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The bodies lay in the streets of Axum for days, pockmarked with gunshot wounds. At night the residents of Ethiopia’s holiest city listened, horrified, as hyenas fed on the corpses. For many, these were people they knew.
Rumors surfaced in early December of a massacre at Axum’s Church of St. Mary of Zion, but the government blocked reporters from the embattled Tigray region. Only after authorities lifted a blackout on phone and internet communication in February could they confirm the true horror: 800 people killed in and around the church in one weekend (Nov. 28).
In November fighting erupted between Ethiopia’s military and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Troops from neighboring Eritrea—who are mostly Muslim and have carried out some of the worst atrocities against Christians inside their own borders—have played a controversial role siding with national forces inside Tigray.
Axum and the surrounding area are the historical roots of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest in the world. The Church of St. Mary of Zion has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries, and according to tradition it houses the Ark of the Covenant. As Eritrean soldiers entered the city during the fighting, hundreds took refuge in the church.
“On every corner there was a body,” a deacon from the church told the Associated Press. “People were crying in every home.”
After Eritrean soldiers left the city, the deacon helped count the bodies, gathered identity cards, and assisted in digging a mass grave.
In pockets like Ethiopia’s Tigray region, crimes against the Church have proliferated in the shadows of a pandemic. While American and European leaders at home have been consumed with the health crisis—plus political, economic, and social upheaval—persecution is having more free rein abroad.
In Algeria, Protestant churches have remained closed due to COVID-19 measures, while authorities allowed over 180 mosques and some Catholic churches to reopen.
In India, 80 percent of Christians surveyed by Open Doors report government workers turned them away from food distributions, mostly run by members of the ruling Hindu nationalist party. Some said they walked miles from their homes and hid their Christian identity to receive rations that COVID-19 shutdowns made necessary.
Christians also face threats in areas where U.S. engagement, once strong, has lagged. In Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban and a looming U.S. pullout pose threats to a young and growing church that’s yet to secure a toehold among Pashtuns, who dominate the Taliban’s ranks.
In Turkey, officials are issuing deportation documents to asylum-seekers—including Christians already forced out of countries like Iran and Iraq—as forward processing of refugees has ground nearly to a halt during the pandemic.
One of the most serious conflicts to arise under cover of the pandemic also involves Turkey, which provided military support to Azerbaijani forces who attacked ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh late last year. A Russia-brokered peace agreement is untenable. Half of the 150,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh have been forced from their homes, and many killed.
Reporters working with locals in December confirmed two beheadings of Armenian civilians by what appeared to be Azerbaijani forces. On Feb. 19, 100 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, calling on the Biden administration to take “concrete steps” to protect Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population. The displacement has spiked coronavirus cases across the region.
How to attend to such ills when illness and hardship visit our own doorsteps? Jesus’ disciples faced just that predicament as they regrouped following His death. Yet it was in that very moment the risen Lord gave a commission that they move out into “all the world.” It’s our orientation, too—even if not our physical calling to go—to advocate and pray and petition for the persecuted in this time of global distress.