Nearly two decades ago, Fikiru joined a prayer and Bible study group in his hometown in East Africa, an experience that led him to accept Christ as his personal savior. But Fikiru soon found that other Christians in the area vehemently opposed his and the rest of his community’s conversions. Over a period of months, these Christians accused the others of blasphemy, forced their spouses to divorce them and their families to cut them off, and in some cases beat and killed them.
One Sunday, in the aftermath of this persecution, several staff members of the global Christian persecution advocacy group Open Doors stopped by.
“We’d never met them,” said Fikiru. “We’d never heard of them.”
But Open Doors had heard of his church and how it was suffering. They had a simple message for Fikiru: You are not alone.
Within a couple of years, Fikiru (CT is using his pseudonym for security reasons) took a job at Open Doors.
“I’m trying to pay back for the love and concern that was shown to me while I was a persecuted believer,” said the research analyst for East Africa, an area that runs from Eritrea to Mozambique. “I do this role with passion and spirit.”
Fikiru recently spoke with global managing editor Morgan Lee about how he fact-checks persecution claims, the surprising impact this work has had on his faith, and how he cares for staff members who are worn down from this work.
How do you help staff who get burned out or secondarily traumatized hearing so many stories of devastation, destruction, and violence?
Prayer. One of our core values emphasizes that we are people of prayer. We know that we are serving the Lord, and these people are suffering for their faith. They are not walking alone, and our Lord will always be with them. Knowing this truth will always encourage us to keep walking. We give all our burdens and challenges for His interventions.
We also offer debriefing sessions for staff and help staff put in place self-care plans. Our frontline staff who directly interact with persecuted believers are encouraged on a daily basis to find community within the ministry and our offices. It’s important to have people around you that understand and share in the burdens we carry on behalf of the persecuted church, because not many people do understand or share these burdens.
Regular devotions in the offices and departments and regular prayer also support staff that may be struggling with a persecution event or incident. You can not do this work and not have some difficult questions for God, but thankfully, he is patient and gracious towards us and as he reveals how is working all things for his good, our faith and relationship with God grows stronger.
What about your work has shaken your faith?
Because we hear the endless suffering of our fellow brothers and sisters, we may have times when we are emotionally bruised. (Among the worst are cases of sexual violence against young women and the mistreatment of vulnerable elderly people.) But this is not about us. It’s about the suffering church. We might sometimes feel the unfair treatment of fellow Christians is too much. But we know that they are strong and faithful. Their show of resilience encourages us to keep walking with them.
How does your work contribute to Open Doors’ World Watch List?
On an annual basis, we gather data on persecution in all countries in our region and analyze it, bringing together this reporting with the perspectives of different leaders and experts from around the country. We score each country on a number of categories and then send it to the global center where they will use our analysis to give each country a final score. [Editor’s note: You can read more about Open Door’s methodology here.]
When we are collecting data, we try to have diversified information. We want our contributors to give us perspectives from specific contexts from all over the country when it comes to persecution and not just rely on one or two individuals. Of course, the number of contributors will vary depending on if it’s Ethiopia with 120 million people or Djibouti (976,000) or Comoros (888,000). Many are church leaders, professionals, as well as people who have experience on a wide range of issues in the country.
After we collect the data and gather information, we don’t disappear. We go to those affected by persecution and tell them, “This is what the Bible tells us, and this is how we are going to respond to it. And you are not alone.” We don’t want the enemy to discourage them into recanting their faith.
How do you verify your data?
Two things are important for us at Open Doors: First, we want to show our love, commitment, and concern for the suffering believers. Second, we want to make sure that our information is accurate and timely.
When it comes to specific incidents, we have to determine, were these really done with the purpose of attacking or denying the rights of Christians to live equally with their fellow citizens?
So, as I said earlier, we’ll try to crosscheck and diversify our sources. We review existing research on a country, including primary and secondary sources. We go to our contributors. There are times when they might introduce us to new information or context in a given country. We don’t rush. We try to really understand what has happened and why.
This is a challenge because governments and other perpetrators of persecution try to cast doubt on information by saying we don’t know the context. Of course, most of the persecutors will not say they’re persecuting Christians because of their faith. That’s why we look at a situation from so many angles. We want to be accurate, and we want to make sure that this is something that has happened because of faith in Christ. We can’t say that the country is treating its Christian citizens this or that way if we haven’t done a thorough assessment.
While we emphasize accuracy and quality, we also try to be ministers of these people who are really suffering with persecution, and we try to show them love as well.
What is the hardest part of your job when it comes to gathering and verifying research?
The safety and security of our sources is a challenge. We want to have as much information as possible, and we want it to be corroborated by diverse sources. But these goals also come with the risk of exposing people.
Ultimately, most of the data is available to assist in analyzing the situation in a country but making details of the incident available publicly is too dangerous. In some of the contexts, you might see us tightlipped and not go into further details because we are concerned for our sources.
We want to tell testimonies of those believers who told us a story in tears and who are sharing something that will move you to tell the rest of the world. But when you do that, it may cause additional pain for them.
What I do want readers to understand when they read this report is that all these numbers are people who are Christians—mothers, brothers, fathers, and children facing everyday life with uncertainty. The numbers and figures are telling you about the tears of your brother or sister in a part of the world who is not allowed to simply exercise his or her own faith. I would encourage people to think about them, speak about them, and pray for them.
What type of impact has your job had on your faith?
Encouragement. People often ask me and my colleagues this question because we study and hear stories of sad stories of our fellow brothers and sisters.
When you meet these brave men and women of God who are persecuted just for the faith, just because they identified themselves with another form of faith apart from the mainstream faith group, when they share with you story after story, and when they finish and say to you, despite all this, “We are happy to know Christ and will keep worshiping him, even if we are denied our rights, physically attacked or killed, our properties are confiscated or destroyed, and all will make us stronger. We are not denying our faith,” we get courage and motivation in our personal lives and in our ministry.
Sometimes we think we are in a better place, but these people in that context are very strong. We have a lot to learn from them.
What instances of Christian persecution in your region of East Africa would like to bring to our attention?
Let me just start with Mozambique, where Christians are facing daily threats from Islamic extremism. The group wanted to establish Islamic State in the northern part of the country and have targeted the government, soldiers, and moderate Muslims themselves.
Christians are targets, because when they attack, the Islamic State first checks your faith. When they know you are Christian, then you will be attacked severely. This situation has made it difficult for Christians to live their normal lives, and many of them have been displaced. Because they know the insurgency will attack them, many have left en masse. Thousands and thousands of Christians have fled, together with moderate Muslims.
In Eritrea, for more than 20 years Christians have been facing severe persecution. Eritrean Christians cannot come together and pray; they cannot openly confess about their decision to follow Christ. If they are thrown in jail, they cannot get proper trials. Jail may mean living in a container or a small cell for many years without justice.
Just a few days ago, the Eritrean government again arrested Christians. Whenever they find them praying together, they will just round them up and send them to jail. But for the family of the person arrested, no one will tell you what happened and why.
Finally, Sudan. Last year in April, war broke in Sudan. Before that war, there was enthusiasm and hope among observers and some citizens that the country would one day become a better place for exercise of freedom of religion and rights.
Since the war started, many churches have been attacked, bombed, and burned. Just last week, on January 12, a church in the major city of Wad Madani was bombed. The suspected armed group confiscated everything in the compound, and then they just set it on fire.
Of course, the fighting between the two forces is not openly religious. Both sides are Islamic militants. On the one side is the military, and on the other side are the Rapid Support Forces, the people who worked under Bashir, the former regime.
Christians who are already suffering as a result of their faith are further disadvantaged because their relatives who are not Christians may have ostracized them, and finding food and protection in a country at war is difficult. Many people have been displaced and displaced pastors are no longer able to look after their congregations, and they are running for their life and safety as well.
Is there a conversation you had with a Christian who had been persecuted that inspired you?
I spoke to one of the Sudanese pastors who narrowly survived the bombing of his church in Khartoum, the capital. He’s been in ministry for many years and he paid many prices for his decision to publicly declare his faith and then ministry. But when that attack took place, he was really sad. He felt helpless; he was not able to help his congregation or protect his family and then his life.
I’ve known him for many years, and we are in regular contact regarding prayer. He told me, “Fikiru, I can only ask you to pray for me and for the people I serve. I cannot tell for how long I will stay alive or be safe. The situation is worsening.” What moved me was that in all the years that I was in communication with him, he hardly mentioned praying for himself; it was always praying for the people he’s serving. This tells me how much pressure is on the shoulders of pastors and leaders.
Another story is from Tanzania, a country where Islamic influence is growing in certain parts of the country. Right now, every time a person from Islamic background decides to become a believer, their parents and family persecute them. One lady told us that she was one of the preferred members of the family, her father really loved her, and she was supported by her mother and relatives—up until she decided to follow Christ.
The moment they learned of her decision, they started to beat and attack her. By the time I visited her, there were wounds on her arms from machete attacks. Their intention was to kill her.
“Fikiru,” she told me, “they did it to stop me. But even though I’ll lose their support and I’m going to lose my life, I will still worship and serve the Lord.”
This was a deeply moving story for me—that even though there are many sad stories about persecuted believers and Christians in our region, there is also an encouraging side of it, that these people are determined to pay all price terms in the way that they have to pay it.
We as Christians should pray for these people, tell them that they are not alone, and then speak on their behalf to any place that could influence the persecutors, be they the government or non-state actors, and ask them to leave them alone and let them lead a decent life.