Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Persecuted Church.

Persecuted Christians in the developing and non-free world will find themselves increasingly at risk as the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold.

Firstly, there is the problem of systematic discrimination. As “unclean” infidels Pakistani Christians can’t get hospital treatment in the best of times, let alone in the worst of times. This will not change during a global pandemic, not in Pakistan or any place where Christians suffer systematic discrimination and persecution.

Likewise, Christian prisoners in Iran, China, Pakistan, Vietnam, Egypt, Eritrea and beyond are unlikely to be treated if infected with COVID-19 while in the prison system.

Then there is the likelihood that the COVID-19 crisis will provide hostile state and non-state actors with an opportunity to exploit security vacuums to advance their own agendas.

Christians most at risk on this count are:

Assyrians Christians in Northern Iraq where Kurds (Sunnis) and Shabaks (Shi’ites; proxies of Baghdad and Tehran) might be eager to exploit the opportunity provided by COVID-19 pandemic to complete their land grabbing campaign in the Nineveh Plains (the Assyrian homeland for millennia) – even to complete the genocide.

Christians in Nigeria and the Sahel (in particular in Burkina Faso) as well as Central Africa and the Swahili Coast – where jihadists groups and criminal enterprises could exploit the opportunity provided by the COVID-19 pandemic to expand, consolidate, establish bases and access resources.

Below are excerpts from several reports that support this view.

Elizabeth Kendal
24 March 2020


Covid-19 sows Islamic trouble in Maldives paradise
Tourism-dependent island nation threatens to become a hotbed of religious extremism as economic desperation sets in.
By Bertil Lintner, Asia Times online 5 April 2020

MALE – As tourism in Maldives plummets with the travel-restricting Covid-19 pandemic, forcing many in the globally-oriented industry into unemployment, the idyllic island nation could soon become more vulnerable than ever to extremist groups like the Islamic State.

That rising risk was apparent on February 4, when three foreigners were stabbed on the outskirts of Male, the island nation’s capital. Muslim militants later took responsibility for the attacks, the first seen in years. Rising economic desperation, some suggest, could cause more.

If upshots from a previous seismic crisis – namely the one caused by the calamitous 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami – remain relevant, Maldives could see a Covid-19 driven uptick in Islamic radicalism.   [. . .]

Terrorist groups may conduct attacks with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities.”

As ex-president Nasheed pointed out, radicalization is not confined to disgruntled youths: “Radical Islam is getting very, very strong in Maldives. Their strength in the military and in the police is very significant. They have people in strategic positions within both.”

On March 28, Maldives reported its first local Covid-19 case, raising the total number to 16 with the others being foreign tourists and raising the risk of more local transmission.

As elsewhere, the island country is now in an economy-strangling lockdown, one that will contribute to the desperation and frustration of many young Maldivians and unemployed migrants.

As they inevitably seek comfort and refuge in religious beliefs, fears are rising they will be easy prey to hardline imams and extremist groups looking for new young recruits to their radical causes.

Islamic State claims first attack in island nation of Maldives
BY CALEB WEISS | April 16, 2020
for FDD's Long War Journal

Earlier today, the Islamic State claimed its first-ever attack in the small island nation of Maldives. While the reported operation did little in terms of damage, it does represent the further spread of the group’s violence. . .


Covid-19 restores Myanmar military’s lost powers
New military-steered Covid-19 task force has given cover to a wide-reaching clampdown in the name of national stability
By Bertil Lintner, Asia Times online, 2 April 2020

CHIANG MAI – After weeks of implausible official denials, Myanmar is finally facing up to the reality of its Covid-19 outbreak.

The nation may also soon face a new political reality as the powerful military, or Tatmadaw, leverages the situation to roll back recently restored democratic rights and reimpose strict social and media controls harking to its previous junta rule. . .

In mid-March, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government formed a 21-member committee she now heads to broadly manage the country’s Covid-19 situation.

On March 30, in a move some see as a Tatmadaw power play, another ten-member Covid-19 task force was formed to investigate cases, trace contacts of confirmed cases and clamp down including through arrests on “fake news” and “disinformation” that could cause “panic among the people.” 

The newer and more powerful task force significantly does not include Suu Kyi or even her health minister, an oddity considering the body’s Covid-19 containing remit.

Rather, it is headed by First Vice President Myint Swe, former general known for his past record of arrests and crackdowns, including a lead role in the lethal clampdown on the 2007 Buddhist-monk led “Saffron Revolution” protest.

Other task force members include all three military-appointed members of Suu Kyi’s Cabinet, namely the ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs, and Lieutenant General Mya Tun Oo, the powerful joint chief of staff of the defense services. Five civilian ministers are also included.

Although the government has not formally declared a state of emergency, the new committee’s sweeping powers and the fact that it is headed by a former powerful general means that the Tatmadaw effectively back in the driver’s seat and no longer restricted in exercising power from behind a quasi-democratic fa├žade fronted by Suu Kyi.

[. . .]

[The Tatmadaw's] military actions are not likely to attract much attention or protest amid the global Covid-19 crisis, though rights groups are starting to clamor about the gathering Internet and media clampdowns.

The Tatmadaw, meanwhile, is settling into its new status as the undisputed defender of the nation in a health emergency, while Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government for the first time since it was formed in 2015 is being forced to make major concessions to armed forces instead of vice versa.

The Covid-19 crisis, while still incipient in Myanmar with unknown consequences ahead, is giving rise to a new military-dominant order that once established will be hard to roll back.


Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 543 | Wed 1 Apr 2020
RLPB is published weekly to facilitate strategic intercessory prayer.


Cabo Delgado is Mozambique's northern-most coastal province and the southern-most reach of the Swahili Coast. . .  An Islamic insurgency has simmered in the region since October 2017. [. . .]

On Monday 23 March jihadists conducted their most audacious and sophisticated terror attack to date. They invaded one of Cabo Delgado's largest towns, the strategic port town of Mocimboa da Praia, entering before dawn from land and sea. The jihadists fought, burned property, released prisoners, looted food and weapons 'sufficient for two battalions' and ultimately raised their black flag over police headquarters. Mozambiquan security forces were simply overwhelmed. The jihadists controlled the streets all day until military reinforcements arrived and the jihadists fled 'leaving behind a trail of blood, bodies, and missing persons'. Islamic State Central Africa Province has claimed responsibility. . .

Analysts surmise the day-long seizure of Mocimboa da Praia could mark a turning point in the insurgency. It comes just as Mozambiquan President Filipe Nyusi declares a state of emergency for the month of April, aimed at curtailing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. [. . .] (emphasis mine)


COMMENTARY / The COVID-19 Pandemic and Deadly Conflict
Crisis Group, 31 March 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic presents a potentially era-defining challenge to public health and the global economy, its long- and short-term consequences for deadly conflict are less well understood. Much remains uncertain, but it is already clear that the pandemic could cause enormous damage in fragile states, trigger unrest and undermine international crisis management systems. The disease is already disrupting humanitarian aid flows, peace operations and crisis diplomacy, and it could be catastrophic for civilians caught in the midst of conflict, particularly refugees and displaced people. Over the coming weeks and months, Crisis Group will offer special publications on the coronavirus and its effects on the conflict landscape.

Contending with ISIS in the Time of Coronavirus  
Crisis Group, 31 March 2020

Even as COVID-19’s toll mounts, the world should brace itself for attacks by ISIS, which believes it can exploit the disorder the contagion is causing. This continuing jihadist threat requires the sort of international cooperation that militants hope the virus will sap. . .

. . . In a new editorial in its weekly newsletter, ISIS has told its membership that their globe-spanning war is to go on, even as the virus spreads. Moreover, it has told them that the national and international security regimes that help keep the group in check are about to be overloaded, and that they should take maximum advantage. [. . .]

ISIS published its editorial on COVID-19 in the 19 March edition of its weekly newsletter Al-Naba (the Dispatch). . .

The editorial, titled “The Crusaders’ Worst Nightmare”, reports approvingly on COVID-19’s effect on the many enemies whom ISIS collectively terms “polytheists”. “Fear of this contagion has affected them more than the contagion itself”, says Al-Naba, referring to how people across the world are shutting themselves in their homes as commerce grinds to a halt. Security forces are deploying in the streets to halt the virus’s spread, and imminent economic crisis seems likely to spark crime and social unrest. [. . .]

Al-Naba concludes from the foregoing that Muslims have a “duty” to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID-19’s spread, but also to act. The editorial enjoins ISIS supporters to liberate Muslim captives from prisons and camps; to show no mercy to the “infidels” and “apostates” in their moment of crisis, and instead to attack and weaken them, rendering them less able to harm Muslims; and to bear in mind that the calamity befalling the West and its allies “will substantially undercut their ability to wage war on the mujahideen in the coming period”. The editorial closes by reminding readers that the best way to avoid God’s punishment – including coronavirus – is through obedience to Him, and that the act of obedience most beloved to God is “jihad” and inflicting pain on His enemies.

ISIS’s rhetorical line on COVID-19 has evolved as the virus’s geographic scope and human toll has become clearer. In January, Al-Naba reported that “a new disease spreads death and panic” in “communist China”. Then, as Iran suffered an outbreak, the newsletter gloated that the contagion was an exemplary punishment from God for Shiite Muslim “idolatry”. Now the group has apparently reconciled itself to the virus’s global spread, even as it hopes that God will specially afflict “polytheist” nations.


COVID-19: How Pandemics Disrupt Military Operations
Sim Tack, Global Analyst , Stratfor, 25 March 2020
excerpts (Stratfor subscription required for full article).

Amid the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world are facing widespread disruptions to not only the health of their populations and economies, but their militaries. Even if the virus itself doesn't leave key personnel severely ill (or worse), quarantine measures can still severely thwart military operations. Meanwhile, military powers such as the United States may increasingly be forced to deploy additional forces to the frontlines of unfolding COVID-19 outbreaks at home. The resulting fallout could, in turn, result in setbacks in the fight against multiple non-state actors abroad, and potentially even the long-term development of military capabilities. [. . .]

. . .In addition to military capacity geared toward balancing against other states, operations against insurgent groups and terrorist cells will be severely disrupted. Due to their asymmetric nature, these militant organizations will also not be facing the same kind of burden and responsibility of the state due to the pandemic. As troops are deployed in a COVID-19 response capacity, or have to cancel training exercises or operational preparations, the ability to rotate forces into the relevant theaters could temporarily grind to a halt. . .

[NOTE - doubtless this will have a huge impact on counter-terror operations in West Africa and the Sahel - EK.]


Muslim Extremists Exploit Coronavirus to Promote Terrorism, Hate
by Bassam Tawil, Gatestone Institute, 25 March 2020

As countries across the world are turning themselves inside out to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Muslim extremists and terrorists have been expending their energy on promoting terror attacks against other Muslims as well as "infidels." . . .

As scientists and other "infidels" around the world, including Israel, are working around the clock to find a vaccine for the virus, the Muslim Brotherhood organization and some of its allies are issuing fatwas (Islamic religious opinions) that expose dangerous goals, a dangerous ideology, and a disregard for human life.  [. . .]

The Global Fatwa Index (GFI) organization, affiliated with Egypt's Dar al-Ifta and General Secretariat for Fatwa Authorities Worldwide, disclosed on March 16 that it had been monitoring and analyzing numerous fatwas on the coronavirus.

The group found that a large number of the fatwas related to the disease came from "unofficial" bodies and individuals.

The GFI Index concluded that "extremist organizations and terrorist groups are exploiting the outbreak of the virus to implement their ideology, spread chaos, terror and panic, and call into question the nation's institutions and leaders." [. . .]

An Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood fugitive, Bahjat Saber, has been using the outbreak of the virus to call for carrying out terrorist attacks against the Egyptian authorities. Saber urged Muslims who have the flu, or who are suspected of being infected with the coronavirus, to enter police stations and other government institutions in order to spread the disease.

The report noted that an intelligence document leaked by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior revealed that ISIS was seeking to recruit its coronavirus-infected members to act as "human biological bombs" in various parts of Iraq. So, ISIS wants to use its members to spread the virus among Iraqis.

The good news is that the rulings of the terrorists and extremists do not represent the views of the leading Islamic religious authorities in most Arab and Islamic countries. The bad news is that extremist Muslims and their allies are again exposing their contempt for human life, including the life of Muslims who oppose their ideology, terrorism and jihad. . .


COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch
International Crisis Group, 24 March 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic unquestionably presents an era-defining challenge to public health and the global economy. Its political consequences, both short- and long-term, are less well understood.
The global outbreak has the potential to wreak havoc in fragile states, trigger widespread unrest and severely test international crisis management systems. Its implications are especially serious for those caught in the midst of conflict if, as seems likely, the disease disrupts humanitarian aid flows, limits peace operations and postpones or distracts conflict parties from nascent as well as ongoing efforts at diplomacy. Unscrupulous leaders may exploit the pandemic to advance their objectives in ways that exacerbate domestic or international crises – cracking down on dissent at home or escalating conflicts with rival states – on the assumption that they will get away with it while the world is otherwise occupied. [. . .]

Some leaders may also see COVID-19 as cover to embark on destabilising foreign adventures, whether to deflect domestic discontent or because they sense they will face little pushback amid the global health crisis. . .
 . . . at a time when the pandemic is distracting major powers and multilateral organisations, some leaders may surmise that they can assert themselves in ways that they would otherwise deem too risky. A spate of attacks against U.S. targets by Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq may well be part of a pre-existing effort by Tehran to push the U.S. out of the Middle East. But with Iran’s leadership already under enormous domestic pressure, the toll taken by the coronavirus might also affect its calculus. As we wrote, “feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction”.

Similarly, the crisis may create openings for jihadist groups to launch new offensives against weakened governments in Africa and the Middle East. . . As Crisis Group has previously argued, jihadist forces tend to “exploit disorder”, gaining territory and adherents where conflicts already exist or weak states face social turmoil. . . It is possible that social and political disorder may create similar openings for jihadist actors as the crisis goes on . . .


COVID-19: Where Most See Crisis, Some See Opportunity
By  Thomas Abi-Hanna, Global Security Analyst, Stratfor, 19 March 2020
excerpts (Stratfor subscription required for full article)

As the coronavirus pandemic monopolizes more of the world’s time, money and attention, the latest surge of violence in Kashmir between India and Pakistan highlights the potential for countries to act more aggressively with less scrutiny. But state actors aren't the only ones who will be tempted to capitalize on the current chaos. As more governments become bogged down by the virus and the economic fallout from containment efforts, jihadist groups and other non-state actors will also have the opportunity to advance their positions in security hotspots around the world. This could not only raise the risk for military escalations in those areas in the short term, but could allow militias to resurge once the global health crisis eventually subsides. [. . .]

A Convenient Cover for Militants

The global coronavirus outbreak could also create opportunities for non-state actors, such as militant groups, to regroup and eventually resurge. A primary constraint on militant activity across various security hotspots has been constant pressure from security forces. But the diversion of resources and manpower from the frontlines of many of these fights toward containing the virus will ease pressure on these groups. Likewise, these groups face a lesser risk of being directly impacted by the virus, given that many of them operate in rural and isolated regions such as spacious deserts, rugged mountains and dense forests largely cut off from the outside world. These developments will afford these groups opportunities to regroup, reorganize and engage in more training, as well as plan new activity on both operational and strategic levels. . .

Examples of potential groups that could take advantage of these developments include, but are not limited to:

  • Islamic State branches in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Nigeria (also known as Boko Haram), among others
  • Al Shabaab in Somalia and other al Qaeda branches around the globe
  • The Maoist Naxalites in India
  • Militant groups in Jammu and Kashmir

In the coming months or even years, long term economic impacts caused by the coronavirus crisis will weaken the governments' stances against these militant groups, potentially making the latter more dangerous. Governments will have fewer resources to allocate to security forces in the fight against these groups, especially in less developed countries that are already struggling to combat them. This may allow these groups to expand their areas of operations in light of decreasing pressure. In fact, economic downturn, scarce employment opportunities and dissatisfaction with governments may even make those in the population more susceptible to recruitment by these militant groups, who will be able to offer them money, a sense of belonging and a way of lashing back out at the government. . .


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).