A New Age of Digital Persecution

Imagine you attend church on Zoom one Sunday and they put you in handcuffs the next morning. This is what happened to believers in a church worship service in China last Easter, when they were arrested simply for attending an online service.

Though this was a rare case according to Open Doors partners in China, it happened – and it can happen again. Open Doors Asia Researchers recently released a report called “The Digital Face of Persecution,” exploring how advances in technology have opened up Asian believers to constant tracking and surveillance, and how COVID-19 has “institutionalized modern suppression” by making contact tracing a necessity for society to function in the new normal.

“The persecution landscape in the global village is shrinking, and persecution is evolving from straightforward physical attacks to more insidious online forms,” says Jan Vermeer, Open Doors Communications Director for Asia. “In recent years, a different layer to persecution has emerged: Digital Persecution.”

“The beatings, imprisonment, and mob attacks are still there, but now we have online bullying, defamation, and surveillance in more and more Asian countries. Before, to intimidate a Christian, persecutors turned to brute force and violence, but now they have more sophisticated means to watch over and intimidate religious minorities at their fingertips.” Technology and religion expert Dr. Chris Meseroles of Brookings Institute shared in a recent interview with Open Doors that a new suite of technologies is now available which allows governments to not only regulate the public sphere of faith – such as by closing churches or mosques – but is also able to monitor the practice of religion in private.

“What's new now is we have this kind of array of technologies whether that's geo-location technologies, or whether that's kind of computer vision technologies where you have cameras that can kind of track people in real time. It makes it possible for a regime to be able to observe people as they're going about their daily life in a city or a village and see who's praying who's wearing a certain kind of religious garment.”

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Vermeer says, “This intimidation – this ‘squeeze factor’ – has the most impact. The threat that you can be arrested impacts all Christians. Even though only a small number actually get arrested, you know you’re at risk.”

The COVID Effect

For many years, Open Doors local contacts have identified surveillance as a tool used by staunch governments to stifle the church, but the recently published research report states, “The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified suppression of human rights and religious freedom by authoritarian regimes.”

Open Doors Asia Researcher Khalil, one of the writers of the report, says, “Because of COVID-19, contact tracing is now a necessity. For mobility to be possible in many countries, people scan a QR code and input their personal information before they enter an establishment. In both China and India, installing a contact tracing app is encouraged – and in some cities even mandated by the government. Not doing so in Noida, a city close to New Delhi, could land you in jail for six months. In both countries, this information goes straight to government databases, and in China’s case, directly to the police.” Facial recognition is also a growing threat. The Open Doors research paper cites a study from IHS Markit published in CNBC that says “there will be one billion surveillance cameras watching around the world in 2021— and more than half of those cameras will be in China.” India is trailing behind China in this area, but already, their existing technology is advanced enough to cause activists to hide their faces in protests as a precaution. The same report says that in two years, India, along with Indonesia and Brazil, will join China and the US as top-surveillance states.

Despite assurances from governments that data from COVID-19 won’t be misused, rights groups still flag the possibility of a massive privacy breach. In a New York Times article, Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch says such a ‘surveillance creep’ has happened before: “China has a record of using major events, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, to introduce new monitoring tools that outlast their original purpose.”

While the pitfalls of misused data from contact tracing is a major global concern, it’s only one of the many ways the Church in Asia is restricted. Based on the Open Doors report, digital persecution doesn’t end with state surveillance, but extends to blocking the flow of information, and encouraging hate speech.

Digital Persecution in China

“We all know that in China, anything undesirable to the government, or any sensitive information from overseas will be blocked. Facebook, Twitter, or ‘Western’ social media - this is not accessible in China unless you use a VPN. You need to ‘climb over the wall’ to get access to information,” says Julianna, an Open Doors Researcher.

The “Great Firewall of China” has been the primary tool of Xi Jinping’s Communist Party to limit what goes into its residents’ cyber network. The government says it’s for national security and stability, and to avoid terrorism and extremism. But for the everyday user? Julianna says, “Things are just blocked.”

She continues, “Content from overseas websites are blocked. If you're purchasing materials like Christian books online, it's blocked because the authorities want to try to limit it only for TSPM (the Three Self Patriotic Movement), the government sanctioned church. If you want a Bible, you can go to the TSPM’s physical bookstore. You can buy it from there but not online.”

Despite the ban on selling Bibles online, some Christian content can still be uploaded and accessed. “Chinese believers would still find their way to buy Christian materials,” says Julianna. “They are not limited to TSPM bookstores. Some even use other online platforms.”

But when this content catches the eye of the government – or is deemed too sensitive or anti-authority – the site is simply made inaccessible or the content removed.

“In Chinese social media (Weibo and WeChat), many Christians and churches still make use of their accounts to share Christian messages online,” says Peony*, a church worker in China who partners with Open Doors. “I personally follow several Christian subscription accounts (for daily devotions and other Christian content) – but I’ve witnessed in the past two years that some subscription accounts have been closed, or at least, I’ve stopped receiving messages from them. Maybe they faced pressure from the authorities and they simply removed the content. So, if I find some interesting Christian content today, and say I want to show my friend tomorrow, once I go and show it to her another time, it could be ‘Oh, no more!’”

Julianna says this is a very common occurrence in Chinese online platforms: “If you’re a host and your page is closed, you can just keep signing up using different accounts to continue sharing Christian materials.”

Digital Persecution in India

In India, the spread of misinformation is the primary weapon.

“When it comes to fake news and bullying, I must say it is in a very high scale in social media,” Open Doors local partner Heena* shares. “On Facebook, it's everywhere. Wherever there is talk about mission organizations, there are several pages on Twitter that people have made and publicized which talk about conversion, or are dedicated to talk about how bad Christians are for the society, or how the mission organizations are actually using various means to convert people.”

Heena shares that more than for private individuals, misinformation attacks are aimed at bigger entities. “Digital persecution is more felt by NGOs and Christian organizations in India. Digital tracking (for individuals) will require a certain level of people to be engaged in it. They need organizations, systems, structures for that. They would not waste it on individuals. They use it mostly for organizations and churches.” India is currently on an NGO crackdown. “Recently, I got news that 266 NGOs have closed down,” she continues. “It’s just happening that new policies come out which have never been there before, and on the basis of those policies, the NGOs would fail government orders.

“The Christian mission hospitals, schools, which were among the top in the country and were very much preferred by people, are now being hit. All these measures are taken to make them nonfunctional, or to make them so bad in the eyes of people that they will not be preferred anymore.

“If the organization is linked with churches, it's purely labelled as a work of conversion - so that's how several NGOs are closed down… Digital persecution is used in this manner to trace and track down the expenses in the bank, and the fake news which is published after that makes the public have a different view towards Christians and organizations.”

How the Persecuted Church responds

“One morning, I woke up and everyone was leaving fellowship groups on social media,” Caleb from China shared. “I asked around and learned that there was a rumor that the government would crack down on the members of those groups, so a lot of people left to be safe. But nothing happened after that.”

Khalil from India adds, “A stronger sentiment than the fear is the need for discernment. In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells His followers: ‘Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore, be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.’”

For Chinese believers, being ‘wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove’ means using VPNs and code language. “Christians in China are very clever and smart,” says Chinese believer Caleb. “They know they are monitored all the time on the internet. They use code words, code language to avoid trouble. They know text will be easily monitored, so they would take a picture instead of putting things in writing when sharing about the faith. Or they use audio to communicate, because that is more difficult to be found out, to be noticed.”

How Open Doors responds

With most forms of work moving online in 2020, Open Doors has also followed suit: “We are doing more things online – trainings, Bible studies – but this has to be done with the utmost care and eye for security. It’s very dangerous,” says Vermeer.

Sonya from Central Asia adds, “In our persecution-preparedness trainings, we train believers to be careful with sensitive information about church activities, secret meetings, or the names of believers. We are careful in social networks, in Messenger, or even in phone calls, as there is a very high level of control especially for known converts, and church leaders.”

Another way Open Doors addresses the squeeze is by educating believers about their legal rights. “Sharing about the faith is something Indian Christians do not shy out from, and this boldness invites a lot of persecution,” Heena shares. “This is what we can do for believers and we're giving them precautions on how we can be legally safe, about how we need to take the help of our constitutional rights. They should know that they have the right to talk about their religion, they have the right to believe in whoever they want. We also educate them about the Word of God, about how God wants us to be careful.

“Despite all of these threats, even if they don't speak out in the open, evangelism and sharing about Jesus still continues,” Heena adds. “This kind of thing has always been there, and the Church has always found a way out.”

Pray

For China

  • “I hope to see both the older and younger generations of Christians in China being brought closer through the online approach of meetings or religious activities.” - Julianna
  • “Pray for boldness and wisdom and using the internet to advance God's kingdom for whatever reason. I remember Christians using WeChat groups to pray together every day. They would get up early in the morning at 5:30, join a group, have devotion together, and read the Bible together. They're from different provinces in China, and they don't need to see each other personally, but they just join a group to they take time together, time to pray. Pray that the internet will open up a way for Christians like this.” – Caleb

For India

  • “Pray for God's wisdom especially for leaders implementing digital technologies with how they use it. It's actually a resource for us, but an advantage for the government. Pray for the leaders using it and the organizations this is being used on negatively. Also pray for the leaders in the country, that God puts it in their hearts that there needs to be a change.” – Heena

For Central Asia

  • “Please, pray for God's protection, pray for the opportunities to share the Gospel with as many people as possible, through online channels with Christian content, phone ministry, Christian literature, films and cartoons.” – Sonya

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