damage to a faith community.
Mansuri’s story is an especially uplifting story. We know what her story might have been; we can see how her vulnerability as a woman and as a Christian could have been used to crush her faith. Instead, by God’s grace, she is faithfully taking advantage of the opportunities she has because of safety within a Christian household, and she is multiplying the investment made in her through Open Doors’ Annana Discipleship Training to help other women living in worse conditions than her own.
And Precious has persevered in the midst of persecution that most of us would find unthinkable. She has shared the gospel with her sister—who became a Christian after Jesus revealed Himself in a vision—and continues to speak out for Christ even in a cultural context where she risked attack from ISIS. She has grown into a fiery woman of prayer and living for Christ.
“We need you to pray,” Precious says. “Pray for us that we will be like Christ in the field and pray for our provision, financial support for the workers, and livelihood programs for the believers.
“Pray that our faith will grow, and be strengthened. Pray that, for any persecution we encounter, we will face it by faith in Jesus Christ. Pray for all the Muslims that we share the gospel with, that God will open their eyes to see the Messiah. Pray also that many more Muslim come to know Isa [Jesus], and that they will also become workers of Isa al-Masih [Jesus Christ].”
Despite the circumstances, God is at work even in the middle of brutal persecution against our sisters in Christ. He is working through these powerful women of God, to give them hope and to build His Church. And we’re invited to be a part of that mission through prayer and encouragement; we’re invited to stand with Christians around the world, no matter what.
*Name changed for security reason
Open Doors’ goal is to “strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Rev 3:2). This verse is especially applicable to the situation of our sisters. Without your support, many of them would not survive.