I recently had the privilege of spending some time talking with Mark Green the Deputy Director of Barnabas Fund and Emma Brown who works for Barnabas Fund as the International Human Rights Advisor. During our conversation we spent some time discussing the core aims of Barnabas Fund as well as their advocacy work campaigning for religious freedom around the world. This is a summary of our conversation:
Barnabas Fund has been serving the persecuted Church since 1993. Their mission is to support Christians in places where they are in a minority and suffering discrimination, oppression and persecution as a consequence of their faith. Mark and Emma described how this mission is broken down into four main aims:
- 1. To get information out into the public domain highlighting the suffering of persecuted Christians
- 2. To encourage informed prayer for those being persecuted
- 3. To financially support Christians via organisations in their local communities, be they churches, missions or other Christian networks
- 4. To advocate on behalf of those who are suffering due to oppression based on their beliefs and campaign for the universal enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief by individuals as a human right.
Barnabas Fund use speaking engagements at churches and other organisations, their magazine, website and other forms of social media to regularly raise awareness of human rights abuses and persecution of Christians around the world. Often this persecution is both at a high level resulting in discrimination, killings and through more pervasive means such as the lack of access to jobs, education and even restricted access to basic requirements such as drinking water.
Freedom for Christians and those of other faiths to worship in this country is generally taken for granted, but for millions of Christians around the world to be a follower of Christ is to accept that you will be ostracised and hated. For the majority of the world’s population their identity is primarily defined by race, religion, gender and their clan. Depending on the influence that each of these factors has in a particular country, those who are a member of a minority religion can expect to suffer a loss of rights as a result.
Mark and Emma talked about the challenges Barnabas Fund encounters in helping people in democratic countries which are also more secular in culture such as the UK to understand the challenges faced by Christians living in countries where religion plays a greater role in the national identity and where democracy is limited or non-existent, the police are feared and corrupt and where human rights abuses are rife.
For Barnabas Fund, prayer plays a foundational role in everything the organisation does and what it encourages the wider church community to do. Emma explained that prayer is the most important advocacy mechanism which we as Christians can exercise acknowledging that without God’s intervention much of what Barnabas Fund aims to achieve would not bear fruit. She quoted the 19th century writer, Martin Tupper:
“Prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscle of omnipotence.”
There is widespread acknowledgement that the restrictions that Christians around the world are subject to are getting worse. Without the knowledge that God can change things the situation can appear hopeless. There is nothing more important that we as Christians can do than lift the persecuted Church to God in prayer.
One of Barnabas Fund’s primary ministries is to channel funds from Christians, via Christians, to those Christians who are in great need. This need arises directly out of religious persecution which manifests itself in severe discrimination in the work place, in academic institutions and when it comes to the provision of government aid.
The model for financial provision which Barnabas Fund has adopted follows the example of the Church in Antioch as recorded in the book of Acts in the New Testament. When the Church in Antioch heard of the needs of their brothers and sisters in Judea as a result of a famine, they gave as they were able to. The gifts were given to Barnabas and Saul to give to the churches in need in Judea. It is from this account of Christian giving that Barnabas Fund gets its name and its model for stewardship.
Barnabas Fund also adopts a distinct method in the way that it distributes the money it raises. Barnabas Fund does not run its own projects. Instead it distributes aid to local churches allowing them to manage the use of the received funds, design and run the projects themselves. Mark and Emma discussed how this approach is more cost effective as the churches and organisations they partner with understand their local culture and context better than outside agencies can and also it is easier for them to manage long term projects effectively whilst avoiding large overheads. This distinct method enables Barnabas Fund to engage in both small scale and large scale projects whereas often the traditional western approach to aid tends to be run on a large scale.
Barnabas Fund generally works with longstanding partners with whom they have built strong relationships. The partners will come to Barnabas Fund with proposals which are then evaluated by their team of professionals to establish their validity and consider how best they can be implemented. Often projects will start out small and then over time increase in size if they are successful. The smallest projects can have a budget of as little as £200 with larger ones costing several million pounds over a number of years.
The work of Barnabas Fund enjoys a global reach which extends from northern Africa all the way to South East Asia and central Latin America. In a typical year there are projects running in approximately sixty countries in total although Barnabas Fund has historically aided projects in over 80 countries.
According to the Pew Research Centre between 2006 and 2011, 2.2 billion people have seen government restrictions or social hostilities towards religion increase where they live. Christians are most likely to be targeted, facing significant levels of abuse in 130 countries. This compares to 117 countries for Muslims and 75 for Jews. When it comes to advocacy, Barnabas Fund engages with both national governments in countries where persecution is endemic and the international community to secure change and improvements on a wide range of issues including social hostility, the discriminatory application of domestic law and the reform of legislation which is discriminatory towards religious minorities per se.
It is not surprising that Christians are the most targeted group globally, as they are most widespread and often the largest minority religion in any one part of the world. In some countries such as India, China and Thailand, both Muslims and Christians face persecution. In India, because lower castes have been more open to Christianity, Christians are often persecuted and in particular evangelicals have been targeted.
In countries where Muslim persecution is taking place, it is often more likely to be as a result of different factions of Islam persecuting each other along sectarian divides, with minority sects such as Ahmadiyya and Baha’i regularly being persecuted. In comparison Christians are frequently persecuted by governments as well as other social communities. In communist countries it can be illegal to practice any form of religion. In other countries, it is against the law to convert to another religion. Thus individuals who become Christians risk prosecution and or social alienation in these circumstances.
In many parts of the world, Christians are often easily identifiable by a difference in lifestyle or living together as a separate community. Minority ethnic groups with strong Christian elements are found in Burma and Vietnam. In India some lower caste groups have seen strong Christian growth. These factors contribute to making members of such groups easy targets for those wishing to attack them.
The following cases studies provide an understanding of some of the ways in which discrimination and persecution may manifest.
An example of social hostility towards Christians can be found in villages in parts of Kyrgyzstan where in part due to an absence of the rule of law, local Christian villagers have been prevented by local Muslim villagers from burying a dead believer resulting in them having to travel 200km with the body to find a safe place to carry out the burial.
In Senegal, three churches were forced to close down when the authorities claimed that health and safety regulations had been broken when too much noise was supposedly generated during services. The churches were then unable to access a lawyer who would support their case in part due to an absence of any Christian lawyers in Senegal.
In Egypt, 200,000 Christians have fled the country in the last year as a result of their fears of persecution following the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties in the recent elections.
In the Middle East generally, Christians are often mistakenly viewed as loyal to the foreign policies of the UK and the US and supportive of western values. When western powers exert pressure on a country to comply with international law, the levels of harassment and persecution that Christians encounter tends to increase. This is particularly true of Iran recently, which has resulted in a crackdown on local Christian activity, including the arrests, detention and prosecutions of church leaders and Christians under the national security laws.
Clearly there are many Christians around the world who are in desperate need, struggling to live normal lives. Emma and Mark along with the wider team at Barnabas Fund and its offices overseas are doing as much as possible to support them and ensure that they are treated as equal citizens and allowed to practice their faith freely according to international human rights laws.
In the second part of this interview, which will be posted later, we moved onto discussing what the UK government is doing to protect freedom of religion internationally, how Barnabas Fund is campaigning for change including their Proclaim Freedom Campaign during 2012 and what we can do as individuals to support those who are being persecuted.