A few high profile cases of unjustly detained Christians around the world have received media attention: Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, Bishop James Su Zhimin, and the Chibok girls are some examples.
But the problem is far more widespread and in most cases is ignored in the West and by mainstream media, a papal agency says in a new report.
The phenomenon affects religious minorities — including Christians — and is a problem because it is carried out by non-state actors, such as militants, or state authorities detaining people primarily because of their faith. They arrest members of particular faith groups and incarcerate them at undisclosed locations or put them under house arrest.
“Set Your Captives Free” takes an in-depth look at the problem and calls for greater attention to it by Western governments. Published by Aid to the Church in Need, which supports the Church in areas of the world where it is particularly difficult to practice the faith, it was released in late November ahead of an annual commemoration of Christian persecution.
ACN says that around the world “thousands upon thousands of Christians are unjustly detained.” The report quotes Open Doors, an organization advocating for persecuted Christians, as saying that worldwide, a monthly average of 309 Christians are unjustly imprisoned. In Nigeria alone, 220 Christians are taken into captivity yearly by jihadist groups. In Pakistan, there are reports of girls being kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and married to Muslim men.
There are several scenarios in which Christians are detained because of their faith, the report outlines. That includes prisoners of conscience; arbitrary detention; unfair trial; inadequate prison conditions; torture, and pressure to convert.
Perhaps the worst place for Christians is North Korea, where ACN says there are “up to 50,000 Christians languishing in labor camps, representing nearly 50% of the total detained in such circumstances.”
One case of detention that has not received too much attention lately is that of Abune Antonios, Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church.
“Months after becoming Patriarch in 2004, Abune Antonios’ relationship with the Eritrean authorities deteriorated,” the ACN report says. “He ‘resisted government requests’ to excommunicate 3,000 members of the Medhane Alem, an Orthodox Sunday School,” protested the secret imprisonment of three priests, and “demanded that the government release imprisoned Christians accused of treason.”
The patriarch was removed from office and has been under house arrest since 2007. The Eritrean government installed another bishop as head of the Church in Antonios’ place.
At 93, Antonios is kept in isolation and not allowed visits, the ACN report says.
No longer anonymous
Other examples of Christians being held currently include:
Fr. Zhang Guilin and Fr. Wang Zhong of Chongli-Xiwanzi Diocese, China, were detained by authorities on October 11, 2018, and taken to a nearby hotel to study Communist religious policy. Both priests had refused to join the state organization that runs the “official” Catholic Church in China. Their current whereabouts are unknown.
Twen Theodros, an engineering graduate, was part of a Catholic renewal group in 2004 when she was arrested in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. She was freed after her father persuaded her to sign a document agreeing not to “meet other Christians or engage in Christian activities.” Still in her early 20s, she was re-arrested in January 2005 for taking part in a Christian New Year Vigil and was sent to Mai Serwa prison. There, she and other Christian women refused to sign papers saying they would not practice Christianity. They were sent to Wi’a prison, infamous for extreme heat and poor sanitation. When 50 Christian prisoners died there, the prison was closed and Twen was transferred to a prison near Asmara, where conditions are better.
Alice Ngaddah, a Christian nurse in Nigeria, was seized by Abubakar Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram, along with colleagues working at an internally displaced persons’ camp including midwife Huawa Mohammed Liman, on March 1, 2018, when the Islamists attacked Rann, Borno state. Alice’s mother died of trauma two months after her abduction. After killing Huawa Mohammed Liman in October 2018, the extremists said of Alice and fellow captive Leah Sharibu: “It is now lawful for us to do whatever we want with them.” In January 2020, former Boko Haram captive Jennifer Ukambong Samuel reported that Alice was still alive and had accepted her fate as a captive, adding she was now providing basic medical treatment for injured members of the Islamist group.
Aid to the Church in Need urges greater attention to the problem of unjust detention of Christians, saying, “For too long, religious hatred has been downplayed in accounting for the phenomenon of unjust detention. Unless it is duly recognized, all such faith minorities are at risk, and others too.”